The police: fear and racism

I grew up in the 1990s, and was unlucky to have my school located just next to a police station. I was brought up in Ein Shams neighborhood — an “Islamist hotspot.”  Passing by the police station on my way to school every morning, I saw women in black abayas sitting next to the station, begging the officers to allow in the food they had brought for their detained relatives. And they were often bombarded with the nastiest swear words in Egyptian slang. The scene of the law enforcers’ humiliation of the detained — whether convicted criminals or not — and their families have stayed with me. My fear of the police was groomed by the image of a person being cuffed and dragged to the police station, while being beaten and insulted by the officers in front of their family and the whole street.

It is an image that threatened my own dignity.

I still remember when a policeman was killed by an lslamist one day, and how the whole neighborhood was on red alert, to the extent that the police occupied our school. You can imagine the fear that the sight of police forces’ deploying in a school would instill in a child. From that moment on, the police no longer gave me a sense of security; on the contrary, it was a threat, at least on the emotional level. I did not understand the politics of that incident; I was just left with a feeling that my school had been violated.

That feeling was repeated, when ousted President Hosni Mubarak inaugurated the military hospital next to my school. Police forces were once again deployed in the school. I was at primary school at the time and I cannot recall the exact dates of these incidents, but I remember our fear of those forces in black uniforms.

Growing up, I witnessed police officers taking bribes from microbus drivers, and humiliating the sellers at the vegetables’ market in Mutturia. I was, and still am, particularly agitated by the quotidian scene of a police officer seizing or ruining the produce of those who have carried their goods all the way from their village to sell it at the market. I always felt that this scene was the perfect exhibit of injustice.

But my resentment of law enforcers followed me even outside Egypt. I still remember when I was studying in Malta in 2006-2007. I went to the migration office to renew my residency one day, and I was shocked when I entered the office to find that the applicants had to stand in racially segregated queues: one for white people and one for blacks.  I usually seem like a strong woman, but I have to admit that I just get a horrible panic attack in these places that embrace racial segregation.

I remember my dear Turkish roommate, when she was trying to cheer me up. She laughed and said, “You are that afraid, and you are a human rights advocate, how are you able to help people if you are afraid?” I tried to collect myself as I faced the racist questions of the Maltese policewoman, who was astonished that I could speak English and that I was in graduate school. She saw me as a black woman coming from a jungle.

I had a hard time renewing my residency, which affected my case getting a Schengen Visa to complete my second term in Belgium. All the class got their visas but it was obvious that mine got obstructed for racist reasons. My Maltese friends offered to write a letter to the police commissioner, and apparently that worked, and my visa was finally renewed. I would like to believe that democratic tools sometimes work in favor of the oppressed.

The next bad memory was in Morocco in 2008. I must have looked like a typical West African woman, so the Moroccan policewoman asked me if I spoke Arabic. She asked me this as she was holding my Egyptian passport in her hand. I did not reply and gave her a sarcastic look that she apparently did not like. She pulled my hair from underneath the hijab that I used to wear. And I just kept looking at her, now with rage. I felt like I didn’t even want to fight, because she was too arrogant and stupid to even be addressed. So I proceeded to my gate.

And in the United States in 2010, I felt like I was a human bomb: Black, veiled, from the Middle East and with a typical Muslim name. I hated that I was forced to pass through the screening machines several times — and I was on a trip sponsored by the State Department. We had two pregnant women in the group, and at one point we had to object as we became concerned about the radiation they were being subjected to. Our objection worked in some airports that we passed by in the course of our trip, but in high security airports, we all had to get our share of radiation.

The most humiliating experience was in the US in 2011. I was unlucky because when I left the US in 2010, my departure —for one reason or another — was not registered in the system, so in 2011, they thought that I had overstayed. Consequently, I spent over three hours in the immigration office, where I lived a scene from a Hollywood movie: big cops yelling at “illegal immigrants” from Latin America, who do not speak English and the translator is overwhelmed. All the nightmarish scenarios came to my mind: Is my name similar to that of a wanted person? Is there something wrong with my visa?  And I was very scared. I was thinking that I had a long night ahead of me before my sponsors go to their office in the morning and discover that they are missing a participant. But I was lucky enough this time around to be questioned by a rather decent policewoman.

I have lived through many such episodes where my color, race, gender, origin and religion were causes for harassing and stereotyping me. And ironically, I have felt the most threatened in such incidents when I was in the company of law enforcers, within and outside of the Egyptian borders.

But for obvious reasons, my anger towards the Egyptian police is the greatest. I feel uneasy every time I walk around downtown Cairo, since the authorities have turned it into a barricaded zone. I have the same feeling every time I pass by Al-Azhar University campus, which witnessed clashes between the police and Islamist students, on my way home. And my childhood fear of the police comes back every time I see a policeman stop a delivery guy to check his goods.

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Fatma Emam Sakory