After six months in Africa and the Middle East, we’ve come to believe that the greatest gift we can give to strangers is acceptance.
No, not “love”. It’s not that love is too high a target. It’s wonderful. It’s just that in most cases, love is too active.
By “acceptance”, what we mean is the gift of allowing someone to blend in. To see someone walking by and — beyond social pleasantries — to not even notice. To assume that everyone is exactly like everyone else, and exactly like us.
After half a year (most recently) of living in places where people immediately recognise us as different, acceptance is what we most crave.
And this was brought into sharp contrast the when we arrived in Europe, for work in between stints in difficult places. Because from the moment we landed, nobody noticed that I look Middle Eastern, nobody made any comment on Jo being Asian and female, and everyone spoke to us in Spanish, and left us alone.
But not everyone is lucky enough to have somewhere where they can disappear.
Being the skin you’re in
In East Africa, nearly every interaction reminded us that we didn’t belong.
People on the Swahili coast greeted us with “Jambo!”, a simplified greeting reserved for little children or foreigners. Or in many cases with just “Hello!”
Often, people (usually children) just yell “Mzungu!” (meaning “foreign white person”) to get our attention. Or at Jo: “Mchina!”, simultaneously raising her heckles at being recognised as foreign, Asian, and the wrong ethnicity.
Even if we greeted people with a colloquial Swahili greeting, around a quarter of the time people responded in English. Sometimes a conversation went for a while, each side speaking a different language, before a Swahili speaker felt comfortable responding in Swahili.
It takes a special effort, we’re told, for East Africans to think of us as people who “look like” we speak Swahili, even if we do. Because, as one Kenyan friend told us, “with other Africans, we speak Swahili. With foreigners, we speak English.”
In Egypt, we felt alien before a word was spoken.
People in the suburbs of Cairo just stared at us. Before going, I thought that my bushy eyebrows and olive skin would mean that I would look like I would belong. Not so. Everything about me was subtly wrong, from my clothes, to my gait, to the way I was walking closely beside Jo, to — of course — my accent and language level in Arabic.
Being stared at makes us crave places where nobody gives a damn who we are or what we’re doing. Places like LA, Melbourne, or Tel Aviv. To a degree, this means any big, wealthy, cosmopolitan city — we get fewer stares in places like Madrid, Tokyo, or even Nairobi. We fit in there partly because people are from everywhere there (Nairobi, Madrid), and partly because life there is generally comfortable, so people don’t feel as threatened (Madrid, Tokyo).
But being stared at also reminds us of how lucky we are.
We feel lucky to have the choice to go somewhere and disappear. Because this isn’t an option for people who belong to a conspicuous group, like if you’re black, queer, the wrong religion, female, or some combination of the above.
Across the Middle East and Africa we have heard of a variety struggles that people of different religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality, and we’re sure this is just scratching the surface.
Being a woman
Being a woman almost anywhere in the world merits its own article, or series of articles, books, and websites. Women suffer relative to men almost everywhere in the world in some ways.
But we saw a few things in the Middle East and East Africa that reminded us just how lucky women can be in the West (or East Asia) to be able to walk relatively freely, in clothing of their choice.
In the Middle East, women are expected to cover themselves. This isn’t something expected of foreigners, or even of non-Muslims. But life’s easier if you do, so some non-Muslims do. Covering arms, shoulders, and legs is compulsory (or all but) for everyone in most parts of the Middle East.
Covering hair ranges from mandatory (Saudi Arabia) to optional (Egypt), but if you don’t cover your hair, your hair will be looked at. Or, sometimes, unexpectedly touched (by children, mercifully).
Foreign women, like Jo, get harassed in many countries when not walking with a man. They tell Jo “I love you”, or follow her and insist on talking to her, or creepily invite her over, or make that hilarious joke of asking “how many camels” (or cows, or whatever is of value).
Harassment is exhausting for Jo, to the point where she didn’t want to go outside alone. It’s frustrating for me, because I know it’s the 2-5% of men who are making it difficult for all women to lead a normal life, and giving most other men a bad name. C’mon, creepy men. What’s wrong with you all? You’re ruining our world.
In many Middle Eastern countries, women need permission from men for many things — especially anything involving children. A woman with an Egyptian husband can’t leave Egypt with her children without explicit consent (usually written permission) from her husband. It doesn’t matter if the woman is Egyptian or foreign. It means many women trapped in situations of abuse don’t have choice of running away — unless they leave their children behind.
One Kenyan woman with a European husband told us what nightmare it was travelling via the Middle East. Her children have her husband’s last name, which causes no issues in Kenya. But on layovers in the Middle East on the way to Europe, she gets harassed. “Whose children are these? Do you have a letter from your husband permitting you to travel?” She can’t help but think it’s partly because she’s black. Being a black woman in Europe, she told us, was tough.
Having a different religion
Religion, unsurprisingly, is a common source of conflict.
We landed in East Africa in Zanzibar, during the month of Ramadan. The island of Zanzibar is part of Tanzania, a multicultural country, and so there is no “official” national religion. But Zanzibar is 98% Muslim and so the local Islamic clergy have a lot of influence on local culture.
This meant that life is tough for the 2% who don’t identify as Muslim in Zanzibar (excluding tourists of course). Muslims often opt for certain styles of dress in Zanzibar and on the Swahili coast. Women wear shawls, and men often opt for a traditional kofia hat and a kanzu single-piece garment, especially on Friday. So you know who isn’t Muslim almost immediately just by looking at them.
If you’re not a Muslim in Zanzibar, it’s fine, but… you live by other people’s rules. “If you eat in public during Ramadan,” one Christian man (who had moved from Tanzania’s Mainland) told us, “they might beat you.”
Since we don’t identify strongly either way, we had no problem adopting Muslim expressions, like saying salaam aleikum as a greeting, or using shukran as a thank-you. But to do so when you identify as Christian feels disingenuous, we’ve been told. So basically, being a Christian in Zanzibar means walking around constantly saying “Hello! Look and listen to me! I’m not like nearly all of you!!”
Luckily cases of outright persecution or violence are rare in Zanzibar (though they do happen).
Egypt’s constitution recognises the right to worship for people of “heavenly religions”, which means “Abrahamic”: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Statistically, it’s the former two. The Jewish community is small in Egypt (there’s literally less than 20 residents), with Muslims and Christians making up roughly 90% and 10% of the population respectively.
If you’re a Coptic Christian in Egypt, you basically live the same life as most Muslims — but you trade mosques for churches. “We’re Christians living with Muslim culture,” one friend told us. This means Copts have similar social rules about dating, marriage, alcohol, and work. It makes people feel ill at ease.
As some Coptic friends showed us around of the famous mosques in Cairo, he volunteered: “I don’t like mosques. I don’t feel welcome here.” There was nothing overt in anyone’s behaviour that welcomed him any more or less than anyone else. The feeling was just a manifestation of a lifetime of feeling vaguely unwelcome in many situations.
But even he had it lucky, compared to some. Life already is rough if you’re a Copt in Egypt. If you’re anything else — Atheist, Baha’i, Shia Muslim, or many other things — with official declarations that you are not allowed to enrol in school or indeed exist as a person, it gets a lot worse.
Dating someone different
Relationships between cultures and religions are, of course, way more complicated.
One Kenyan non-Muslim friend told us of having to break up with his Muslim girlfriend. After years of trying, “her family just wouldn’t accept it”, he said. This is a common theme around East Africa, as Muslims and different Christian groups exist in fairly equal numbers in Kenya and Tanzania. Even though people mingle freely, relationships between religions face a lot of friction from family and social groups.
In Egypt, it was even tougher for couples from different religious backgrounds. Couples from Coptic Christian and Muslim backgrounds meet in school. If they even succeed at getting married — many registrars will arbitrarily refuse to process an application — they risk being disowned by their families.
In East Africa many people even warn against hidden risk in “inter-racial” relationships — meaning, surprisingly to us, between different tribes. “We all claim to have done away with retrogressive cultures and the ethnic bias but these always crop in after you have settled down,” one Redditor warned. “You begin to fight over issues like how to name your kids, about some traditions, where to buy land, where to settle etc.”
Things are even more complicated in most parts of the world if you don’t identify as straight, starting with something as simple as being gay — many non-Western countries have so far to go before they start dealing with a spectrum of identities.
Gay people in East Africa spend their lives hiding — and sometimes running.
In Kenya and Tanzania, being gay (described in penal codes as acts of sexuality with men “against the order of nature”) is still a crime that can punishable by imprisonment.
It gets worse than just “illegal” in Tanzania, where Dar es Salaam’s administrative lead organized an active crackdown against gay people from mid 2019. One anonymous activist said: “They are raiding houses. It is a horrible thing. It is just going to get worse. So many people are leaving the city, running away. They are targeting the activists, saying we are promoting homosexuality. We have to hide.”
In Zanzibar, we met a friend who is making a documentary about the women’s soccer team there, the majority of whose members are gay. Zanzibar is culturally very conservative — more so than most of East Africa.
Being gay and female is particularly difficult in Zanzibar, so the soccer team has become a refuge of sorts for members of that small community on that small island. Unfortunately, life is getting harder for members of the team, as the crackdown team has begun extending its mandate to surrounding areas. And there aren’t many other places on that island to go.
In Egypt, anything other than traditional relationships between men and women is de facto illegal. In a society where 95% of the general population believes homosexuality shouldn’t be accepted, it’s easy to arrest, persecute, and have beaten people for waving a flag at a concert. From my perspective, they’re actively not even dignifying LGBTQ rights with a name, and just calling it “debauchery”.
I just want to take everyone to an extremely LGBTQ-friendly city like San Francisco, Tel Aviv, or Berlin, and watch their minds explode at the idea of just being themselves with nothing to hide.
Isn’t that what we all deserve?
Being black (outside Africa)
Being black everywhere but in Africa is hard.
In the US, “driving while black” in some parts of the country means you’re twice as likely (based on the same behaviours in the general population) to be pulled over. Black parents have to have an overt conversation with their kids, when they come of age, about the life-and-death risk of interacting with police. It is called “the talk“.
White people are known to cross the street to avoid black people who are “walking while black“.
And “shopping while black” means black people assume they’re being watched, and probably judged. “Name a store, any store, from Fifth Avenue to Main Street, and I’ll bet that I can find a black person who has experienced discrimination there.” wrote Cassi Pittman Claytor in that piece.
In China, as I wrote recently, black people get a lot more scrutiny than other foreigners. If you’re black and travel in China, you can expect people in the public (not educated professionals, in case you’re there for work) to stare in wonder, touch your hair and skin, ask to be photographed with you, and ask insensitive questions.
Many visitors to China initially take this as an opportunity to educate, but it gets exhausting. You can also, unfortunately, expect to be questioned more by border security and hotel staff, and have taxis cancel your ride requests.
Even on the continent of Africa, black Africans face prejudice. There are some epithets we came across in Egypt against black people. It’s not even just migrants (many from South Sudan) that make up the black population in Egypt; many are Nubians, native to the country, and they’re sometimes taunted, even in big cities.
I wouldn’t go anywhere near as far as saying “Egyptians are bad”, as the young girl in that article says, because nobody I met and made friends with was anything like that. But it happens often enough — which doesn’t have to be that often — to make black people feel unwelcome.
None of the above is to say that we can understand it; we’re just saying we know it exists, and that it’s hard, and we’re conscious of it happening. The effect of knowing is to make us reflect. When I see someone I think is dangerous, I think: why do I think that? Is there any physical evidence, or is it bias inside? And if it is bias, I try to override it. So far, nothing has happened. (And any dangerous situations I’ve been in have been totally unexpected.)
How to be accepting
All of these are just examples of the way we’re either constantly watched, or are watching others.
The lesson we’ve learned is to try to accept people. Don’t judge. Try to overcome biases constantly. It’s easier said than done, but we try.
Feeling unaccepted ourselves gives us pause. If we feel just a little lack of acceptance in our lives, then we have to assume that others suffer from much more. In the West, while we don’t often suffer from outright racism, we do face enough micro-aggressions to realise it must be more difficult for many others.
When we think of how to be accepting, we are conscious that judging others stems from our own insecurities, from which we all suffer. When we judge others, it’s because we judge ourselves, and feel the judgment of others. So, it seems the first step to stop judging others is to be happy with ourselves.
But short of that lofty goal of being at peace with ourselves — a lifelong journey — we’ll start by manifesting some of the outward signs by not judging others and remembering to be accepting. Maybe it will trickle inward.