Racism in the Modern Arab World


racism(Susan Abulhawa is a Palestinian writer and the author of the international bestselling novel, Mornings in Jenin (Bloomsbury 2010). She is also the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, an NGO for children.  This article is based on her observations.)

Ms. Abulhawa has done extensive research into the attitudes of people around the world in regard to racism.  She speaks of racism in the United States, but adds the Arabic world into the current condition.

“I spent much of much of my youth in the Arab world and I do not recall having a race consciousness until I came to the United States at the age of 13. My knowledge of Arab anti-black racism comes predominantly from Arab Americans. Like other immigrant communities, they adopt the prevailing racist sentiments of the power structure in the US, which decidedly holds African-Americans in contempt.”

Ms. Abulhawa expands on her observations of other worldly groups.

“This attitude is also becoming more prevalent in Arab countries for various reasons, but mostly because Arab governments, particularly those that import foreign labour from Africa and Southeast Asia, have failed to implement or enforce anti-discrimination and anti-exploitation laws.”

Ms. Abulhawa was born in Kuwait.  She says that in her home country, laborers are lured into menial jobs.  In many Arab nations, including Kuwait where she was born, workers are lured into menial jobs where their passports are confiscated upon arrival and they are forced into humiliating and often inhumane working conditions.  They are frequently subjected to sexual, mental, and physical abuse, and are confined to the country in which they live.

She says that the image of wealth, and the powerful “differ from the average Islamist.  She says that images of power and wealth power and wealth have light skin, straight hair, small noses, ruddy cheeks and tall, skinny bodies. That image rejects melanin-rich skin, coiled hair, broad or pointy noses, short stature, broad hips and big legs. So we, too, reject these features, despising them in others and in ourselves as symbols of inferiority, laziness, and poverty. That’s why the anglicising industries of skin bleaching and hair straightening are so profitable.”

Ms. Abulhawa also condemns the largest Arabic nations for their lack of support of a Palestinian state.

“So concerned are Palestinians with what the European Union and the United States think of us. So engrossed are we in groveling for their favor and handouts as they support a system of Jewish supremacy pushing our ancient society into extinction. We dance like clowns any time a European leader spares us a thought. Have we no sense of history? No sense of pride? No comprehension of who is truly standing with us and who is sabotaging us.”

She says that the discussion of a Palestinian state must recongnize that Arabs become a dichotomous “Arab” versus “African”, “ignoring millennia of shared histories ranging from extensive trade and commerce, to the horrors of the Arab slave trade.”

“Unlike the European slave trade, the Arab slave trade was not an important feature of Arab economies and it predominantly targeted women, who became members of harems and whose children were full heirs to their father’s names, legacies and fortunes, without regard to their physical features. The enslaved were not bought and sold as chattel the way we understand the slave trade here, but were captured in warfare, or kidnapped outright and hauled across the Sahara.

“Race was not a defining line and enslaved peoples were not locked into a single fate, but had opportunity for upward mobility though various means, including bearing children or conversion to Islam. No-one knows the true numbers of how many African women were enslaved by Arabs, but one need only look at ourselves to see the shadows of these African mothers who gave birth to us and lost their African identities.”

Her final thoughts:

“I would like my countrymen to think long and hard about this until they truly comprehend the humbling beauty of this solidarity from people who have every reason to be anti-Arab. I wish my countrymen could look through my eyes. They would see that black is profoundly beautiful. They would see that Africa runs through our veins, too. Our enslaved African foremothers deserve to be honoured and loved by their Arab children. And it is for us to redeem their pain with the recognition and atonement long owed.”

Many of us think that racism is a predominately American disease.  Miss Abulhawa describes the condition as being more universal, even in Arabic world.

Alfred James reporting


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