Back, well sort of

 I’m back, well sort of. I’m back in Kuwait from my two week trip to Egypt. Fourteen years ago, I used to only dream of visiting places like al Azhar and the pyramids.  I definitely could not have imagined living in the Gulf.  I became Muslim shortly after the Gulf war ended Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iraq. I definitely could not have imagined that I would thrive here of all places. Like every dream I’ve had and been able to live, my dream of seeing the Middle East turned out so much different than what I expected. Even with this trip to Egypt. It was really a lifetime dream. It was so much different but so much better than I expected. Slowly, over time, I am getting to know Egypt. I am learning how to get around, to find places I love. I’m learning how things work. How things don’t work. And I’ve learned a lot in a short time. I’ve learned that I’m prone to erupt in tears when hungry and frustrated. I’ve learned how much luggage I could lift just to avoid feeling jipped by someone demanding bakteesh. I’ve learned that I can meet people on common ground. I’ve learned to cross the street while cars are racing by, as if I have some force field to repel cars. I’ve learned to be patient. I’ve learned more the obstacles I face in life (the biggest one being myself) and a bit about what it will take to overcome them. I’ve learned that I am here because of the goodness of my brothers and sisters (regardless of race, religion, or creed). All that goodness comes from one source, and for that I am truly blessed.

Taking real trips, avoiding tourist traps, going alone and seeing the down and dirty you get to experience real life. A few years ago, I was able to  see how poor and Middle class Moroccans live. I have mingled with the upper middle class Egyptians, spent way several evenings in city stars, visited a family in the City of the Dead, experienced life in the suburbs of Cairo. I have met religious and western trained scholars, teachers and educators, everyday workers and craftsmen. I have spent 8 hours with a taxi driver conversing  in broken English and Arabic.  I have seen seen beach side resorts, watched a lively Alexandrian woman bargain to have a duffle bag handmade on the spot.  I have ridden on a felucca blasting belly dancing music, watching muhajabats bellydance. I have strolled old palace gardens, ate ice cream outside a pre-modern fort put my feet in the Mediterranean.  I have been on the receiving end of lewd comments and unsolicited flirting. I have had met men who were protective and made sure that I was okay.  I have been hustled and received kind gifts of generosity.

For me, traveling and living abroad is a chance to learn a different way of life. I believe we are made of different so that we can get to know each other, and as we get to know each other, we can learn from each other. I believe travel is a way of learning about yourself, about others. It is an ideal opportunity to transform yourself (and I don’t mean just going native). Some of the things I have experienced really make me want to be a better person. Arab hospitality is something that I have really come to admire.  Years ago, I first experienced it when visiting my Libyan American friends. They fed us hearty North African food, couscous served with savory tomato based stew, lamb soup with cilantro, tomatoes, and pasta, sweets,  Ahmad tea with milk served in beautiful cups. My Muslim friends made us as comfortable as possible frequently asking me to stay the night in order to avoid a long drive in the dark. I never felt unwelcome or that my presence was burdensome. My experiences with Muslims from various cultures raised my bar for hospitality. For fourteen years, I have had high standards to meet. Sometimes I come short. But often, when I grocery shopping I buy something just in case I have a random guest drop by. At minimum, I have an elegant tea set to serve my guests. I love cooking,  I love having people over to share food with. But the pace of life in grad school often sucks up all my spare time. But the value of hospitality is something that I feel is still ingrained in my from my grandmother’s southern roots. The past two weeks in Egypt reminded me how hospitable Arabs can be. The kindness I was shown really warmed my heart. I know that if ever I have a guest, I will try my best to do what was done for me in the past two weeks.

Being away has been nice. It makes you appreciate little things. It makes you appreciate being able to let go of less important things. Walking the streets of Cairo or the malls of Kuwait, so much that seems heavy back in the states lifts away. It is break from the provincial thinking that many Americans have. For the past 7 years I have thought about where I want to live, knowing that I would spend a considerable amount of time in the Middle East and Africa, and maybe even Europe. While abroad reading blogs reminds me about what people are struggling with in the States. I think about those issues, and what type of life I want to lead. Sometimes the prospects and opportunities of teaching in some American University overseas some really great, especially considering the flurry of negative, unconstructive comments.   Although for the most part, my comments have been encouraging  I get frustrated sometimes. It reminds me that going back home means going back to a place full of baggage.

The first time I went to Morocco I felt a sense of relief. Honestly, I felt like it was a break from being Black. By that, I do not mean that I was escaping my Blackness. People did notice my skin color and I was treated differently than my white classmates abroad. I didn’t mind being nothing special on the street. I just kind of blended in.  People noticed my color, made reference to it, but my skin was in a completely different context. I wasn’t just another angry Black woman, nor did people assume that I was. Noone assume that I was from the hood, but they were surprised that I spoke “perfect” English and that my family didn’t immigrate to America. Many people assume I’m African, and a number who have said I look like a black Arab. Maybe because they haven’t been to America or they haven’t been exposed to all the stereotypes and the people who perform them perfectly to a “T.” But no one assumed I had a chip on my shoulder. If I had a grievance and got loud, that’s no problem because that’s what everyone does here. Arab women can be very dramatic bargaining or expressing complaints about services rendered. I never had to get too dramatic often ticket agents examining the size of my head luggage or forgiving the extra luggage would  say  things like, “I like to be kind to my American Muslim sister.” Many Egyptians and Kuwaitis don’t seem to assume that I’m un-marriageable. I meet women of various ages and they say things like, “Maybe  you will find somewhere here and stay” or “Marry an Egyptian and move here.”

I am not saying that this is solution to all my worries. But that not everybody is looking through a racialized lens every living breathing, waking moment. Nor do I claim that everything is perfect or that I’m living in a utopia. There are struggles, there are challenges, but I have been embraced by an amazing group of people. I miss my family like nothing else. But I’m not ready to go back to the States. Not yet.

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14 thoughts on “Back, well sort of

  1. I spent three months in Egypt. It is by far my favorite Muslim country. I love Egyptians. They are some of the greatest Muslims and people in the world. It is no wonder some of the most important Islamic movements have come from this land.

    Your experience confirms what I have always felt about those Muslims Americans who are convinced the Muslims world is so screwed up and things are better in America and that the U.S. is great for Muslims. Certain Muslims bloggers constantly try to find fault with the Muslim world, yet I wonder if they have ever traveled there.

    As I stated earlier, the dysfuntionalities of race and gender relations are a MUCH greater problem in America than much of the Muslim world. Men and women generally have an understanding as long as they have not been tainted by Western influence.

    Just as you may find men over there who seem more and more attractive, perhaps you will understand why those sisters seem more and more attractive to brothers in America.

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  2. Abdul Jabbar,
    “Just as you may find men over there who seem more and more attractive, perhaps you will understand why those sisters seem more and more attractive to brothers in America.”

    Are you really trying to defend the stranger marriage to peasants in developing nations? Also, I think I did explore the reasons why Black American men go to Morocco and find wives, even if their wives are illiterate and they don’t speak English and these men don’t speak Arabic or French. I didn’t dismiss it off hand. I wonder why you assume so. Also, I think the reasons are different for Americans who choose to live overseas and those who choose to import wives.
    My point was that contrary to popular conceptions, it is not like all people think we’re the bottom of the barrel. Being moderately cute and having a green card makes a woman a viable candidate.

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  3. I know two brothers Married to Morrocan women in my community. Both are college educated and speak at least three languages. I know another brother who married a sister that is a lawyer. What makes you think these brothers are getting uneducated peasants? I’ve found most of these women to be more educated than some of their American husbands.

    Unlike most of thee Muslim Bloggers I know MANY MANY brothers that are happily married to Morrocan sisters. I actually encourage the process. As one who speaks french, its something that I’ve considered greatly as well.

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  4. Clearly, you are an advocate of brothers marrying Moroccan women. I know several brothers who have married uneducated women who do not speak English. I discourage that process. I don’t have an issue brothers marrying smart women, nor am I against intercultural marriage. I am critical of the negative stereotypes that many Black men like yourself have about Black women. But in the end, because you hold such negative views about Black women, I have zero resentment that someone like yourself would prefer a North African. So everybody wins. You don’t have a headache, and I don’t have a headache.

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  5. Why do you assume that if I married a Morrocan I wouldn’t be marrying a Black women? The beauty of Morroco is that many of their women look Black as well. race is not the issue, it behaior and culture.

    If you go outside of the major cities in American, I think Black women are much more kind and gentle souls. Unfortunatly many have been hardened by the reality of racism and abuse by Black men. But my interest in a Morrocan woman is that her francophone culture and Islam would fit into my non-muslim family structure.

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  6. Abdul Jabbar,
    When I meant Black American woman, or a woman raised in the US who identifies as Black and thus would carry the burden of the stereotypes. I know you are a lawyer and the legal profession is all about precise language. But I still find your groupings troubling, it is as if you robbed all Black women of personalities. As if your limited experience can speak for all of us.

    Had your defense of seeking a Moroccan wife been positive based on the Francophone argument and not on the negative attributes that you seemed to apply to all educated Black women, I would have respected that. Even if you could openly admit that you were more inclined to women who are phenotypically Mediterranean or racially ambiguous, I would still respect that as a personal preference.

    In fact, time and time again in this forum and others I have argued that I have no problem with inter-ethnic marriages. But I do have a problem with the gendered racism that Black men use to justify their choices.

    Also, as a side note:
    Out of the brothers you know who are married to Moroccans, ask how many of them actively sought out Haratine women? What is the predominant ethnic categories (within the Moroccan context: Arab, Berber, Haratine, or Abiyad, Asmar, or Aswad) of the wives they choose? Let’s not apply America’s one drop rule all over the world to conveniently call someone black. This is especially important when that society has a racial hierarchy with slightly more porous racial boundaries than the US, meaning that white in that society is not predicated on the exclusion of any Black ancestry.

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  7. As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,

    It is also true that many Moroccans do not look Black at all. There are quite a few of them in London and the vast majority look Mediterranean white – not even dark like some eastern Arabs (as in Saudi and Yemen). Moroccans have input from a number of ethnic origins and among them is the Vandals who came from northern Europe and ended up at Carthage (in Tunisia), and the Spanish who converted to Islam and moved south during the reconquest. In my experience, they are the least likely of Arabs to be black.

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  8. Shalom,
    It has been a while – welcome “back” to blog land at least. I have often thought about the way that in America, even though a person doesn’t consider themselves racist in the least, we still see things through the lens of race. I actively try to avoid it but that is just the problem – there is an active avoidance on my part.
    As for wandering in random places in Egypt – that sounds great, just make sure you trust the cabbie!

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  9. Salaam alaikum Sophister,
    Yeah, I agree about those cab drivers. Mine was nice, but flirted way too much for a old man.

    Salaam alaikum Yusuf,
    I’ve never been the the North of Morocco, the Reef, where many of the Berbers are fair complexioned. Berbers origin myths are often from ancient Phoenicia, they practiced Semitic customs like circumcision. Berbers are of various shades and cultures. But in the South of Morocco there are many Moroccans who are of African descent. In fact, there are two sources of Black Moroccans. One, are the indigenous people of the Oasis (many theories have pointed out that they are likely to have lived in Morocco before Berbers). They were freemen who are called the Haratine. Also, Morocco had a slave trade with the Tafilelt being a major slave trading outpost with the ancient kingdom of Ghana. One of the major folk cultures is Gnawa, they perform folk music and ritual seances that have clear sub-Saharan roots. In the 17th century Black Moroccans became associated with slavery under Moulay Ismail. He enslaved all Black Moroccans who could not prove they were of free status. He made them all his slave soldiers and married women to them in order to create his own Mamluks. So, you will see during that time a lot of racial polemics. Still today, being black in MOrocco is often assumed to be linked with slave lineage.

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  10. Thank you ma sista very informative. I myself want to travel to Eygpt in a matter of fact I want to travel to a lot of African countries. I feel like thats one of my life goals.

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  11. I’ve always been interested in the history of North Africa. I’m curious about the genetic makeup of the average Moroccan. I’ve had people tell me that most Moroccans look Mediterranean white, and others say that most look intermediate between Mediterranean white and sub-Saharan African. I’m more inclined to believe that it’s somewhere in the middle of the two and that many Moroccans even look to be primarily Mediterranean white but with a clear trace of sub-Saharan ancestry via the slave trade and northward migrations over the course of centuries (hence as to why they tend to be a couple shades darker and with curlier hair than most southern Europeans).

    The Arabs were huge participants in the slave trade it seems, and due to simple geography, tons of black African slaves ended up in North Africa where many were absorbed into the Arab and Berber populations. The Moors of medieval times were said to be overwhelmingly Mediterranean white Arabs/Berbers, prior to the large-scale implementation of the trans-Saharan slave trade, which apparently had a significant genetic impact on the population.

    I think I came across a study that indicated that roughly 25% of the mitochondrial DNA (maternal ancestry) among Moroccan Arabs is of sub-Saharan origin. This is supposedly because the Arab men preferred female slaves, hence there are few Y chromosomes of sub-Saharan origin.

    As for the groups still identifying as Berbers, it varies, with the coastal Berbers being the least influenced by the slave trade and the ones from further south, especially the Tuareg, often heavily influenced.

    The other North African countries are similar as Tunisians, Egyptians, and others also vary from light-skinned Mediterranean types to very dark-skinned. It appears that as one moves away from the Mediterranean, sub-Saharan admixture increases as a general rule.

    If anyone would like to add anything, I’d be very interested to hear it.

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  12. Although this is some years old, I felt compelled to reply…. I loved your words here. Inspiring to say the least! Thank you for posting.

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