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The Complexity of Being Afro-Arab: Where To Draw The Line?

Randa Abd Al Aziz, first black Iraqi TV news anchor. This is a total shame. Why did white Iraqi leaders wait for so long before choosing a black TV anchor?

Being Arab is not a race. Muhammad Bin Salman (M.B.S), the new Saudi Prince is not the prototype when it comes to what an Arab person should look like. Yet, the media and historians have enjoyed placing the M.B.S prototype at the center of everything to illustrate the idea of an Arab identity. In history, in black African history, especially when it comes to the Moors and the ancient Egyptians, the groups were not only Europeanized, but also, Arabized.

Left: Mozarabes, Right: Moorish King. The Mozarabes were chosen by European historians as the faces of the Moors, in order to claim a white “Arab” origin of these African colonizers. The Moors were indeed black, like the man represented on the right, but this blackness was questioned due to the manipulation of the Arab origin put forward. The Mozarabes were Spanish and Portuguese inhabitants who had converted to Islam and who adopted the Moorish practices. It is more acceptable to a Eurocentrist and colonial agent to accept a white Arab colonizer than an black African Arab.

By evoking an Arab origin, the European and Oriental historians knew how to manipulate the thoughts of the modern population, by simply implying that today’s geography was similar to that of the ancient past. Spaces now known as being populated by white people, were originally formed, occupied, by native black populations. Ancient Egypt, Sudan, The Arabian Peninsula and the Levant were either occupied by Canaanites, ancient Egyptians or descendants of Cushites( ancient Ethiopians/Nubians).

The “Middle East” is nothing less than Northeast Africa.

Being Arab is an ethnic group which comprises black, white and mixed people. The modern multiracial Arab identity is the product of the various colonial waves which took place in the Arab world, but the original Arabs were and still are black.

Portrait of a Nubian woman, early 20th century. The original inhabitants of North Africa looked like this. Some looked even more Negroid

In that sense, the appellations Afro-Arab, Afro-Palestinian, Afro-Jordanian, Afro-Egyptians and so many others, make no sense at all. If one uses the pre-fix “Afro”, one implies that these black populations came from somewhere else, and that blackness was always foreign to the modern Arab world, when in reality, blackness was the color of the native populations. Whiteness is the color of the otherness, symbolizing the accumulation of foreign events which transformed the original place which was gradually isolated regarding its own blackness.

Why Is It So Hard For Black Arabs To Acknowledge Anti-Blackness?

Indigène Somalien de Zanzibar, 1895, Arnaville

No matter where you go, no matter who you meet, Afro-Arabs -in this sense, mixed race
Africans and Arabs from the Peninsula and not Black indigenous Arabs from the
Peninsula- all have one thing in common. They are all extremely proud of their two

As I have written in my many books, my identity is rather complex. It is extremely hard for people to understand that a huge part of my “Africanness” comes from the Arab world. Not from one single branch, but rather many. Through my maternal-maternal lineage, my family is Mediterranean (including Sicilian and Greek), Ethiopian, black Egyptian, but it is also from the south of Israel, where many isolated black groups live. Yet, because my direct roots are in the Levant, I also descend from Afro-Palestinians from the West Bank, with roots in North Sudan and Egypt, again. I am an Israeli and a Palestinian, without being an Israeli and a Palestinian. I consider myself to be a Canaanite with roots in Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. From my maternal grandfather, on his mother’s side, I am still African and Arab through the East African Swahili coast, where my Kenyan, Tanzanian, Zambian, Mozambican ancestors mixed with Somalis, Portuguese, Indian Tamils, Yemenis, Persians, Chinese and Indonesians for generations and generations. I am aware of the reality of the slave trade, as this racial admixture I carry was the product of that or simple immigration.

Thus, I am a constant maternal product between Africa and the Arab and Levantine worlds. In that sense, though my Levantine origin is black, it is true that I carry within me a black and white heritage, wherever I go.

Yet, due to colonialism, racism and the Arab slave trade, the Arabs have wanted to put a clear distance between black Africans and Arabs, even when they were black. In reality, a good portion of the Arab slave masters were actually black Arabians (e.g Tippu Tip). The idea of Arabness was placed at the top of everything, and was thus importantly used to dominate the black Africans. The separation was thus a colonial manipulation to exploit and justify the exploitation of the black African bodies. The roots of the Arabian peninsula were actually Cushites and thus black.

The Arabs, as an identity and as a group, politically formed in the 7th century, when the slave trade was established. Crime against the black body was the basis of the Arab political power and domination.

In reality, the specificity of Arab colonialism is that, the Arabs were not a Western white power at all, but a black and brown group which managed to not only colonize, but occupy African lands, they emotionally took away from Africa to place them at the center of a colonial Arab world. North Africa was black and populated by Negroid groups. It was also a place of exchange where various black groups with different phenotypes transited over the years, forming a new population. Yet, the period of Arab colonialism forced an assimilation into a forged Arab identity which eventually erased their black Africanness they possessed in the beginning.

Today’s modern black Arab population is extremely varied, made of various phenotypes. Among them, one finds indigenous black people from the region, descendants of various enslaved Africans, recent immigrants, or mixed-race populations. Still, Western and Oriental historians want to claim that the existence and presence of these black populations from the Arab world can only be explained by the slave trade.

When I was in Bethlehem, Palestinian side, 2019

Because of my roots, I have dealt with a great amount of identity issues that were not
really shared by my counterparts to be honest. The most difficult thing to have faced was the void left by the erasure of our original African identity in the places we originally came from. I avoid speaking about my black Israeli roots for people either think I am lying, believe that I am an Ethiopian Jew (which is probably true too, I don’t know, even if I have roots in Ethiopia), or worst for me, that I am a part of this self-hating black group which are the Black Hebrew Israelites… I prefer turning to writing to express my feelings, rather than sharing my roots with people around me. It is a matter of protection towards my ancestors not to let ignorant people tarnish, debate or attack me for a conception they will surely fail to fathom. I will never debate.

The Trauma of Slavery

Tippu Tip was one of the worst criminals and slave traffickers ever. He was Omani and destroyed the Congo.

It is impossible to justify or explain the
Arab blood running through our veins without mentioning the Arab slave trade and thus
rape. What happened to me, to my lineage to have this blood in me? In the colonial
context, it is more than important to understand how White supremacy plays with words.
Interracial marriages back then were still a form of territorial rape, of colonialism and
domination. If Afro-Arabs differ in terms of generations, some being the descendants of
the first colonizers and others being the sons and daughters of immigrants in Africa, it is
still hard for many of us to admit the cruelty behind our conception.

First of all, we are Africans, yes but mixed with other non-white populations. For this
reason, the colonial aspect of our heritage can not be compared with the experiences of
the Africans forced to marry and reproduce with European colonizers, were they Belgians,
Germans, French or even Portuguese. We were mixed with populations whose members
dominated, yes, but who were also despised by Western Europeans for being deemed too
“barbaric”. The conflicts between the Arabs and Belgians in the Congo at the beginning of
the 20th century highlights our point here.

Since we did not have to experiment the domination of White supremacists, we tend to
believe that our heritage, our conception were less traumatizing. The proximity in skin
tones and sometimes facial features opens a door to a closeness that does not exist for
Black and White mixed race children.

Then, contrary to the European colonizers, Arab slave masters definitely ACKNOWLEDGED
and RECOGNISED the children they made through rape. If the father was an Arab then the
children had the “privilege” to be perceived as Arabs and even received the same
treatments from those living in the Peninsula. If some Arabs abandoned their kids, the
majority kept them and took pride in their identity. Being recognized by the
dominant entity changed our perceptions, eventually. How can one be the product of such
violence and be embraced by the same brutal colonial entity which oppressed another
part of the branch?

Also, often, Western Africans (Africans from the Western part of the continent) consider their blackness to be the basis of blackness, viewing Black Arabs as diluted or less African than them. They are wrong. But this misconception comes from the lies spread by slavery and colonialism, two events which led to the globalization of African identity. We are way too different, diverse in terms of phenotypes, races, identities, that we can not be lumped into the same group. Therefore, the first fight for independence and anti-colonialism, is in the deconstruction of the false identities which were imposed upon us.

This confusion led a generation of Afro-Arabs to deny the existence of anti-Blackness in
their society. Actually, the existence of Indigenous Black Arabs accentuates the clear
distinction among African populations. If we have been falsely called “Blacks” for 400
years, so as to confuse our roots and identities, Africans are not the same, do not look the
same and belong to specific “races”. Arab slavery was not only based on the
dehumanization of the Sub-saharan individual but also on the deep division based on
featurism and colorism.

By recognising us as theirs, Arab slavers succeeded in making us believe that we belong to
another race of Blacks which has to be deemed more superior than that of the Bantu, perceived
as “ugly” and inferior since the 7th century. This created in us a sense of distance from our
own Blackness and an inability to feel for other Blacks. We think of ourselves as White
Arabs first, privileged individuals and never look back. Worst. Since the Arabs are now
dealing with a lot of rejection in the Western world, we even tend to defend their racist
actions pretending that White people are worst. Some went even on to say that the Arab
slave trade was never such a big deal when Arabs are responsible for its beginning. In
reality, if White Arabs proved to be disrespectful and racist towards Blacks, the
worst Arab slave masters were indigenous Black Peninsulars themselves such as Tippu Tip
or Rumaliza.

Slave master Rumaliza

The fact that Islam amplifies the refusal of distinction among people serves the purposes
of racist Arabs who hide behind their religion to dissimulate their real thoughts. Our
identity eventually was created not out of love but manipulation.
Contrary to mixed race European/Africans, indigenous Black Arabs are still present in the
Peninsula and our skin tones, our mixed heritage are not quantified like the Portuguese,
French or Spaniards did their slaves. A mixed-race European/African can not identify
with his/her colonizer for they do not share the same skin tone. Yet, most Afro-Arabs can
identify with the inhabitants of the Peninsula. Millions of Yemenis, Saudis, Omanis or Iraqis
look like me. A lot of them are jet Black, brown skin, even lighter with kinky to curly hair
all the while being 100% Arab. Representation matters and has an impact in our
minds. A mixed race Afro-Arab could also be seen as a full Black Arab from the Peninsula
and that’s where the problem lies. Our heritage made us feel comfortable and insensitive
to the pain another part of our ancestry felt.
It is time today to analyze, understand and question ourselves, not to blame or attack but
to wonder why is it so easy for each of us to deny or doubt the testimonies of millions of
Blacks who suffered at the hands of our forefathers?

The Congolese Arab Example

Interview with Mr. Aboubakar Husseini, Imam of the mosque Quartier 18, Kasongo, RD Congo, © Georges Senga. 

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is famously known for its troubled postcolonial
history, the war in the Eastern part of the country which has claimed up to 10 million of
casualties since 1997, the brutality of Belgian colonialism, national hero Patrice Lumumba
and its talented musicians who have shaped the sound of the whole continent. Besides the
cultural night-life of the capital Kinshasa, the nation often appears in the news for
controversial topics such as Protestant religious abuses, the attack on homeless children
deemed witches and the political instability. Despite it all, the DR of the Congo is certainly
one of the most diverse countries in Central Africa.

The brutal period of Belgian colonialism still shocks people’s minds til this day. Yet, even
if the Belgians and the Germans established fraudulent frontiers which still affect the
political scene between the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, the colonial history of this
gigantic African nation does not begin with the Belgians.
In reality, the DRC was also damaged by the Arab Slave Trade and the raiders. Before the
Belgians came to submit the native Congolese to slavery (colonialism) and barbaric
violence, the indigenous population was already traumatized by the Arab traiders. King
Leopold II and his army put an end to the Arab slave trade, judging it to be inhumane to
later impose colonialism, another form of slavery itself.

At the time, in the 19th century, the Arabs from the Peninsula -Sultanate of Oman and
modern day Saudi Arabia- dominated the Swahili Coast, the island of Zanzibar in modern
day Tanzania and were heavily involved in the kidnapping, deportation of East African
enslaved people who were sent to India, the Middle East and sometimes the Balkans. One
cruel individual went even further in his brutal plan. A Black Arab from Oman, and son of
a rich merchant, Tippu Tip used his appearance to penetrate into the interior of the Congo and
helped his men kidnap innocent people who would never see their land again. Due to
his military strategies, the Arabs occupied the Eastern part of the Congo and sometimes went
as far as the region of Kasai. The province of Manyema, Kasongo, Kisangani, the Kivu and
the Tanganyika regions were then Arabized and occupied by the traiders.

There, the Arab men did not hesitate to rape the local women or forced to marry them.
Contrary to the mentality of the White colonizers whose many men forced
pregnancies against Black women’s desires- to abandon the mixed-race children later- the
Arabs automatically recognised their children, product of abuse or not. Even if the
mother was an indigenous Bantu Congolese, the child had the “privilege” to be
embraced by his Arab father and would therefore become an Arab as well.

Yet, despite it all, the presence of the Arabs was perceived as a threat by the Belgian
colonizers. The Congo only belonged to them in their minds and it was impossible for
Leopold II to share his newly found kingdom with the Arab superpowers. Therefore,
between 1892 and 1894, the two dominant entities fought each other during the CongoArab war which opposed the army of Leopold II and the son of Tippu Tip. The conflict was
a proxy war which resulted in many Congolese indigenous casualties at the time.

Minarets de Kisangani vus au loin/ Kisangani and its Mosque in the back

Eventually, the war marked a defeat of the Arab slavers who renounced.
After the Belgians managed to dominate their new colony, the Arab Muslims were
automatically persecuted and considered a threat to the White Catholic Belgian colonial
authority. In the 1920s, the Sufi influence came back to the Congo through the Tanganyika
region. Yet again, many of these Black Congolese Arab Muslims, sons and daughters of
Arab colonizers, faced persecution, harrasment and even torture in jail at times.

Later, the
economic migration of Senegalese, Hausa, and West African Muslims as a whole in the DR
Congo helped Islam find new strength, especially during the dictatorship of Mobutu.
With the Independence in 1960, Sunni Islam was recognised as a part of the Eastern
Congolese culture. The new wave of immigration of Syrians, Lebanese in the 1970s and
1980s opened a door to shiism. Through marriage or simply exposed to this new spiritual
form, some Congolese born after the Indenpendance decide to convert. Others, supported
by the Iranian governement see some opportunities to study in the best universities of
Teheran. A few old mosques dating back to the late 19th century are still found in the
cities of Mbandaka, Kisangani, Goma and even in Katanga.

Today, a century after the first Arabian conquests, 10 per cent of the Congolese
population consider themselves to be Muslims -both Shiia and Sunni. If the trauma or
shadow of slavery is barely mentioned, many indigenous have found a certain form of
acceptance within the Muslim faith.

By Victoria “VKY” Kabeya. All Rights Reserved,©. 2020©2023

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