To Be Black in Iraq

Karlos Zurutuza, IPS News, October 13, 2011

“Before being deployed to Iraq I never thought I’d come across people who physically resemble my friends and family back in Buffalo,” says U.S. marines sergeant William Collins on a rare patrol around Basra’s Zubeir district.

The American marine arrived four months ago in Iraq’s second largest city. Collins admits that nobody in his battalion knew of the existence of an Afro-Arab community in Iraq, not even the Afro-Americans like him.

“If I dressed the local Arab garb, I would be able to walk across these streets and nobody would take me as a foreigner,” says Collins. He adds that he’d probably feel safer that way than with the bulletproof jacket and the helmet he’s wearing.

There are many black people in Basra and especially in Zubeir district–an area of crumbling mud-brick buildings that is home to 300,000. Most black people in Zubeir claim to be descendants of slaves brought to the Gulf from Africa at least since the ninth century. And some old habits seem to have survived for a whole millennium.

“The Arabs still call us “abd” (“slave” in Arabic), says 46-year-old Zubeir resident Amin Tarik. “Luckily enough, there are not aggressions against us, but we face discrimination in almost every aspect of life,” adds Tarik, speaking in the courtyard of his humble mud house.

Iraqi blacks hardly speak any language but Arabic, and they are overwhelmingly Muslim, like the majority in the country. Slavery was abolished here in the 19th century but the colour of their skin literally closes many doors.

Twenty-five-year-old Jihad Hail knows that well. “I fell in love with a white woman and even managed to marry her against all odds. But we finally split as she couldn’t cope with the massive pressure her family was putting on her,” recalls the young Afro-Arab, today in another relationship. “She’s black, I’ve learnt the lesson well.”

It’s almost impossible to spot mixed couples on the streets of Basra. Women who marry a black man–it’s never the other way round–have to walk under the eyes of Iraqi tribal society.

“I know a mixed couple,” says Doha Abdulreda, a 20-year-old black hostess at Basra’s trade fair. “She’ll always hide under her Niqab (the Muslim covering over the face) when she walks next to her husband. Her family rejected her, that’s not uncommon here.”

While many call the Afro-Arabs “abd”, they still call the local Arabs “free men”.

Among the latter, there are all sorts of views on discrimination. “The black people have always been fully integrated in our community,” says resident Said Al Mehdi. “Even my grandfather’s fourth wife was a black woman. I’d always kiss her hand with great devotion,” recalls this 72-year-old man, hair covered with a green scarf to suggest he’s a direct descendant of Prophet Muhammad.

Not everybody would agree. “These people have been facing discrimination since the very day their ancestors were brought from Africa to build canals and to turn marshlands into fields for cotton and other crops,” says Saad Salloum, editor of Masarat, a magazine focused on the minorities issue in Iraq.

“Unlike the Christians, the Bahai or other religious minorities, the Iraqi blacks haven’t suffered prosecution because of their faith. On the other hand, they don’t enjoy recognition as an Iraqi minority as that is still based on religious grounds.”

But they have found a political voice to speak for them. “We celebrated Obama’s victory in the streets as ours in 2009, and it really encouraged us to fight for our rights,” says Salah Ruhais Salman, vice-president of the Iraqi Freedom Movement, a political party established to defend the rights of Iraqis of African descent.

Salman says Iraqi blacks have been forced to keep a low profile since the invasion of the country in 2003. But now they are asking for recognition as a national minority, something that would grant them a seat quota in Parliament.

But the unpaved road ahead seems to be endless, going by the eloquent figures provided by the 50-year- old activist.

“There are around 1.5 million of us in Iraq but none of us occupies any position in the Iraqi administration. I ran for the local elections back in 2009 with seven other colleagues. Despite Basra hosting Iraq’s most significant black community, none of us was elected. Can you believe that?” Salman has no doubts that the vote was “blatantly rigged”.

In a cable leaked by Wikileaks last September, Ramon Negron–director of the U.S. regional embassy in Basra–reported that “the black community suffers disproportionately under the government’s patronage- based political system”, adding that “they would easily have enough votes to win at least one seat in Basra’s Provincial Council.”

Many Iraqi blacks make a living as musicians. A wedding in Basra is never complete without drummers called in from Zubeir district.

Wafa Majid volunteers there as director of the women affairs section at the community meeting centre. The place was established at the beginning of this year and today it hosts computing and sewing workshops, as well as a reading and writing centre in order to tackle the high illiteracy rate–well over 90 percent among the local black women, according to local NGOs.

“It’s not easy to be black and a female in Iraq but we cannot just sit down and watch our husbands play bongos,” says Majid. Behind her, a group of 20 women sitting in front of a set of computers prepare for the massive challenges ahead.

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  • Mike H.

    Nobody likes blacks. It doesn’t matter if the person in question is white, arab, mestizo, east asian or even a pygmy(I dare say the pygmies like blacks a lot less than the rest of us, as bantus regularly EAT them). Subsaharan blacks just plain aren’t wanted anywhere.

    I’m not saying this to be rude, and it isn’t simply because they’re black. It’s because of their behavior, which is just as well known and reviled by all.

  • anonymous

    no matter where you find yourself, blacks are there and they are their own worst enemy. They look for reasons why they attract problems. They know something is wrong but don’t want to believe it’s themselves. White women, in their effort to make the world a better place, think that by blindly helping the underdogs, blacks, that things will naturally become better. The fallacy with that thinking is that in reality, by blindly associating with the problematic blacks, things deteriorate. And here we sit, with a growing black problem and many white dunces who think we should help them until it improves……… but that just makes it worse.

  • Anonymous

    1. In what way can the treatment of Blacks by Arabs be blamed on Whites?

    2. Does the common record of Black behavior and status across cultures and times suggest perhaps there are commonalities in Black culture, rather than Blacks constantly encountering people who are mystically dead-set on “keeping them down”?

    3. Is there anything preventing the Blacks from leaving Iraq and going to Africa? Before you scream “they have lived there”, please remember the whole world to said Whites in South Africa, who created that nation and lived there for centuries, to surrender power (read as: die) or leave.

  • Anonymous

    Are there REALLY 1.5 million blacks in Iraq?? I understand that they number in the tens of thousands, ‘possibly’ hundreds of thousands, but 1.5 million seems a bit like a stretch.

  • Bardon

    These Iraqi Blacks are descendants of Blacks who participated in mass slave revolt, Zanj rebellion in the 9th century: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zanj_Rebellion

    I was always curious what happened to the ultimately defeated Black slaves- were they simply killed during a few years, isolated and slowly annihilated by starvation, or simply intermarried (which would be rather strange, since Iraqis are not Black Arabs, unlike many Sudanese or Mauritanians). This is the answer: their progeny survived, albeit somehow isolated.

  • margaret

    Never fear ABDs, now that your dreadful plight is known the Catholic, Protestant especially Lutheran, Baptist, Evangelical

    churches and their accomplices in genocide the Jewish and marxist do gooder foundations are even now making plane reservations to bring you to America where you can all live happily ever after.

    Don’t worry about the fact that you are Muslims and that the Egyptian Christians are now undergoing true persecution complete with Church burnings and murder. The American Churches would rather save a black Muslim than a tan Christian.

  • white is right, black is whack

    Poor wittle little blacks. Sniffle, sniffle. Another way for the evil white man to make everyone else not like you. It’s NEVER your fault, is it?

  • Tyrone

    The black arab that married a white woman must have been confused. Arabs are not of the european white race. Although those taking demographic statistics count them as white in the USA , they are arab , not white.

  • Hirsch

    I was in Basra briefly during my year-long deployment with the 22nd Signal Brigade a few years ago. I don’t recall seeing these “black Iraqis.”

    I do however recall the Iraqis posing with a black soldier from my platoon who had been ordered to guard them while they worked on the installation. He had fallen asleep and they took turns giving him rabbit ears and posing with his M-16.

    I also recall my section chief (who was black) verball berating Iraqis who were charged with various manual tasks around the base: “Work Hajji, work!” He would say. “Haaji” literally meant one who had made the pilgrimage, or “Haj” to the holy land, but it had developed into a catch-all epithet for Iraqis, much like its predecessors “Gook” or “Kraut.”

    Before my time in a racially-mixed military unit, I was a fairly left-wing, naive kid who believed every word he’d ever been told about diversity. No more.

  • Seneca the Younger

    This reads a lot like some sob story for a black community in pre-1960s America.

    Isn’t it such a shame that Iraqis don’t have liberal guilt? This one thing that I can respect these people for.

    The next piece should be “White in Detroit/Philly/Flint/etc.”

  • Anonymous

    It was only a matter of time before we truly completed the western transformation of Iraq and put our liberal friends to work analyzing Iraqi racial inequalities. What a crime the Iraq invasion was. What a waste of resources, both people and money. And all for neoconservative ideology or liberal, same thing.

    Though I did find one thing interesting about this. So Arabs were importing slaves since 900AD… What an advanced and stable civilization they’ve since produced. Especially when compared to the meager Persian and Egyptian civilizations.

    We are clearly headed for the same result in the US. Our imported slave population has crippled us, and we import even more dead weight. While I realize Europe is not much better, I think Europe has a chance for salvation. What with nationalism rearing itself. Though it may be wishful thinking. This is I do know, America is swimming in brown water. I can’t foresee any scenario playing out that would produce a situation acceptable for my family and lineage. I feel lost.

  • Anonymous

    Poor africans, They don’t get no respect in a dust-bowl like Iraq. And good luck getting it there or any place where they are not wanted. Without a political system in place to elevate them to a status they have not earned, are not entitled and having no appreciable value to offer in return, political correctness does not prevail. Unlike the US of course, which is where they will probably end up as asylum seekers.

  • John Engelman

    American blacks who convert to Islam because they think the Arabs treated blacks better than Christian Europeans and Americans should study the history of the Arab slave trade, and Arab slavery.

  • Anonymous

    “We cannot just sit down and watch our husbands play bongos,” says Majid.

    Yes they can. This one isn’t fooling anybody.

  • Un-Indoctrinated

    An Iraqi-black Muslim who married a White woman? Way to “keep it real, brotha”. It’s long been known in America that anyblack who wants to pump up his street credential is never to be seen with a White woman. But there are so many within the black race who seek out White woman. I call that hypocrisy. I can see that this is not a cultural phenomenon isolated to the Western hemisphere. Now if the White woman was Muslim, fine. But somehow I don’t think so. More likely some young naive rebellious type who will “show” her family about being a great person. And when the husband sleeps around and gets three other women pregnant, the family can tell her that you really “showed us” about great family values. Even if Iraq is a country where infidelity/adultery is met with a death sentence I bet black Muslims are overrepresented in being involved.

  • Anonymous

    Immediately following 9/11, Osama bin Laden issued several communiques taking credit for the WTC attacks. Bin Laden described it as “a shock that will be heard around the world, by everyone, by the Chinese, by the Russian, even by the abeedeen in Africa!”

    Western news agencies and TV networks then had the uncomfortable task of translating the Arabic words, “abd” or “abeed” (both singular), and “abeedeen” (plural). The MSM’s professional proponents of PC were forced to explain that to Osama — and indeed to ALL Arabs — the word for “black” is the same as the word for “slave.”

    IOW, bin Laden casually insulted African people worldwide as “slaves”.

    Somehow, I don’t expect that this resulted in even ONE African-American member of the Nation of Islam to leave that religion.

  • jewamongyou

    If the Caucasian Iraqis are smart, they’ll continue to marginalize and persecute their blacks. Blacks can either be ruled over or be the rulers; there is no state of equality.

    As for those Caucasian Arab women who marry blacks, if they wish to leave the mainstream Iraqi community and turn themselves (and progeny) into blacks, that’s their choice. The fact that there are very few (if any) black Iraqi women married to Caucasian Arab men is yet one more piece of evidence miscegenaters provide us that racial differences are more than skin deep.

    http://www.jewamongyou.wordpress.com

  • ice

    Until the entire world agrees that mixing the races is a recipe for disaster there will always be racial tensions and fights. It’s perfectly natural for people to want to be around only those who look like themselves.

    These blacks are lucky they aren’t arabs living in sub-Sahara Africa. If they were, they would probably be killed.

  • highduke

    If indeed ‘many Iraqi Blacks make a living as musicians’ then they are identical in this and other aspects to Gypsies in the Balkans, which goes to show that the Blacks are just kinky-haired Gypsies with flatter noses. The phenomenon of low-class ethnic minorities as musicians also exists in India.

  • @Un-Indoctrinated

    Actually that’s not true. In the black community, having a white woman is a step up. A lot of “hood” thugs love hitting on white women especially if they’re ghetto themselves or have big butts.

  • Anonymous

    After tearing down the Saddam statues they need to put up a few MLK ones.

  • Anonymous

    8 — Tyrone wrote at 10:56 PM on October 17:

    T”he black arab that married a white woman must have been confused. Arabs are not of the european white race.”

    Another genius chips in with the astounding discovery that the Arab countries are not in Europe and that Arabs are not Europeans.

    Never knew that although I’ve always loved maps since since first grade.

    What with asian supremacists and the only blue eyed Whites are White crew I’m getting tired of this site.

  • Anonymous

    The first thing that hit me in the eyeball, there he is bragging that he was married to a white woman. I used to think that white Americans, back then, were a bit paranoid about blacks wanting white women. What is it that they are so obsessed with white women? There is this guy, The country he lives in is wrecked by war, he is a minority, and the number one thing on his brain are white women.

  • voter

    “As for those Caucasian Arab women who marry blacks, if they wish to leave the mainstream Iraqi community and turn themselves (and progeny) into blacks, that’s their choice.”

    Sorry, but I am very dubious about that story. It doesn’t pass the smell test. A reporter can make up anything. Where’s the proof?

    An Arab Muslim woman (especially young) would not likely marry without the full consent of her family. In fact, they would have arranged it, whether she liked it or not. I just can’t believe she married against her family’s wishes. She’d be dead.

  • Anonymous

    “An Arab Muslim woman (especially young) would not likely marry without the full consent of her family. In fact, they would have arranged it, whether she liked it or not. I just can’t believe she married against her family’s wishes. She’d be dead.”

    Maybe she’s a Christian? Maybe there were 7 or 8 girls and the family was happy to get her off their hands?

    When we were in Somalia during the Clinton years the Somalians used to call the American black soldiers Bantu gorillas. The Somalians consider themselves superior to other ethnic groups and far superior to the black bantus who are a few shades darker.

    Somalians consider themselves very dark skinned arabs.

  • Anonymous

    When we were in Somalia during the Clinton years the Somalians used to call the American black soldiers Bantu gorillas. The Somalians consider themselves superior to other ethnic groups and far superior to the black bantus who are a few shades darker.

    Somalians consider themselves very dark skinned arabs.

    __________________

    I can believe that. Just as Sudanese consider themselves to Arabs and would be highly insulted to be called “black” (no matter how black they are).

    For those of us old enough to remember, back before the “Black is beautiful” movement and all of that propaganda, Ethiopians always held themselves aloof from the rest of Africa, not considering themselves to have anything in common with the African blacks. They made that very clear that they were not Bantus.