- Black Egyptians sue and demand album be banned
- Row casts fresh light on racism in the region
-Taken from 'The Guardian'
-Cairo - November 2009
One of the Arab world's biggest pop stars has provoked a torrent of outrage after releasing a song which refers to black Egyptians as monkeys.
Haifa Wehbe, an award-winning Lebanese diva who has been voted one of the world's most beautiful people, is now facing a lawsuit from Egyptian Nubians claiming the song has fuelled discrimination against them and made some Nubian children too afraid to attend school.
The row has cast fresh light on the position within Egyptian society of Nubians, who are descended from one of Africa's most ancient black civilisations and yet often face marginalisation in modern Egypt.
Wehbe, a 35-year-old model turned actress and singer, is widely regarded as the Middle East's most prominent sex symbol and has been no stranger to controversy in the past. Her skimpy outfits and provocative lyrics (one previous hit was entitled Ya Ibn El Halal, roughly translated as Hey, Good Little Muslim Boy) have earned her the wrath of religious conservatives and forays into the political arena have also sparked debate, including her very public praise for Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah during the 2006 conflict between Israel and Lebanon.
The latest accusations of racism came after the release of her new song, Where is Daddy?, in which a child sings to Wehbe, "Where is my teddy bear and the Nubian monkey?".
Wehbe has since apologised profusely for the offending lyrics, insisting they were penned by an Egyptian songwriter who told her that "Nubian monkey" was an innocent term for a popular children's game. That hasn't stopped a group of Nubian lawyers submitting an official complaint to Egypt's public prosecutor and calling for the song to be banned.
"Everyone is upset," said Sayed Maharous, 49, the Nubian owner of a coffee shop in Cairo. Adul Raouf Mohammed, who runs a nearby store, agreed. "To compare a human being to an animal is insulting in any culture. She has denigrated an entire community of people, and now some of our children are afraid to go into school because they know they will be called monkeys in the playground."
The row over Wehbe's song has highlighted a growing sense of communal identity among Nubians in Egypt, a country where the government has traditionally promoted a very monolithic brand of nationalism, sometimes to the exclusion of religious or ethnic minorities.
Despite breaking through into the cultural mainstream – several Nubian novelists are well-regarded within Egyptian intellectual circles and Nubian singers such as Mohammed Mounir are among the most popular in the country – Egypt's estimated two million Nubians remain largely invisible on television and film, except as lampooned stereotypes.
“I think what’s interesting about the Haifa Wehbe case is the reaction of the Nubian activists,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah, the Director of History and Social Studies at the Al-Ahram Centre in Cairo. “There is a new spirit and mobilisation of Nubians as an ethnically and culturally important group within Egyptian society which wasn’t present ten or twenty years ago.” One of the biggest issues around which Nubians have rallied is the plight of thousands of Nubian families who were forcibly relocated from villages close the southern city of Aswan to make way for the Aswan Dam back in the 1960s, one of the biggest engineering projects on Earth.
Construction work on the dam destroyed much of the historic region of Nubia, which also includes parts of northern Sudan, and many Nubians claim that government promises regarding re-housing and compensation have still not been met.
Outspoken Nubian rights activists such as Haggag Adoul have argued that official antipathy towards Nubians stems from racist attitudes running deep through all Egyptian social classes and which demonises many dark-skinned communities, including Sudanese and East African refugees. But few Nubians report experiencing any overt hostility on the streets of urban centres like Cairo and Alexandria where many now are now based, and Abdel Fattah believes the explanation lies elsewhere.
“I don’t think it’s racism that’s the problem,” he argued. “Yes, there are no Nubian TV presenters, but this is due to our history of colonial rule under the Ottomans, which established light skin as a model for beauty. The same with the dam resettlement programme; the issue here is Egypt’s political decay as a whole, not a specific attack on the Nubians.”
The question of whether Egypt’s Nubians are marginalised because of their skin colour, or whether, as Abdel Fattah suggests, they are merely victims of the general political malaise afflicting the whole of Egypt looks likely to be raised again over the controversial construction of a new luxury hotel complex in Aswan by the tourism tycoon Mansour Amer. Opponents of the plan claim that the project will cause significant social and environmental damage to the surrounding Nubian area, and argue that it is yet another symbol of the unhealthy ties between the political and business elite that have developed under the unpopular regime of President Hosni Mubarak.
Nubian singer Mohamed Mounir has reportedly promised to “pull the rocks off the Great Pyramid” if government approval for Amer’s ‘Porto Aswan’ plan goes ahead.