LIVES; Egyptian Like Me

Last fall, with the war in Iraq looming, I traveled to Egypt. Ever since I converted to Islam nearly a decade ago, when I was 21, I have wanted to study in Cairo. One day in March, I went out to the dusty balcony of my downtown apartment to find, beneath the cinnamon-colored smog, thousands of Egyptian men in buttoned shirts and village robes, marching with fists raised and chanting anti-American slogans. Veiled mothers on the balconies opposite mine watched, clutching their veiled daughters.

I’d been locked up in my apartment since the war began, an American lying low, dreading this very riot. Had the protesters known that an American was watching, I imagined, they would have run up the stairwell of my tenement — the pulley elevator worked sporadically — and hanged me from the balcony.

I could see only a small swath of the protest from this angle. In a moment of foolish curiosity, I took my camera and hurried down the stairwell, past the stray, starving cats, to get a better look. I had lived on this street for six months. Each day, I bought my Arabic newspapers from Ahmed’s closet-size newsstand, my lunch from Felfela, the shawarma restaurant in my building. This was my neighborhood. Like my neighbors, I wanted to know what was happening on my street.

Rounding the corner, I saw the men filing down the road. They were flanked by tanks, water cannons, iron convoy trucks and grimacing Egyptian soldiers with plastic shields and worn clubs.

The owner of a nearby shoe store recognized me and noticed my camera. In Arabic, he told me that the protesters might be angered if they saw me taking pictures. I pocketed my camera and stood beside him, watching the endless line of shouting men. Suddenly, we heard a howl down the street, and everyone around us started running away from the tanks and soldiers. I rushed home and up to my balcony in time to see a water cannon racing after protesters. Glass shattered in the distance. Shouts. Young boys hurled stones at soldiers. Sirens.

Ten days later, I cut short my stay and left the country — not for fear of riots, but because in Cairo I had been living a lie. A light-skinned black man, I looked perfectly Egyptian, so Egyptian that I’d been passing for the past six months.

When I first walked the overcrowded streets of Cairo, the hustlers who preyed on tourists rarely noticed me; they chased after Swedes and Italians in the papyrus shops instead. At first I thought the hustlers assumed a black tourist had less money to be schemed from his pockets. But twice in my first week, native Egyptians asked me for directions.

For a few months, I enjoyed the privilege of resembling everyone else. A family of devout Muslims who worked in a tourist shop nearby adopted me, wanting to shield a new believer from those cynical Muslims who prey on wide-eyed converts. During Ramadan, I broke my fast with them daily. We talked of the coming war, of Islam and of America, about which they held many misconceptions. But we never talked of race. I often wondered if they knew I was black at all. They arranged lessons for me with their village sheik. I told myself it was not because I looked so Egyptian that they embraced me, but only because I was a Muslim. Hadn’t I embraced Islam to find the racial utopia Malcolm X discovered in Mecca?

One night during Ramadan, a skinny hustler in knockoff American clothes joined us for dinner. He was one of those 20-something lotharios who haunt downtown Cairo, seducing tourists. After dinner, we sat alone in front of the shop.

”Do you know the story of Tupac Shakur?” he asked me. I nodded and smiled; I was intrigued that he knew anything about rap and proud that he did. ”They killed him in the ghetto,” he continued. ”I love all the rap, all the niggers.”

My face went hot. I told him he shouldn’t use that word.

”Why not?” he asked. ”All the blacks use it. All the blacks have sex and sell drugs like Tupac and Jay-Z.”

Not since grade school had such talk so upset me. ”Look at me,” I said. ”I’m black. I don’t sell drugs.”

”Please, don’t be upset,” the young man said, offering me his hand. ”I’m a nigger. I’m a hustler like Tupac.”

I never told my adopted family of the incident. Their English was only slightly better than my Arabic. How could I explain it? Yet I couldn’t stop worrying that the young hustler represented the real attitude of Arab Muslims, who’d been fed a steady diet of black stereotypes in imported American movies. My adopted family had seen the same films. Why would they feel differently? Because they prayed five times a day, because they didn’t drink?

I didn’t want to admit that they might have treated me differently if my skin were darker. I wished I didn’t look so Egyptian so that I could know for sure. Looking back, I knew why some part of me was thrilled by the riot. Seeing it, I knew I would go back home. I couldn’t wait to be myself again.

Murad Kalam is the author of the novel ”Night Journey.”


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