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“She is not a ‘Abid”: blackness among slave descendants in southern Tunisia

Connected first by a slave-master relationship and now by geographical proximity, the ‘white’ and ‘black’ populations of Ghbonton, Tunisia have a complex relationship with each other.

Photo by author. All rights reserved.

“She is the friend of Marwa. She is a Ghbonton, but not an ‘abid one”, Zeira said to me. She’s a colourfully dressed, middle-aged woman, and we’re sitting on the patio of her one-storey, cement block house in Gosbah, a village in the arid environment of southern Tunisia. While ‘abid (singular: ‘abd) means literally ‘slaves’ in Arabic, Zeira was not referring to Marwa’s legal status. Slavery in Tunisia was abolished in 1846. ‘Abid is now a historical category in southern Tunisia, marking certain individuals as the descendants of former slaves and positioning them at the bottom of local social hierarchies. The ‘Abid Ghbonton – a Southern Tunisian tribe of slave descendants – live side by side in Gosbah with the Ghbonton, their former masters, dwelling on the less fertile and less watered part of the land.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the ‘Abid Ghbonton officially parted from the Ghbonton lineage, whom they had been allegedly serving as slaves since ancient times. After their manumission they remained bonded to them by a pre-Islamic institution known as wala’. This obliged them to keep their former master’s family name as their own, with the addition of the ‘slave’ prefix, and to carry out sporadic domestic chores for the ‘whites’. In Zeira’s imagination, ‘abd was synonymous with ‘black’.

Even though “black and white are not … real colours [but social ones]”, as one shopkeeper in Gosbah explained, blackness is an everyday concern for the ‘Abid Ghbonton. It positions them, through a triangulation of blackness, slavery descent and socio-economic marginalisation, as inferiors within the highly hierarchical social universe of Southern Tunisia.

Slavery and blackness in Tunisia

Even though Tunisia imported both ‘white’ (or elite) slaves and ‘black’ slaves, only the latter were defined as ‘abd and employed in the most physically demanding jobs. Historically, blackness in Muslim societies stems from a long-standing hierarchical ordering of humanity which goes back to well before the colonial conquest. Since Tunisia, like all Muslim countries, is patrilineal, ‘social blackness’ stems from the absence of an Arab lineage rather than bodily features or skin colour.

Being a black slave entailed a high degree of interracial mixing and with it came chances at upward social mobility. For example, black slave women were also traded and sold as concubines, and the strict patrilineal and patrilocal system prevalent in Arab societies contributed greatly to the racial absorption of their children. Indeed, children of concubines were legally free and belonged to the ‘white’ lineage of their fathers, even though their skin was brown or black. Generations later both black and white Tunisians now carry a wide range of skin colours, and differences in their physical appearance are less distinct.

Children of concubines were legally free and belonged to the ‘white’ lineage of their fathers, even though their skin was brown or black.

After abolition in 1846, the triangulation between slavery, blackness, and a socially inferior echelon condensed and acquired further negative connotations, because many freed black slaves ended up in situations of deprivation, impoverishment, vagrancy, prostitution and peddling. Therefore, non-whiteness began to be structurally linked to poverty, and to other stereotypes such as disreputability, sexual availability (nowadays, around 10% of prostitutes in Tunis are of slave descent), inclination to crime – especially stealing – and ugliness.

Today, the ‘Abid Ghbonton are no longer professionally exploited as they used to be, but, they still experience the enduring legacies of slavery in the form of severe racism, geographical marginalisation, and social and political discrimination. Furthermore, strict endogamic practices prevent marital bonds and alliances forming between the two lineages: ‘Abid Ghbonton and Ghbonton.

As a consequence of their being racialised as ‘blacks’, the ‘Abid Ghbonton suffer from a number of negative stereotypes: they are considered to originate from Sudanic Africa, and are often referred to, as many other black Tunisians, as ifriqyin (Africans). ‘White’ Tunisians – those claiming Arab descent – would not define themselves as such. As one activist who started questioning racism and discrimination after the 2011 overthrow of the former dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, told me: “The connection to slavery is still present … here. Now they (the blacks) are called ‘oh wassif’ (servant) and they tell you ‘oh, you come from Africa’! As if Tunisia was in another continent”.

While ‘blackness’ is accorded negative meaning, ‘whiteness’ is connected with social prestige and high status. I will try to unpack the categories of whiteness and blackness, as they are evoked and mobilised on the level of aesthetics and marital alliances in the everyday life of the ‘Abid Ghbonton.

Aesthetics of blackness

For the Ghbonton, ‘whiteness’ is conceptually connected to ideas of beauty and purity. “In Tunisian you even say, ‘what is Barca (the Spanish football team) doing? White or black’ (is it winning or is it losing)?” the blacksmith of Gosbah explained. In the intimacy of their households or when they gather together in cafés, the Ghbonton can use wassif or ‘abid to refer to the ‘Abid Ghbonton and ahrar (literally, ‘freemen’) to refer to themselves.

The term ‘abd, for the Ghbonton, has a double connotation: it can be used either neutrally as a lineage denomination or as a pejorative. For example, in 2016, a young man from Gosbah, was – most probably wrongfully – accused of having stolen some cash from the driver of a minibus. The driver, a man from the white Ghbonton tribe, rushed to Gosbah screaming “the ‘abd had stolen my money!”. As this incident shows, every single day ‘Abid Ghbonton have to reckon with, and struggle against, prejudices of dishonesty and aggressiveness, which are linked to the enduring stigma of slavery and blackness.

Nonetheless, today, the comparison between historical forms of racialisation and racial constellations on the ‘Abid Ghbonton reveals important discontinuities. Although many people told me a person is socially black because he/she “comes from the blacks”, Tunisians’ racial thinking is fluid and has changed over time and context. Physical markers, for example, have become increasingly important since the lineages parted even though the separation is justified on the grounds of descent. Nowadays, the ‘Abid Ghbonton are very concerned with their appearance and with their ‘blackness’, and especially women envy others’ ‘whiteness’ and try to whiten and conceal their skin colour with beauty products.

The ideal that “the whites do not get married to the blacks” was called into question 20 years ago, when men from the ‘Abid Ghbonton started marrying to white, non-Ghbonton women. Some of these women come from Mednine, from the neighbouring Djerba, and sometimes from abroad. In speaking with the women, it seems that while their families at times protested against the marriage it wasn’t because of the slave descent of the intended grooms. For example, Selma, who comes from a village next to Mednine, is white and her husband is from Gosbah. She recalled: “my brother was worried [about my marriage] because Gosbah is not a nice place to live in”.

Hilel, whose mother is Algerian (and racialised as ‘white’) and whose father is a ‘Abid Ghbonton, is herself commonly considered to be ‘white’. She has now married an ‘Abid Ghbonton herself and is very concerned about the appearance of her one-year-old daughter. The fear is that she might turn out samara (brown).

The patrilineal system of racialisation has also become less powerful over time. Women in Tunisia still get married into a patrilineal system, but their heritage now also plays a role in determining how their children will be categorised. Hilel is racialised as white because her mother is white, and in spite of her father’s blackness. Her daughter thus has some chance of not growing samara even though her father is black. It is worth noting that ‘Abid Ghbonton are more concerned by the blackness of their daughters than that of their boys. When I asked another white woman what the problem was in growing into a black woman, she told me that it is not “desirable”. A black woman could have less chances to get married, she said, drawing an implicit connection between blackness and ugliness.

Conclusion

Some racial conceptions about blackness in Tunisia have survived covertly up to present days, crystallising in the triangulation between blackness, slavery, and inferior social position. The ‘Abid Ghbonton are racialised by their servile past, which is epitomised by their lineage name and by their skin colour. The emphasis put on skin colour throws into question the classical theory of race in the Middle East, according to which colour appears as relatively marginal.

However, race in southern Tunisia is also a fluid concept. ‘Abid Ghbonton have found strategies of racial upward social mobility through mixed marriages, and created a specific niche for mixed children. Depending on the context, women’s power in determining their children’s social position has furthermore grown as of late, in sharp contrast to the strict patrilineal ruling patterns of racial transmission in the past.


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, Luca Nevola, and an anonymous contributor to participate in the discussion.

About the author

Marta Scaglioni is a PhD Fellow at the University of Bayreuth, Germany, and the University of Milan-Bicocca, Italy.


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