April 12, 2009
Reading Race in MENA: Black Imam of Mecca and American reads
While not a terrible article, the New York Times coverage of the new 'black' Imam in Mecca is subtly irritating for its facile American centric lens. A Black Imam Breaks Ground in Mecca - Biography - NYTimes.com
It's easy to be rather too nitpickily peevish about such things, but nevertheless a bit better context should have been easy to achieve here:
Officially, it was his skill at reciting the Koran that won him the position, which he carries out — like the Grand Mosque’s eight other prayer leaders — only during the holy month of Ramadan. But the racial significance of the king’s gesture was unmistakable.
Sheik Adil, like most Saudis, is quick to caution that any racism here is not the fault of Islam, which preaches egalitarianism. The Prophet Muhammad himself, who founded the religion here 1,400 years ago, had black companions. [Lounsbury: Ahem such as a certain Bilal...]
“Our Islamic history has so many famous black people,” said the imam, as he sat leaning his arm on a cushion in the reception room of his home. “It is not like the West.”
It is also true that Saudi Arabia is far more ethnically diverse than most Westerners realize. Saudis with Malaysian or African features are a common sight along the kingdom’s west coast, the descendants of pilgrims who came here over the centuries and ended up staying. Many have prospered and even attained high positions through links to the royal family. Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to the United States, is the son of Prince Sultan and a dark-skinned concubine from southern Saudi Arabia.
But slavery was practiced here too, and was abolished only in 1962. Many traditional Arabs from Nejd, the central Saudi heartland, used to refer to all outsiders as “tarsh al bahr” — vomit from the sea. People of African descent still face some discrimination, as do most immigrants, even from other Arab countries. Many Saudis complain that the kingdom is still far too dominated by Nejd, the homeland of the royal family. There are nonracial forms of discrimination too, and many Shiite Muslims, a substantial minority, say they are not treated fairly.
While I would be the last to deny colour prejudice is present in the region - MENA, the Gulf, Mashriq, Maghrib - the highlighted part really is myopically American, tying explicitly colour and slavery into an automatic association. That certainly was not the case for most of Islamic history, and seeing the Nejdi prejudices as primarily or even essentially racial strikes me as rather misunderstanding Saudi society (or Gulfie society) via the eyes of American cultural norms.
The colour prejudice is there, but given slavery was except its last decades perhaps, never colour exclusive (although one should not forget that towards the end, the low-end slavery was more or less exclusively African), it is hardly the sole driver, and the profound prejudices against outsiders, including pale Lebs for example, is much more that of a parochial tribal society than the implied counterpart to American or even old European colour prejudice as such.
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It's hard to fault someone on the color/slavery link when, at least here in Lebanon, black people are routinely called عبيد.
I've never been to the peninsula, except for a short trip to Yemen, so I don't know if that term is used there too. From what I can remember, Algerians often use the term, gahlouche.
Posted by: sean at April 16, 2009 02:34 PM
Yes and no.
(Kahl by the way doesn't have any connexion per se to slavery)
Certainly the final decades of slavery, as a largely black affaire left marks. The Maghrebines use Khadim (servant / slave) to refer to persons of a Sub Saharan cast (although nota bene, khadama is a typical word for work/labour service as well).
However, slavery and race are not the intimate centuries old issues that they are in North America. The bolded excerpt assumes that Slavery=Black Slavery and that is was essentially racialised. That is fundamentally wrong and the slavery situation was fundamentally different than the American experience.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at April 19, 2009 01:34 PM
The article isn't quite that bad. I think the slavery issue is particularly relevant given the subject matter: it is undeniable that Arab prejudice against blacks generally and in the peninsula even more so, is connected to the perception of servile ancestry (which is augmented by their more distinctive features, as opposed to fairer-skinned slave descendants). The article does not, to me, appear to imply that Nedjdi prejudice and bigotry is essentially or primarily racial. It looks more so as if the subject of the article was one in which that particular form of discrimination is relevant contextually. Tribalism is definitely the drive cause, but the way the article framed the piece is totally at odds with the reality of outsiders of African origin in this part of the world. There is a special kind of distaste for blacks on the peninsula (as there are for other groups) and that's what the piece is talking about. At least that's how I read it.
Posted by: Kal at April 22, 2009 08:15 PM