The Black Arab Experience: the silenced struggle of our black brothers and sisters overseas
“The dominant narrative is that, in Islam, we are all brothers and sisters and there is no discrimination. And when you explain how often you’re called ‘kahloucha’ (derogatory word for black) or ‘wassifa’ (a slave name), they argue that they are terms of endearment, but they clearly are not”.
- Rania Belhaj, member of Mnemty (a Tunisian anti-racism organisation)
In 2012, the Moroccan government refused to allow the formation of an anti-racism association on the grounds that race is a concept that does not exist in Morocco and therefore racism is also non-existent in Morocco. This decision will undoubtedly have bitterly disappointed the black African and black Moroccan community, who have endured and continue to endure oppression, abuse and cruel gaslighting. This issue isn’t exclusive to Morocco, many MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries subdue their black communities and deny the presence of racism. Instead, these governments look to the USA and UK when condemning racism and yet are blind (or choose to ignore) to what is happening on their own land.
For years, the black Arab community has suffered under governments and societies that consistently ignore them and because of this, their plights have gone under the radar for far too long. A video that went viral in 2020 sparked a worldwide conversation about the underhand traits of Arab society that are inherently racist. Palestinian actress Maryam Abu Khaled recounts her experiences as a black Arab. People would inappropriately comment on dark skin tones and tell their children not to go and play in the sun or they ‘will look like Maryam’. Maryam emphasised that these comments, although not overtly abusive, will impact young children’s understanding of the world and people. Maryam’s experiences are common in the Arab world and these comments are often dismissed as a joke or harmless. Countless incidents where black Arabs or black Africans living in the MENA regions are attacked and even killed have escaped news headlines and so international awareness is limited.
Image | Credit: Shinya Fujiwara
In December 2018, Falikou Coulibaly, a young Ivorian man living in Tunisia, was stabbed to death. He was the president of an Ivorian Association in Tunisia and often spoke out on racism in Tunisia, commenting on the increased violence on the Ivorian community. Despite the growing evidence of racism within Tunisia, the authorities denied any racist element to the attack. A member of the Tunisian parliament, Faycel Tebini, emphasised that “There is no racial discrimination in Tunisia.”
To understand more about life as a black Arab, I interviewed the founder of @the_Mazeej_project, Sophia Griss Bembe. The Mazeej (mazeej means mixed) project is an Instagram page dedicated to voicing black Arab issues. This one-woman Instagram project perfectly voices serious and overlooked issues whilst also commenting on shared thoughts and experiences of the black Arab community.
Why did you start the Mazeej Project page and what kind of future will the Mazeej project have?
It was originally quite a selfish idea because I wanted to create a page that I would’ve liked to find on Instagram showing people like me who share similar experiences to me, especially when it comes to the search for identity. I am mixed race and was born and raised in France and growing up it was always a bit complicated to find people with whom I could talk to and share my experiences with and feel totally comfortable. The platform became a page of solidarity where people could exchange ideas and experiences and it actually helped a lot of people and brought them a sense of comfort which makes me so happy. In the long term, I would really love to do more with the cultural aspect of the page because it’s something that really means a lot to me. I promote a lot of artists on my page and the arts and culture and youth are things which are very important to me. Ideally, I’d love to create educational programs for young people, like an Erasmus program except more Panafrican. For example, an Algerian could go to Guinea or Senegal to learn how to play the kora (an instrument). I imagine a program that helps build bridges between Africa and MENA.
Video | Source: @yusufnubi
What do you think are the main differences between anti-black racism in the Western world and anti-black racism in the Arab world? Why?
I really think the main difference is a much bigger denial of racism in the Arab world. People say like “oh we’re Muslim, we’re not racist so it (racism) doesn’t exist”, which makes it hard to progress with the problem of racism when the problem itself is being denied.
How has your black-Arab identity impacted you as a person?
I’d say that my experience wasn’t the easiest. The first time I went to Morocco when I was young, I was so excited to discover my origins and my ancestors' land but I felt very rejected by the culture so sometimes it was quite a painful experience. Luckily with time and as we grow older, we develop our own understanding and I was able to heal from the bad things that I experienced. This is my personal experience. I know others that have had way better experiences so it’s different for everyone. I see my mix of cultures as valuable, even if carrying this identity can be a challenge at times. It’s not easy making peace with a part of your identity that often seems to reject you.
What, if any, anti-black racism have you experienced, as a black Arab?
I think black Arabs experience racism so often, I could fill up a whole book with all the racism I alone have experienced whether it’s in the street, from my own family, friends, even in romantic relationships. I’ve experienced a lot of racism and it reveals the level of denial that Arab society has regarding racism in general. It can go from comments on your complexion, appearance, hair and nose. For example, when you’re mixed race someone could say “oh it’s alright at least you’re not too black” as a compliment. In the street they’ll compare you to anything/anyone black like a black bin or a monkey. They even say quite obscene and degrading things, so yeah there’s a lot. It’s true that when I started this page I actually didn’t want to talk about racism which is without a doubt naive on my behalf. I just really wanted to portray people like me in a positive and rewarding light without the common racist rhetoric but seeing as racism is so powerful I couldn’t actually avoid it. I felt forced to talk about it because it’s so common and is a part of the reality in Arab countries.
Sometimes, being black Arab means you may be excluded from the black community and/or the Arab community. What can you say about this issue?
It was a lot easier to integrate in the black community, it was more welcoming and I was valued a lot more - but I guess that’s due to another form of colourism because I am lighter and unfortunately that’s seen as better. So yeah it was always easier for me to be in the black community but there’ll always be something missing for me.
Image | Source: @the_mazeej_project
What do you think needs to be done to fix this issue?
Unfortunately, I don’t have any solutions. That’s what I say to anyone who asks what we can do to change things and change people’s mentality. This page was created for us to connect and for us to be organised. I don’t intend to convince people or try to make them understand anything. This is not my problem. I do not work for others. I work for us, for people who recognise themselves in the black Arab identity. That’s my only job. As for solving the issue, I really don’t know.
Sophia, though she says she has no solutions, is part of the solution. As she mentions, racism is heavily denied in the Arab world and this feeds into why it is so rife. Raising awareness and holding any and everyone accountable who presents signs of anti-black racism (and racism in general) is something anyone can do wherever they are. Comments like comparing a black person to a monkey or saying a black person was left out in the sun for too long seem to slide in the Arab world whereas they wouldn’t be tolerated in the UK. All MENA countries must accept that racism is a significant issue that must be addressed and organisations that combat these issues must be established. Until then, we must do our part to support our black brothers and sisters overseas.
Abrehet is our Arts & Culture Editor and a third year student studying BA Theatre & Arabic at the University of Leeds. She is pursuing a career in theatre directing and screenwriting, and is interested in foreign languages and cultures and filmmaking. Her Instagram handle is @abi_semra.