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Confronting anti-black racism in the Arab world

The Arab slave trade is a fact of history, and anti-black racism in the region is something that must be addressed.

Last Modified: 07 Jul 2013 18:30
Susan Abulhawa

Susan Abulhawa is a Palestinian writer and the author of the international bestselling novel, Mornings in Jenin (Bloomsbury 2010). She is also the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, an NGO for children.
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Migrant workers from African countries often face abusive conditions in the Middle East [AP]

In response to an essay I wrote recently regarding the "essential blackness" of the Palestinian struggle, I received this reaction, among others: "What about Arab anti-black racism? Or the Arab slave trade?"

The Arab slave trade is a fact of history and anti-black racism is a fact of current reality, a shameful thing that must be confronted in Arab societies. Though I claim no expertise on the subject, I think that applying notions of racism as it exists in the US will preclude a real understanding of the subject in the Arab world.

I spent much of much of my youth in the Arab world and I do not recall having a race consciousness until I came to the United States at the age of 13. My knowledge of Arab anti-black racism comes predominantly from Arab Americans. Like other immigrant communities, they adopt the prevailing racist sentiments of the power structure in the US, which decidedly holds African-Americans in contempt.

This attitude is also becoming more prevalent in Arab countries for various reasons, but mostly because Arab governments, particularly those that import foreign labour from Africa and Southeast Asia, have failed to implement or enforce anti-discrimination and anti-exploitation laws.

In many Arab nations, including Kuwait where I was born, workers are lured into menial jobs where their passports are confiscated upon arrival and they are forced into humiliating and often inhuman working conditions. They have little to no protection under the law and are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, including extraordinarily long working hours, withholding of salaries, sexual, mental, and physical abuse, and denial of travel.

The recent case of Alem Dechesa brought to light the horrors faced by migrant workers in Lebanon. Dechesa, a domestic worker from Ethiopia, committed suicide after suffering terrible mental and physical abuse at the hands of her Lebanese employers, whose savage beating of her in front of the Ethiopian Consulate went viral last year.

Defining beauty

An extension to Arab anti-black racism is an aspiration to all that our former - and current - colonisers possess. Individuals aspire to what is powerful and rich, and the images of that power and wealth have light skin, straight hair, small noses, ruddy cheeks and tall, skinny bodies. That image rejects melanin-rich skin, coiled hair, broad or pointy noses, short stature, broad hips and big legs. So we, too, reject these features, despising them in others and in ourselves as symbols of inferiority, laziness, and poverty. That's why the anglicising industries of skin bleaching and hair straightening are so profitable.

And yet, when Palestine went to the UN for recognition of statehood, the vast majority of nations who voted yes were southern nations. The same is true when Palestine asked for admission to UNESCO. In fact, when the US cut off funding to UNESCO in response to its members' democratic vote to admit Palestine, it was the African nation of Gabon that immediately stepped up with a $2m donation to UNESCO to help offset the loss of income.

It was not Saudi Arabia, or Kuwait, or Qatar, or Lebanon, or Sweden, or France. It was Gabon. How many Palestinians know that, much less expressed gratitude for it?

So concerned are Palestinians with what the European Union and the United States think of us. So engrossed are we in grovelling for their favour and handouts as they support a system of Jewish supremacy pushing our ancient society into extinction. We dance like clowns any time a European leader spares us a thought. Have we no sense of history? No sense of pride? No comprehension of who is truly standing with us and who is sabotaging us?

In a world order that peddles notions of entire continents or regions as irreducible monoliths, the conversation among Arabs becomes a dichotomous "Arab" versus "African", ignoring millennia of shared histories ranging from extensive trade and commerce, to the horrors of the Arab slave trade, to the solidarity of African-Arab anti-colonial unity, to the current state of ignorance that does not know history and cannot connect the dots when it comes to national liberation struggles.

Arab slave trade

When I was researching the subject of the Arab slave trade, I came upon a veritable treasure of a website established by The African Holocaust Society, or Mafaa [Swahili for "holocaust"], a non-profit organisation of scholars, artists, filmmakers, academics, and activists dedicated to reclaiming the narratives of African histories, cultures, and identities. Included in this great body of scholarly works is a comprehensive section on the Arab slave trade, as well as the Jewish slave trade, African-Arab relations over the centuries, and more, by Owen Alik Shahadah, an activist, scholar and filmmaker.

Reading this part of our shared history, we can see how a large proportion of Arabs, including those among us who harbour anti-black racism, are the sons and daughters of African women, who were kidnapped from Eastern African nations as sex slaves.

Unlike the European slave trade, the Arab slave trade was not an important feature of Arab economies and it predominantly targeted women, who became members of harems and whose children were full heirs to their father's names, legacies and fortunes, without regard to their physical features. The enslaved were not bought and sold as chattel the way we understand the slave trade here, but were captured in warfare, or kidnapped outright and hauled across the Sahara.

Race was not a defining line and enslaved peoples were not locked into a single fate, but had opportunity for upward mobility though various means, including bearing children or conversion to Islam. No-one knows the true numbers of how many African women were enslaved by Arabs, but one need only look at ourselves to see the shadows of these African mothers who gave birth to us and lost their African identities.

But while African scholars at the Mafaa Society make important distinctions between the Arab and European slave trades, enslavement of human beings is a horror of incomprehensible proportions by any standard, and that's what it was in the Arab world as it was - or is - anywhere. There are some who argue that the Arab slave traders were themselves indistinguishable from those whom they enslaved because the word "Arab" had cultural relevance, not racial.

One-way street

This argument goes hand-in-hand with the discredited excuse that Africans themselves were involved in the slave trade, with warring tribes capturing and selling each other. But no matter how you look at it, the slave trade was a one-way street, with Africans always the enslaved victims. I know of no African tribe that kidnapped Europeans and put them in bondage for generations; nor do I know of an African tribe that captured Arab women for centuries and made them sex slaves.

I think humanity has truly never known a holocaust of greater magnitude, savagery, or longevity than that perpetrated against the peoples of Africa. This Mafaa has never been fully acknowledged and certainly never atoned for - not that the wounds or enduring legacies of turning human beings into chattel for centuries can ever be fully comprehended or atoned for. But one must try, because just as we inherit privilege from our ancestors, so do we inherit their sins and the responsibility for those sins.

Gaddafi's role

The late Colonel Muammar Gaddafi understood this and he used his power and wealth to try to redeem our shared history. He was the first Arab leader to apologise on behalf of Arab peoples to our African brothers and sisters for the Arab slave trade and the Arab role in the European slave trade.

He funnelled money into the African Union and used Libya's wealth to empower the African continent and promote pan-Africanism. He was a force of reconciliation, socialism, and empowerment for both African and Arab peoples. Gaddafi's actions threatened to renew African-Arab reconciliation and alliances similar to that which occurred at the height of the Non-Aligned Movement during the presidencies of Jamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana.  

Thus, NATO's urgency to prevent "massacres" and "slaughter" in Libya was manufactured and sold wholesale. The fear of African-Arab solidarity can be seen in the way the US-backed Libyan insurgency spread rumours that "black African" mercenaries were committing atrocities against Libyans. Gaddafi became an even bigger threat when an agreement was reached with the great anti-imperialist force in South America, Hugo Chavez, to mediate a solution to the uprising in Libya.

Now both of these champions of their people are gone, and the so-called Libyan revolutionaries are executing "black Africans" throughout the country. Gone, too, is NATO's worry about slaughter in Libya, and another high-functioning Arab nation lies in ruin, waste and civil strife - primed for rampant corporate looting.

I wrote previously that the Palestinian struggle against the erasure of our existence, history and identity was spiritually and politically black in nature. So, too, are other struggles, like that of migrant workers throughout many Arab nations. These are our comrades. They are the wretched, exploited, robbed, and/or, at last, liberated.

I refer to Black as a political term, not necessarily a racial or ethnic descriptor. In the words of Owen Alik Shehadah: "Black People is a construction which articulates a recent social-political reality of people of colour (pigmented people). Black is not a racial family, an ethnic group or a super-ethnic group. Political Blackness is thus not an identity but moreover a social-political consequence of a world which after colonialism and slavery existed in those colour terms. The word "Black" has no historical or cultural association, it was a name born when Africans were broken down into transferable labour units and transported as chattel to the Americas."

But that word has been reclaimed, redefined, and injected with all the power, love, defiance, and beauty that is Africa. For the rest of us, and without appropriating the word, "black" is a phenomenon of resistance, steadfastness - what we Palestinians call sumud - and the beauty of culture that is reborn out of bondage and oppression.

Right to look the other way

Finally, solidarity from Africans is not equivalent to that which comes from our European comrades, whose governments are responsible for the ongoing erasure of Palestine. African peoples have every reason to look the other way. Ethiopians have every reason to say: "You deserve what you get for the centuries of enslavement and neo-enslavement industry by your Arab neighbours." African Americans have every reason to say: "Why should I show solidarity with Arabs who come here to treat us like white people do, and sometimes worse?"

Malcolm X once said: "If I was that [anti-American], I'd have a right to be that - after what America has done to us. This government should feel lucky that our people aren't anti-American."

We can substitute the word "Arab" for "American" in that sentence and it would be a valid statement. And yet, Africa is right there with us. African American intellectuals are the greatest champions of our struggle in the United States. The impact of solidarity from four particular individuals - Desmond Tutu, Alice Walker, Angela Davis and Cynthia McKinney - can never be overestimated.

Last month, the former South African ambassador to Israel refused a "certificate" from Israel confirming the planting of trees in his name. In his letter, he called Israel a racist, apartheid state and said the gift was an "offence to my dignity and integrity". He added: "I was not a party to, and never will be, to the planting of '18 trees', in my 'honour', on expropriated and stolen land."

I would like my countrymen to think long and hard about this until they truly comprehend the humbling beauty of this solidarity from people who have every reason to be anti-Arab. I wish my countrymen could look through my eyes. They would see that black is profoundly beautiful. They would see that Africa runs through our veins, too. Our enslaved African foremothers deserve to be honoured and loved by their Arab children. And it is for us to redeem their pain with the recognition and atonement long owed.

Arriving at this understanding is a good starting place for reciprocal solidarity with nations and peoples who are standing with us, in heart and in action.

Susan Abulhawa is a Palestinian writer and the author of the international bestselling novel, Mornings in Jenin (Bloomsbury 2010). She is also the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, an NGO for children.

Follow her on Twitter: @sjabulhawa

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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