Maryam Abu Khaled certainly did not expect to become one of the faces of the Black Lives Matter movement in the Middle East. And yet, in less than a week, this young Palestinian actress has become the voice of citizens in Arab countries who face supposedly "good-natured" racism because they have black skin. "I'm told that racism in the United States has nothing to do with racism in the Arab world. That at least here, we don't kill people," she says in a viral video with over two million views on Instagram.
"Do you realize that what you say with love can ruin a person's mental health and destroy their confidence?" Khaled asks. She remembers the moment she heard a mother tell her child not to stay in the sun "so that they don't burn and look like Maryam" and the time a father explained to his son, "if some people are Black, it's because their families have left them in the oven." She urges people who say such things to stop. "It's not too late. We can teach the new generation what is right and wrong."
Maryam's rant shows that in Arab countries as elsewhere, the despicable death of George Floyd has led to a proliferation of discussions around anti-Black racism. The debate takes place mainly on social networks with, at times, a clumsiness that indicates profound ignorance. Trying to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, the Algerian influencer Souhila Ben Lachhab appeared on Instagram with half her face painted black. Tania Saleh, a Lebanese singer, posted a photo of her face blackened and haloed with frizzy hair. Despite multiple protests, both refused to remove these photos, which continue the racist tradition of blackface.
In a more considerate manner, Ascia, a Kuwaiti influencer, had Afro-Arab creators take control of her Instagram account (2.7 million followers) from June 11 to 18. She believes that "The #BlackLivesMatter movement may have started in America, but it has taught us to look at our countries and regions with new eyes, opening our eyes to the depths of racism." Zainad Elhaji, her first guest, released a video discussing blackface.
Nihal Abdellatif, a 25-year-old graphic designer who grew up in Dubai and whose family is originally from Sudan, has also experienced discrimination. "Racism is not as direct as it is in the United States, but it is present. I have never experienced violence, but I have dealt with harassment, insults and the invalidation of my experiences, especially at school. And yet it is as if it doesn't exist. Racism is denied or often reduced to a mere joke," she explains. Abdellatif feels disappointed Dubai has no equivalent to the African-American history courses taught in the U.S., which would help citizens better understand the foundations of this oppression.
In a 2018 article, Hoda Salem, a young Sudanese-Egyptian woman, recounted the complexities of being Black in an Arab country. Thanks to her privileged social status, which allows her to wear meticulous outfits and speak excellent Arabic, she is often able to avoid racist assaults. This treatment, however, disappears as soon as she's in the company of refugees from sub-Saharan Africa, with whom she is immediately mistaken for a maid or a prostitute.
Her story shows how racism in the Arab world is a multidimensional phenomenon. "It is not only related to skin color, but also to social class or nationality," says Palestinian writer Susan Abulhawa, author of an op-ed piece on the Workers World Party's website that calls for an open-minded look at both the Arab world's history of slavery and anti-Black racism.
Many Arabs who are not Black are trying to raise awareness
This discrimination can be doubled for the poor and working-class. Because of kafala, a widespread guardianship system in Arab countries, all domestic workers are at the mercy of their employers and potentially exposed to abuse. But for African women workers, this vulnerability is coupled with an implicit sub-hierarchy. As detailed in a 2018 Slate article, African workers in Lebanon are often paid less than Filipino workers, for example, who are considered more educated and "whiter."
Tunisia is the only Arab country where support for the Afro-American uprising manifested itself in the streets of the capital — Photo: Xinhua/ZUMA
In 2012, a wave of outrage followed the release of a video from Beirut showing Alem Dechasa, an Ethiopian domestic worker, being attacked in the street by her recruiter. The desperate young woman subsequently committed suicide. Writer Susan Abulhawa is still moved by this: "This man would never have treated a woman wearing the hijab in this way. He committed the attack in full view of everyone because he thought it was normal to behave that way. A Black body did not deserve his compassion." Despite the scandal, such horrible incidents continue to be repeated in Lebanon and elsewhere.
How can we rectify the situation? Over the past few days, graphic designer Niha Abdellatifl and a dozen other Arab and Afro-Arab activists based in Jordan, Oman, Egypt, England and the U.S. have been meeting virtually on Zoom to try to move the debate forward. They decided to focus on the problem of vocabulary because in Arabic, words used to refer to Black people are often loaded with heavy connotations. "Abd," for example, can mean both Black and slave.
"We want to draw up a list of words in all dialects to find out their etymology and see what we can do with them," says Chama Mechtaly, a young Moroccan woman who proudly claims her Berber origins. "For us, it is important to work on language because it is the first instrument of domination." The young women also plan to work on the representation of Afro-Arabs in the media.
For Abdellatifl, the Black Lives Matter movement is definitely having a positive effect in the region. "Before, the subject was never discussed on social networks. Today, I see more and more people taking up the issue. Many Arabs who are not Black are trying to raise awareness, explain concepts, educate people. This is a good sign, even if it will take a lot of work to see a real change."
Tunisia is the only Arab country where support for the Afro-American uprising manifested itself in the streets of the capital. The country stands out for its legislative advances (including the passing of a law condemning racism in 2018) and a particularly dynamic activist movement, led by pioneers including Maha Abdelhamid and Huda Mzioudet who fight discrimination against Black Tunisians.
Abdelhamid and Mzioudet, along with four other women, founded the Voice of Black Tunisian Women movement. These intellectuals are fighting against their invisibility in society, drawing attention to the historical foundations of racism and denouncing crimes that are still too numerous — including the 2018 death of Falikou Koulibaly, president of the Association of Ivorians in Tunisia. For them, the struggle continues within the activist sphere itself.
Maha Abdelhamid publicly lamented that the June 6th demonstration was appropriated and taken over by associations who came to defend other causes, from the Palestinian struggle to the queer revolution, while "Black activists were trying to make a place for themselves in Tunisian civil society." According to Abdelhamid, these demonstrators were indirectly saying "we Arabs have more important causes than the fight against racism against Blacks," considering it a new expression of insidious racism, "worse than direct or ostentatious racism."
*This article was translated with permission of the author.
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