It’s the ugliest word in the Arabic language: “abid” (or its plural, “abeed”). Meaning “slave,” it is unfortunately still used in certain Arab communities when referring to black people, and its continued usage in modern vocabulary acts as a reminder of the existence of racism in the Middle East.
In the last three weeks, the demonstrations that have swept the globe in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis police in the US have shone a light like never before on racism, acting as a reminder of the need to address prejudice against black people from all sections of society. While support for the Black Lives Matter movement continues to grow, reaction in the Arab world has to be qualified. The word abid dates back to the era of the Trans-Saharan or Arab slave trade, which was only fully abolished in the 20th century. (The transatlantic slave trade lasted from the 16th to 19th centuries.) While slavery was abolished in the region during the 20th century – Saudi Arabia and Yemen only outlawed it in 1962, and Oman in 1970 – the use of the word is not extinct, highlighting a great issue of racism and social injustice closer to home. Two years ago, Kuwaiti beauty blogger Sondos al-Qattan prompted outrage when she posted a video on Instagram expressing her frustration at changes to Kuwait’s kafala system, which meant Filipino migrant workers could keep hold of their own passports and have the right to four days off a month. The new rights were implemented after a Filipino maid was murdered by her Lebanese employees in Kuwait City. “How can you have a servant at home who gets to keep their passport with them? If they ran away and went back to their country, who’ll refund me?” Qattan said.
Certainly the impact of the ongoing Black Lives Matter demonstrations has been felt in the Middle East and wider Arab region. Wael Jabir, a Sudanese journalist and media consultant based in Dubai, has been watching the global Black Lives Matter events unfold. “As a black Arab who has lived and travelled extensively through the Middle East, I can recall countless encounters with racism,” Jabir says. “Often it is subtle, and unintended even, but that doesn’t make it any less hurtful. While the younger generations seem generally more educated on the matter, the sentiment still exists in various ways.” He adds, “Anti-discrimination laws in places like the UAE went a long way towards curbing racist speech, and personally I feel protected living here knowing the law is on the side of victims and is actually enforced.” However, while hate speech, especially on social media or caught on video, will land perpetrators in trouble, Jabir believes racism still permeates everyday society, and more needs to be done to stop it.
The Black Lives Matter protests is a start. “Movements like Black Lives Matter are an example of people pushing back against the unjust stories in the world to create new narratives and with that, new possibilities,” explains international ambassador for Black Lives Matter Janaya Future Khan. “Right now, we are all being called to a higher purpose. To fight for each other and to fight for what’s right. White people, and everyone else who has found themselves the agent of a colonial project, now is your time. It’s time to find out who you really are and what you’re made of.”
Just as people posted black squares on Instagram in support of the movement, in June 2019 a social media campaign saw users turn their profiles blue in honor of 26-year-old Mohamed Hashim Mattar, an activist and artist who was allegedly shot by the Sudanese paramilitary during pro-democracy demonstrations in Khartoum on June 3. The color was later used to represent all martyrs of the Sudan uprising, along with the hashtag #BlueForSudan, which was shared on social media by stars including Rihanna to raise awareness of the situation in the country. “People forget that, when we talk about solidarity and fighting for black people, it’s not just fighting for African Americans,” says British Sudanese artist Rayan El Nayal. “In every single Arab country, there’s a community of black people. I am Arab. And I am black. Fighting for black people is fighting for all of us.”
In Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria graffiti portraits of George Floyd have appeared in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. In Gaza, many Palestinians have joined demonstrations of solidarity, highlighting similarities with their own oppression by Israeli forces. While some critics have called for such causes to be separated from #BlackLivesMatter, drawing parallels has proved irresistible for voices whose calls for justice have been ignored for too long. Several cartoons have juxtaposed the killing of Floyd with similar images of Israeli police forces arresting Palestinians in the same manner – with a knee pushed to their throats. Others have referenced the fact that some US police departments are trained by Israeli forces. During a recent protest against the killing of Eyad Hallaq – a 32-year-old with autism who was shot by Israeli police in Jerusalem who incorrectly claimed he was carrying a weapon – Palestinian protester Zeina Barbar shouted “I can’t breathe” as she was arrested, echoing Floyd’s last words.
In the UAE, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, threw his support behind #BlackLivesMatter with an Arabic tweet saying, “Fighting racism is a duty of the country and family. Nations are built on coexistence and brotherhood.” Embedded in the tweet was a video of black Palestinian actor and director Maryam Abu Khaled, who, after highlighting a backlash for comparing racism in Arab societies to those in the US, rages against the language and attitudes, often passed as “jokes,” that she has endured. “We are used to this kind of talk,” said Khaled. “But before we get even more used to this, let us be more enlightened and look after the new generation, because they are more important.”
مكافحة العنصرية واجب علي الدولة و الاسرة ،،،
الاوطان تبنى على التعايش و الاخاء pic.twitter.com/0d6eARQyBl
— عبدالله بن زايد (@ABZayed) June 6, 2020
The racial divisions extend beyond the profiling of Arabs. Journalist Aby Thomas, who was born and raised in the UAE with Indian heritage, says while he appreciates the multicultural nature of of many Middle Eastern cities, institutionalized racism “absolutely exists” in this part of the world. “As much as enterprises here like to tout the ideas of diversity and equal opportunity, it’s evident that is not what’s happening on the ground,” he says. “Just look at the number of job adverts looking for ‘native English speakers.’ I’ve also been taken aback seeing how so many companies treat their employees based on their nationalities. It’s been painful to see how often employee remunerations are decided not on the basis of their qualifications or experience, but instead on where they are from.” It is no surprise, Thomas insists, that such prejudices creep into everyday interactions. “As a person of color, I’ve been affronted by several such conscious and unconscious biases over the course of my time here,” he says. There was the interviewee who couldn’t hide a sense of disappointment that Thomas was not a white journalist. And the time he was refused entry to a night spot as he watched white colleagues openly welcomed. “I’ve lost count of the number of times people have used the phrase ‘I am not a racist, but…’ How I choose to respond to instances like these has changed from one of resigned acceptance, to one that’s defiantly combative,” he says. “Regardless of the number of times I’ve had to go through it, it remains as destabilizing as ever to find myself at the receiving end of racism”.
Lama Abdelbarr, a regular commentator on media in the Middle East, believes the Black Lives Matter movement has empowered people around the world, including Arabs, to speak up about injustice. “It’s made us question our own accountability within toxic and broken systems of oppression and racism, and educate ourselves on how to become better allies,” she says. “It has been critical in exposing not only the current moments of injustice and brutality, but also an entire history of oppression that was systematically ignored in educational systems, and a multitude of personal narratives of microaggressions and patterns of racial gaslighting that were previously dismissed.”
She sees both traditional and social media as powerful tools in the fight against systemic racism. “Read, listen, or watch the plethora of content that is online and in the media to help you reflect on your own role in the system and how you can do better,” she advises. She highlights the work that Dubai-based Kerning Cultures has carried out in recent years, gathering a vital list of resources – books, podcasts, videos, articles – that shed light on the prevailing racism in the Arab world. “Share these resources and your own personal reflections to encourage your network to join this important journey of continuous education.”
The world has never seen such concerted, simultaneous demonstrations against racism. But social injustice will not be eradicated overnight. Attitudes will take time to shift, and scars will take even longer to heal. But action must be taken now. It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity that cannot be wasted.