Dutch | Egyptian
I am a 23-year-old Egyptian-Dutch man who normally lives in the Netherlands but is currently living and studying in Berlin (Germany). My dad is from the city of Alexandria (Egypt) and my mum is from a small town just between Amsterdam and Utrecht (the Netherlands). My parents met in my mum’s small town when my dad was visiting the Netherlands for an athletics competition. An Egyptian friend of my dads who had been living in the Netherlands for a while acted as a translator between the two of them on their first encounters, after which they met up more frequently and visited each other’s home countries regularly before deciding to live together. I grew up between Egypt and the Netherlands. I have a large warm family in Egypt and many nice acquaintances, friends and family members in the Netherlands and have warm memories of both these countries.
In hindsight, I think I have always recognized that I was mixed-race. In Egypt, sometimes youngsters would stare at my out-of-place looking White mum in the supermarket, saying in Egyptian Arabic that there was a tourist in the shop (and intending to ask her for a higher price at the till), to which she would funnily respond in her most fluent and eloquent Arabic that she would love to know which tourist they were talking about—after which of course the young Egyptian men apologized generously. My Black dad on the other hand, is used to being pulled over by the police too frequently in the Netherlands whilst driving a nice car, ‘for regular check-ups’. I guess experiences like these have made me realize that I was a mix of both, that I would later reap the benefits of that but also bear the burden of responsibility, simply because of the fact that people of colour are usually classified and understood as representatives of a whole and rarely as individuals. I was brought up being taught to appreciate the beauty of old Dutch literature but would always have to sit down with my dad and discover the beauty in Um Khaltoum or Fairuz songs too. This mix has always been my ‘normal’. I can’t imagine a conversation with either one of my parents where I don’t mix Arabic and Dutch through one another—Dutch to get things done and Arabic to express emotion. It’s always been that way and I think it will remain that way too.
My parents managed to combine their ‘different’ cultures very well—in the sense that they have made my brother and me aware that all cultures are more alike than they are different: there is never a clear-cut dichotomy between the one and the other culture. They taught my brother and me that we should never treat and interpret culture or cultural practice as if it were a monolithic, static and all-encompassing phenomenon. Different people experience culture in different ways and benefit from certain practices in different ways. This realization has caused me to strongly believe that there are transcendent norms and values that constitute what it means to be an authentically good human being—such as treating others around you with respect and dignity, accepting others for whatever they are and being true to oneself. This whole notion of being of the one culture and therefore not of the other does not make any sense to me because of this, or because of my mere existence, perhaps. Okay, cultural practices might vary from one culture to the other. But that does not mean that cultures do not ‘infect’ each other: Germans and Dutch alike find and love kebab and halloumi places in every large city, and an avocado-squash toast with an oat milk-latté in Cairo costs 5 times as much as the local breakfast.
Yes—Egyptian culture is generally more sexist than Dutch culture, but that by no means that Dutch culture does not intrinsically suffer from the very same issues—they are just exercised differently. Yes, Dutch culture is generally more individualist than Egyptian culture, but that says nothing about contemporary trends towards the same social isolation in today’s Egypt, or about anti-colonial efforts that taught people the benefits of sticking together. Problematic phenomena should be dealt with adequately because of their evil roots, not because of their geographic location.
My parents learned each other’s languages from the get-go: my mum started learning (Egyptian) Arabic intensively, and my dad learned Dutch. Not (only) to understand each other’s cultures better, but perhaps more to express themselves as succinctly and effectively as possible, showing respect for one another. Both are now fluent in one another’s native tongues. My brother and I got taught to not consume pork (which is easy if you are a vegetarian in the first place) and to attend ‘Eid (the festivities after the fasting month of Ramadan) but we also decorate the Christmas tree and go to church on Christmas eve. We listen to Marco Borsato and to Um Khalthoum equally as much—because we realize that both are worth the same to us. We simply pick and do whatever we enjoy and find worth in—regardless of geographical place of production.
Like anyone who is a mixed-race or generally Non-White person living in Western Europe, I have experienced challenges in my life based around my ‘mixed identity’. What I would rather focus on, however, is the positive things that it has brought me. I believe that what we need to do with this project is inform, inspire and empower young (mixed-race) people and show them what a privilege it can sometimes be to not completely fit in. Being of mixed-race descent can put a little distance between you and mainstream society sometimes, leaving you to feel out of place, out of touch or simply alone. However: it is precisely that distance that allows you to critically examine what is going on, what powers are at play and figure out how and why you want to contribute to positive change. It allows you to cherry-pick whatever you find is positive in your various backgrounds and use all of that to enact positive change for yourself and others. In the Netherlands, people often interpret me as having a warm, sociable and approachable character, compared to others. In Egypt, people interpret me as being hard-working, determined and clever. I am not saying that these interpretations are free of their own problematics and power-inequalities, but for the time being, these are things that we can really use to our own advantage. I have noticed that when I write a professional or serious e-mail in Dutch, I used to try really hard to write as eloquently and mistake-free as possible—being aware of what judgement a spelling mistake in combination with my name would evoke in the reader. On the upside: this fear has forced me to learn perfect, mistake-free and eloquent Dutch, something that I still benefit from every day. I guess what I’m trying to say is that wherever you are from, whatever your ‘mix’ is, whatever challenges you face: try to make the best of what you’ve got to become the best you possible. Never let others define you. You are always worth and deserving of the work you put in yourself, no one else will do it for you.
Social environment always plays a part in how anyone choses friends and partners—this does not just count for mixed-race people. My race, or mix thereof, does not define me. It is not my entire identity, as identity is always and unconditionally intersectional. Whenever I encounter new people I try my best to realize more and more that people – no matter where they are from—are always more alike than that they are different.
It is quite inevitable that my being mixed-race has had and will continue to have an effect on my work/personal life. However, it is hard to identify one-on-one causation between the one and the other, because, as I have stated before, my racial identity is not my entire identity. I do think that being mixed-race is part of the explanation for my being determined, resilient and constructively critical when it comes to societal problematics, politics and dynamics change. My being mixed-race allows me the opportunity and privilege to be able to navigate in two places, talk to and build relationships of understanding with different people and perhaps understand more of the world than what would have otherwise been the case.
I believe that bias attitudes and stereotypes exist toward anyone and everyone. What I mean to say with this is that there are definitely societal trends of bias attitudes and stereotypes towards mixed-race people in the West, but that this demographic is certainly not free of carrying out bias attitudes itself either. ‘We’ need to realize that we are not only the victim, but also the aggressor, when it comes to doing harm to people. Examples include the grotesque rates of homo- and transphobia in our communities, the levels of domestic abuse and sexism, and the easy way out of blaming-the-other. Again, bias attitudes and stereotypes exist in everyone and they need to be tackled or dealt with at every societal stratum, regardless of the color of the perpetrator.
I can speak my native languages, amongst others. I do feel that this has affected me in a positive way, as it allows me to interact with many people on a personal level. It helps me build connections and recognition, has allowed me to work with (Syrian) refugees in the Netherlands and will hopefully help me in achieving my dreamed of career goals. Having learned (and still learning) to also write and learn Modern Standard Arabic over the past few years has also definitely aided me to regain a stronger appreciation for the beauty and complexity of the language. I no longer feel the need to whisper when I speak Arabic on the phone to my dad on public transport in the Netherlands anymore, as I now just choose to interpret people’s stares as jealousy. Arabic is a beautiful language with a rich history, and so is Dutch.
When asked what part of my culture I connect with the most and why, I always have to stop and think for a second. To me, that question signals that there would or should be a dichotomy between my different backgrounds, a dichotomy that I do not really intrinsically and naturally feel or experience. I am fully a Dutch citizen, but have an Egyptian background on accounts of my father. I simply carry a bit of both in my heritage, whether I want to or no, regardless of how other people wish to categorize me.
Again, I would like to re-emphasize the importance of the recognition of what we all have in common, rather than zoom in on our differences. All people, regardless of where they are or what culture they ascribe to, need safety, nurturing and seek fulfillment. For that reason, I connect most with values such as being nice for one another and helping other people reach their fullest potential whenever I can, rather than spending time and energy on trying and failing to determine which culture that connection most stems from. I find it very important to contribute constructively to the place (and bigger, nation-state) that I live in and belong to, which is why I aspire a political career in or for the Netherlands, taking a special interest and motivation to look at the protection of rights of people with a migratory background and refugees.
To the question ‘where are you from?’ I always first answer that I am of Egyptian-Dutch descent, to get that out of the way, and my second question is always asking ‘How is this important or relevant?’ Depending on who is asking me and how they ask me (yes—we are all very experienced in distinguishing between pure friendly curiosity and the unfriendly judgemental kind) I find it important to challenge the notion that my geo-cultural heritage says anything about me. Does it? If a white Dutch person asks me this question and I see the opportunity, I like to discuss how we imagine the Dutch nation to strictly only consist of White people, and how that dislocates me, as a Brown person, outside of that narrative and what that then means for my daily lived existence. People of colour, on the other hand, often tell me that my speech or my behaviour is ‘too White’—whatever that may mean. There are 7 billion different individuals in this world and these strict boxes are detrimental to every single one of them.
In today’s society, I experience being mixed race as a blessing and a curse at the same time. In Western Europe, or the Netherlands and Germany in particular, I realize that my Arab (or Middle Eastern, Brown) identity is becoming more and more politicized by the day. Any mixed-race person I know has a range of comical and less comical anecdotes about their life as a person with mixed race identity, such as the hair-dressers in my parent’s town structurally being shocked and not knowing what to do when I walk into their salon, asking to get my afro trimmed down a bit, forcing me into situations where I have to laugh as they once again ruin my haircut and blaming it on its ‘rare exoticism’, or that time when I was almost run over by a man in a car who (later told me that he) expected me to take a turn left on my bike to enter a high school that focusses solely on preparation for manual labour, whereas in fact I was headed straight ahead, to the high school that prepares one for university careers, or being denied a job as a cashier in the local supermarket because ‘I did not fit the profile’. However, being mixed race in today’s society also allows me the great opportunity to educate, spread a positive message and inform various people in attempts to create mutual understanding and solidarity. I feel it is my responsibility and duty to bridge the ever-widening gap between the West and the rest, but to simultaneously also work on internal structural problematics within these societal groups. I guess this is also the most important message that I want to pass on with this interview, is that young kids out there who are of mixed-race descent have this enormous and beautiful potential ahead of them. You are the key to change, and you always possess the agency to act upon that—no matter how hard it might seem. Be proud of who you are—patriotism is too important of a concept to leave to nationalists.