Black Arabs are underrepresented and largely invisible in “white” Arab-dominated countries, and excluded from political, academic, artistic and religious institutions. “Black” and “Arab” are not mutually exclusive: some Black people are Arab and some Arab people are Black.
As an Arab intellectual in the West (I’m an Arabic language and literature professor at the University of Waterloo), speaking out on anti-Blackness in the Arab world has placed me in a critical position.
Until recently, anti-Blackness has been a taboo topic within Arab society. In 2004, this began to change when Bahraini cultural critic Nader Kadhim published Representations of the Other: The Image of Black People in the Medieval Arab Imaginary. I am currently translating the book into English to raise awareness in the West about anti-Blackness in the Arab world.
Anti-Blackness in the Arab world exists within a global context. The Black Lives Matter movement spread worldwide after the death of George Floyd, and Black Arabs connected with the movement as an opportunity to shed light on the oppression they face daily.
Roots of Arab racism
Kadhim coined the term al-istifraq, or Africanism, to refer to perceiving, imagining and representing Black Arabs as a subject of study in Arabic writings. His book underlines the core elements that characterize the discourse of representing Black Arabs in Arab culture.
The underpinnings of Africanism in classical and Medieval Arab narratives — including travel literature, books on geography, astronomy, astrology, history, theology, biographies, marine science, philosophy and ancient medicine — pejoratively represent Black people as inferior. Even today, a derogatory depiction is present in many aspects of modern Arab culture.
Kadhim theorizes that the negative image of Black people in Arab cultures emerged from three streams: (1) the controversial anthropological conception that culture — including religion, language, laws and values — defines what it means to be human; (2) the Biblical narrative of Noah’s cursing his son Ham’s descendants — understood to be darker-skinned — with servitude; and (3) the Greek philosopher Ptolemy’s theory of the seven climes, which posits that a person’s geographical location determined their race, as the proximity to the sun “prepared” humans in ways ranging from raw and undercooked to burnt and overcooked.
Vilification of Arabs
In 2014, I presented a paper titled, “Waiting for Obama: The Forgotten Black in Iraq,” at York University’s conference on Home/Land: Transnationalism, Identity and Arab Canadians. I demonstrated how Afro-Iraqis conception of homeland has been destabilized by the racist and discriminatory discourse perpetuated by other Iraqis towards them.
During the question period following my presentation, an established Arab novelist who was in attendance denied that anti-Black racism existed in the Arab world. After the event was over, the novelist asked me: “Why are you vilifying our culture?”
In May, I facilitated a public lecture called “Deconstructing Africanism: The Image of Black People in the Arab Imaginary,” by Kadhim on the topic of his book. One of the main concerns expressed by the Arab audience was that the lecture portrayed Arab culture as racist. After the event, an audience member and acquaintance called me and asked: “Why are you showing our shit?”
I reflected on whether it was my intention to show my own culture’s shit. Not really, although other Arabs might have perceived it as such.
Airing dirty laundry
I am originally from Basra, Iraq, where the majority are “white” Arabs like myself. A few years after moving to Canada, I began learning about racism in the West, and experienced a change in my racial identity from a white Arab to a person of colour. This new and personal racial reconfiguration led me to reflect on racism against the Black community in Basra.
Some Iraqis are not even aware of Black Iraqis who have been living there for centuries. The sense of home and belonging of Afro-Iraqis has been destabilized by the racism disseminated against them.
To respond to this racism, I embarked on exploring the roots of anti-Blackness in my culture, and found that it has been around since before Islam. I started writing, translating and documenting Black Arab heritage, but I keep encountering resistance. Some Arabs refuse to acknowledge racism in their own communities.
There are personal implications of raising awareness of anti-Blackness in the Arab world — I am at risk of being considered a comprador, someone acting on behalf of western institutions. This could lead to me being completely ostracized from diasporic Arab intellectual circles and violently targeted in my home country. I feel the tension between celebrating the richness and beauty of my culture (I established an annual Arab cultural festival) and calling out its shit.
There is a critical thin line between contributing to a movement for racial justice and contributing to the already demonized image of Arabs. Showing our “shit” could fuel this. However, as a Canadian-Iraqi intellectual, I have privilege and thus responsibility to leverage it for racial injustice.