We Need to Talk About Racism in the Arab World

Published May 13th, 2019 - 11:19 GMT
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(Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)


In Amman, Jordan, a city hailed as a modern, cosmopolitan hub of the Middle East, it is still commonplace to hear Africans be referred to as ‘abeed;’ slaves. The casually prejudiced attitude many in the city display towards Sudanese asylum seekers or south Asian migrants permeate and segregate the city: enclaves of minorities living in poor and under-serviced sections of Amman.

This kind of prejudiced mentality permeates much of the Middle East, where racism remains an embedded and largely unquestioned social force.

In Egypt, Lebanon, Kuwait and other Arab media production hubs, Arab actors and singers wear blackface, TV presenters taunt dark-skinned people by calling them ‘doormen’ or ‘maid’ and comedy shows garner cheap laughs off jokes about dark skin being bad luck.

Partially as a result of this mentality, many Africans and other racial minorities are denied access to education, work or social services. Others are violently rounded up and forced into slavery. Throughout the region, Africans are often thought of as sub-human and thus less deserving of basic rights and protections.

Abdullahi Hassan, a videographer born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Egypt, watched shows that taught him his race should disqualify him from a decent life, and decided to compile many of these segments into a database he maintains. Since he began collecting them, he’s found dozens of clips of talk shows, movies, sketches and songs where blackness is stereotyped, denigrated and the experience of being African marginalized.

In an interview with Al Bawaba, Hassan says he hopes to use the clips in a documentary raising awareness about racism in the Arab world; a region simultaneously wrought by conflict and an adherence to strict social hierarchy, within which dark-skinned Africans sit on the bottom.


An Embedded Mentality

“I’m not saying there isn’t any racism in the West but it isn’t as worse as in the Arab world."

The main difference between racism in the West and in the Arab World, is that racism in the West is a considered a crime, whereas in the Arab world it simply isn’t, Hassan tells Al Bawaba.

“I’m not saying there isn’t any racism in the West but it isn’t as worse as in the Arab world,” he adds.

Hassan has a point: if a public figure in the U.S. appears in blackface, even from a photo dated decades ago, that person is shunned and is expected to apologize.

If a famous Lebanese singer does it, such as Myriam Fares who wore blackface in a Dec 2018 music video, they get 13 million views and are anointed the ‘Arab Shakira.’ 

Myriam Fares (Youtube) 

In a twitter threat that went viral, Hassan shared a few of the clips he’s collected, and many come from comedy shows and movies where the punchline is a character’s blackness.

“Did someone burn this apartment before or what?" One character says in a clip when gazing at a wall full of family photos from a dark-skinned character. “You should have processed the photos before hanging them,” he continues as his friends laugh.

In another, a womanizing character is caught with a black prostitute: “Your night is black just like your face,” he tells her. “These are not women, they're animals,” he opines later.

When the main characters of the popular Egyptian series Rayah Al Madam want to blend into a club, they put on blackface and worse oversized jerseys and bling. One of them approaches a black woman and, upon studying her actions, mimics her head-bobbing. When the other character asks what he’s doing, he replies, "I don't know I thought she matches what we're doing." Another Kuwaiti comedy show, The Block of Jokes, dressed a character in blackface to stereotype Sudanese people to be “lazy and cynical,” Hassan writes.

Rayah Al Madam characters in blackface (Twitter)

A lighthearted comedy show, 7a7a W Tofa7a featured a scene where a woman attempts to contact her sister in Somalia. "It's easier to get to Bin Laden than contact Somalia,” the man working at an internet cafe tells her. In a later scene, the woman is able to call her sister in Somalia, only for a bomb to comically drop onto the phone after a few moments. 

"I eat in the dining-room and the maid's place is in the kitchen.”

In more serious talk shows, discussions regarding Africans or dark-skinned people devolve into racist diatribes. During one debate between Lebanese homeowners and African housemaids who regularly work long hours with little or no pay, a homeowners gets fed up and says "I eat in the dining-room and the maid's place is in the kitchen.” She justified this rule by arguing "If we eat from the same table, she'll forget herself,” and her social place.

In another, one presenter asks another "Do you think niggers are the most successful people in music?" and repeats the question above protests that her wording is racist.

An Azmi We Ashgan character in blackface (Twitter)
For Africans living in the Middle East or in Arab-majority countries, these attitudes pervade their everyday life, determining their access to work, basic rights protections and public spaces. Though their situation is far worse in wartorn, where vulnerable African populations are targeted, peaceful countries like Egypt, Jordan and Gulf States regularly discriminate against them and are “treated as sub-human,” Hassan argues.

“In the West, I feel like it’s more institutional and not so much in your face racism in public every day or in the media. Having been born in Saudi Arabia and lived in Egypt too growing up, I have experienced racism in both countries,” he adds.

For many Africans, these racist attitudes have dire consequences.


The Political Impact

“We black in Libya—we’re money to Arabs. The minute they get us, they can sell us."

An African woman held inside a cramped detention center in Libya (AFP/FILE)

In Libya, a country where militias dominate public life, Africans en route to Europe to seek asylum are regularly targeted and forced into slavery.

Ikuenobe is a young Nigerian who was coerced into slavery while in the Libyan town of Sabha. “In Sabha, every black man is a target,” he explained. Ikuenobe hoped that he could reach the safety of Europe by passing through Libya, but once he was there, he was forcibly rounded up into a work camp, where he labored for no money. He was part of Libya’s thriving slave trade.

“We black in Libya—we’re money to Arabs. The minute they get us, they can sell us,” Ikueunobe says. He recounts being beaten, electrocuted and on one occasion, he was forced to call his family for ransom money.

“Big strong boys for farm work” the auctioneer is heard yelling in front of a line of young men. “400… 700… 800,” sold.

Ikuenobe’s story is a common one: Nigerians, Ethiopians, Eritreans and Sudanese, who are smuggled into Libya where they are bought and sold in open-air slave markets. In some markets, buyers can get a slave for as little as $400. A grainy cell-phone video obtained by CNN shows an auction, where an auctioneer lists out incrementally increasing prices for captured boys.

“Big strong boys for farm work” the auctioneer is heard yelling in front of a line of young men. “400… 700… 800,” sold.

African migrants protest their detention and treatment in Tripoli, Libya (AFP/FILE)

A researcher with Human Rights Watch puts Libya’s slave market in explicitly racial terms:  “Nobody is exempt from ill-treatment, [but] in my experience ... people with white skin or other Arab nationals tend not to stay as long in prisons.”

In Bahrain, African domestic workers have been advertised as if they were discounted products. One advertising agency began a competition: "Follow, share and win an Ethiopian maid!” they exclaimed in an ad.

Another advertisement featured a Ramadan sale where homeowners could a discount for a maid, whose worths and expected pay are determined by their nationality. The maid advertisement was Ethiopian, so she was worth 499 dinars, discounted from the usual 600. 

Advertisement for maid (France 24)

“These agencies launch campaigns like this because there is a well-established culture of objectifying migrant workers,” Nedal al-Salman, an activist with the Bahrain Center for Human Rights said.

“Bahraini society regards these people as if they are slaves or private property, denying them the rights that are supposed to be protected under labor laws.” Al-Salman added that many of the maids work up to 19 hours a day, seven days a week with no break.

Legally, these systems of racial abuse are legally allowed by many Middle Eastern nations that have ‘kafala’ or sponsorship systems of employment. Under this scheme, employers can sponsor temporary residency for workers, where they are subject to the whims of the employer. Often times, this means employees’ passports are confiscated and they are physically, psychologically and sexually abused.

“They're terrified. They told me if they go back to Sudan they will either be put in prison or be killed."

Because they rely on their employer to reside inside the country, many fear reporting the abuse lest they be deported or thrown in a detention center for illegal immigrants. 

In Jordan, Sudanese refugees have been treated as disposable. In 2015, 600 Sudanese refugees, most of whom are Darfuris targeted for genocide, and many of whom held official refugee status, were reportedly forcibly deported back to Sudan after they staged a sit-in outside U.N. offices to protest their treatment. 

“They're terrified. They told me if they go back to Sudan they will either be put in prison or be killed," Elena Habersky, who taught some of the Sudanese refugees English told the BBC at the time.

These are just a few examples amidst a toxic social and political landscape Africans find themselves in.

As prejudiced attitudes continue to fester openly, racist depictions of Africans will continue to pile up, as will the bodies of those rendered invisible by the exploitation those attitudes engender.


The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the opinions or official editorial stance of Al Bawaba News. 

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