Saturday, August 09, 2008

Who is more Egyptian?

Egyptians & Identity

In a post colonial world, an Egyptian living in the west suffers from the negative stereotypes attached to Arabs: a feeling of shame and anger at being labeled ‘Arab’, ‘Arab’ with petrodollars and hypocrisy, ‘Arab’ who oppress their women and lust for other women, ‘Arab’ trapped in traditions of betrayal and double talk. Naturally, facing such an ugly stereotype, one would attempt to disassociate from such images as much as possible. This is even more the case given the tension between Egyptians and Arabs under both Nasser (Arabs seen as reactionary) and Sadat (Arabs seen as rejectionist). Yet a better understanding of the negative stereotypes, save for the petrodollars, will show that their roots lie not really in Arabia but rather in Egypt. In his book Orientalism, Edward Said used a huge body of work by Orientalists to discuss Egypt more than any other culture. In fact, Arabia was only referenced in Said’s analysis of the writings of D. H. Lawrence. So much of the negative attributes assigned to the “Arab” are really based on a collective but erroneous Orientalist view of Egyptians rather than of Arabs!

The negative image of the Arab that prevails today in the west is the sum total of a long process that began with Lane’s detailed account of the customs of the Egyptians moving on to the lusty scheming King Farouk and continuing today in anti-Arab, racist movies ranging from Disney’s Aladdin to the Raid On Entebbe. Today, the negative image of ‘Arab’ has deepened to include the terrorism and petrodollars as new chapters in the same old book.

So what does an intelligent and proud Egyptian do in response? Does he go in and fight the unfair negative stereotype and the racist hatred or should he attempt to squash those stereotypes and distance himself from them? Indeed, Edward Said suggested that the process of Orientalism saw the transfer of all of the negative stereotypes associated with Shakespearian Jews to the Arabs in our time. Could a new Egyptian image, free from all of these horrible, negative stereotypes but largely built on Egypt itself be possible? An image dependent on Egypt’s ancient history and borrowing heavily from Christian Jacq’s portrayal of the wisdom and glory of that culture: Egyptians who lived by the Law of Ma’at until they were then invaded and defeated by the horrible hordes of Arabia! The problem now is Arabism, we want out!

Cultivating this image is totally incompatible unless one adopts an aggressive stance towards Arabism and in doing so, the bright young man or woman does not know that Arabism itself is but a product of colonial orientalist discourse. Indeed Arabism is no more than the very same attempt to gain distance from the negative image of Egypt that was painted by Orientalists and extended, unjustly, to cover not just all Egyptians but also other Arabic speaking and Moslem countries. Could it be that Arabism is just the other side of the coin of the neo-Egyptian nationalism?

Alas, we turn and look at Egypt, we find that the people there have many common backward links with the looked down upon Arabs. So what do we do? We de-Egyptianize them! We happily move forward with the concept that these people are Arabs, or at least mixed breed, while we Egyptians are progressive and forward looking.

Regardless of this argument and logic, one or two Million or even ten or twenty million cannot usurp the right to being Egyptian nor are they more Egyptian than the other 65 million who are there now. Egyptian is what Egypt is today and those seeking an alternative definition for what Egypt is today are better advised to look for another label for themselves, not for what Egypt is and Egyptians are today.

We are stuck with our fellow countrymen, poor, prejudiced, backward and suffering the ravages of corruption and ignorance. They are our people, we can’t deny them or de-Egyptianize them because it does not suit our self-image. We have to work to improve their lot in Egypt and we have to confront the stereotypes created by Orientalism. To subscribe to and aid in Orientalist thought is a matter of naive self-gratification, intellectual dishonesty and betrayal, but certainly not treason!

One day an Egyptian identity could remerge. If and when this happens, I hope it will be one that is based on what Egyptians have in common, on what makes them a unique people. If and when this happens, I hope the Egyptian identity will not be built on false, even laughable and defensive self-gratification against Arabs or others. I hope an emerging Egyptian identity would be wider than a narrow religious or ethnic affiliation. I hope for an Egyptian identity at peace with itself, accepting its own people for what they are now, striving for a better future for Egypt and not one stuck with ancient Egyptian glories.

Ayman S. Ashour

(An Egyptian nationalist fighting the superimposition of Arabism on Egypt and an Arab American fighting the negative stereotypes of Egyptians known through Orientalist ignorance as “Arabs”)

Originally Written March 13, 2003