“This was a kind of racism that no one ever challenged or addressed”

Nesrine Malik, a Sudanese Arab, on Arab colorism (a topic I have discussed previously):

The word ‘abd – Arabic for “slave” – was often used in our household when I was a child. In fact, it was so common that I had no awareness of its negative connotations until well into my teenage years. My father’s family, a proud northern Sudanese clan, used it to refer to anyone who had darker skin than themselves – from southern Sudanese house servants to migrants from Darfur. Sometimes there was a clear intent to demean, but at other times it was used almost affectionately – for example, when addressing a particularly dark-skinned or thick-lipped child.

This was a kind of racism that no one ever challenged or addressed, and it was, through a child’s eyes, very straightforward: on a scale of colour, lighter was good, darker was bad. The word ‘abd, although strictly meaning “slave” or “servant”, became synonymous with negritude. Even my Islamic heritage reinforced this with quotes from the Prophet Muhammad such as “You should listen to and obey your ruler even if he was an Ethiopian [ie black] slave whose head looks like a raisin” (Sahih Bukhari Volume 9, Book 89, Number 256).

When we moved to post-colonial East Africa in the 1980s, ‘abd was seamlessly transferred to the locals with whom we interacted only in their capacity as domestic staff or grounds-keepers at international schools. While I myself was “black” of North African descent, my family believed its Arab roots were somehow genetically dominant, giving us smaller features and a marginally lighter skin tone – thus deeming ourselves to be an entirely a different race from the “pure” Africans.

Our next move was to Saudi Arabia, where the Arab ethnicity with which I identified so strongly was suddenly cast into doubt: now it was my turn to be the “slave”. My belief that I was an Arab, racially superior to non-Arab Africans, became laughable in the heartland of Arabia – a place where “Arabness” was not only determined by skin colour but by whether you could uninterruptedly trace your lineage back to the founding father of your clan. In fact, ancestry is so important in Saudi Arabia that courts have the power to annul a marriage if gaps are later discovered in a person’s lineage, opening up the possibility of blood line pollution.

Beneath the unforgiving scrutiny of such standards, my proud North African Arabic identity crumbled. Somehow, however, it still made some sense and fell into place in a racial spectrum where, at least, I was not on the bottom rung. I could scarcely complain, since among Saudi women themselves there was a brutal selection process where lighter-skinned women were preferred as wives, who in turn were trumped by the blonde blue-eyed babes from Lebanon who dominated satellite TV and the second-wife market.

Eventually, back in Sudan, I was introduced to another logic that negated all that had gone before. In some inverse double bluff, a new word was added to our lexicon: halabi, a pejorative term for Sudanese who are much lighter-skinned than the rest. Halabi actually means a person from Halab (Aleppo) in northern Syria but for some curious reason it was applied to the descendants of Egyptians or Arabian Bedouins who had settled in Sudan.

Apparently, the halabis were just as contemptible as “slaves” and the categorisation of individuals as such seemed even more arbitrary. A marriage suitor would be dismissed if he came from a tribe of slaves, regardless of the colour of his skin, but would equally be frowned upon if he were of Levantine or Egyptian origin. The former was due to his race (irrespective of its physical manifestations) and the latter to his dubious ancestry. There seemed to be such a limited optimal colour/race/culture combination, all underscored by some vague definition of honour (which, naturally, everybody else lacked) and rooted in an even more intangible notion of “origin” (asl), the dubiousness of which implied a lack of breeding. Never mind bemoaning the lack of a common Arab identity, there seemed to be categorisations ad infinitum and constantly moving goalposts. The prejudices cannot even be explained away as reflecting different cultural perceptions of beauty. Throughout Sudan, halabi girls are universally regarded more attractive than their darker counterparts; it is the whiff of a questionable origin – a visceral suspicion of difference – that condemns them, somehow, as less than honourable.

Read on to read about contradictions in Arab media portrayals of white Europeans and [Western] slavery. Also, see `Aqoul for interesting discussion.

6 thoughts on ““This was a kind of racism that no one ever challenged or addressed”

  1. Interesting.

    I wonder what the Lebanon quote was about. Is it because Lebanese share ancestry with “Israelites”, or was there an inference that someone of questionable phenotype form that area is unquestionably of slave ancestry?

    Hey Nouri, there is this Syrian guy who works at “Aladdins” on Crown St. He looks straight Sudanese/Egyptian. First ever Levantine I’ve seen that looked more “ethnic” than me.

  2. I don’t think it has anything to do with “Israelites” — the only ones who think that are so-called “Phoenicianists” in Lebanon. It has more to do, I think, with the fact that Lebanese are indeed rather exceptionally fair in comparison to other Arabs and many (if not most) Arabs consider their women to be the standard as far as beauty is concerned.

    As for “ethnic looking” Levantines; my mother’s family (who are Syrian/Lebanese) is similar in that respect, and I know many other Syrians and Lebanese that way as well. It tends to depend on what region/class that person’s family comes/came from (there was quite a bit of intermarriage between peasants and slaves/former slaves, among both Muslim and Christian families, and some are just darker/lighter than others, similar to Italians or Greeks).

  3. Sudanese you are not arabs. You are 100% africans just as we do Imazighen. according to that logic Mali people would be french and Nigerians english. Be proud of your african roots.
    Disarabisation starts in Sudan and Egypte.

  4. Thanks for clearing that up, i read too quickly. In recollection, i mixed the earlier Lebanon quote with this quote:

    “A marriage suitor would be dismissed if he came from a tribe of slaves, regardless of the colour of his skin, but would equally be frowned upon if he were of Levantine or Egyptian origin.”

    And perceived the point inaccurately. BTW, Leb hicks are hot, but most the blond ones are mediocre , just as the blond Greeks are. I find the Suheir Hammad type much more attractive, but this Arab phenomena is typical i guess. People usually desire what they don’t have.

    Enjoy spring break everyone!

  5. “Arab” Sudanese are quite a confused lot and are causing a lot of grief to their fellow Africans. You really need to get a grip and leave whatever century from which you are sourcing your sensibilities. A pity, because many of you seem to be really nice and smart. You all need a hefty dose of Saudi Arabia and America to get your bearings right.

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