Egypt is in Africa
20 October 2020
Where is Egypt?
Institutions working in the field of arts and culture often use geography as a criteria for artists. In what regions do these institutions locate Egypt? What communities are imagined for us as a consequence? I'm interested in thinking about the impact of tying artists to territory—and of tying territories to each other.
Egypt is in Africa
Egypt is transcontinental, which means the territory of this nation-state lies on two continents.
Most of Egypt is located on the northeast corner of the African continent. While the Sinai peninsula is located in the southwestern region of the Asian continent, I've never seen Egypt described as an Asian country in eligibility criteria.
For thousands of years, Egypt's strategic position has influenced its relations to other countries on the African continent. During the national liberation movements of the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt's ties to the continent were strong, as African countries supported each other in their movements to gain independence from European colonizers. However, in the 1970s, factors including war with Israel led to a shift in the Egyptian state's foreign focus, toward other countries in the Arab region, Europe, and the United States. Since then, Egypt's formal relationship with other African countries has weakened.
You'll find a lot of opportunities that use Africa as an eligibility criteria posted on this site.
Often, these open calls address those living on the continent as well as artists in diaspora. This could be meant to address the consequences of the transatlantic slave trade, during which Europeans, Americans, and their allies forcibly displaced more than ten million Africans from the continent. But it also includes more recent diasporas, like the millions of Egyptian citizens who now live all over the world. In effect, it unifies all people of African descent in one community (pan-Africanism).
Egypt is in North Africa
The African continent is frequently divided into two regions. The nebulous border between them is said to have been marked by nineteenth-century European explorers who followed established nomadic routes in the Sahara and the Sahel. National territories located in the area known as the African Transition Zone are still contested. For instance, the Zone cuts through the center of Sudan.
North Africa refers to the area north of this invented boundary. Most commonly, the region includes the countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Sudan. Other definitions include Mauritania, exclude Egypt or Sudan, and/or restrict North Africa to Libya and the countries of the Maghreb. Some of these definitions are designed to resist including a single country in more than one region.
The group of remaining countries on the continent is generally referred to as “sub-Saharan Africa,” a term that has been highly criticized. Scholar Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe writes, “the concept 'sub-Sahara Africa' is absurd, misleading, if not a meaningless classificatory schema. Its use defies the science of the fundamentals of geography but prioritises hackneyed, stereotypical, racist labelling.”
The splitting of Africa into sub-Saharan and North Africa attempts to divide the continent along racial lines, according to a binary. It tries to divide black from non-black, to divide Arab from African. It tries to deny the possibility for a person to embody both Arab and African identities. It tries to make Black Arabs invisible.
As a result, many people on the continent find their different identifications in conflict with each other, as in the case of Sudan. Historically, the country's colonizers tried to stamp out the multiplicity of Sudanese identity through civil boundaries and administrative practices. After independence, the regime in power in Khartoum tried to impose singular Arab and Islamic identity on Sudan's multi-ethnic, multi-religious people.
As many Egyptians like to vocally recall, Egypt and Sudan were once united. During their control of the area, British occupiers set the first political boundary between the two countries, and revised it several times. The boundary lies in an area known as the Halayeb Triangle, south of Aswan. In 2010, now deposed Bashir of Sudan said, “Halayeb is Sudanese and will stay Sudanese.” But the area has been under Egypt's control since 2000.
I think the term North Africa is often used as a way for people in the northern part of the continent to distance themselves from “Black Africa,” an older term for the region that is now referred to as “sub-Sahara.” I believe the term “North Africa” is expressive of the pervasive anti-blackness existing in the region it describes, and that its use is racist and divisive.
The term 'North Africa' is used by some institutions as a criteria for artists. It is also the basis for new regional configurations that I'll mention in future posts.
Image: A stock image of the African continent, with the Sinai peninsula included.