Self-loathing is not the way to go.
Growing up in London, I was always the odd one out. I was too brown to blend in with the white kids, too Arab to bond with the Asians, and too white to hang out with the black kids. As far as I knew, mine was the only Egyptian family in all of south London – my house was an island where molokhia was the soup of the day, every day, and Amr Diab and MBC reigned supreme. No one really knew what to say when I told them I was Egyptian, that I didn’t eat pork and that curly was the only way I could wear my hair. I let them mispronounce my name, misinterpret my religion and make lame jokes about camels. I knew, from a terribly young age, that if tried too hard to define my foreignness, then all I would be was exactly that – foreign; an outsider that refused to assimilate.
And that was the last thing I wanted to be. I remember being no older than 8 or 9 and wishing praying to be white, waiting for some great innovation that could bleach the colour out of my skin overnight. I chemically straightened my hair more times than is strictly healthy for a 13 year old, spent all my pocket money on coloured contact lenses and ate fish and chips like my life depended on it. I wasn’t so much scared of being a victim of racial discrimination as I was of dealing with the whole ordeal. Who do I tell? How do I react? What will it achieve? What if they’re right? It was awkward to even talk about the subject but with the murder of Damilola Taylor – a 10 year old black boy – taking place just 6 miles away from my house in 2000, it was a subject that lay heavy on my mind nonetheless. A few years earlier, black teenager Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death by white supremacists in a neighbouring south London borough. It took 9 years before the murderers were convicted. I was afraid and this was years before the racist arrow was firmly pointed at us Arabs and Muslims. Come 9/11 and the 7/7 attacks in London, I was older but not too much wiser. I walked around with a misplaced sense of guilt, knowing that at any moment and anywhere, it could be me and my family in the firing line.
But guess what? I was fine. The closest I ever got to a racist attack was some kid at school calling me a ‘fat Turkish bitch’. I was fuming, of course. I mean, I was fat and I was probably a bitch. But I wasn’t Turkish and my ethnicity shouldn’t have been part of that insult, no matter how fat and bitchy I was. In any case, it turned out that my preconceptions of British racism were all in my head. I could blame the media, my weak self-esteem, my parents or my school but it wasn’t until I moved to Egypt a couple of years ago when I realised that all I could blame was myself. Why? It only took me a couple of months of finally being part of the majority to figure out that the most racist of attitudes towards Arabs came from Arabs themselves.
I wonder if anyone’s ever pressed racism charges against someone of their own race? See, us Arabs, and us Egyptians, to be more precise, are as self-hating as it gets. How many times have you turned your nose up at Arabs talking loudly when you’re abroad? How many times have you looked nervously at a guy with a beard as you’re boarding your flight? It’s funny how we mislabel things as ‘bee2a’ when all they are is traditional and look down at people who speak perfect Arabic but broken English. We bitch and moan about the little nuances that make up our big, fat Egyptian lives, wishing we were somewhere and someone else, longing for the lives we see on Gossip Girl and 90210. There are no Arabs on those shows, and they seem to be doing just fine, right? There are hundreds of examples of how we reject our own ethnicity every single day, playing right into the hands of Western media and opinion-makers across the world. The strangest part of this all is that we’re shocked, offended and down-right distressed when any non-Arab dares to make the same judgement we do on a daily basis and we applaud those who stand up against the stereotypes that we made ourselves. They say do unto other as you would have done unto yourself but we already have that part down. If anything, we love others a bit too much. What we need to start doing is respecting ourselves, accepting our ethnicity and celebrating our achievements. Thousands of Egyptian girls around the world, struggling with frizz, fat and fattah will thank us.