Why should Gazans have to hide their identity in Egypt?

A sunset seen in Gaza City.

Sami Kishawi

It is difficult to be from the Gaza Strip, especially when you are in Egypt.

There’s a fair level of paranoia that the old Mubarak regime and the current military government have tapped into whenever they need to rally national support. Naturally, it happens at the great expense of Palestinians from Gaza who turn to Egypt as a safe and even friendly escape from the troubles of the occupation.

I hadn’t been aware of this problem until I arrived in Cairo this past summer. I was on my way to Gaza, alone this time because my mother and sister had managed to squeeze through Egypt’s border with Palestine two weeks before me.

With the Egyptian coup in full swing, my fate was up in the air. Would the Rafah border crossing be open? Would it be closed? Where will I go? What will I do?

The only reason panic didn’t set in was because I was given a clear set of instructions: Unless you are waiting at the border 230 miles away, stay in Cairo’s airport. Do not, under any circumstance, reveal that you are a Palestinian from Gaza.

Admittedly, I had no idea how hiding my identity could possibly protect me, especially since I’ve painted the internet with stories about my family background. But it had to be done. It’s what got me through customs in Cairo and it’s what let me wait without being harassed in the main lobby of the airport until it was safe for me to pass through the Sinai.

Blaming Gaza

Late one night after I had made it into the Gaza Strip, my uncle told me why it was important to “be someone else” whenever Egypt faced internal turbulence. One strategy employed repeatedly by the military, which is now in control of the Egyptian government, is to cast doubt over a rival regime’s capacity to run Egypt by painting it as a proxy to advance Palestinian demands at the expense of Egyptian safety and well-being.

Gasoline shortages in Egypt were blamed on Gaza’s “greedy thirst” for the fuel. Egypt’s deteriorating power grid was blamed on Gaza’s need for electricity to compensate for its daily power outages. Banditry in the Sinai was blamed on Gazans for traveling along that route.

Incitement against Palestinians, specifically those from Gaza, feeds into the fervor that accompanies Egypt’s turmoil. Hiding one’s identity is nothing more than a reflexive and self-sustaining measure.

As I sat next to my uncle, sipping tea with mint on the roof of a building in central Gaza City, we were joined by three other men who shared very similar concerns. I asked them for stories, and although they laughed about their experiences in hindsight, I knew they would never wish to be put in those situations again.

One man’s story began in a café on Fouad Street in Cairo two years ago. He was enjoying coffee with an Egyptian friend of his one afternoon when two police officers, armed with batons, weaved through the tables.

The man’s friend quickly told him to lose the accent. To the average non-native speaker, the man’s impression of the Egyptian dialect was impressive. But fearing he’d be caught, he switched to a more natural madani accent from Ramallah.

The officers greeted the two men but could not sustain a conversation. It was clear they were fishing for foreigners, but what for? They asked the man and his friend where they were from.

“Here, Cairo,” said the friend. “Ramallah, for business,” said the man, pointing back to his friend.

The officers gave them a nod and silently left the scene in that stereotypical way an investigator does when his work is finished. The café manager ushered the man and his friend out — “We don’t want trouble!” — and together they quickly took a taxi to a hotel where they waited all evening until the man from Gaza could arrange a trip back home.

My uncle frequently travels to Egypt for medical care. He carries a Palestinian passport that is too often rejected by whichever border enforcement officer is on duty at the time.

Unnaturally curious soldiers

When he’s lucky enough to get in, he feels he has to look over his shoulder until he finds himself within the safe walls of a hospital. Like the man who spoke before him, he’s had run-ins with Egyptian soldiers who seemed unnaturally curious about what he was doing outside of Gaza. In one instance, he recalls, he narrowly missed a beating after telling an enraged policeman that the reason he spoke with a dialectic “g” sound was because he was actually from Jordan.

Another man shared a similar story about a friend who was threatened by Egyptian soldiers that he’d be “thrown” to a “pack” of pro-regime demonstrators who had become fed up with Gaza’s alleged dependence on Egypt.

It was easier for me to hide my identity. I carry an American passport and my Arabic contains linguistic elements from every major Arab subpopulation in the city of Chicago.

When I said I was visiting Egypt as a tourist, the officer at the customs booth almost bought it. But then he looked at my last name, a fairly common one in the Gaza Strip, and made me wait. He radioed a command and consulted the officer next to him. All of the other lines seemed to move so fast now, and the man behind me impatiently breathing down my neck was doing nothing to ease my anxiety.

The officer kept asking what I was planning on doing. I told him that I had come to Egypt purely for vacation purposes now that I had graduated from school.

The Rafah border crossing had opened the previous day after being closed for almost two entire weeks since the coup. But I didn’t want him to know that I was aware of that.

So when he asked me to respond in Arabic, I pretended I didn’t know how. I was just a tourist.

Luckily, neither I nor my uncle had been the victim of any violence in Egypt as a result of our backgrounds. But not everyone is as lucky. In the weeks preceding this rooftop conversation, Palestinians from Gaza were being thrown into dingy holding cells underneath Cairo’s old airport as part of the military regime’s renewed policy to keep any and all Palestinians out.

My aunt, for example, was one of dozens of Muslim pilgrims from Gaza who performed umrah (pilgrimage) in Saudi Arabia just before the coup. She was due in Gaza about two weeks before I was due to arrive, but because of Egypt’s airlines policy, the flight she booked took off without her.

She was stranded in a foreign country with no direct line of support. Those who had managed to board planes were promptly thrown underground until they could afford a flight out. It was the most dehumanizing experience.

Invisible costumes

I was joined by my mother and sister when I left Gaza in July. We spent a few days biding our time in Cairo while avoiding any heated protests. Whenever we took a cab, we put on invisible costumes.

For one cab ride, we were Americans originating from Amman. In another, I was visiting from the West Bank.

In one instance, I mistakenly strayed from the script and revealed that I have family in Gaza. The cab driver mentioned how Gazans were largely responsible for Egypt’s turbulence. I connected eyes with my mother through the rear view mirror and knew that it was time for me to close my mouth.

Anti-Gazan incitement in Egypt exists. It is certainly not the most physical or bloody form of incitement the world has seen.

But that does not justify the discomfort many Palestinians from Gaza feel under the watchful eye of the Egyptian military. That does not justify the scattered beatings and the regular intimidation faced by Palestinians from Gaza by virtue of a few false rumors spread by politicians and corrupt police officers.

Egypt is, for so many, an opportunity to escape the strangulation of Israel’s siege on Gaza. It is supposed to be a friend in the region to a people who have faced dispossession for so many decades. Its people share many values and cultural norms and at different points in history were even governed by the same bodies.

There is nothing more shameful than coercing someone to hide his or her identity as if it is something to be ashamed of. But that is what is happening now and what has been happening for years.

Sami Kishawi is a graduate student at Loyola University Chicago. He runs the blog Sixteen Minutes to Palestine.