Egypt: an African Cancer

This is a revision of an old article that was originally posted in 2010 on Open Salon, which is now defunct.

At the time I wrote this article–around 2009 or so–I feared that my assessment of Egypt, a country I had lived in briefly at the end of 1987 and early 88 and visited again between 1990 and 1994, was too harsh. Maybe my recollections had been tainted by my disgust over Egyptian racism. Like most visibly black people who have visited that country, I have fond memories of tangling with Caironians (or Cairenes), many of whom were darker than me, yet despised me all the same for being insufficiently light enough for them to kiss my ass. “Soudani” was the word I recalled being used at the time; I don’t remember being called “abid”–I guess I wasn’t so dark to be considered a slave by their myopic eyes. (Then again, I was virtually indistinguishable from a very large number of young Egyptian men.) And them good ole Transit Thugs (aka Cairo’s notorious Transit Police, which they proclaimed themselves to be with crude-looking armbands in both English and Arabic), who loved to hang out every night on street corners and back alleys, beneath bridges and the entrance to metros and in doorways, bayonets drawn (and usually with the sheaths removed), cheap AK-47s at the ready to shoot down whomever they felt like; the unbelievable filthiness of streets such as Clot Bey and Sharkas el-Wastany, easily the dirtiest and most decrepit streets I have seen anywhere in the world.

My reason for being in Egypt? Simple. I was trying to make it to Bangkok, by way of Bombay, Madras and Penang, on the money I was to save teaching English! Of course, it sounds silly. I was only 20 years old and was completing my first novel, Life of Death, which would go on to be a smashing failure in the years to come.

In the fall of 1987, I lived in Cairo, largely on Emad-el-Dine Street and Ramsis Street, in the Hotel Claridge and the Fondouk Monte-Carlo. I hated the city with a passion.

lewis
Proto-hipster: the author in Cairo, in 1987.

Naively, I assumed I could obtain a teaching job simply because I spoke good, proper English. Little did I realize that these jobs almost always went to Caucasians. (Coincidentally a Mexican-American woman had attempted to do as I did a few years later, with identical results.) I was eaten alive by mosquitoes in a series of charming hotel rooms in Cairo before I was down to my last hundred dollars; by sheer luck I managed to find the very basic yet very friendly and cheap Monte-Carlo, which offered me a bed for two Egyptian pounds a night. (At the time, that was 90 cents.)

Alexandria was much more to my liking. I found Alexandria to be infinitely friendlier, easy-going, cosmopolitan, languid, suggestive of a sensuality which, upon closer scrutiny, either no longer existed or just perhaps, never did. I learned the long, hard way that whatever Alexandria appeared to be in my Durrell-infested imagination, it was not a “wine-press of love.” It was not Havana, let alone Salvador de Bahia. Hell, it wasn’t even Athens.

Cairo was worse. It was, and remains, an overcrowded, surly, sectarian, materialistic, hopelessly anti-intellectual (primarily for outsiders who don’t know where to go to find people to talk to, of course), sexually repressed, bigoted, feces- and syringe-ridden cesspool. Ever see the video clips on YouTube showing a day’s walk through the streets of Cairo? Well, that is exactly how I remembered it, only slightly worse–or maybe slightly better? I can’t tell. In my recollection a film of greyish-brown dirt coated the entire city, from the airport to the tenements to the minarets to the palm trees and, finally, the people–myself included. There was an all-pervasive, lingering stench that hit your nose once you landed in Cairo International Airport (CIA, indeed) and did not leave until you departed Egypt. The stink is still there.

After 1994, the allure of Egypt and the so-called “Orient” had faded. I was never a good Orientalist; I was too cynical, too inclined to see things as they were and not the way other people had wished to see them. I could no longer close my eyes to the sheer wretchedness of Egypt, and the Mediterranean in general: the cultural, intellectual and sexual barrenness, the suffocating uber-conservatism, the sub-Neanderthal machismo, the obsessive white-worship, the subtly snide Negrophobia and hatred of darkness (which undoubtedly extended to South and Southeast Asians, primarily Filipinos), and a host of other nice things that, today in the 2010s, appear to have overwhelmed the entire region. For instance, it is difficult to imagine that the cute hotel I once stayed in during my first evening in Aleppo is now just a pile of dust; that most of the people I met there, as well as in Damascus and Latakia, are either dead, injured or in exile. But this is exactly what has happened.

6a00d8341c630a53ef017744bebf06970d-600wi
Cairo’s Transit Thug/Cops doing what they do best. Note the fat fucker at the far left, and the Puerto-Ricany look of the so-called “white” Egyptian people

In Egypt, the ruin appears to be internal rather than external. The country at times looks like a distorted cross between Ceaucescu’s Romania and Apartheid South Africa, with a touch of Bush’s Texas thrown in. The poor Egyptian people, then as now, appeared to be scared of everything: their minds, their bodies, their very souls. Egypt has degenerated into a primitive place, a savage monstrosity, a barbarian empire at the edge of Africa—something straight out of the minds of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the creators of Danger Island. It was not just the extraordinary evil of the Mubarak regime nor the current psychosis of the Sisi regime, but the even more extraordinary acquiescence of the Egyptian people in the face of this monstrous evil (much of which is paid for by U.S. tax dollars, to the tune of 3 billion per year). The outright moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the Egyptian leadership has trickled down and infected literally every class of Egyptian to the tiny urban professional middle class to the mass of fellaheen in the villages along the Nile. This country has become, quite literally, a cancer unto itself.

Quite unbelievable to many outsiders—given their actually being in and of Africa–is their anti-black racism. In recent years, this racism, which was always quite bad, has reached pathological proportions, owing to the immigration of large numbers of Sudanese refugees to the country. Sudan has, in effect, become Egypt’s Mexico, South Sudan being its El Salvador. In proportion to the waves of anti-Mexican and anti-Salvadoran feeling sweeping the U.S., one now sees a hysterical Negrophobia, infesting the minds of the average Egyptian on the street. It also seems oddly concomitant to the even more hysterical anti-Arab hate festering in the minds of Israeli Jews, particularly settlers on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Movies–with one or two exceptions–showing Sudanese as hookers and drug dealers and boabs look suspiciously like racist American movies of earlier decades. Of course it would be too easy for an Egyptian to explain his way out by blaming this racism on America; Egyptian Negrophobia predates the very existence of the USA, and certainly the existence of Israel.

Their anti-black racism is all the more ridiculous seeing that Egyptians themselves, in their physical makeup and temperament, are largely African or half- or quarter-African. Physically many of them resemble African-Americans, Afro-Cubans or Brazilians. Ridiculous, but, for those of us who are of the African diaspora, and familiar with the idiotic self-hatred that African-Americans face concerning hair, skin-color, etc., obnoxiously commonplace. This author has heard it all, not merely from racist Egyptians, but from equally racist Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Brazilians and, naturally, African-Americans. What person of color coming from a racially mixed family hasn’t heard this rubbish, whether they care to admit it or not?

In Egypt, the “tragic mulatto” mentality is virtually the national temperament. They are also the biggest, most slavishly subservient Uncle Toms, perhaps in the entire world, second only to Sudan (who are Uncle Toms to Egyptians). They show no shame in their obsequious worship of white skin and white blood, and when you listen to them they sound less like Arabs or Africans and more like retarded Ossis from Mahrzan or Hellersdorf, in East Berlin. The obscene rage and hate they inflict upon the Sudanese is really a collective outpouring of self-abnegation. They do to the Sudanese what they wish they could do not only to their own worthless, despicable government; their mass-murdering, rapist-closet-queen police; their lying, perverted, hypocritical religious leaders; their phony, shallow, posturing, know-nothing “intellectuals,” their wanna-be white-boy bourgeoisie, but also to themselves, for actually being alive and so, well—Egyptian. In the niggerness of the Sudanese, they see their own niggerness reflected back at them, their own hopelessness in their decades-long cause to whiten their skins and souls. All appearances to the contrary, honkification has failed miserably in Egypt, and they know it.

BwG8uNNIYAABWCN

 The lumpen-elite of a cursed nation shows its fat, stinking arse to the world

The Egyptian people have come to personify everything that is wrong with either Arabs or Africans. They are ashamed of their own history, one of the world’s oldest; they are both disgusted and ashamed at their own sexuality (hence their hysterical Puritanism, which makes major cities like Cairo and Alexandria look like England in the 1880s); their own physical appearance, which is closer to that of the black Africans they despise than the Arabs or Europeans they so pathetically worship. Their lives and souls are so ruled by hate, ignorance and stupidity that they have indeed become numb—in the way that Germans, before the advent of Hitler, became numb. It would not surprise this author if Egypt became the seat of a new, ugly, fascist empire, with a genocidal hostility towards anything and everything African, or even Arab: I was not surprised to find an Egyptian blogger one day bitterly ranting about how much he despised “dirty Arabs”.

But it would be even less of a surprise if what we know today as Egypt simply collapsed like a deck of cards, consumed by its own frustrations and hatreds, leaving itself wide open for invaders either from within or from without—something which has happened far too often in Egypt’s extremely long history.

ADDENDUM

In 2010, I referred to the late twat/caliph/pharaoh/HNIC Mubarak as a vampire but the term still applies to Sisi, the latest in a long line of pharaoh/vampires. HNIC is Head Nigger In Charge (or Head High Yaller Coon In Charge, to be more accurate).

 

The New Absurdism: the emergence of an American literary sensibility (or, don’t conceal the real)

Absurdism is not the cheap toilet-paper irony of white school children who have just learned to masturbate. Absurdism is rooted in a blues sensibility and a blues aesthetic. Once again, it must be made perfectly clear just what we mean when we define a “blues aesthetic” in neo-modernism and absurdism. It is not merely “singing the blues,” let alone wearing Ray-Ban sunshades and pork-pie hats and playing bad imitations of Son House. The “blues aesthetic,” for us, is rooted in an acknowledgement of our historical and contemporary struggles to stay afloat in a hostile universe. Fiction, like the Blues, is a vehicle by which we give expression to our anger, our sense of confusion and outrage; it is a vehicle by which we keep alive the “jagged edges” of the experience and by which, we transcend that experience, at least through art. To quote Elif Batuman in “Get A Real Degree,” her rebuttal of Mark McGurl’s defense of “program writing”:

At a certain point in the history of the novel, Jewishness, having ceased to be a merely comic or villainous attribute, had come to operate as a reality principle that exposed the machinery of social life. Swann’s way – the prosaic way of the narrator’s half-Jewish next-door neighbour – revealed the truth about the Guermantes way, and Jewishness became, to an extent, identifiable with the mechanism of the novel itself: the comic, slightly vulgar exposure of the world as a place where would-be knightly heroes have to eat, sleep and carry money…. To justify its perpetuation, the novel itself had somehow to become Jewish. Jewishness, which had once been a codeword for the changing of the times, came to represent a kind of tragedy that would never change, no matter how much time passed. (Italics mine)

As with us, the American and/or modern novel, if it is to exist, must become Black. Our fiction requires distillation, rejection of the academic aesthetic and creation of and/or appropriation of older techniques and aesthetics in expressing what is real to us: we, the so-called “marginalized,” whose thousands of deaths each year barely get an inch of space on some off-beat web-blog. It should be understood that the academies of the West, or even the non-West, are not going to take us seriously; they have trained themselves not to take us seriously, except when we function in the capacities they have created for us. And these capacities, of course, have nothing whatever to do with so-called “high” art.

We writers need to assess for ourselves what constitutes “high” art. How any form of art became “high” in the first place is cause for careful examination. Students of Dante Alighieri often forget that the Divine Comedy was written in what was considered a “low” language of 13th century Florence: Italian. Before Pushkin Russian literature, as a rule, did not exist; the Russian elite wrote and spoke in French. Russian was considered a “rude” language.

*

The African American is in more of a disadvantageous position than he or she realizes. The main disadvantage has less to do with the sorry state of the American publishing industry and more to do with actual matters of craft–or, to be more specific, matters of language. Each black American writer (providing he is serious, and not a hack) has to reinvent the American literary language in his or her own way. He must virtually reinvent the Black vernacular by reclaiming it, by taking it out of the hands of rednecks and clueless minstrel rappers. This is not an easy task. Much of the so-called Black vernacular defines African-Americans in ways that are just as trite, just as stale and stereotyped, as that of the dominant American vocabulary. (Which is tantamount to saying that no true Afro-American language really exists!!) Furthermore, the Vernacular itself often comes off as sounding really hackneyed–the whole “whassup, nigga” thing is more than just played out. Enough should be enough: it’s time to step outside of the narrow confines of the American and Afro-American vocabularies and at last give a true account of what it means to be black and American in the world today.

The African or Arab writer, by contrast, has it easier: armed with his or her own language, he or she is already in an advantaged position over the poor native black writer: the Ghanaian-American or Nigerian-American–unlike the native black–already speaks a language that does not define him as a nigger. This is not to say that African or Arab writers don’t have their own hurdles to jump over. The Nigerian novelist, by and large, writes in English, not in Edo, Yoruba or Hausa, nor in any of the dozens of languages of Nigeria. The “Arab” writer, who in reality is an Egyptian, a Yemeni or a Moroccan, writes in a language that virtually no Arab speaks anywhere in the world. This is tantamount to saying that Egyptian literature, for example, doesn’t really exist…

African-American literature doesn’t really exist, either: when Amiri Baraka proclaimed “Negro Literature” to be a “myth” he was not necessarily hyperbolic. There are a few examples but by and large, African American literature has been deformed by the expectations and demands of American publishing editors, almost exclusively white, who think they know what “black” writing is supposed to be like. “Black” literature has been largely tailored to the expectations of a reading public that wishes to see what it wants to see of Black America, and the end result is that there is a distinct unreality about most Black writing, as it is for Latino, Asian and Native American writing. (For white writers, the problem is virtually the same, save that ethnicity and race are more or less out of the question. There is a 180-degree difference between Raymond Carver in book form and Raymond Carver on manuscript. “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” was not written by Carver; it was written by Gordon Lish. Carver merely handed in the manuscript.)*

*

Today, in place of Absurdism, we have polite writers (largely white and upper-middle-class) who–to be concise–are in the business of concealing more about life on this planet than revealing it. To genuinely reveal anything in literature one must be willing to face reality: our inner reality, our true feelings and passions as well as the sorry state of the world outside of ourselves, outside of our neighborhoods, outside of our cities. Reality is often unpleasant and unnerving; it all to often provokes feelings which make us, in some form or another, extremely uncomfortable. Contemporary Anglo-American literature functions in much the same way as cutesy-poo cat designs on the panties of Japanese schoolgirls: cheap kitsch to conceal the real.

American literature does not exist. Maybe it had existed in the past, but it does not now. In order for American literature to exist the point-of-view must change; the cultural referents must be considerably broadened to take in the Asian as well as the African, the Latino as well as the Native American, the Jewish as well as the Arab, and so on and so forth. Meaning that from now on the American writer, if he or she is to be a writer, must have a lot more on the ball than before. No more of that cozy provincialism of the past decades, slumming in one’s own ethnic ghetto writing only of Puerto Ricans or Jamaicans or Italians or Jews or Jordanians. And no more of that phony inclusion, writing of Puerto Ricans, or African Americans, or Jews, or Irish, or Armenians, as mere gaudy novelistic decoration to make the book “colorful.” A thorough grounding in the concerns and problems of each group is necessary before any real American literature is to be written, and as always, the viewpoint must be that of an outsider, one who has rejected the national fantasies.

*I will make more personal observations on Raymond Carver later.