The uneasy Arab-African dichotomy in Egyptian identity is nowhere more evident than in Egyptian popular attitudes towards their black African “brothers”. Egypt’s pride in its African identity on the international and diplomatic level - as demonstrated in its 2006 African Cup victory celebrations – seems to dissipate amongst the ranks of its ordinary citizens, and people of black African descent in Egypt - whether refugee or tourist - are regularly exposed to racism. Xenophobic and discriminatory attitudes are obviously not restricted to those of black African heritage: a certain insularity in Egyptian society means that almost anyone perceived as belonging to another culture (including Egyptians born and brought up abroad) is regarded with curiosity if not suspicion. What exacerbates racism towards black people however are popular conceptions of beauty as packaged and sold by the media and embodied in Lebanese singer Nancy Agram’s white-skinned and green-eyed artificial perfection: the maxim is the lighter the better, and this perception is blind to the beauty in black.
Where does that leave young black Sudanese refugees stranded in Cairo? Ibrahim el Batout’s disturbing documentary, ‘I am a Refugee Living in Cairo’ shown in Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery last week explored the devastating consequences of these exclusionary and racist attitudes. The sense of alienation and anger they induce has recently manifested itself in the form of inter-gang war amongst the Sudanese community, which forms the subject of the film.
It follows members of Cairo’s two most prominent gangs, the Lost Boys (whose members are the sons of community leaders and which is rumoured to have the backing of the Sudan Popular Resistance Movement) and the weaker Outlaws. The gangs represent surrogate support networks if not families for the young men who join their ranks: they often live together, share food and money and provide protection from frequent racially-motivated physical attacks by Egyptians. The young men who appeared share a sense of hopelessness: refugees in Egypt are denied their right to work and frequently encounter bureaucratic, financial and other obstacles in pursuing their education. The inability of most Sudanese refugees to find work legally has pushed them into the informal sector, frequently into domestic service. This has upset the traditional distribution of roles within Sudanese homes by forcing men to stay at home while women act as the bread-winners, exacerbating the sense of frustration. This noxious combination of absent mothers, a feeling of abandonment by the United Nation High Commission for Refugees in Cairo (UNHCR), constant hostility from Egyptian society and an inability to plan for the future has created young men who in the film speak bitterly of their lives in Egypt, going as far as to describe them as worse, in some ways, than the war they had fled in Sudan.
In one particularly disturbing scene we are shown the Sudanese victim of a racist assault who, attempting to escape his tormentors sought refuge in his flat, which they set on fire, trapping him inside. He survived, but with horrific burns. Another youth describes hearing verbal racist insults on a daily basis, saying that if he responds the situation descends into violence. In another scene we are shown a Sudanese gang member attempting to pass through security in a social club of some description. It is not clear whether he has already passed through the metal detector, but the guards require him to go through it whether he has already or not. He objects, is edgy and frustrated and clearly regards the treatment as yet another instalment of daily humiliation - the tension quickly escalates.
Little wonder that young men seek refuge in these gangs, whose defining feature is their mimicking of black American rap culture. Gang members have adopted the rap lifestyle wholesale, dressing in the baggy trousers, sports shoes and heavy jewellery beloved of their rap heroes, and each gang has hand signs and other symbols unique to it – again in emulation of US rap culture. In adopting this identity these youths seem to be consciously rejecting Arab culture – which after all, they perceive as having rejected them – and embracing a world in which black is beautiful, successful and rich.
Empowerment perhaps, but at a price of internecine violence which, just as it wreaked havoc on America’s rap community, seems just as essential an accessory. The film shows gang members who have fallen victim to this meaningless violence: broken limbs, stabbings and even fatalities, the most recent of which occurred when violence erupted after the AUC’s celebration of World Refugee Day last month. Speaking after the film AUC Professor of Forced Migration and Refugee Studies Barbara Harrell-Bond pointed out that gang violence intensified after the 2005 three-month Mostafa Mahmoud protest held by asylum seekers and refugees outside the UNHCR was violently broken up by police on December 30th leading to the deaths of some 30 people. The government has rejected calls from rights groups and a United Nations body (the Committee on Migrant Workers to which Egypt recently submitted its periodic report on the implementation of the Convention for the Protection of Migrant Workers and their Families) for a re-opening of the inquiry into the deaths, claiming firstly that many of the protestors were under the influence of drugs and alcohol (and yet, half of those who died were women and children) and that investigators were unable to establish the identity of police officers who failed to follow orders.
That such violence could have occurred with impunity will inevitably have fuelled gang members’ anger and sense of vulnerability. One youth in the film spoke of his sense of being unprotected, by either UNHCR or the Egyptian government. And yet the violence and delinquency in which these gangs indulge while it is senseless and gratuitous, is demonstrably attributable to gang members’ loss of hope and the simple fact that that those without jobs have nothing to do all day: in the question and answer session after the film Harrell-Bond pointed out that when English classes were organised for young refugees including gang members incidences of violence fell dramatically – and rose again when the American volunteers who had been teaching the classes left Egypt and the classes ended.
‘I am a Refugee Living in Cairo’ is a starkly depressing film which gives a sense of the desperation palpable amongst Cairo’s Sudanese refugee community, and which has fuelled this search for an alternative, increasingly violent, identity.
Originally published in al-Ahram Weekly.