CAIRO: I was talking to a friend the other week in my painful Arabic when a woman tapped me on the shoulder.
“Excuse me, she said. “My sister doesn’t believe that you’re Egyptian but I think you are and I was wondering if you could show us your national ID card.
I produced it and the woman and her sister examined my odd-sounding name carefully before flipping it over to check my religious denomination.
They then returned it to me, looking more bemused than ever.
I sweated blood to obtain my Egyptian nationality when a law was passed in 2004 allowing, for the first time, the children of Egyptian mothers and foreign fathers to become Egyptian citizens. The year-long application process was in itself a crash-course in dealing with Egyptian state institutions for the uninitiated new citizen – and thus good preparation for the mystifying world of government bureaucracy.
It involved hours of queuing, the production of endless documents and a positively Orwellian moment in a chaotic government office in Abaseyya when a woman told me that no, the nationality certificate I had been given in order to apply for a national ID card was not enough to establish my identity and I would have to bring an auntie to attest that I am in fact, me.
That the nationality certificate bore my name and photograph and was government-stamped was immaterial.
I applied for Egyptian nationality because the 2004 law corrected what many regarded as an inexcusable and illogical injustice. Patriarchal attitudes enshrined in nationality laws meant that Egyptian fathers married to foreigners could confer their nationality on their children while Egyptian mothers in mixed marriages could not.
I am now equipped with an ID card and a green passport but they have done little to assuage the feelings of being if not an outsider, than perhaps the slightly-odd distant cousin who is warmly-received in their relatives’ home – but watched in case any of the cutlery is stolen.
I spoke to other ‘halfies’ in a quest to discover whether, as a half-Egyptian, my feeling that there is a fine line between a split-heritage and a split-personality is universal, how they have reconciled their dual cultures, and where Egypt fits in all this.
Always a foreigner, never a foreigner
Mona, daughter of an Irish mother and Egyptian father, responded with this question when I asked her where she felt she was from: “What is the definition of half-Irish half-Egyptian?
“Even my siblings have a different definition, she added. “My older brother is automatically more Egyptian and my younger brother is automatically more foreign by virtue of the relative amount of time they have spent in Egypt.
Everyone’s identity is, of course, subjective, context-dependent and changeable.
In his book “On Identity, Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf refutes the idea that identity is fixed, suggesting that it “isn’t given once and for all; it is built up and changes throughout a person’s lifetime.
Maalouf’s thesis seems particularly apposite in the case of the half-Egyptians I spoke to. The self-descriptions of many of them are dictated by a host of factors including who’s asking and where they are when asked.
Amira Galal, daughter of a British mother, said, “In the UK, I will say that I’m from Egypt, and in Egypt I will say the UK; I never really learned how not to be a foreigner.
Adam, who also has a British mother, said it depends entirely on who is asking him.
“If I am asked by a British person in the UK, I answer ‘Liverpool.’ I think I also get a degree of perverse satisfaction out of giving this inadequate answer to people who clearly want to know but are too embarrassed to ask why I’m browner than other Scousers, he explained.
He added, “If I am asked by an Egyptian or an Arab in the UK I will explain that I am half-Egyptian and from Liverpool. If I am asked in Lebanon, I answer that I am Egyptian living in England, or British of Egyptian origin.
Half-Brazilian Yara Souza’s response, however, is time-dependent. “If it’s a really quick encounter, then I say ‘Egyptian.’ If I know I’ll see the person again or have a relationship with them, I’ll say ‘half Egyptian, half Brazilian.’
“I guess it depends on how much time I have to reveal details, she added.
Vertical vs. horizontal
When I asked them whether they considered themselves Egyptian or their other parent’s nationality, a frequent response was neither.
Rehaam Romero, who has a Mexican father, said she doesn’t consider herself “anything in particular.
Amira expressed similar feelings. “I don’t really consider myself to be of any nationality and I don’t really consider anywhere to be home. I moved around so much as a child and teenager that it was difficult to identify with any particular place.
While Nadia Idle, the daughter of a British father, describes herself as half-Egyptian half-British, she suggests that having origins in two places makes it difficult to confess unique loyalty to either.
“By default of who you are – particularly if your parents are from different continents and you have experiences in both places – it becomes impossible to blindly adhere to exclusive categorizations of tribe, religion [and] values, because your very existence proves the contrary, she said.
“Not realizing this creates serious identity crises, which sadly affects many halfies. Many become very fundamentalist in their religious, cultural or national identity because they are unable to come to terms with the fact that they will never fully belong anywhere, see the advantages in that, and move on, she added.
Maalouf posits that everyone has two heritages; a vertical one drawn from our forebears and a horizontal one created by our peers and surroundings.
He believes that we identify with our vertical heritage the most.
Does this apply to people of dual heritage, constantly having to negotiate their two ‘vertical’ cultures?
The experience of one woman I spoke to, (who requested that she remain anonymous) who has a Polish mother and was brought up in Poland until the age of 19, would suggest that it does not.
“Some time in my late 20s I made a conscious decision not to make a big deal out of [being a halfie]. Now I live in Egypt – my home, my work, my life, is here. This is where I am now and I live with it. If I change my location, I’ll take the same values elsewhere and live elsewhere. This way I belong to a ‘place’ which gives me home, work and stability – but I don’t belong to one particular culture.
Adam suggests that a halfie’s adherence – or loyalty – to vertical heritage may in part be influenced by his surroundings.
“Clearly I feel at home in the UK in a way I do not in Egypt, because I have no equivalent linguistic or cultural barriers in the UK to the ones I have in Egypt, he explained.
“On the other hand, I am not white-skinned or Christian, I have an Arabic surname, [and] I don’t drink. So, I will never truly overcome (nor do I necessary want to completely overcome) the sense of being ‘other’.
Adam explains that practicing or acting out one’s identity – or identities – in different social situations is also questionable. “Am I not drinking because I respect Allah, or is it because I respect my father’s wishes? Or is it more to do with a feeling of responsibility that if I don’t show Islam some respect as its (sort of) representative, why should British people?
Hala, whose two sons (both under 14) have an American father, says that she has had to compensate for the pervasiveness of US culture.
“I worked very hard to present Egypt in a positive manner, she said. “They got their American half without even trying. They’ve never lived in the States, yet they are so American because it’s all around us. Maybe they don’t realize it as much now, but I know that they are caught between the two worlds.
How Egyptians view halfies
One of the few representations of half-Egyptians in literature is Leila, or Li-Li, the title character of Egyptian writer Youssef Idriss’ story. The daughter of a deceased British soldier and an Egyptian mother, Li
-Li is the arch-temptress who lures the Imam away from prayers with her “eyes like electric sparks flashing from pole to pole, now Saxon now Egyptian.
While stridently independent, Li-Li is objectified as a result of her dual heritage. “The European is an enticing character, much more so when the heady wine of Egyptian blood runs through her veins.
For her Egyptian peers, she was both an Egyptian and foreigner. “They bowed to the fact that she belonged to no one, and since she belonged to no one she belonged to them all.
Despite having changed religion and language three times in the course of its history, contemporary Egyptian society is highly-homogeneous and conformist. People who don’t ‘look’ Egyptian are easily identifiable and often judged according to a separate set of rules for foreigners. Even Egyptians who don’t conform to rigid social norms determined by gender and class are judged adversely. Where do halfies fit in all this?
Sherin, who has a Finnish mother, was brought up in Egypt, speaks fluent Arabic and ‘looks’ Egyptian. But this didn’t help her in fitting in.
“An Egyptian who acts ‘foreign’ is accused of being a fake while a halfie who does so is accused of rejecting his Egyptian side. Ever since people began telling me that I’m not Egyptian enough I do the complete opposite of what is expected, she said.
“Ultimately I can’t say I’m Egyptian because people say I’m weird. There are too many things that I don’t relate to. I don’t fit into the mould.
Predictably, language, which Maalouf describes as “the mainspring of cultural identity, seems to be the password which grants access to the kingdom. The experience of the halfies I spoke to demonstrates that those who speak Arabic with a degree of fluency are more readily accepted as Egyptians than those who do not.
“Egyptians regard me as an Egyptian because I speak the language and have been here for so long, said Rehaam. “Sometimes my name [Romero] is an issue if I have to write it in a document or apply for something, but that’s rare as well.
Nadia, who was brought up in Egypt and speaks Arabic fluently, has discovered that attitudes vary.
“It depends on the Egyptian. I mean no one except other halfies fully understood what it felt like, or meant [to be a halfie]. And in my experience, people who don’t have non-Arabs as friends or family tend to be super exclusive in their thinking, which is pretty typical of Egyptians anyway. They tend to go ‘but really, do you feel more English or more Egyptian?’ As if you can answer that. I pass for Egyptian, so I haven’t had any major problems due to appearance, but many of my friends have and it has caused them serious issues.
Yet, alienation is increasingly becoming a complaint of ‘fully’ Egyptians suffering from dire economic circumstances (driving them to make perilous crossing to Europe); those who have experienced humiliation at a police station or a demonstration; and those who can’t belong to a country they feel hasn’t provided them with adequate state services.
Even those who immigrated, and are now the parents of ‘halfies,’ experience this sense of alienation – in some cases more than halfies themselves.
Adam says that it is his father, rather than him, who feels most at sea. “Being partly of another country, culture or religion is simply one more way of being different from everybody else. The one who experiences ‘neither here nor there’ feelings is my father, the immigrant, who can never feel fully British even after 36 years, and for whom Egypt has changed beyond recognition, Adam said.
Not red or yellow, but orange
It will perhaps be another generation before Egypt shakes off its tendencies towards insularity, and suspicion of the other, and half-Egyptians enjoy equal rights with other Egyptian citizens. At the moment the law prevents them from serving in the army or becoming members of the judiciary, for example.
Puzzled reactions to the odd-sounding, foreign surnames of the children of Egyptian mothers demonstrate that Egyptian society has yet to rid itself of patriarchal notions of identity inheritance and accept that its foreign-looking, foreign-named children have as much a claim to the country that they love as their ‘pure’ Egyptian peers – if indeed such a person exists in Egypt with its thousands of years of cultural intermingling.
But official acknowledgement of the right of the children of all Egyptians to citizenship simply adds another layer to the richness – or complexity – of mixed identity which is perhaps beyond categorization. As Nadia says, “When you mix red and yellow, do you get half red, half yellow?
“No, you get orange, which is something else entirely.