The modern Nubian identity traces its origins from the colonization of Sudan as an Egyptian province. Until today, the Nubian people hold a special place in Egyptian society. Where it is often the case that Egyptians will hold disproportionately higher social standings in Sudan, than Sudanese in Egypt, the Nubian people in Egypt are often beneficiaries of a unique ethnic privilege.
The precarious relationship between Sudanese and Egyptians manifests in the modern context through culturally disagreeable tendencies, such as the racist representations of Sudanese, as stereotyped by Nubian dress on popular television stations. In such informally segregated Sudanese restaurants as encircle the majestic statue of Ibrahim Pasha, such delicacies as kisra (okra stew), and ‘adis (lentil stew), are served to a uniform clientele.
Interestingly, the successor to the rule of Egypt and Sudan as a united dominion looks down onto some of the most popular of Sudanese restaurants located around the Ibarhim Pasha Statue, a mere fifteen minute walk from Tahrir Square. Often with unadorned stone and sand entryways, a bespectacled accountant, and sometimes server, would smile gently behind a burning Cleopatra cigarette. Across the street, an Egyptian café straddles a Sudanese restaurant, partitioned by a low step, enough to facilitate a bird’s eye view of peoples separated as starkly as a multihued farmland.
On the television fitted to a corner in the ceiling, a mundane advertisement went to such seamy lengths as to feature an Egyptian actor with makeup to darken his skin, all with less tact than the worst no-budget B-film. The people eating below the flashing television muttered words like “colonialism” in between the quick Sudanese Arabic accent, laughing in staccato bursts with throaty exasperation. At tea, that dark and sugary concoction that followed after every meal, conversation, smoke and ten minutes was a collective refuge under the sunstroke exposure of Egyptian watch.
Hours would then pass, as African time set in with cool indifference. If one thing was done in any given twenty-four hours, the day could be said to have been productive. Julia, the tea-seller, was a heavy-set woman, and poured tea, and ginger-spiked coffee with a constant charm. She was like a schoolyard friend, eliciting necessary calm amid quick jokes with each pour. Through glowing white teeth, her oversized figure moved lightly, sharing music and quips with a lively step. Soon after, she passed away from a heart condition.
Abdel Rahman would invariably start into dizzying political diatribes on the human rights controversy that had followed him throughout his term as a forced migrant, leading him to the very worst place for a Sudanese asylum seeker, the unthinkably inhospitable host state of Egypt. His views rose into the smog-lit streets, founded in the truth that his identity and experience as a refugee remains part of a complex decision he was once forced to make, the courageous act to leave his country, as had nearly 3 million others displaced from Darfur since 2003.
His identity, as one among the tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees in Egypt, involves a daily submission to a cruel racism, amplified by two peoples’ histories and their fluctuating dissolutions and reparations in the context of modern international relations. By the time he would finish his usual discussions on Middle Eastern sociocultural and political history, as lived, from his unique perspective, others had long filed in and out of the restaurant sharing in heated debates, long-winded discourses, and obscure satires.
Concrete tenement buildings sprawled outwards from the French colonial architecture of Wust al-Balad, downtown Cairo. Scarabs and hieroglyphs dangled enchained outside storefront residences, leading in, and under, to the informal, substandard underground housing. There, Egyptian youth, and families lay, flattened by cardboard and mud. The desert, and the concrete comingle to the smell of bread baking on scorching rooftops for miles in every direction. In ancient times, the entire modern city of Cairo would have been submerged beneath the mighty Nile, as it had once moistened the feet of the Sphinx in Giza.
In such residential complexes, on the margins of the city, as from Ain Shams, to 6th of October City, a span of 70 kilometers by minibus, Sudanese, and other forced migrants and asylum seekers of the African diaspora survive, however enduringly. In 2010, Abdel Rahman lived in a neighborhood called Hedayak al-Zeitoun, literally translating to “olive gardens”. The borough, instead, resembled a windswept highway stopover. Decrepit and underserved, dogs scoured the streets at night, yet, as Abdel Rahman reminded, the dogs in Sudan were much worse, and would attack, starving and vicious, at the slightest sense of vulnerability.
During the daytime, local Egyptian families sauntered through the exhausted, and sorely neglected infrastructure. Then, suspecting landlords cut the water supply of his sixth floor apartment. At the time, Abdel Rahman noted that this was due to the instantaneous spread of rumors that a residence harbored non-Muslims, a special grievance during the late summer Ramadan of 2010, when Cairo boasted the hottest temperatures in all of coastal Africa.
A water tap at a nearby construction site served as the only source of hydration, and hygiene, where buckets of water bottles were filled, then hauled up a fragmented stairwell for six stories. On Fridays, this trying act was all the more expected when the elevator was turned off with the rest of the electricity in observance of the weekly holy day. Many times, the entire neighborhood lost power, simply by virtue of a failing grid.
Navigating unreadable stares from so many smoking faces is a balancing act, tested by the fervent intercourse of ethnic, political and religious values. In the Sudanese Restaurant of Hedayak al-Zeitoun, a server from the Nuba Mountains spoke about his people, his language, and his land. The television light smothered conversation with urgent reportage by Al-Jazeera, as people consumed the fate of the region as mundanely as their tea and okra. So many lives vulnerable to forced migration filed in and out of the restaurant, at the edge of Cairo, where the final plea for regional flight resounds. All asylum seekers in Egypt look towards Europe, the U.S., Canada, and Australia, where migrants do not have to wait in a purgatory of intolerant confinement, to where naturalization and justice are possible.
Delectable stews and sweet coffees were then punctuated by the incessant and unavoidable information of the modern age. Still, tradition was ever present. At a Sudanese Restaurant, the word fadl is commonest, meaning, “generosity”, though loosely translating to “welcome”. Among patrons, fadl was said first before anything else when a man sitting to dine noticed a compatriot entering the restaurant. In other words, the Sudanese Restaurant is a place where people would expect to receive communal generosity. Over beans, bread, fish, and tea, each and every person at the Sudanese Restaurant is bound by, and cognizant of shared needs.
Between meals, patrons of the Sudanese Restaurant often sat in the open air outside along the street, to share bringi, the Sudanese brand of cigarettes, as they packed dip into their mouths, gambled friendships over backgammon and traded common goods such as clothing and incense. The informal relationships built around urban subsistence made the Sudanese Restaurant absolutely integral, and central to the life of forced migrants, and asylum seekers. Many Sudanese people, including Abdel Rahman, sat waiting, and deliberating under the smoke of fried fish and boiled lentils for over a decade without so much as receiving an official designation as a refugee by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Egypt.
Immediately outside the Sudanese Restaurant three cafes split into an uneven triangle of ethnic and religious identities, divided within a mere hundred paces by service and patronage. A Coptic Christian ran one café, wherefrom the charcoal smoke of shisha billowed mindlessly from a wreck of chairs and tables. Even the Sudanese called him khawaja (foreigner), though the Copts represent the largest minority in Egypt. The Coptic Christians in Egypt do not enjoy the rights of full citizenship given to Muslim Egyptians. Governmental and official spheres in Egypt’s nation-building enterprises are ruled by an Islamic Arab monopoly. As the African refugees of Egypt are waylaid by informal privileges for Arab refugees, so Arab-Muslim dominance overwhelms Coptic communities, such as seen most dramatically in the Maspero Massacre of 2011, and in 2013 at a Coptic Cathedral, both perpetrated by state actors.
Under the merciless heat of the sun, people at the café moved their chairs every fifteen minutes, following the shadows, while inching closer to the boundary of the Muslim café. Sudanese migrants then began talking about a politically active Coptic Egyptian who was imprisoned in the system of secret desert prisons known as ghost houses, also frequented by detained migrants.
They say he was tortured there, and no less by his own people, other Copts. Despite living in Cairo as a person whose own ethnic identity is targeted, and whose community has experienced similar incarcerations, Abdel Rahman remained unafraid to air the truths of Arab-Muslim dominance only a hair’s breadth from the Egyptian café. As per tradition, he spoke for hours, about how institutionalized racism engenders civil conflicts and internal social upheaval within minority, and migrant societies. Within lands imbued with timeless religious dogmatism and symbolic realities, humanity becomes a relative term.
Unlike the Christian, and Muslim cafés, the Sudanese fixed their drinks outdoors, while the other servers would emerge from their respective buildings to serve coffees, teas, lemonades and other herbal concoctions. Julia, the tea-seller, was then still at the helm, towering over her male compatriots, easily over six feet tall. Her voice cracked, and was low, toughened by the male-dominated café ambiance.
She would sit crouched over boiling liquids, angling her heavy figure on a small wooden table, spooning coffee, ginger and tea from various unmarked jars. Despite the relative obscurity, and tense surroundings, she wore illustrious African gowns and was often all smiles. While she worked constantly, a short, pudgy man named Abdu served cold drinks, the most popular made of miniature lemons.
Generally speaking, the Sudanese appeared and acted less personably and affably than Egyptians. They were more guarded, and duly suspicious. Moments of kindness, laughter, and congeniality were less dramatic than with Egyptians. In one Sudanese restaurant, down a maze of alleyways across from the Ibrahim Pasha statue, nearly the entire sociocultural diversity of Sudan was represented. From the Dinka tribe of Southern Sudan to the Arab Muslims of Khartoum, all converged at the restaurant and café to meet, share dishes, and sip hot drinks over ongoing debates.
Practically everyone greeted Abdel Rahman. “Ya, Teacher!” they said commonly, referring to him with respect. He was frequently honored in public for organizing English courses, and for employing local Sudanese community members as staff and teachers in the process. One man wore a gellabaya (long overcoat), claiming to have descended from the Banu Quraysh, the original tribe of the Prophet Muhammad, who first spread Islam in Saudi Arabia. Another younger man wore long dreadlocks and a Rastafarian beanie, as he sat to share a dish of fool (bean stew) at the invitation of Abdel Rahman.
The youth of Sudan, both in diaspora and within Sudan, are often on the frontlines of social change. Despicably, this has equated to fatal victimization by state violence, as occurred in Khartoum on October the 3rdof 2013. The phenomenon of forced migration out of Sudan has effectively displaced much of the social cause of educated, and creative youth movements. However, from time to time, such positive emanations can be seen in Egypt. As among Sudanese migrants, the Rastafarian culture is present in Sudan, exhibiting a youth-led spiritual and cultural reclamation of African identity.
During the 2nd Refugee Film Festival, held in Cairo in 2010, Sudanese reggae artist Usif performed his powerful song, “Through My Dreads”. Known to perform this anthem to Sudanese social consciousness with the Sudan Roots Band throughout Egypt, the lyrics professed by Usif tell of the Rasta culture as “deeply rooted in the Sudan”. As Rastafarian culture is defined by the struggle of the African diaspora, so the Sudanese youth migrants in Egypt carry such a burden. While shared across generations, youth are a special focus for human rights advocates, as joblessness, a lack of education and poverty have led many to chronic depression.
In Part 3, Sudan’s lost generation.
Crossposted from Nation of Change.
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