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Being ’black’ in North Africa and the Middle East

“In the skin of a black”

Tuesday 13 February 2018, by siawi3


Being ’black’ in North Africa and the Middle East

Laura Menin

12 February 2018

Former slaves and their descendants in North Africa and the Middle East might be formally free, but the racial legacies of slavery continue to affect intimate, social and political forms of life.

Photo: Gorée Island is known as the location of the House of Slaves, and was used for the slave trade. John Karwoski/flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Growing attention to the racial and colour-based discrimination that sub-Saharan Africans and African slave descendants face in the Maghreb and in the Middle East has opened up new spaces to debate the relationship between ’racism’ and legacies of slavery in the two regions. While these debates are far from new in a context like Mauritania, where former slaves and slave descendants have struggled for decades against descent-based discrimination, in many other North African and Middle Eastern countries they have emerged only relatively recently. This is perhaps because, as the Moroccan historian Chouki El Hamel notes, a “culture of silence” has long prevented these countries from engaging with, and discussing overtly, questions of race, slavery and colour.

With this week’s special series, we seek to unpack the ’racial issue’ in different post-slavery contexts in West Africa, North Africa and the Middle East by interrogating its connections with local histories of slavery and their contemporary legacies. Drawing on fresh case studies from Senegal, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, Emirates and Yemen, the contributors reflect on the complex intersections of historical and contemporary dynamics that shape present imaginations of ’blackness’, black identities, and belonging. They also look at new forms of racial discrimination and activism based on specific constructions of race.

[(A “culture of silence” has long prevented these countries from engaging with, and discussing overtly, questions of race, slavery and colour.

Very few authors have looked at the racial legacies of slavery in these contexts to date, in contrast to the relatively large amounts of scholarly attention shown to the memory of the transatlantic slave trade and race in the post-slavery Americas. That is thankfully starting to change. A growing body of historical works (think Paul Lovejoy, Martin Klein, Alice Bellagamba, Ann McDougal, Ehud Toledano, John Hunwick, Eve Troutt Powell, Terence Walz, Kenneth Cuno, Bruce Hall, Chouki El Hamel, Ismael Montana and Behnaz Mirzai) have significantly enriched our knowledge of the history of slavery and race in West Africa and the Mediterranean Muslim world. A number of anthropological studies have furthermore explored the shadows of slavery in the lives of slave descendants and haratin (a term generally translated as ’freed blacks’ or ’free blacks’), especially in Mauritania and in the Maghreb area.

However, we need to explore if and how current developments are reshaping racialised dynamics in social, political and intimate lives. Tracing the local meanings of race, with its complex relations to ideas of colour, origin, blood and descent, the contributors seek to interrogate how current expressions of racism connect with historical experiences of slavery.

Breaking the silence

Since the early 2000s, the francophone magazine Jeune Afrique has published personal testimonies of both Black Maghrebians and sub-Saharan Africans. The questions posed regarding identity and discrimination in these narratives became more urgent following the protests and revolutions that took place in many North African and Middle Eastern countries in 2011. In post-revolution Tunisia, for example, we’ve seen unprecedented forms of black rights activism that question the very idea that black emancipation can exist without a continued struggle against racism.

In 2014, in Morocco, the national campaign “my name is not a negro” (ma smitish ’azzi) gave public visibility to the issue of racism in Moroccan society. In March 2016, a network of associations launched the international anti-racist campaign “neither serfs nor negro: stop that’s enough” (ma oussif, ma ’azzi: baraka wa yezzi) in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Mauritania. From Mauritania to Yemen, local anti-racist movements and societal debates have enabled novel political practices, languages and subjectivities to emerge. To what extent, we ask, are current anti-racist movements and debates on race able to capture the complexity and multiplicity of the experience of ’blackness’? What histories and vocabularies are mobilised to raise public awareness and attain political goals?

Engaging with these questions, some pieces reflect on the emergence of race in their interlocutors’ political imaginations and public actions. In Mauritania, where slavery was abolished in 1981, the anti-slavery organisation El Hor (established in 1978) has denounced the persistence of slavery and its consequences on the lives of the haratin in terms of the socio-political stigmatisation and chromatic demonisation. However, as Giuseppe Maimone shows, with IRA Mauritanie, a local organisation founded by Biram Dah Abeid in 2008, ideas of colour and racial discrimination have started to replace the classic focus on slavery and descent-based forms of discrimination of previous antislavery movements.

In Yemen, a political discourse based on colour has been mobilised by the akhdam, a dark-skinned marginalised group, to gain a public voice and denounce their socioeconomic and political discrimination. As Luca Nevola shows, in a society in which individuals and groups are ranked according to their genealogical origin, an emphasis on colour entails a crucial shift in the common sense representations of this group. Crucially, Nu’man al-Hudheyfi, the political leader of the akhdam, reference prominent figures like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela to give international visibility to his political struggle.

In Morocco, it has been the growing public attention to violence and discrimination against sub-Saharan Africans that has recently opened a debate on the issue of anti-black racism and its connections to the history of slavery. Against the backdrop of these debates, Laura Menin shows how Senegalese students and young professionals experience, interpret, and reckon with racism in their everyday lives. Their stories suggest that while the legacies of slavery affect local constructions of ’blackness’, current racism against black Africans also speaks to contemporary dynamics in Morocco, in which media stigmatisation, unemployment, widespread poverty and social insecurity work together to nourish social tensions and resentment vis-à-vis the “new” comers.

From different perspectives, these pieces show the complex ways in which ’blackness’ is embodied, experienced, represented and contested by different social actors - be they slave descendants of African origins, haratin, or Sub-Saharan African students and professionals.

Lived legacies and present pasts

The processes of abolition and emancipation followed different paths and took place at different times in North Africa and the Middle East. The consequences have also varied greatly depending on the context. Yet while not all black-skinned people are descendants of slavery, nor are all slave descendants black, one important legacy that this history has left behind across the board is the close connection between blackness and slavery in the popular imagination. This had led socially ’white’ people to position socially ’black’ people in lower or subordinate positions.

An important legacy that the region’s slave history has left behind across the board is the close connection between blackness and slavery in the popular imagination.

In many contexts, colour attribution reveals more about local dynamics of power, status and origin than colour itself. This emerges clearly in Marta Scaglioni’s piece on the meanings and practices associated to ’blackness’ among the ’Abid Ghbonton, a community of slave descendants in southern Tunisia. She shows how visions of ’blackness’ rooted in the history of slavery in Tunisia re-emerge, in different guises, in her interlocutors’ everyday lives and aesthetics. This makes both ’blackness’ and colour central concerns, for women especially, in relation to marriage, beauty, and social prestige.

Not all countries have, like post-revolution Tunisia, begun to centre questions of race and colour in public debates. In other contexts, like the Emirates, these remain taboo topics. Former slaves became Emirati citizens in 1971, several years after abolition in 1963, and since then the process of modern state-building has since sought to include them within a single ’Arab’ national identity. As a consequence, the roots of many Emiratis in the Indian Ocean and East Africa have become lost. They have not been forgotten, however, and even though the slave past is officially silenced, Idil Akinci shows how the daily dynamics of colour, origin, and race expose the limits of Emirati citizenship in absorbing difference.

It is often when marriage is at stake that questions of colour and origin matter, making a slavery past vividly present in people’s lives. Alice Bellagamba’s contribution focuses precisely on marriage, a crucial question in the Kolda region of Senegal, as one important site where the shadows of slavery become palpable. In this context, a marriage between a slave descendant and a person of free or noble ancestry isnot only met with social opprobrium on the side of the latter, but also considered unideal by the person ’marrying up’. Even though an increasing number of young people aspire to a marriage based on love rather than on local norms, questions of origin and race continue to have an impact in a context where marriage remains a key factor of social reproduction.

Taken together, the pieces found in this special feature draw attention to the multiple and complex ways the shadows of slaveryare experienced, reckoned with, and even politically mobilised by different social actors in West Africa, North Africa and the Middle East. These present pasts, as Alice Bellagamba reminds us, overlap with and influence current socio-political dynamics.

Laura Menin is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Milano Bicocca. She has conducted research in Morocco since 2008, working on migration, love and intimacy, political violence during ‘the years of lead’, and ‘race’ and racism.



“In the skin of a black”: Senegalese students and young professionals in Rabat

Laura Menin

13 February 2018

Even student and young professional Senegalese migrants have to navigate the legacies of slavery in Morocco as ‘Africans’.

Photo: Essaouira, Morocco. Julien Lagarde/flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In a 2012 interview titled “Dans la peau d’un noir au Maroc”, Bassirou Ba, a Senegalese professional, narrated his experience of being black-skinned person in Morocco. Like many Senegalese students, Ba arrived in Morocco on a scholarship to complete his studies and also found employment there. In 2007, he gained a master’s degree in journalism and communication in Rabat and worked as journalist for a number of francophone magazines. However, his experience was also marked by multiple everyday forms of racism that reveal, in his view, the sense of superiority that some Moroccans feel vis-à-vis sub-Saharan Africans, and their views of black people as ‘slaves’, ‘servants’, and ‘moral inferiors’.

Ba’s testimony is part of a debate underway in Morocco about the issue of ‘anti-black racism’ and its relationship with the racial legacies of slavery. The magazine Jeune Afrique helped begin this debate in the early 2000s by publishing personal testimonies of both black individuals from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africans on their own experiences with racism. The attention given to this question has substantially increased since 2013, however, following a spate of violent incidents between Moroccans and sub-Saharan migrants that included the murders of the Congolese Alexis Toussaint and the young Senegalese Ismail Faye.

In the aftermath of growing civil violence, the King Mohammed VI launched a new immigration policy, which included the regularisation of undocumented migrants in 2014. International NGOs, Moroccan human rights organisations, and sub-Saharan migrants’ associations came together to denounce institutional violence as well as widespread anti-black attitudes against sub-Saharan African migrants. The national campaign Je ne m’appelle pas ‘azzi was launched in 2014 to raise public awareness on racism in Moroccan society.

Many Moroccan human rights and anti-racist activists connected racism against sub-Saharan migrants to the stigmatising visions conveyed in media and political discourses, which were, in turn, the consequence of violent transnational migration policies. Another line of argument, popularised in independent press, interpreted the persistence of colour prejudices against black Africans as a fundamental racial legacy of slavery, drawing on the work of prominent scholars such as Chouki El Hamel, author of Black Morocco: A history of Slavery, Race and Islam. While both discourses captured important aspects surrounding ‘racism’ in Morocco, they risked reducing its complexity to either historical or political factors.

The narratives of the Senegalese students and young professionals I met in Rabat in 2014 pointed to something much more complicated. Unlike the stigmatised transit population, the people with whom I spoke occupied privileged positions as university students and professionals. Moreover, due to the historical commercial, religious, and cultural connections between Senegal and Morocco, most of them arrived in Morocco full of expectations for a country they imagined to be “the natural prolongation of his homeland” – as one person put it – and a very religious country. Upon arrival, however, they were confronted with racial prejudices, if not overt racism (from being insulted in the street, to having stones thrown at them, to being spat upon) and discovered that linguistic, social cultural and chromatic barriers made their integration difficult.

Let us start with Mohammed.
Mohammed’s story

When I met Mohammed in 2014 he was a 25-year-old masters student in Rabat and also worked in a Moroccan company. Recalling his arrival in 2009, he said, “before I left, my mother said: you have the opportunity to become more religious”. However, the reality he encountered in the cosmopolitan Rabat generated a sense of estrangement.

When he first ventured outside the university residence with a friend, he was confronted with racist insults. The son of the greengrocer called him ‘azzi, a derogatory term he had never heard before and which contextually means negro, black, slave. “The problem is the adults”, he said. “If the child is allowed to say this and his father does not react, he is the one who authorises him to insult the blacks”. Mohammed also recalled an incident that deeply marked him:

“When you see an elderly person, you respect him because he might be your uncle. One day I went out to go to the fac. I was awaiting a taxi in the street. I called the taxi, and when it stopped, an old man got up, and when I tried to get up, the elder man said in French: ’I don’t take a taxi with a negro’.”

When I asked him if he thought such racial prejudices were linked to his skin colour, Mohammed highlighted the extent to which the connection between slavery and blackness is rooted in Moroccans’ imagination. “Since there was slavery and there were Arabs who owned black slaves, Moroccans think that all blacks are slaves”, he said. “Also the King owned black slaves. When they see a black they think he is a slave”.

[(“When they see a black they think he is a slave.”)]

For Mohammed, the history of racialised slavery in Morocco affects not only slave descendants, but also people who come from regions of sub-Saharan Africa regardless of their ancestry. Apart from Moroccans who have travelled or migrated abroad, who are more empathetic because they have experienced racism and discrimination in Europe, Mohammed thinks that in general racial prejudices pervade all sectors of society, including the university. While Mohammed’s reflections point to his deep sense of exclusion, Paul’s narrative further complicates this vision.

Paul’s story

Originally from Dakar, the capital of Senegal, Paul arrived in Morocco in 2005 to start his university studies in medicine. When he started his specialisation at the hospital, he became part of a small group of predominantly Moroccan students and, for the first time, he was confronted with the local population at the ER. This enabled him to develop a deeper understanding of society and in his conversations with me he emphasised the widespread frustration felt by many Moroccans: “I am a foreigner and I have a college scholarship when there are Moroccans who cannot afford to study at university and don’t have a job. One must understand the attitude of these people, who are marginalised and who think ‘these foreigners study or work in the place of my son’”.

While emphasising the plight of the local population, he disclosed that he had been confronted with racist insults and violent attacks in popular neighbourhoods or outside the university residence. While he described these people as marginal, ignorant, poor, and seeking ways to survive, he said that racism is often a motivation to attack, verbally or physically, black Africans. “When you walk in a street and they throw stones at you, or spit on you, they aren’t seeking money. This is racism.”

[(“When you walk in a street and they throw stones at you, or spit on you, they aren’t seeking money. This is racism.”)]

Subtle forms of discrimination and racial prejudice are also present in the university. For Paul, some Moroccan students’ limited knowledge of Africa and its history and culture, along with the stereotypical representations conveyed by television programmes, contribute to racial prejudices. “In schools they don’t study the history of Africa, they only associate it war, famine, poverty”, he said. “Every time they see a black, they identify it with it. A student asked me, did you have schools? Do you have roads? Do people live on the trees? This shows that much is to be done on the educational and cultural level”.

Paul highlighted how racial prejudices against black Africans affect their intimate lives. When he was in the first years of university, he had love relationships with Moroccan female students, but these ended because of the social pressures. “People gossiped about me with her and said that she was an easy girl because they don’t conceive, or accept, that a Moroccan girl can be together with a young black man”. For Paul, the fact that some Moroccans consider black individuals as inferior does not affect only sub-Saharan Africans, but also black Moroccans. “Some families would not marry their daughter to a black Moroccan man because of his skin colour. It is changing, but this still exists”, he said.

The firm, anti-racist stance of a large part of Moroccan civil society clearly demonstrates that racism is not only enacted, but also locally debated, contested and struggled against. Along with the racial prejudices described by my interlocutors, the everyday exchanges between Moroccans and sub-Saharan Africans reveal different dynamics, including cooperation, dialogue, mutual curiosity, friendship and love. However, the ways Mohammed and Paul experience and interpret ’racism’ reveal how intertwined historical and contemporary socio-political dynamics shape specific racial prejudices and forms of social exclusion against black Africans. Their perspectives suggest that the racial legacies of slavery invest not only marginalised undocumented migrants, but also the more privileged students and professionals with elements of the social inferior status historically accorded to black slaves. At the same time, Morocco’s ambivalent positioning in international political arenas, media stigmatisation, poor knowledge of Africa and Africans, rising unemployment, and widespread poverty and social insecurity work together to nourish frustrations, social tensions and resentments vis-à-vis the ’newcomers’. Mohammed’s and Paul’s reflections invite us to reflect on, instead of taking it for granted, the relations between the historical and the contemporary in post-slavery contexts.

This Guest Week week presents the results of research carried out by the team of ERC GRANT, ‘Shadows of Slavery in West Africa and Beyond (SWAB): a Historical Anthropology’ (Grant Agreement: 313737). The team has researched in Tunisia, Chad, Ghana, Madagascar, Morocco, Pakistan and Italy under the leadership of Alice Bellagamba. The team has invited Giupeppe Maimone, Idil Akinci, and Luca Nevola to participate in the discussion.