“We have stayed quiet for so long—we need to talk about it…I’m not trying to tear us apart. We’ve been torn ya 3amo. We are at the seams and this is crushing us,” Sudanese-American community organiser Remaz Khalaleyal writes in an open letter to the Arab-American store-owner where George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis on May 25th.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the subsequent anti-racist protests taking place around the world, Arab communities have had to finally contend with our own long, long tradition of anti-blackness. Social media has come alive with different perspectives—even guides on how we can do better—but many have pointed out the profound irony in our situations.
The US is the fullest expression of what happens behind the curtains in Arab countries, no less racist than their colonialist and American counterparts.
How can we retweet #BlackLivesMatter with one hand while, in many countries in the region, we hold on to Kafala contracts with the other? Or, as British-Sudanese artist Rayan El Nayal phrases it, have the courage to post on Instagram, but not talk to our families about their continued use of the word 3abeed (Arabic for ‘slave,’ used colloquially to refer to black people)?
There’s a valid argument for the irony of our situation, how young Arabs could be ‘virtue signaling’—a far from perfect term itself—to appear woke and progressive on social media, while refusing to face what’s right at home. But there is also a more insidious voice that’s made itself heard, of Arabs trying to claim distance from the whole thing: in the vein of ‘let the US deal with its own problems.’ As if this does not directly affect us, as if Arab anti-blackness, both in the region and its diasporas, are not directly culpable.
Illustration by Nouri Iflayhan.
And the willingness of people to say it—to claim innocence, to say that ‘we’re not as bad’ or ‘these things don’t happen here’—is only a testament to how deep this sickness runs. Blackface is rampant in our comedy, racist slurs are embedded in our language, but there’s a more sinister undercurrent to Arab anti-blackness. When black bodies are raped, attacked, and murdered in the Arab world, and we refuse to see it and talk about it, that is not fundamentally different to when a police officer kneels on the neck of a black man in the US. The main difference is that, here, the violence doesn’t get a hashtag.
“People forget that, when we talk about solidarity and fighting for black people, it’s not just fighting for African Americans,” says El Nayal, who uses her art to highlight the Afro-Arab experience. “In every single Arab country, there’s a community of black people. I am Arab. And I am black. Fighting for black people is fighting for Arab people…But I feel as though sometimes, in the Middle East, if you are Afro and Arab, your blackness kind of removes your Arabness, in their eyes.”
Gate to Afrabia by Rayan El Nayal.
So are we talking about this now because of a movement led by the United States? Yes. Does that mean that we shouldn’t use it to address our own long, violent tradition of anti-blackness? Absolutely not.
And though it is a shame that it needs a tragedy in the West to invigorate the conversation, it would be worse to remain silent.
What This Is Not
Racism in the Arab world is by no means limited to anti-blackness, but even blackness in the Arab world comes in many forms: are we talking about black Arabs, citizens in Arab nations of African descent, sub-Saharan refugees, migrant workers, or victims of human trafficking? Each of these groups, and a plethora of others, are integrated and excluded to different degrees, face unique challenges, and live at different intersections of privilege and discrimination.
Denunciations of racism are reserved for the crimes of the West. What counts as abuse there seems like a necessity here.
And the Arab world itself is by no means a monolith. To think that Afro Arabs in the Gulf are in the same position as black Egyptians, Tunisians, or Moroccans would be juvenile at best, intentionally obtuse at worst. And so this is not an attempt to subsume all black experience in the Arab world into a singular experience, but simply to trace different patterns of cultural violence that lead to and perpetuate physical violence, that is—yes—defined by skin colour.
But, importantly: this is not an attempt to convince you that Arab anti-blackness indeed exists. Though this piece features black experiences and voices, it is not meant as another carousel showcase of black trauma. There’s a very disturbed dynamic at play when those with privilege—in our case, non-black Arabs—need a kind of revolving carousel of traumatic stories that they can consume at a distance, to even begin to empathise with those actively being discriminated against. (If you don’t believe Arab anti-blackness is a thing, I urge you to take a look at either of these resource lists, compiled by Kerning Cultures and Dardishi, respectively.)
Black Arabs, sub-Saharan refugees and immigrants, and other black people in the region have repeatedly told us about the violence they face, our incessant ‘othering’ of their identities, and the limited opportunities we allow them, again, and again, and again. We could have, and should have, listened by now.
A female refugee speaks about violent sexual assault in Cairo, Egypt. Reuters.
There is no high committee of Supreme Racist Arabs that engineered the malicious machine of Arab anti-blackness; it’s a hydra, and one far bigger and older than any of us. Cut off one of its heads (say, blackface on TV), and two more pop up in its place (sexual violence and forced exodus, to name only two examples).
Ku Klax Klan-worthy arguments about the threat posed by blacks, their perceived lack of civic-mindedness and the crimes and diseases they purportedly bring with them.
As Tunisian black rights activist Dr. Maha Abdelhamid writes: the events in the US are but the fullest expression of what happens every single day in the Arab world, behind closed doors.
Our Language Is Violent, Even When It Isn’t
“Dear amo, let it be known that the majority of white-Arabs are racist! I know it’s uncomfortable to read this amo. You might not be one of them. But listen! It’s in your homes, your movies, comedy, and your language, even in how your people would refer and regard us as 3abeed or aswad. It was never funny—and now we’re gonna talk about this.” – Remaz Khalaleyal.
From Morocco to Bahrain and every country in between, there’s no shortage of racist epithets normalised into everyday language. Yasmine Ghazzali, 23, a Moroccan graduate student, uses the example of la3b drawa, “which roughly translates to ‘black play’. It’s used when people playing around starts getting rough or hurting each other.”
And prototypically, one line of verse from legendary 10th-century Abbasid poet Al-Mutannabi has made its way into Arab (sub)consciousness as a veritable proverb, used at the drop of a hat. Originally written as part of an attack on Abu al-Misk Kafur, a black Egyptian vizier who did not award Al-Mutannabi the office he desired, the line reads: la tashtary al-3abd illa wal 3asa ma3aho—inn al 3abeed anjas manakeed, which translates into “Never purchase a slave without his stick…slaves are impure from birth.”
Over a millennium later, the use of the literal word for ‘slave’ in reference to blackness is still a part of our vocabulary. And yes, words matter. Language matters. Consider it the Political Correctness Police who ‘can’t take a joke’ or dare to take offence at people being called literal slaves. Because for one, ‘political correctness’ is really not the big bad Western-import wolf that we sometimes like to think it is.
More importantly, however, as should be clear by now, these words don’t exist in a vacuum. And even when they’re not immediately violent, when wielded against black people in the way they so often are, they carry very real threats.
I mourn the death of black Americans, as I mourn the death of black people in the Middle East and North Africa: those we know...and those we do not know—and the latter’s numbers are far greater.
Dani*, an African national in Saudi Arabia (who would rather not specify nationality), tells me the story of standing in line with their mother at a clothing store, when the boy in front of them left the line. “Once we reached the counter, this Saudi woman (the boy’s mother) started yelling at us, saying how disrespectful we are to have cut in line. She kept saying things like ‘wallah ara7alkom anto aslan ma taswoo shyy’ (‘I swear I’ll deport you, you are worth nothing.’)”
“None of the people standing even had the nerve to say something, because deep down, this is what they believe,” Dani continues. “That they are superior. They treat foreigners like they’re parasites. It is off the backs of foreigners that the Gulf has grown so fast, and yet we are still referred as 3abeed like we’re in the middle ages. I’m honestly so tired of the ignorance.”
Dani also tells me how they wish black people they grew up around would have taught anything other than: “don’t reply, you’ll get yourself in trouble,” a more than familiar sentiment in Gulf countries.
Arab celebrities are coming under attack for the use of blackface in attempted support of Black Lives Matter. From left to right, Lebanese singer Tania Saleh, Moroccan actor Mariam Hussein, Algerian actor and singer Souhila Ben Lachhab.
Charles*, 20, an African undergraduate student in Qatar who also wanted his nationality unspecified, says he was warned by older black students to watch what he says, and avoid getting on the wrong side of anyone. In his first week in the country, he tells me, two Qatari women called the police on him and two other African friends for walking behind them in a packed mall.
“I guess Karens exist everywhere when you’re black,” he quips. “There’s all the ‘I’ll get you deported’ jokes that people throw around. But you can never be sure as to whether these ‘jokes’ are banter or not, because their words carry power. For real, they know that they can get you deported. Because once it reaches the higher levels, you’re assumed to be guilty from the get-go.”
The Idiot and the Sex Worker, Blackness as a Caricature
The other side of the coin to the power of everyday language is everyday media. And, if we gain nothing else from the current moment, people are at least engaging with long-overdue conversations. More people are speaking out against the deeply problematic use of blackface in Arab TV and cinema, as well as the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of black people more generally—how blackness is consistently played as a joke: the servant, the prostitute, or the clueless buffoon.
Sim*, 21, a British African sports coach in Cairo, says that, though he faces no outright abuse, the microagressions he experiences point to the rampant stereotypes in both Arab and western media. “It’s more the expectation and gaze. Because of the sensationalised television that many watch, chances are that I might be their first-ever encounter with a black person. So they expect the stereotypes to play out in real life: big, black, hyper-masculine man obsessed with violence, or the loud, angry black woman that surely has to be a maid or a nanny.”
“And when you don’t live up to or confirm these biases,” he continues, “people are either confused, or hold on to their ignorance. You get the feeling that being black is a caricature.”
More than anything, representations of blackness in Arab media are othering. They’re dehumanising—placing everything we do not want to be on a perceived ‘Other’ that’s outside of ourselves. “These portrayals are the consolidated image of blackness in Arab consciousness,” says Dr. Abdelhamid. “Blackness is unsympathetic—we’re free to mock it, and liken it to all that is negative.”
The Black ‘Other’ and Aspirational Whiteness
There’s a knee-jerk response in discussions of race in the Arab world: the defensive ‘how can we be racist if we’re not even white?’ It’s a valid thought: Arabs are of varying skin-tones, from white-passing to black and every shade in between. How then, can we actually be racist? But that’s exactly it. Our non-whiteness—and attached reproduction of whiteness—is exactly how racist imaginaries work.
“I think there’s definitely a form of mimicry of what Arabs face from Westerners. And then Arabs start to hate their own skin or their own culture—and that has an effect on how blackness is treated in the Arab world. And it’s this constant repetition…of always pointing the finger, like ‘no, we’re modern, but these people aren’t,” says El Nayal, pointing particularly to the skin-bleaching epidemic in Sudan, which she explains is a result of the portrayal of blackness as ugly in Arab media.
It is off the backs of foreigners that the Gulf has grown so fast, and yet we are still referred as 3abeed like we’re in the middle ages.
Across countries and backgrounds, beauty standards point starkly towards aspirational whiteness. Farah*, 27, a Jordanian of Palestinian origin in the UAE says, “the whole reason my mother insists that I use whitening creams, and recently whitening injections—the treatment to vitiligo that removes all your melanin—and the reason she always wants me to have straight hair, is because these features are ‘black.’ And if I have them, no one will marry me.”
Perhaps the best explanation of the Self/Other dynamic in Arab culture is Bahraini academic and cultural critic Dr. Nader Kadhim’s book ‘Tamtheelat Al Akhar: Sourat Al Soud Fy Al Motakhayyal Al ‘Araby Al Waseet’ (Representations of the Other: The Image of Blackness in the Arab Imaginary). In it, Dr. Kadhim methodically delves into historic representations of blackness in Arab culture, how the sliding scale of inclusion and exclusion has resulted in the construction of the black ‘Other’ as “animalistic, savage, morally degraded, and physically deformed.”
'In the Slave Market in Cairo' by Scottish orientalist David Roberts, drawn circa 1846-1849.
Basically, for every idea that we want to have about ourselves, there has to be an opposing other that embodies the opposite value. This is by no means unique to Arab identity—no culture in the world is devoid of Self/Other oppositions. Just like the personal self knows itself in opposition to the world, it’s only in comparison to other cultures that a collective ‘narrative identity,’ the concept by French philosopher Paul Ricoeur that Dr. Kadhim uses—or even Irish historian Benedict Anderson’s idea of a nation as an ‘imagined community’—can evolve.
And, disastrously, if we want to align ourselves with whiteness, particularly in the postcolonial moment, then there has to be someone on the other side. In doing so however, we fail to see that what it actually takes, what our own liberation from the colonisation of the mind needs, is a move away from that aspirational alignment altogether.
The History of Reproducing Whiteness
“There’s this myth,” says Tarek Moustafa, 34, an anthropology PhD candidate from Egypt. “Egyptians tend to think of themselves as white, and they like to pass as white…They tend to have that imagination about their skin and about themselves, and they reproduce this kind of supremacy by basically feeling superior to black Egyptians, and black refugees, and black communities.”
Moustafa also points to the material-historical explanation in the book A Different Shade of Colonialism: Egypt, Great Britain, and the Mastery of the Sudan, where author Eve Troutt Powell analyses what she calls ‘the triangle of colonialism’ between Great Britain, Egypt, and the Sudan.
The troubling figure of the Nubian or Sudanese 'suffragi' or servant is still alive in Egyptian consciousness.
“It seems like the project of nationalism in Egypt, and the consolidation of an Egyptian nationalist identity, was premised on the colonisation of Sudan,” says Moustafa. “Look at movies from the 1930s and early 1940s, how black Egyptians and Sudanese were portrayed. There’s something in the genealogy of nationalism that is deeply embedded in anti-blackness.”
In a similar vein, Iman Emara, 40, an engineer who also writes about social issues in Algeria, explains how the racist hashtag #لا_للافارقة_في_الجزائر (“No to Africans in Algeria”) which briefly went viral in the wake of a larger media campaign in 2017—in addition to being seemingly (although tellingly) ignorant of Algeria’s geography—points to a deeper crisis in Algerian identity itself.
The Amazigh flag waves during a demonstration in Libya.
“There’s a massive gap between the official narrative of identity, as created in the postcolonial moment, and reality,” writes Emara. “The official national identity was born out of decolonisation, which demanded the coming together of all of society against a common enemy, sweeping differences away in the process. But now, we must ask ourselves about black rights, both refugees and citizens, and open the chapters of history that we refuse to talk about.”
Emara points to the cultural-political process of Arabisation: central to the project of a strong Arab nation against imperial powers, there needed to be a strong Arab identity, one that necessarily had to absorb within it or expel outside it the different identities that exist in the geographic area of the Arab world. According to Middle East Studies scholar Dr. Stephen Sheehi, this ‘new’ Arab identity was constructed around Westernised ideals of “progress, civilization, and economic development,” as opposed to the “backwards” and “uncivilized” nature of non-Arab indigenous peoples in the region. (For a succinct look at the process of Arabisation and its enduring legacy, check out this highlight on Kerning Cultures’ Instagram, by Darah Ghanem.)
Invisible or Invisibilised?
Denigrated by language, caricatured in media, and fundamentally ‘Othered’ in the formation of Arab identity, is it really a surprise to come to the virtual invisibility of blackness in our societies?
But Dr. Abdelhamid corrects me. “Black people are not invisible in Arab societies; they’re invisibilised—they are made invisible. Despite their relative prominence in different fields, they remain curiously absent to the public eye.”
It is a shame that it needs a tragedy in the West to invigorate the conversation, but it would be far worse to remain silent.
“It was an unspoken rule during my time in advertising that you don’t feature black models in your ads,” says music entrepreneur Ali Al Saeed. “I worked with agencies in Bahrain, Qatar, and Dubai, and I always found that disturbing. Even when we used black models only for the concept presentation, we were told to change it.”
In the overwhelming sprawling metropolis of Cairo, black communities and neighbourhoods—not to be confused with black individuals, who are often hypervisible—are made functionally invisible. “If they aren’t cleaning homes, begging the street for money, or playing a role on television, then everything is sort of void,” says Sim.
This invisibility is both mode and medium for the catastrophic violence that we see (or refuse to see) in the Arab world. It is both the consequence of the hydra of dehumanisation, and its condition for existence.
Violence, Hidden Away and Applauded
“The US is the fullest expression of what happens behind the curtains in Arab systems of power, who are no less racist than their colonialist and American counterparts,” says Dr. Abdelhamid. “But our own systems commit their crimes in secret—most we know nothing about—or wrap their crimes in different guises, so they don’t seem racist at all.”
Dr. Abdelhamid points to the December 2018 murder of Falikou Coulibaly, the head of the Ivorian community in Tunisia, who was stabbed in the street, the news coming in the context of more attacks on sub-Saharan African students. Earlier in 2018, Tunisia had become only the second Arab country (after the UAE) to criminalise racial discrimination with their ‘Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination’ Act, but according to Abdelhamid, there’s a long way to go. “Though a part of civil society is fighting against this violence, it’s not in a way that recognizes it as crimes against humanity. There’s a leniency in the way these attacks are dealt with publicly.”
Four years before his assassination, Jalal Diab, secretary of the 'Movement of Free Iraqis,' a political party formed by the black descendants of African slaves, delivers a speech during a gathering in the southern Iraqi oil city of Basra to watch the inauguration of Barack Obama as the first black US president on January 20, 2009. Photo by Essam Al-Sudani.
On the death of George Floyd, she also writes: “I mourn the death of black Americans, murdered by their regimes simply for being black and rejecting racism, as I mourn the death of black people in the Middle East and North Africa: those who we know to have been killed because they rejected discrimination, and those who we do not know—and the latter's numbers are far greater.”
“In 2001,” she lists in tribute, “the poet Belgacem Al Yaacoubi died in Tunisian prison, after being abused for his race. He was tortured to death, and the autopsy was written to state that he died of AIDS. The revolutionary Slim Marzouk spent more than 35 years in the Razi Psychiatric Hospital in Manouba [and not in prison, where he would have become a leader as a political prisoner, wrote Dr. Abdelhamid in 2016] and only left functionally paralysed, one month before he died in 2001. Jalal Diab, leader of the black rights movement in Iraq, was assassinated in the street in 2013.”
These portrayals are the consolidated image of blackness in Arab consciousness,” says Dr. Abdelhamid. “Blackness is unsympathetic—we’re free to mock it, and liken it to all that is negative.
To the west, in Algeria, the number of sub-Saharan migrants has been increasing over the past decade, due in part to escalating conflict in neighbouring Libya, which was once the main hub of immigration to Europe. By 2018, international rights groups estimate that the country had expelled over 13,000 migrants. Here, ‘expelled’ really means leaving them stranded in the Sahara without food or water.
The forced exodus cannot be considered separately from what Algerian writer Kamel Daoud described in the New York Times two years prior as “Ku Klax Klan-worthy arguments [in the media] about the threat posed by blacks, their perceived lack of civic-mindedness and the crimes and diseases they purportedly bring with them.”
Daoud also hones in on the central theory of reproduced anti-blackness: “Denunciations of racism are reserved for the crimes of the West. What counts as abuse there seems like a necessity here.”
“In addition to official statements,” says Emara, “there are popular and social media campaigns that reinforce these racist images of black people…Every time there are football matches, you get this idea of ‘oh they use black magic, etc.’…and putting the country’s socioeconomic troubles squarely on them. Perhaps the worst of these demonising campaigns was #لا_للافارقة_في_الجزائر that went viral demanding the expulsion of Africans.”
An excerpt from the front page of Algerian daily Elmaouid from the 16th of June, 2017. The headlines claim 'Zionist French plots to drown Algeria with 6 million African refugees' and threats of 'colonialism from the inside.'
And in Egypt, in 2005, an estimated 2,000 Sudanese refugees were camped out in a multi-month sit-in in the upper-middle class neighbourhood of Mohandiseen in Cairo. On the morning of December 30th, 2005, thousands of Egyptian security personnel forcibly dispersed the protest, killing between 20 and 27 refugees and asylum seekers, and jailing 600. A 28th person, a 14-year old boy, died in hospital a month after the dispersal, and one man committed suicide in detention.
Moustafa, at the time doing his undergraduate studies, remembers popular reaction to the incident. “The quote-unquote ‘honourable citizens’ of Mohandiseen and Dokki woke up the next day after the massacre, after people were murdered, and said ‘oh, thank God, the streets are clean again.’”
The project of nationalism in Egypt, and the consolidation of an Egyptian nationalist identity, was premised on the colonisation of Sudan.
We cannot move forward from this moment unless we understand how cultural anti-blackness allows for catastrophic violence. If in our everyday interactions, our media, our language, black people are dehumanised—made into apolitical wards, or worse, something disease-filled and dirty—their murder, or disgustingly, their extermination (look up Egypt’s ‘Operation Track Down Blacks’), is no longer an atrocity. In Daoud’s words, it’s even a ‘necessity’.
“Our regimes do not differ much from [colonialist and American powers,]” says Dr. Abdelhamid. “You are safe from their violence…so long as you are silent and submissive, so long as you do not speak out in protest.”
“All of these struggles are interconnected,” says Moustafa. “If we think that we are safe, while we are normalising the violence that happens in other communities, then we are mistaken.”
*Real names have been changed by request.
Main image: Mohamed Haroun, a Nubian Egyptian, in Wadi Karkar, Aswan, Egypt. Photo by Nariman El-Mofty, AP.