Being black is a politicised identity. One cannot deny that. Identifying as Arab is also a political minefield. Those living at the intersection of blackness and Arabness are often overlooked as one seemingly cannot wholly embody both identities and must pledge allegiance to one or the other. Shereen Abyan sat down with two of her friends, Amani Bin Shikhan and Habiba Khaled to discuss what being Afro-Arab entails: bridging seemingly conflicting identities and “colour-blindness”. Read their interesting perspectives on an ever-evolving and dynamic demographic.
Amani: Defining Arabness is hard. Defining the boundaries of what constitutes the “Arab world”, a region trailing from the Levant to the depths of the Gulf and dipping into North (and depending on who you ask, the Eastern coast of) Africa is by no means a simple matter. This is intensified when public opinion leads us to believe that Islam, one of the most prominent and widely-practiced religions of the world, is associated solely with Brown followers within the Middle East. This not only glosses over the wide array of religious and racial variety in the Middle East, but erases many significant demographics, one of them being Black Arabs, sometimes known as Afro-Arabs.
Shereen: I often stumble over my words when asked to describe what “Afro-Arab” means and who that entails. Usually I find that it’s a convenient way of articulating my ethnic background as someone whose family sprawls all over the Horn of Africa and Middle East. But only using the term in certain contexts and in certain spaces as it’s not the easiest to explain, even when I’m faced with my own kin.
“Arab”, often viewed to be a fluid term transcending race and seen as a cultural marker however at most times policed, leaves me questioning the boundaries of where it stops and who can own it. Whether my genetic makeup crossing the Red Sea to the Middle East means that it’s more “valid” than various other relatives whom do not have “Arab heritage” but have lived/been birthed within the Gulf for generations. Through narratives of war and migration they’ve have found themselves spaced out between the Gulf means but noting “Arab” as a linguistic and cultural factor where are they placed on the scale? I see this through my parents, relatives and countless others, in spaces of purgatory between their homelands, their intimate relationships with Arabness whether it be through geography/culture/language sometimes translated into adopting “Arab” as a part of their core identity and for others didn’t.
As for me, I couldn’t tell you the capital city of my paternal grandmother’s country of Jordan without a long dubious pause and a quick google search. My surname links back to my tribe and town in Yemen I’ve only been to a handful of times, however patrilineal cultural rules means that often in Arab circles my Arabness is “official” by way of my father and in Somali spaces my Somalinimo is not. Despite my locations swinging between London, Yemen and a 3 year stint in Cairo and Aswan, identifying with any semblance of Arabness has been somewhat a journey that’s recently come into full circle. My Somalinimo is where I feel most comfortable; it’s the language of my grandparents from the home they were exiled from by way of war and in spite of the many subtle cultural and linguistic ways Arabness had crept into my upbringing, my sense of security of self lies with my mother and her home.
Identifying as Afro-Arab adds to the long list of hyphenated terms I find myself either forced to adopt as diaspora or naturally take on however unlike most, I find it particularly hard to express. What defines our existence as a community with a set of vast and differing experiences and relationships with our homes and selves? How do I find myself expressing the same sentiments, bonding and finding familiarity in myself with an Egyptian and an Ethiopian-Yemeni as well as the many other North/East Africans and Afro Arabs I’ve come into contact with, as well as the countless ones I’ve met that ardently rebuke any kind of alikeness. How do we articulate our variety of experiences and relationships with Africanness & Arabness and understand that it’s not an either/or question and that each of our contexts display that. How do we grasp and redefine the rigid lines between Blackness and Brownness; not using definitions that accommodate western contexts for our non western selves, when our existences and respective regions within the continent often times make them hazy.
Amani: I think that Afro-Arabness, for me, is an identity marker that encompasses a lot. It’s not one that I instantly reach to for a few reasons: I have a complicated relationship with my own Arabness—big up Hadhramaut, aka where Yemen and the Horn meet—insofar that I am Black African and Arab. I also feel it unfair to equate my experiences as someone who has homes in both Ethiopia and Yemen to someone whose direct understanding of home is in a given place of the Middle East primarily. This also takes into account people who have been exiled from their homes or, for any reason, cannot go back. As a Black-Arab Muslim girl, I’m often hyper-aware of the spaces that I take as my own, and as someone who’s lucky enough to know of many people with similar backgrounds to mine, I don’t reach to Afro-Arab as an identifier as much as one might think I would. An important point to this conversation can be this: what is Afro-Arabness and how does it shift depending on where we are? Is it an accurate term? How is it used, and by who?
My Arabness is funnily enough my sole ‘official’ nationality in the patrilineal (read: patriarchal) sense of family origin stories (my father’s father was Yemeni, and that is the story of how the ¼ became the whole) but I have little connection to it in its most intimate sense. My Arabness is more influenced by my family’s upbringing in Saudi Arabia than it is Yemeni; my dialect, interests, and sense of Arab culture are all derived from the Gulf and the famous powerhouse that is the Egyptian entertainment industry. My homes and my kinships are primarily with young women from various countries along the Eastern coast of the African continent whose families moved to Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Syria, or other nations in the Middle East, either by choice or by necessity. Does that make us Afro-Arabs or does that make us East Africans (or people from the Horn) who happen to speak Arabic and embody some aspects of what is considered Arab culture? Where does the line between our ‘African’ cultural inheritance break off from that of our ‘Arab’ influence? How is the Arabness of the Gulf contested against the Arabness of the Levant? Which is more valid, and how do they interact with one another? How do Black Arabs—Afro-Arabs, Black immigrants in Arab countries, select East Africans whose cultures seem to naturally blur the lines between the two—fit into the grander scheme of things? How do we document our culture(s) precisely?
Habiba: Growing up, I did not have access to the language or terminology validating my identity. Afro-Arabness, a supposed newly coined term, can be understood as an attempting at bridging different, seemingly conflicting identities. Yet, Afro-Arab communities pre-date the term. Being a multiracial Egyptian, raised in a “colorblind” society then transported over to North America, my identity was always predetermined for me. The Egyptian constitution protects Arab identity as the de facto national identity. The long process of the politicization of Arabness helped facilitate the cultural identity of Egypt as being “Arab”, despite the fact that obviously not all inhabitants are ethnically Arab. Arabness became the culture, the language, and the traditions passed down. And by extension Black Egyptians and other Indigenous tribes came to be seen as “darker Arabs”. In contrast, in the North American context, I’m racialized as Black or mixed race. Arabness and Blackness are not seen as compatible within modern-day Egypt or North America. I find myself struggling to explain my identity to those who ask. I am hyper-aware of being visibly Black in Arab spaces and visibly Arab in Black spaces. Up until quite recently, I lacked the language to describe this feeling.
My original uncertainty was a direct result of of having no space to claim as my own. The underlying fact is that Afro-Arabness is not commonly explored and understood in Afro-centric or Arab-centric scholarship and societies. In terms of documentation, there is not much out there. Being a multiracial Egyptian and simultaneously asserting my African and Arab roots is very politically loaded—so loaded that exploring it is “taboo” and oftentimes met with violent reactions. In spite of the violence placed upon this identity, and maybe, because of it, I feel that this dialogue is very necessary. For me, Afro-Arabness is a reclamation of my identity. It is the process of me dictating how I want to represent and document myself in the face of otherwise inaccurate, simplistic understandings of identity. It’s a reclamation of a lost history, an ode to forgotten ancestors, and a protest to the whitewashing of my identity.
Amani: I agree that self-identification is important and that personal narratives play an immensely significant role—especially when a people don’t see reflections of themselves in media, thoughtful academic dialogue, or even in the most casual of conversations—but I think an interesting aspect of Afro-Arabness is its political weight or implication. One of my favourite thinkers and writers, a Black Arab woman under the moniker kawrage, runs a blog that interrogates what Arabness means, and possibly, more monumentally, what racial politics within Arabness or the loosely defined region of the Arab world mean. It’s interesting to me that Arabness is often associated with people who are white-passing, or of a very specific demographic associated with stereotypes of silenced, waif women and brutish, volatile men. Or an ambiguous Brown, often striving to whiteness by way of liberal thought or an embarrassing dilution of self in hopes of an extended tolerance of their very existence.
In most conceivable spaces, the Arab is regarded as an intrinsically political person, both a victim and villain, all of their own doing. What does this mean when compounded with the stereotype of the African—or any member of the broader African diaspora—as one who embodies the same characteristics with the additional violence of visible Blackness in an anti-Black world? This isn’t to play a game of oppression olympics by any means, but is merely the truth: what does it mean to embody the traumas of both the Arab and Black body simultaneously? To understand the ludicrousness of assumptions on the body, autonomy and legacy (both good and bad) of the Arab is to understand its heightened presence in the Black experience, in the Arab world and otherwise.
Shereen: Navigating around the trauma of both the Arab and Black body and the implications of when combined, as both are fundamentally political, is a tense subject. With respect to our intersecting, albeit differing contexts with each other as well as the Black/Afro-Arabs living within Arab countries/spaces/communities embodying and living the daily realities of this narrative, I find that Blackness in essence is the trump card and the deciding factor for our lived experiences. Oscillating between the constant Anti-Arab sentiment which automatically translates into Islamophobia in public discourse paired the trauma of Blackness across the diaspora is a lot to handle. However it’s very crucial that I reaffirm that Arabness in its very essence is faceless and belongs to no one; the vague definitions that are used to define it within MENA and across the looser “Arab” world contradict each other constantly. The most conclusive way we’ve tried to define Arabness is through the Arab League, an organization made up of 22 countries trailing from Morocco, Iraq to Somalia and everything in between. This serves as a reminder at how through a multitude of ways we’ve tried to articulate the categorizations of the “Arab World” and who that includes. Arguably these countries collectively have little in common from a bird’s eye view, and some (specifically along the Eastern coast of Africa) wouldn’t even consider themselves Arab.
I don’t think Arabness can now be depoliticized as a result of imperialism, occupation and the Middle East being, in its essence, a politicized region, however we must deconstruct it alongside whom it entails. Often the rhetoric of “Arab” not being a race, dominates with North Africa being the only part nuance is applied to. On the other hand little to no effort is ever made to discuss Arabness alongside Blackness. This racialization of the “Arab” that intensified after 9/11 heavily impacts this discourse in terms of ownership juxtaposed with inclusivity on our behalf, highlighting that early Middle Eastern immigrants first fought to be classified as White on the US Census, a decision only recently changed awarding them their own category.
This dialogue around Arabness has always been and controlled by American-Arabs/the diaspora living in the West which greatly ties into islamophobia, the politics of their homelands and inevitably protecting their Brownness. Our understanding of Arabness today in the west constitutes as the “Arab” being inherently political and as a result of geopolitics and imperialism, has resulted in racialization once the access to Whiteness it once had was disrupted.
Habiba: Understanding Afro-Arabness requires understanding that race as we know it, is shaped by Whiteness. In the West, race is based upon a dichotomous understanding wherein black and white are understood as opposites. In contrast, for many Afro-Arabs, our differing identities are one and the same. Back home, language and culture provides deep rooted ties to the land and people. However, the politicization of identity allows for simultaneous inclusion and exclusion. Yet it is important to note that Afro-Arabs are undeniably an integral part of the societies they exist in.
In Egypt, being samra, or samara—translating to tanned or coloured,—implies Blackness. Being samra is good in theory as samar, the root of samra, is understood as authenticity and theoretical beauty. Growing up, whenever I felt inadequate, I would be reminded of this. However, theory does not always match up to reality; in actuality, whiteness was the desired ideal of beauty, even amongst Arab Egyptians. This contradictory duality underlays Egyptian society. For example, in Cairene conversations, ethnic Nubians are seen as Egyptian and a part of an inherent Egyptian diversity. Yet, in politics, Nubians are seen as separatists, dividing the Egyptian nation. Nubian history is non-existent within the Egyptian curriculum, and racism and xenophobia aimed towards Nubians is common practice. Last year, I watched a Nubi-Egyptian woman talk about how Egyptians still ask her where she’s from during her daily interactions because of her external features, primarily her darker tone.
For many Egyptians, a lot of Nubians aren’t deemed a black population, based upon the racial understanding at least. This is obviously contradictory in nature but it is crucial to understanding the existence of many Afro-Arabs. At home, wherever that may be, Afro-Arabs are aware of being different, but are undeniably an integral part of society. As such, internal anti-blackness results in a narrative of commonality and faux diversity under the guise of being one nation, one people, and in the context of Muslim Egyptians, one Ummah. In contrast, with regards to the West, race becomes central to our existence. The question of who we are and what we represent is complex and fluid. Our identity is complex and fluid. Our identities overlap in unexpected ways.
Shereen: As Habiba noted, to understand Afro-Arabness means to deconstruct the ways in which we think about Blackness and its inextricable link to white supremacy and whiteness at large. For our contexts that I find the gaze of whiteness is not a deciding factor in terms of how we self identify and our cultural racialization.
Occupying these areas outside the binaries of Blackness and its intimate relationship with whiteness forces us to interrogate Brownness and how it’s defined. Make no mistake, I’m not interested in substituting Brown for Black, nor am I putting both on par with each other, rather Brownness in the Western context is defined as everyone existing outside the margins of Black and White. So how do we view Brownness in a non western context alongside groups of Black people whom have blending narratives, through cultural, ancestral, linguistic relationships with Brownness, but are still understood as Black? I do not identify as Brown however my family spans across into Brownness and their Blackness is perceived to be as a proximity towards Brownness. Speaking Arabic and/or being Muslim (which in itself influences cultural standards/rules/values mirroring brown communities often which we have no ties to except faith) often disturbs the uniform way Blackness is discussed in the African contexts and in global Black spaces. Religion alone, we automatically distort the Christian-centric Eurocentric colonial context that is brushed with Africa as well as conversations around Blackness, so how do we frame ourselves in this process of reclamation and decolonization in understanding Blackness as multidimensional and complex; intersecting various ethno-religious narratives thus complicating it further within Africa and abroad? To examine Blackness and Brownness in our contexts means that it’s important to break down the rigid separation between the two which in turn translates back to how both are defined in the face of Whiteness as well as Antiblackness.
Redefining western jargon in our non western contexts as a means to disrupt these terminologies and to force language to make room for us as opposed to finding ourselves tongue tied in our attempts to reverse them.
Amani: Like I said earlier, my connection to Arabness is most closely related to the Gulf in terms of the most superficial parts of my culture and my family’s conceptions of race; I am of the few in my immediate family who identify as Black and not an offshoot of a special, obscure ethnic background. I also was not raised in the same circumstances as much of my family was. The stark contrast of the Black and white binary of North America to the racial fluidity in the Gulf, which by no means is a cop-out for the obvious and rampant anti-Blackness that exists, forces you to adapt to your surroundings differently. It’s a strange feeling to navigate anti-Blackness in Black spaces, but it is a reality that many of us—us, meaning Black people—face and deal with regularly. That alone is a laborious process that we are thrust into day in and day out, and is perhaps one of the most common microaggressions many of us, Arab and non-Arab alike, face. What often unites Blackness in the global sense is often the harmful side-effects of its embrace and not the wide-spanning truths, revelations and constant growth of our being.
As someone who was not raised in the Gulf, there’s not much that I can say with certainty about how Blackness is consumed there, but the byproducts of its influences have been a part of my life for as long as I’ve lived it by way of the closest people to me and, in turn, the ideals and thought processes that have been a part of me since birth. Like anything else, it is not all good or all bad, but is a continuum of what it means to be a Black body in multiple spaces and the ways in which its interpreted, consumed and treated.
I do hope that conversation can, one day, take the forefront rather than the regurgitation and performative nature of Black trauma by the non-Black gaze. I can only hope that the one-size-fits-all approach to understanding race in all of its manifestations and in all of its intricacies is abandoned. There are margins in every society, and then there is the Black margin. This does not stop being true in the Middle East or greater scope of the Arab world. Jared Sexton puts it better than I ever could in his famous work, The Social Life of Social Death as he says, “What is the nature of a form of being that presents a problem for the thought of being itself? More precisely, what is the nature of a human being whose human being is put into question radically and by definition, a human being whose being human raises the question of being human at all?”
Shereen: Ultimately I have a lot more questions closing this than when I began regarding the boundaries of Afro-Arabness outside of our Egyptian, East African and Middle Eastern narratives however overlooking our efforts to comprehend ontological Blackness I want to reaffirm that this conversation is not mere assertions of our existence for the outward gaze.
We don’t to cry about so-called mixed woes skirting around shallow conversations of “authentic Blackness”, being too Black to be said ethnicity/race. It’s identity politics in its most futile form and frankly it’s tiring. Being invested in understanding Blackness and Black people is often a communal idea held by many of us however an idea that when preconceived notions are challenged, our own racial experiences oftentimes overrides us understanding differing contexts outside of western hegemony.
Ending this dialogue, I hope that we can spur discussions and note how the politics of nationality and statehood are contributing factors to articulating Blackness within the African context. The idea of Blackness flirting around Brown peripheries within Africa should not be met with confusion or reduced to a colonial consequences. Neither should our personage of fluctuating between the two be taken with an orientalist lens noting at how Blackness in the Arab world as well as the rest of Asia is reduced to niche anthropological profiles and exoticist fuelled photo-ops.
Habiba: The term “Afro-Arab” in itself is reconciliatory. Arabness and Africanness are such broad sweeping terms. My “Arabness” is unlike Arabness of those of the Levant or the Gulf and is based upon hybridity. My Africanness is directly and immovably intertwined with my Arabness due to centuries of conquest. When I wake up, I am not half Black and half Arab. My identity is not fractional. Somewhere between Blackness and Browness, my Afro-Arabness challenges the western categories of identity.
There are no terms to encompass the variety of experiences under the umbrella term of Afro-Arabness, hence why examining what it means is such difficult task. Afro-Arabness is a broad and inaccurate yet reconciliatory term. It encompasses a multiplicity of experiences. It’s an emotionally burdening task. It spans over black people’s anti-blackness, the brownness of the face of Islam, and the western myth of quantifiable and limited identity. Speaking about our experiences is a process of constant learning and unlearning. But the creation of a voice is vital. I personally am tired of Afro-Arabs being utilized as endnotes on the Arab Slave Trade or why Islam is evil or whichever agenda best fits really. Writing our histories and expressing our unique narratives is an act of resistance. It is a very needed and necessary step to bridging the gap. This is precisely why we must self-define.
Shereen Abyan is writer, tired student & dedicated member of #FutureHive. When she’s not exclaiming about her tiredness she can be found discussing identity politics or ranting about it on Twitter at @delashereen.
Header picture: Ⓒ Laura Dale.