Arabic literature and the African other

Racist, anti-black stereotypes persist in Arabic literature. It reveals a racial anxiety and othering of Africa among celebrated Arab authors.

La Maison Conference poster.

When I first migrated to the United States, I worked as research assistant to Ali Mazrui, the late Kenyan thinker and scholar. At that point of his life, Mazrui had grown hopeless of pan-African and pan-Arab prospects, instead adopting a broad Islamic identity.

In 1992, Mazrui had a proposal: “The French once examined their special relationship to Africa and came up with the concept EURAFRICA as a basis of special cooperation. We in turn should examine the even older special relationship between Africa and the Arab World and call it AFRABIA.”

It was a radically ambitious and urgent proposal. My own research uses modern Arabic literature to look at race and identity in the Arab Gulf, of which the history of Afro-Arabs and eastern slavery are a big part. The project of “Afrabia,” as I interpret, would allow Africans to revisit a long history of the Islamic empire in Africa, its intersecting points with colonial projects subcontracted to Arab and South-Asian masters, as well as a shared history of decolonial struggles and anti-capitalist ambitions. For Arabs, it would mean a much-needed and long-overdue revision of their history, as well as of language and artistic expression that deal with Africa, blackness, and Afro-Arabs in reactionary, racist, and apolitical terms.

Last month in Tunisia, the newly-established La Maison du Roman held its second Annual Arabic Novel Conference. The three-day summit, urged by “the political consciousness of the young masses across the Arab World,” was focused on the theme of أصحاب البشرة السوداء (Black-skin issues). The summit was attended by tens of Arabic novelists and critics. It was strange, to say the least, how the organizers came up with such unusual description instead of say “black issues” or “Afro-Arab issues” but I will not claim that it comes from nowhere.

Arabs, like their western teachers, when discussing anti-black racism and black issues, seem fixated on skin color, ideals of beauty, and visual representations; in a sense they express their own racial anxiety. It is as if anti-black racism has no history, trajectory, or realities beyond the stigma assigned to it, or the rhetoric surrounding it.

When I use the term “Afro-Arab,” it is just my American lingua, not an actual term that Arab thinkers are trying to adopt or even consider. It is the kind of term you find in US academia but not in Arabic letters or political discussions. Even on the e-margins, young East and North Africans have been embracing their Africanness in opposition to Arabness, often citing Arab racism and exclusionary politics as reasons to depart from that historical bond. The current Algerian and Sudanese uprisings have offered some examples.

Tunisia conference poster.

From reports on the conference, I noticed how chaotic the discussions were in mixing up race, racism, slavery, Africa, and blackness as interchangeable. The level of language and conversations was embarrassing, to say the least. The Arab writer could not summon some of his imagination, accuracy or sensitivity, when using the odd and problematic label of “black-skin issues.” The panels and press reports talk about “the black man’s pain” as if it’s a literary metaphor, a pain neighboring ours, a mere human rights issue, as if we have no need to critique ourselves, challenge language, dig up history, to think toward solidarity and liberation, like we used to in the good old days.

I noticed how often Arab writers, including those North and East African, seem at ease when othering Africa—the bordered continent is harder for them to grasp than an imaginary “Arab World” made up by the French, and later appropriated by Arab nationalism. Moreover, the wildly inaccurate treatment of black experiences and cultures as one sum; from Zanzibar and Lagos to Havana and Detroit.

I also register, on this occasion, but also within Arabic literature and political thought, that the Arab-Afro encounter seems more connected to the Americas and France, than to Africa itself. The translations, references, and intertextual conversations, even by black Arabs, look toward Aime Césaire, Frantz Fanon, as well as African-American literature, and the civil rights era.

When interviewed on TV while at the conference, the Sudanese-Egyptian writer Tarik al-Tayeb said “we still deal with blacks in stereotypical ways, especially in film, they are always presented and associated with certain jobs,” meaning roles of servitude. It struck me how a black Arab writer chose the we and they in this sentence, or perhaps there is a small we within a bigger we in here. This is noteworthy considering the good number of black writers in attendance, including Salwa Bakr (Egypt), Hammor Ziada and Mansor al-Suwayim (Sudan), Haji Jabir (Eritrea), and Mahmoud Traouri (Saudi Arabia).

Their interventions did not seem centric, their language did not diverge from the overall rhetoric of the conference, and none of them was chosen to be the keynote speaker. Rather, the keynote was delivered by the 70-year-old Elias Khoury of Lebanon. Khoury stated “slavery did not end because we are all slaves to oppression,” a dangerous and foolish statement that assumes distance from anti-black racism and eastern slavery, equating all struggles alike. The director of La Maison du Roman, the Tunisian writer Kamal Riahi, also reproduced the same logic when citing the “slave markets in Libya and Syria” in his welcome note.

I can tell you that Black Arab writers indeed succeed when writing about black experiences or composing black narratives and characters—those mentioned above have done tremendously, especially in the past two decades. From one panel title “Black writer, White reader,” in a nod to Fanon, it was clear how the Arab fixation on black skin functions as an erasure of race, therefore assuming Arab is White. Among the many writers invited to the conference are those who have written novels with black protagonists as part of a massive trend in contemporary Arabic literature to monetize “minor groups,” whether Black-Arabs, African migrants, South and East Asian migrants, women, Assyrians and Yazidis, as well as Arab Jews. Arab writers, in the aftermath of the Iraq war and its apolitical introduction of identity politics into the region, have found an opportunity in writing about these groups which could get them translated and serve as primary literature for western academics and NGOs alike. Their white translators whisper to me “oh my god, this shit is racist” sometimes mediating in the process to clean up the language. As an Arab scholar working within black studies, I had assumed the conference would be a heated opportunity to “call out” these reactionary and racist representations in contemporary works, which include Riahi’s own novels Gorilla and The Scalpel (Tunisia), Ali Muqri’s Black Taste, Black Smell (Yemen), Samiha Khrais’s Pistachio Obaid (Jordan) or Najwa Bin Shitwan’s Slave Pens (Libya). Until then, it seems too early to dream of Afrabia!

Further Reading

Fanon at Ninety

Frantz Fanon remains vital not only for his bracing anti-racism and anti-colonialism, but equally for the less-recognized, empathetic politics of solidarity he cultivated and exemplified.