Being black in Egypt

Being black in Egypt
Feature: Activists in Egypt are beginning to speak out against racial discrimination, demanding better representation in the law and the media.
5 min read
23 July, 2015
Decades of racist treatment has resulted in "counter-racism" by many in the Nubian community [Getty]
The black community constitutes a substantial proportion of the Egyptian population, yet many Egyptians seem to consider them an inferior minority, subjecting them to varying degrees of racial discrimination and degrading treatment.

The Egyptian constitution prohibits any form of discrimination, including based on skin colour. However, the law does not criminalise racial discrimination. If you were subjected to racist treatment, the best you can do is attempt to press charges of libel or slander.

"There is a staggering contempt of everything that is African," Abdel Rahman Sherif, founder of the Black in Egypt blog, told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

"Egyptians even get offended if you refer to them as African."


Sudanese and Nubian people living in Egypt told al-Araby about their experiences in the country and the kind of treatment they were subjected to based on the colour of their skin.

"In the street, people call you different names if you are black, like chocalata or samara," Mamado Hawary, a Sudanese-Egyptian living in Cairo, told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

"Also zarboon, which means slave."

In 2013, black Egyptian filmmaker Nada Zatouna was refused service in a pharmacy in Cairo because of her skin colour.

"I don't take anything from people who are not white," the pharmacist told her.

Fatma Emam, a young Egyptian Nubian, founded the blog Brownie in 2007 to speak out against racism in Egypt.

"I am constantly subjected to racism," she told al-Araby. "I feel vulnerable on my own. For example, going through airport security, I am usually subjected to more security checks than others.

"In school, other kids used to take me to the fountain and try to wash the black colour off of my skin."

Where street harassment is common in Cairo, Fatma Ali, a Sudanese writer who has written a diary of being a black woman in the Egyptian capital, says that with regards to black women, it is especially bad due to perceptions of "easiness".
In school, other kids used to take me to the fountain and try to wash the black colour off of my skin. 
- Fatma Emam

"One day as I was walking in the street I heard someone say 'those blacks are very good and hot in bed'," said Ali.

"It goes without saying that they believe all black girls are naturally prostitutes."

Abdel Rahman Sherif agrees. "Egyptians and Arabs in general seem to believe that African women are 'easy' - especially those without hijab.

"On the other hand," he said, "racists in Egypt seem to fear responses from male subjects of discrimination, so they tend to avoid them or at least tone it down with them."


The degree of racism that black people in Egypt are exposed to often depends on how dark their skin is.

"Racism depends on how dark you are," said Hawary.

"Don't forget that Egypt is an African country, and the native people are black, but not as dark as most Africans. So, sometimes my colour is ok with people.

  Egyptian newspapers have used highly offensive terms
when blaming criminal activity on black communities
[image edited by al-Araby]

"Being black means being Nubian, Sudanese or someone with a history of slavery," he said. The exposure to racism depends on one's ethnic origin, he added.

"There is a difference between the treatment of Nubians, North and South Sundanese," Hawary said.

Abdel Rahman Sherif again agrees. "Black Egyptians are subjected to less racial discrimination than [Sub-Saharan] African immigrants are. Racist Egyptians [try to] tell the difference based on the facial features and the varying shades of skin colour."

Sudanese refugees face their own struggle with racism in Cairo, as they are often left with limited support and protection from the government.

In 2005, the Egyptian riot police killed at least 20 Sudanese refugees protesting in Mustafa Mahmoud square about their poor conditions in Egypt while seeking to be resettled in another country. The attack did not provoke any notable outrage among Egyptians, many of whom responded with racist remarks.

"African victims of racial discrimination in Egypt do not report the violations against them because they know there is no one to protect them. They escape in fear when they see cameras," Sherif said.

The accumulation of anger due to decades of racist treatment has resulted in "counter-racism", according to Fatma Emam.

"For example, Nubians take pride in their pure race, and they use the term 'Gorbatti' to describe outsiders or non-Nubians," she said. "They even refuse to intermarry with whom they call 'Egyptians', meaning non-Nubians from Egypt.

"They respond to racism with racism, as if this was the natural response, when it only fuels the crisis."

Emam added that the first step towards solving the problem was overcoming this anger and focusing on preserving the Nubian identity.

"We must speak out and write, not just about the Nubians, but also about other minorities," she said.

"Most importantly, we need to show respect to the Nubians, by teaching their history in school and letting people know about their culture and history. People hate strangers, and by teaching Egyptians about Nubians, they no longer become strangers."


Representation of black people in cinema and other media has often historially been either marginal or racist.

Sudanese and Nubian people always featured in Egyptian films as illiterate and obedient domestic workers. Men would play the roles of doormen or cooks, while women would appear as nannies, maids or exotic fortune tellers.

"In dramas, the servants or drivers are always black, even though there are in fact black doctors and engineers too," said Hawary.

We need to send out the message that it's okay to be black.
- Abdel Rahman Sherif

The same applies to mainstream media.

In 2014, the private Egyptian newspaper Youm 7 published an investigation accusing "n****rs" and "the black terror gangs in Cairo" of committing most crimes against activists and journalists.

"Earlier this month, the head of Zamelek football club called a black Egyptian football player a 'servant' and a 'doorman' on a live TV talk show," said Hawary.

Abdel Rahman Sherif and other activists staged a protest in front of the Maspero TV and radio headquarters in 2009 to demand better representation in cinema and TV.

"A man in a black suit, presumably a government official, came and told me: 'Why are you upset, Ubad [an offensive Egyptian term used to address black people]? I even love Bakkar [a Nubian cartoon character]'.

"They do not even acknowledge that there is a problem in the first place," said Sherif.

Sherif created his blog after the revolution to "document racial discrimination against black people in the Middle East".

"We need to have black TV presenters. We need to send out the message that it's okay to be black," he said.

Fatma Emam sees the development of black activism in Egypt as something to be hopeful about.

"There are signs of improvement and rising awareness," she said.

"People are starting to write about the issue systematically."