Despite its tragic connotations in the American racial discourse, one of my favorite travel pastimes is ‘passing’ as one of the local majority. Parsing the plates of 1930s physical anthropology books by Ernest Hooton and Carleton Coon, I came to the conclusion at age eleven that I was a member of the Mediterranean subrace—a scientifically inaccurate conception, but evidenced in my dark eyes and hair, small build, narrow skull, and eventual pilosity. This summer, I had the privilege to travel several Mediterranean countries—Spain, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt—avoiding the touristic hassle by readily passing as native wherever I found myself.
After seven weeks of taking my third year of Arabic in Alexandria, I’ve realized just how much it helps to be an olive-skinned male when living in Egypt. That is to say, until I open my mouth to reveal a tongue proficient in formal Arabic only, I’m lucky to escape the strange mix of exuberance and scorn afforded Western visitors.
But as pleasant as it was to walk Alexandria harbor’s Corniche and blend into the crowds among its mosques, fuul stands, and crumbling Italian revival facades, there was a hint of dread in the ethnic-passing business it entails. When it came time to explain that I’m American, Egyptians were always quick to remark that I must be Arab, or better yet, almost-Arab—accurate enough, but problematic when the almost-Arab is Jewish, in a country where Mein Kampf, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (with a star of David oozing blood on its cover and John McCain inexplicably in its center), and a litany of other homespun tutorials in anti-Jewish thought grace the front shelf of every corner bookstore.
As a short-term Jewish resident in Egypt, one is taught to answer “Ana yahudi” rarely, if ever. When my professor, a motherly muhajiba of fifty-something, asked the inevitable, “Yes, but where is your family from?” I felt safe enough to answer obliquely, “Ana yahudi.” Good, she assured me, but that’s a religion—“You remind me of al-Andalus, Spanish and Arab. Are you Spanish?” In a classroom where all Semitic religions were thoroughly respected but Israel was mentioned only in satanic caricature, I decided not to play my typical card about Jewish nationality. For eight weeks, I passed as Andalusian from morning to afternoon bell.
When I returned to New Jersey last week, the passing came to an end as I settled back into my normal routine as an ethnically obvious Josh from Monmouth County. But I’ll terribly miss being accidentally called George, spending pocket change on falafel, marking 2 AM with the aural assault of motorcycles blaring trashy Arabic music around the harbor, and experiencing Egypt’s beautiful language and culture on the daily.