Race in the US and Egypt: A Nubian Mother’s & Daughter’s Perspectives
By Mona Sherif-Nelson and Nabra Nelson
As long as we have the ability to see the difference in colors, size, and gender, humans will always do so. Our Quran explains this by saying that God created us as nations and tribes to interact and be interested to know one another (because we are different). If we all were the same we wouldn’t know black without white and we would not know long or short, high or low. We see this clearly in the creation of the earth. While you can enjoy the dry desert with its dunes and palm trees, you will enjoy them even more when you have seen the snow and evergreen trees and the tropical islands or mountains. We can enjoy every one if we choose to.
In my case, I learned to love the fact that I am different and I am black in elementary school. I learned that I was different than the rest. I was REALLY different.
At that time around the 1960s, people in Egypt were not aware that Nubians, with their much darker skin color and their foreign tongue, are Egyptian too. So in school all the students were in awe to hear me saying in my broken Arabic that I am Egyptian too (my first language was Nubian).
Like all Nubians I was able to gain the respect and even love of most those around me. But a few people hassled me with no reason!
One day a verbal fight erupted between me and one of those girls. To everyone’s surprise, I was winning the fight even with my broken Arabic, until the girl called me “Barbary”. The way she said it froze me. I had no idea what that meant but the way she said it offended me and that surprised me so much. I went back home angry. I demanded from my father to change me so I can be like the other girls in the school and stop me from being like I am now. My poor dad was hopeless. There was no way he could grant me that kind of change but he had a great way to help me. And it was the greatest Magic.
Although my father was sure I had no clue what the meaning of “Barbary” was, he asked me to guess what it meant. Then he explained, “The poor girl called you a ‘mumbler.’ We are Nubian. We are descended from a 10,000 year old civilization. ‘Mumblers’ don’t build anything.”
He then added what changed my life for ever: “It is up to you. If you like that girl, save her from ignorance. If not, let her walk around like that until she either educates herself, or let her die with her ignorance.”
Every day after that I would feel so happy hearing the girl calling me “Barbary.” I would smile and let her be like that.
Very soon after that, the girl disappeared and I was NEVER EVER EVER able to be fazed by anyone like her ever again.
I am sure this event shielded me from such harm, from inside and out. It also gave me complete power. It is not up to that girl or anyone around me to make me feel bad, good, or anything in between.
That narrative from my mom resonates with me, but from a completely different perspective.
As a Nubian, I grew up knowing that Black is beautiful, and I never saw my mother really be affected by any racism in the US, although I am sure she did encounter it. I learned how Nubia was the first civilization in the world and how ancient Egyptian writings talk about how beautiful the darker-skinned Nubian women were in the neighboring civilization.
I am a mixed race Nubian-Egyptian-Euro-American woman, who has lived in the US and Cairo, Egypt. I am also very light-skinned, not only for a Nubian, but even for a person who is ‘half-Black and half-White.’ That is important context to understand my experience of race both in the US and in Egypt among my Nubian family. Since I was little, my parents told me the story of how their marriage was not accepted because my father was not Nubian. But after they were married, and especially after my older brother Shams was born, my Nubian family quickly came to accept and love my father. So I was always fully accepted and loved by my Nubian family and was very close to them while I was growing up in Cairo. Every Friday (which is the holy day in Islam, like Saturday in Judaism and Sunday in Christianity) we would go to visit my grandmother’s house with the rest of my aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was always a lot of people packed into a very small apartment, so it was a very high-energy and fun experience, which included a lot of delicious homemade food. My Arabic has never ben completely fluent, and very few of my relatives spoke English, but it never felt like a big barrier to connecting with them. I always felt like a part of the family, even though it was clear that I stood out like a sore thumb. They were not shy to point out how white I looked, and we laughed about it. But I was always cognizant of that, and frustrated that I was not immediately recognized as Egyptian, let alone Nubian. Most people in Egypt just thought I was a white American girl. It especially frustrated me when people would not think I spoke Arabic and even speak about me in front of my face! I always gave them a piece of my mind in Arabic, and they were dumbstruck.
When I moved to the US for college, I found myself very much trying to hold on to my mixed-race and Nubian identity by being a part of multi-cultural clubs, and talking to people a lot about Nubia. Since my name is so uncommon, people often ask me where it’s from and what it means, so I have a chance to tell them about my heritage. I loved educating people about Nubia, although it was a bit repetitive.
When I moved to the US, I found myself drawn to African-American culture and spaces (since they were close in look to my Nubian family), but that never felt quite right since that is a very different type of Black culture. Now, I am most drawn to other mixed-race people who understand the complexity of identity, or to Arab communities, who I connect with through the Arabic language and our similar cultures and cuisines. I used to feel quite self-conscious about my light skin color (often even trying to tan to look more like I fit in with my family). It is a strange experience because I observed how my family in Egypt saw light skin as more beautiful than dark skin. They would use skin-lightening products and always marvel at my light-brown wavy hair. Meanwhile, I wished to look more like them so that I could fit in with them and show off my Black culture that I am proud of. But I have since learned that no one is going to validate my identities for me, and that I need to accept and be confident in myself and my identities, despite how others might perceive me. I don’t have to look Nubian to be a proud Nubian and help to preserve my culture and traditions. Everyone has intersectional identities and less visible identities. My experiences have taught me to always be open and curious about other people. I allow others to define themselves for me, and always practice acceptance – which is how I hope that others approach me.
Article included in the University of Michigan’s Nubian Odyssey – Narrating Nubia project