Traveling While Black & American: Egypt Edition
DISCLAIMER: In an effort to shed light on a lens that I travel everywhere with, I decided that it was important for me to explicitly talk about My Black American Traveler Experience. I want to stress that everyone has their own experiences and biases traveling to any country. Therefore, my experience may not be your own. In specifying the Black American identity, I acknowledge that while there are some commonalities in experiences as Black people, there is also privilege that comes with being an American. I am supplementing my thoughts and experiences with a context on demographics as I think that it is important in order to paint the whole picture of #travelingwhileblack
Keep reading this blog post as I will answer some of the most common questions:
What is Egypt's population?
What is the racial makeup of Egypt?
Is Egypt an Arab or African country?
How do Egyptians treat Black people?
Are Egyptians Black?
What is traveling like while Black in Egypt?
What is it like traveling while American in Egypt?
My Expectations in Egypt
I expected Egypt to either 1) not have a lot of Black people AND/OR 2) there are a lot of Black people, but they do not acknowledge their blackness. Why? Well, since it is in North Africa (and having visited Morocco), I know that the majority of people in that region are Arabic. Yes, they are African born, but that does not necessarily mean that they are Black. My other rationale, again from my experience in Morocco, but also from reading articles and social media,is that many deny association with being Black or even being African. I’ve read that many actually take offense to being identified with Africa and think of Egypt as separate from the continent. They talk about “traveling down to Africa” when they leave their country. Yikes!
Article: “Being Black in Egypt” by Imogen Lambert & Nada Ramadan
Article: ‘Black Panther’ and the anti-black racism of Egyptians by Mona Eltahawy
Article: The Root: Race And Racism Divide Egypt by Sunni M. Khalid
My Reality in Egypt
I was pleasantly surprised in several ways!
Treatment & Safety:
As a Black person, I felt like a queen in parts of Egypt. For example, when we arrived in Aswan, right when I got off the boat, I was embraced and welcomed with “my cousin.” At other sites, specifically in the Aswan area, I would also be greeted with “Queen” or “my sister.” This makes sense considering that Aswan (which is at the tip of Egypt in the South) was once the heart of the Nubian empire, where you saw Black pharaohs. I was surprised to see how many people there looked like me and shared either my skin tone or darker. I felt like family -- and by the picture here -- they felt that way too! My fiance joked and asked “How come you didn’t tell me that you had cousins here?!” HAHA! It made me sad to read that modern Egyptians do not view Nubians the same way. According to Nada Zeitoun, a Nubian filmmaker from the upper Egypt city of Aswan, “Although Nubians are among the first inhabitants of what is now considered modern Egypt, "[Egyptian people] don't believe we have a huge provenance of Nubian people." However, in upper Egypt, rather than paying attention to your race, they paid attention to my nationality: being American.
As an American though, I definitely had some concerns coming to Egypt because of the news and media. While in Egypt (mainly outside of Aswan), I often felt singled out for being American and assumed to be that “typical tourist.” I would hear Egyptians mutter, “hey American” or “that American” before trying to harass me to buy something. However, I would like to state this was not always the case. For example, one vendor in an effort to get me to buy me something called me "my sister" and we even hugged after my purchase. Kindness goes a long way!
In terms of language, it was easy to get around because many people spoke English, especially near tourist sites. English appears to be the most commonly used language in tourism there as the majority of signs in Egypt were both in Arabic and Egyptian. In my research, I discovered that the most educated people in Egypt study English at school and there are also many English language universities in Egypt.
Vibe & Culture:
Black culture in the way that I know Black culture was non-existent! You see Black skin depicted in some of the hieroglyphics on the walls of ancient sites, but it's not spoken about. Arabic culture is strong, considering that Egypt is located in North Africa and the Middle East.
This is hard to talk about because walking around, most Egyptians I saw were brown- skinned in various tones. In Cairo, Egyptians were more fair skinned while in Aswan they were dark-skinned, many darker than me. In my eyes, I saw them as Black but was unsure if they saw themselves as Black.
In terms of Black tourists, I saw other people who looked like me who were also part of other tour groups. Not a lot, but some. Interestingly, because there were few Black tourists, I was treated as a celebrity by some Asian tourists. There was a group of South Korean female tourists who insisted to take pictures with me as if I was famous. I appreciated they asked me rather than just sneaking a picture of me. They even had a conversation with me!
Black Stats in Egypt
Trying to search for this was much harder than I anticipated! It led me down lots of rabbit holes. However, I will share my main findings as a result of the information I was able to find. As of 2020, according to the World Population Review, Egypt has an overall population of 102,159,240 -- making Egypt the most populous country in the Arab world and the third most populous country in Africa, after Nigeria and Ethiopia. Currently, 91% of residents identify themselves as Egyptian and 9% identify as “other.” The category “other” refers to non-citizens of Egypt. Interestingly, in the 2006 census, the population was 99.7% Egyptian and 0.3% other, which means that both immigrant and migrant populations are growing.
It is important to note that I have not found data based on racial makeup, but based on nationality/ethnic group, citizenship and religion. As a result, there is no way of knowing how many Black people there are. Based on religion, Egypt is composed of 90% Muslims and 10% Christians (9% Coptic, 1% other Christian). Based on ethnicity, the 9% that is in the “other” category include Turks, Greeks, Abazas, and Bedouin Arab tribes in the Sinai Peninsula and the deserts to the east, as well as the Berber-speaking community of the Siwa Oasis (Siwis) and the Nubian people along the Nile in the southernmost part of Egypt. It is estimated that there are 3-5 million Sudanese, which makes sense since they border Egypt in the South. In Cairo mainly, there are small communities from Iraq, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, and Eritrea. There are about 90,000 refugees and asylum seekers from Palestine and Sudan and over 100,000 refugees from Syria.
It is quite telling that people either fall in the category of Egyptian or “other” which leads me to the other thing I want to address. There is debate about the ancestry of ancient Egyptians. The debate falls into one of three categories:
Modern Egyptian: The ancient Egyptians are the same group of people as the modern Egyptians.
Afrocentric (also known as the Black Egpytian hypothesis): the ancient Egyptians were black Africans, displaced by movements of peoples, such as the Macedonian, Roman and Arab conquests.
Eurocentric: The ancient Egyptians are ancestral to modern Europe
My gut tells me that Egyptians would not agree with the Black Egyptian hypothesis...