Since it gained its independence from France in 1960 Mauritania has struggled with ethnic tension between the Afro-Mauritanians and so called Arab-Mauritanians. But a new government is trying to reverse the pattern of ethnic division. Two familiar with the situation discuss the conflict.
There are two problems with this introduction to an NPR program about Mauritania’s efforts to bring home thousands of black African refugees and the practice of slavery within Mauritanian society. I will use this post to discuss those problems and some describe some things that are often left open ambiguously when discussing Mauritania and the Arabic-speaking regions of the Sahara in general.
The first problem is with the phrase “so-called Arab-Mauritanians.” The rationale for this dubious phraseology is not clear from the program itself, though the presenter does compare the situation in Mauritania to that of Sudan (I believe Darfur in particular), which may also give some clues.
The American understanding of racial and ethnic dynamics in the Arab world and the Sahil (the southern Sahara) generally are often quite muddled. The cause of this misunderstanding, I think, ultimately comes from an especially North American, and perhaps also Anglo-Saxon, preoccupation with skin color. The lines between “Arab” and “African” or “black” in the Sahara are not drawn by means of color, but rather of tribe and caste. Since the program and its introduction make no mention of what Arabic-speaking Mauritanians could be besides Arabs, it is useful to examine what else they could be. Could they be “black Africans” or “Berbers” or something else? I would say no. There is very little that binds Arabic-speaking and non-Arabic-speaking Mauritanians together besides their common borders and religion.
The Arabic speakers of Mauritania speak a dialect called Hassaniya, which often sets them apart from other Arabs and marks their society as a distinct one aside from the more urban ones to the far north and east. The nature of Hassaniya is a mixture of classical bedouin Arabic and Saharan Berber languages (Sanhaja, Zenega, usually with respect to topography and plants). It is thus a mixture of Arab and Berber characteristics. This is also the nature of Mauritanian Arab society. They call themselves beidane, literally “white” but usually translated as “Moorish.” In a rigid hierarchy resulting from competition between arriving bedouin tribes and native Islamized Berber ones,¹ Moorish society is made up of hassane (warrior), zawouia/toulba (the clerical castes),² ighyuwa (griots, or bards), essina’a (blacksmiths), znaga (herders and servitors),³ and the haratine (also called “blackamoors” or “black moors”; descendants of slaves, who upon gaining their freedom conglomerated to farm the land of their ex-masters). This system emerged in the 1600’s CE, out of the struggle mentioned earlier, and remains in place, at the very least nominally, throughout the Moorish regions of Mauritania.
The haratine were originally black Africans of many whom claim a Moorish identity as a result of their position. In relation to a black African (a Peul, Sonike, Wolof, etc.), the Moors refer to a haratine as hartani (“our black moor“), with the more politically correct term nowadays being sudani (“black”); black Africans are collectively referred as kory (an exonym the origin of which I am not certain). This terminology reflects that the Moors regard the haratine as being a part of their society, and the haratine reciprocate this feeling. The haratine have been a part of Moorish society for such a time that they have no identity outside of it. It is not unusual for members of the Moorish elite to have haratine blood, almost always matrilineally. Indeed, the haratine belong to the same tribes as the Moors and a haratine will introduce himself as Man X of the Such and Such Tribe, in the same manner in which a beidane would. They are distinct from the kory as a part of Moorish society, but at the same time they are a very distinctive sub-culture within it. They have their own musical form and they have social codes that differ from the non-haratine, and they look with scorn upon the kory. The union between the beidane and haratine is of a linguistic and cultural nature. Moors are by definition Arabs. Haratineare by definition Moors. The haratine are therefore Arabs, black as they may be.
The second problem with the introduction is that it presents one view of Mauritania’s problem; that of Arab versus African. This is not to say that this is not a major problem, but the program spends about half its times discussing slavery within Moorish society (and not in any other context, though this is reasonable as it is the place where slavery takes place most often), and the other half discussing the expulsion and repatriation of black African Mauritanians. Reading the introduction, one might get the impression that slavery is a matter between the two communities, as it is in Sudan or elsewhere, rather than one among the two.
It is the haratine who are most vulnerable to enslavement in Mauritania. Those whose parents were slaves are inherited by their masters sons. Though the haratine are often born free, they are at times re-enslaved or continue to do the work of their parents without pay out of tradition. There is no market for selling slaves in modern Mauritania, and new slaves are not brought into the system from the black African system. This contrasts with the Sudanese situation, in which Arab raiders and militiamen often take their non-Arab countrymen into slavery.
It should further be said that a similar (and much more rigid) system of slavery and hierarchy exists within the black African community, though on a smaller scale. The common political thread between the black African communities concentrated in Mauritania’s south is in their skin color and their general skepticism of the use of Arabic as the language of state, the result of their historic predominance in the civil and administrative capacities that began under French rule.
There is a nationalist narrative that dismisses any claims to Arab ethnicity from the Moorish community as being the result of a grand conspiracy (coming from France and the Moorish elite) to oppress black Africans. This narrative further claims that the Moors are Arabs in now way whatsoever, but Berbers and/or black Africans through and through. This is the extreme end of a variety of ways in which the black African community has attempted to deal with their domination by the Moors which commonly takes the form of workplace discrimination and harassment.
But, to return to the issue of Moorish identity, though, I think it might be valuable to look at what I see as a particularly North American preoccupation with color as opposed to culture.Often times observers of Sudanese or Mauritanian affairs (insofar as the latter exist) will dismiss the idea that what is going on in those societies are ethnic conflicts in favor of class or economic analysis. While this approach is valid, it is erroneous to believe that in the Saharan region one’s color trumps one’s ethnic or cultural identity no matter how similar two or more sets of peoples look. This is also, unfortunately, true of some Arabs and Arab sympathizers who wish to remove the blemishes to the Arab cause as a result of the acts of some Sudanese Arabs.
Juan Cole’s take on the genocide taking place in Darfur is an interesting example. Take this quote from a 2005 Informed Comment posting [discounting the talk of the “the Zionist right”]:
As with the Zionist Right generally, he makes the mistake of racializing the Sudan problems, using anti-Semitic language accusing “Arabs” of killing thousands of “black Africans.”
But the “Arabs” of the Sudan are black (some are brown or lighter shades of black, but not by any means all, and anyway so are e.g. Eritreans just to the south). The Sudanese “Arabs” just speak Arabic or identify with the Arabs. It isn’t a matter of US-style race, which is based on color. Moreover, the people of Darfur are Muslims and many know Arabic. So the massacres in Darfur are not about “Arabs” versus “black Africans.” They are between two groups of Muslim black Africans.
[here Cole posts two pictures of two African men]
I defy anyone to tell me which is the “black African” and which the “Arab” Janjawid in these pictures.
The rightwing Zionists want to racialize the Sudan conflict in American terms, as “Arab” versus “black African” because they want to use it to play American domestic politics, and create a rift among African-Americans and Arab-Americans. Both of the latter face massive discrimination in contemporary society, and they should find ways of cooperating to counter it. What is happening in Darfur is horrible with regard to the loss of life and the displacement of persons, but the dispute is not about race. It is about political separatism and regionalism.
While he is right that the conflict is not racial in nature, it is comical to say that the conflict is between two sets of “black Africans.” This ignores the self-perceptions of the people on the ground by simplifying their identities to the extent they are defined by color and little else. Sudanese Arabs very much see themselves as being culturally and racially distinct from the country’s black African population, and the same is true of the black African ethnic groups. There is no question that what transpired between Tutsis and Hutus was a genocide, despite the fact that Tutsis and Hutus were not historically considered ethnic groups, but classes, and that they both speak the same language. Both groups are black, and the average outsider could not differentiate between them. This is often the case between haratine and Mauritanian black Africans, and between Sudanese Arabs and non-Arabs.
A Similar misunderstanding, coming from a uniquely American ethnocentrism, is seen in the work of Professor Henry Louis Gates. From the comments section of the article on Sudanese colorism I posted last week:
I remember seeing a series in which African-American academic Henry Louis Gates travelled around Africa. In one country (I forget which) he had a conversation with a very black, African looking man who nevertheless described himself as “an Arab” and proceeded to make various racist comments about black Africans. Gates seemed quite shocked and pointed out to the “Arab” that in America he would be considered black and no one would ever think of him as an Arab. The self-proclaimed “Arab” was very offended and their conversation ended soon after.
When the American understanding of blackness is combined with a superficial if not non-existent understanding of Arab identity the result is the exchange as seen above. In the Sahara, it is irrelevant what a fellow would be perceived as in the United States. What matters here is that the fellow in question has an identity, as with many African peoples, that is not dictated primarily by his negritude. In the Arab world, Brazil and much of Latin America, the means by which person of African origin identify themselves is usually the opposite of how their counterparts in North America do. Whereas Americans tend to look at themselves in terms of degrees away from whiteness, typified by the “one drop rule,” in most other places it is the reverse, the Sahara included. Identifying groups as “black” when their setting clearing negates such an appellation falls into a racialist trap. The assumption above is clearly that Arabs are “white,” or something else other than African, while ignoring the flexibility of Arab identity which has absolutely nothing to do with physical appearance.
While divisions based on color and descent exist within Arab communities, there nevertheless remains a common social, ethnic, cultural identity that binds both “black” and “white” Arabs together, especially in the regions where there are large numbers of non-Arabs. Phenotype is irrelevant when a group identifies itself and then draws distinctions between itself and outsiders.
1. [ This conflict, known as the Char Bouba (or Sharr Bubba) War took place from 1644-1674, as Arab bedouin tribes began to arrive in what is now southern Algeria, Morocco, the Western Sahara, Mauritania and Mali. They were resisted by the native Berber peoples and in the end, the Arabs won and imposed upon the natives the caste system described here. The two populations have thoroughly intermixed and very little remains of their previous distinctions as separate social groups. ]
2. [ The zawouia are tribes who were tasked with pursuing knowledge and could carry arms; the toulba or marabout were tributaries who paid tribute to the warrior tribes and who could not carry arms but still occupied the position of clerics. ]
3. [ The znega are usually herders and come from many origins (but originally from Sanhaja Berber origin), forced as a result of their poverty to make due in service of more powerful tribes; they were often persons from higher castes who had lost their position and were working to regain it. ]