Back in August 2016, the hashtag #IfAfricaWasASchool took over twitter for a couple of weeks. And while it was funny (sometimes, hilarious!) to follow the different perspectives everyone had to offer, I couldn’t help but notice that Egypt got a fair share of roasting. The most common thoughts were: Egypt would be the student who does not fit in or thought he was private school material but isn’t. Egyptians and non-Egyptians alike shared this perception. Intrigued, I started my own personal poll, reaching out to people I knew well enough to ask this without getting the gawk-eye. Because we are an opinionated lot, the answers to my questions about Egypt in relation to Africa were varied and intriguing. Let’s start with those who said no.
Based on historical factors, genealogy, cultural differences and, most importantly, their exposure, a number of contributors expressed a strong sense of belonging to the Mediterranean. To them, similarities in skin color and features played a factor, as did local cuisine, and general disposition: swearing like an Italian, laughing like a Greek, and believing in the evil eye like a Turk.
Another group of contributors felt a deeper connection to the Middle East. Language being the primary base of relation, they felt they were more Arab than anything. Especially for those who had minimal exposure with the outside (out of Egypt) world, they welcomed the rise of migration and movement in the region. For them, it gave them ample chances of exposure to other Arab cultures, perspectives, cuisine, and habits.
Growing up in Egypt means absorbing an Egyptian curriculum that emphasizes what we now consider clichés: Egypt has a unique geographical position, which allows for unique weather forecast throughout the year, and that results in a unique set of industries, permitting our contribution to unique markets. Pop Quiz: How Unique is Egypt? Uniquely unique.
Another noteworthy cliché is the emphasis on Egypt’s Ancestry: Descendants of the Pharaohs, 7000 years of civilization, God’s Gift to the Nile. We are the Pharaohs, my friend. On some level, we forgot that long after the Pharaohs reigned, many civilizations colonized us.
Formal education in Egypt, especially subjects like History and Geography, focus on Egyptian antiquity. We are brought up as strictly Egyptians; not African, nor even Arab. The only mention of either is in relation to our historical development. And there is always a racial connotation to our upbringing: even when taught to relate to other Arab-speakers, we are more aligned towards Syrians and Iraqis (Asian continent) as Arabic speakers (and light-skinned), than we are with Sudanese (who are darker skinned).
To the average ‘born and bred’ Egyptian this is the natural order. That is why we may not feel like we belong to Africa or anywhere else. We are religiously Egyptian.
Contrastingly, any possible Egyptian connection to Africa appears to be related to exposure. Whether we choose to embrace elements of exposure to other cultures or not, it is a conscious decision we make.
Growing up, all external factors affect our outlook, shape our perceptions and define our personalities. Origins are a type of exposure as well: they form the early experimenting and understanding of everything around us from a certain perspective.
The sense of belonging becomes a conscious decision we all make based on all we’ve experienced. It is entirely based on our own ownership or disentitlement of a home.
“I feel I have a lot more in common with my African friends rather than the Arab ones. I guess language and religion are not the deciding factors of where you feel you belong to. I feel more proud saying Egypt is an African nation rather than Arabic one. Africans love to celebrate life and so do we.”
– Male, 27, IT Engineer
To my personal relief, aligning with my own views, a large number of my contributors felt that they did belong to Africa. And their affiliations were expressed through different perspectives, which differed among men and women.
Among men the most popular means of connection was football. What I found endearing, was the poetic verse in which football was described: borders, skin color, and language mean nothing on the field; once every player is in, it is all fair game, and skill is all that matters. We are African.
“Maybe earlier I didn’t, but the more time I spend in the international community, the more I feel it is where I fully belong. I feel very happy when an African colleague introduces me to another saying “she is also from Africa” and I proudly say YES.”
– Female, 29, humanitarian aid worker
Sometime in 2014, I worked on a Cairo-based education project. In a frantic search for an assistant at work, I came across a very qualified Ethiopian young woman. My veteran assistant had never worked with a non-Egyptian before and there was genuine bewilderment when they first met. Just a few months later, the anthropologist in me observed that not only were they now coordinating lunch times, they animatedly shared inside jokes, sided together in the face of male colleagues, and asked for more shared assignments. When conducting their performance evaluations, I finally got an explanation for the changes in their interaction: casual talk had blossomed into lengthy chats which allowed them to realize their common factor – they were females in Africa living under different “styles” of patriarchy.
This revelation created a bond that echoed the responses I got from other female friends, especially rights’ activists and aid workers: patriarchy stretched as long as the day and dark as the night over Africa, but it also brought women together, sisters in life.
There’s Afghani and Turkish blood in my lineage. While my sister and I are tanned brunettes, we have blonde cousins, and others pale with dark hair. We were all raised as brothers and sisters. So to me, color and features never played a part in identifying others. My sense of belonging to Africa grew deeper while working with refugees from all over the continent. Regardless of the country, women of Africa, myself included, share one distinctive trait: we are: relentless supporters of our families and friends. It is how we were raised, how we are throughout the day, how our loved ones see us, and how we raise ours to be.
So, Egyptians, do we belong to Africa?
Feature photo of Egypt by Amina Mansour.