Afro Arabs Discrimination Is Worse Than You Think

Judy Chang - YLT Staff

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*Trigger warning: description of racist events and performances describes below for awareness purposes*

History tells us that Afro Arabs discrimination had been happening long ago in the Middle East. Afro Arabs of today are speaking out about how they continue to face racism and colorism and are not recognized as Arabs in the Arab community.

The Arab community consists of people who speak Arabic who inhabit most of the Middle East and North Africa. There are 26 countries in western Asian and Africa where Arabic is listed as one of the official languages of that state. But is living in the Middle East and speaking Arabic enough to be seen as an Arab?

Leena Habiballa, a Sudanese who grew up in various parts of Arab countries quickly realized that having a shared history and culture values wasn’t enough for her to be seen as an Arab.

“My early childhood was spent living in various Arab countries,” said Habiballa in an article she wrote on Too black to be Arab, too Arab to be Black. “Where I learnt from a young age that my darker skin tone threatened my claim to Arabness.”

According to East Africa’s forgotten slave trade African history review by DW Deutsche Welle (DW), majority of Afro Arabs or Black Arabs are descendants of slaves brought to the Middle East from the Coast and other parts of South East Africa during the Arab Muslim slave trade. In other words Arab Muslims in the North and East Africa sold Africans to the Middle East.

In the 17th century, the largest slave market was created in East Africa. For many of us when we think of black slavery trade we think of Africans being sold across Europe and America, but we are forgetting that a large number of people were enslaved to the Middle East.

It is not clear exactly how many East Africans were sold into slavery, scientific research showed that many of the slaves died from causes of hunger or illness before they even reached the place where they were sold. This would mean that many numbers weren’t counted in the statistics we have now.

For Habiballa, her own experience of Afro Arabs discrimination is based on colourism. Though she identified as an Arab, spoke the language and shared the same belief and culture, she wasn’t seen as Arab because of her skin colour. She explained that in the Arab community she was read as definitely black and in the Black community she was read as definitely Arab. Physical appearance continues to be one of the determining factors of race in the Arab community and across the globe. 

Egyptian TV series Azmi we Ashgal released during Ramadan 2018 featured a number of actors performing in blackface [Screengrab/Youtube/Al Nahar TV]. Image showing Egyptian star Samir Ghanem with a black face.

In Sudan there is a race term called green, it’s what Sudanese Arabs call themselves meaning “to bear the privilege of Arab ancestry, to not be black”

This term distinctly separates Afro Arabs and Arabs in Sudan, and has exacerbates the social discrimination against Afro Arabs.

Today Sudan is one of the most culturally diverse country in the world, with more than 19 major ethic groups, but ironically it’s not so inclusive. The racial conflicts between Sudanese Arabs and Sudanese Africans dates back to the colonial days in 1820 when part of the country was ruled by the Ottoman Empire. The country at one point was under both British and Egyptian control causing more political instability amongst the regions and tribes.

Eve Troutt Powell, an American historian of the Middle East and North Africa discussed that the slave trade during the Ottoman Empire included fair skinned Circassian and Afro Sudanese which resulted in their discrimination. Powell adds that the slave trade has impacted not only across the Atlantic but also the lives of afro Arabs in the Middle East today.

Furthermore she explains that mainstream media in the Middle East plays a role in shaping the understanding of race and racism. Black people are still prevalent in the Arab media she says, particularly in Egyptian comedy films that showed the long history of anti-Black racism in the region. 

Much like in Sudan, Black Egyptians also face similar racial discrimination. Growing up in Egypt, Noha Mohamed says the lighter the skin you are, the more favourable and that’s something you can see on TV and ads. It is typical to see black people playing the role a driver or a servant in Egyptian films, you see that in all black and white movies in Egypt.

“You would consciously pick up on that, where you’re seeing that being lighter skinned, is being rewarded, and being darker skinned is not,” said Mohamed.

At a young age she remembers kids calling black kids using derogatory names, and everyone would laugh about it, the teachers wouldn’t even flinch. Colorism and racism is very prevalent in Egypt. 

Afro Arabs discrimination is very prevalent in Arab communities today, their identities are questioned, colorisim and racism is their daily struggle. But what we know is that Arabs are not a distinct ethic group, and race is not defined based on the hue of one’s skin colour. Arab Black lives matter.

By Judy Chang – YLT Staff

2 thoughts on “Afro Arabs Discrimination Is Worse Than You Think”

  1. Pingback: Do we need a "Black Arab History Month"? - Yalla! Lets Talk.

  2. Pingback: 5 Influential Black Arab Women You Should Know About - Yalla! Lets Talk.

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