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Shadows of slavery part two: race, colour and origins in northwest Africa and the Middle East

This second section of our collection Shadows of Slavery explores how race, colour and origins shape social dynamics and political imaginations across northwest Africa and the Middle East.

Guillaume Colin & Pauline Penot/Flickr. CC (by-nc-nd)

Over the past decade, growing public and media attention to the racial and colour-based discrimination faced by black Africans in the Maghreb and in the Middle East – be they sub-Saharan African migrants, slave descendants, black Maghrebians or haratin (a term generally translated as 'freed blacks' or 'free blacks') – has opened up new spaces to debate the relationship between 'racism' and legacies of slavery in the two regions.

Whereas societal debates on slavery and its contemporary legacies are far from new in a context like Mauritania, where former slaves and slave descendants have struggled for decades against enduring slavery and descent-based discrimination, in many other North African and Middle Eastern countries they have emerged only relatively recently or remain unspoken. 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.

Contributors featured in this second section of Shadows of slavery: refractions of the past, challenges of the present seek to unpack the questions of race, colour, and origin in different post-slavery contexts in West Africa, North Africa, and the Middle East by interrogating their connections with local histories of slavery and their contemporary legacies. Drawing on fresh case studies from Mauritania, Yemen, Morocco, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Senegal, 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. The ambition is to offer a comparative reflection on the multiple ethnographic manifestations, and performative powers, of the racial legacies of slavery in contemporary northwest Africa and the Middle East.

Only a 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 has thankfully started to change, especially after Bernard Lewis’ (1990) Race and Slavery in the Middle East: A historical inquiry opened up new lines of inquiry and research on the topic. Since then, a growing body of historical works (think Ronald Segal, Bouazza Benachir, Ehud Toledano, John Hunwick, Eve Troutt Powell, Paul Lovejoy, Terence Walz, Kenneth Cuno, Bruce Hall, Chouki El Hamel, Ismael Montana and Behnaz Mirzai) has significantly enriched our knowledge of the history of slavery and race in West Africa and the Mediterranean Muslim world. Along with historians, a number of anthropologists have furthermore explored the shadows of slavery in the lived experiences of slave descendants and haratin, especially in Mauritania and in the Maghreb area.

Alongside growing scholarly attention to questions of race, colour and (post-)slavery, since the early 2000s magazines such as Jeune Afrique have published personal testimonies of both Black Maghrebians and sub-Saharan Africans, opening societal discussions on the previously taboo topics of racism and racial discrimination. The questions posed regarding identity and discrimination in these early 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 have 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” (ni oussif, ni azzi: baraka et 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?

The politics of 'blackness' in northwest Africa and the Middle East

Tracing the local meanings of race, with its complex relations to ideas of colour, origin, and descent, some of the pieces in this section discuss the varied ways in which the racial legacies of slavery are evoked and mobilised in the different forms of activism, political subjectivities, and societal debates.

In Mauritania, where slavery was abolished in 1981, the anti-slavery organisation El Hor 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.

Ann McDougall’s piece expands this discussion by comparing Dah Abeid’s political language and action to the political thought of the Messaoud, the founder of the NGO SOS Esclaves established in 1995. Differently from Dah Abeid, Messaoud does not conceive the historical enslavements of the haratin in Mauritania and their current marginality to mere chromatic opposition between socially ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’, as it was in the United States, but rather regards slavery as the key social institution to understand present unequal relations. Central to Maimone’s and McDougall’s pieces is the idea that the history of slavery plays a critical role in present-day racism and descent-based discrimination, and to the different forms of activism and political vocabularies that struggle to end them.

Colour is a powerful tool for political mobilisation, as Luca Nevola’s piece on Yemen shows. There 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 Nevola argues, 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. This is not only because questions of race and colour have long been surrounded by silence. It is also because, despite the presence of longstanding colour prejudices in these regions, local constructions of race conventionally centre on questions of genealogical origin (asl) and social status more than mere skin colour. In this sense, an idea of anti-black racism, or racism based on skin colour, emerges as the product of both recent local developments and global encounters. Crucially, indeed, 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 their political struggle.

While in Mauritania societal debates and anti-racist activism centre mainly on the situation of the haratin and in Yemen on the situation of the akhdam, in Morocco sub-Saharan African migrants remain the focus of attention. The growing public attention to violence and discrimination against sub-Saharan Africans 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 continue to affect local constructions of ‘blackness’, current racism against black Africans also speaks to contemporary Moroccan dynamics where media stigmatisation, unemployment, widespread poverty and social insecurity work together to nourish social tensions and resentment vis-à-vis the new comers.

In other 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, especially for women 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, however. 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 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. As an anonymous contributor demonstrates, even though the slave past is officially silenced 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 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 is not 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 in this section reveal that the processes of abolition and emancipation followed different paths and took place at different times in North Africa and the Middle East, and that 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.

Perhaps most importantly, what the pieces in this section demonstrate is that there is not one single answer to the question of the (racial) legacies left by centuries of African slavery and the slave trade in these regions, but many different situations that require careful examination and contextualisation. The multiple ways in which ideas of race, colour and origin are embodied, contested, and mobilised by different social actors reveal precisely this irreducible diversity and complexity.

About the author

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.


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