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Analogies between the West and Middle East are often lazy, simplistic and beneficial to one party in creating a distraction from the problem at hand. “Just like al Qaeda” or “we have become a theological dictatorship like Saudi Arabia” is in fact a polite way of saying that “we are better than the brown barbarians,” an excuse to not look inward and acknowledge that basic human rights are a global dilemma because human-created power struggles are similar and those with power strive to maintain a status quo that keeps them atop of the hierarchy. In that context, the West and the Middle East aren’t too different. If there was one cynical historic deed that unites the two geographical entities, it would be slavery: in particular, the enslavement of humans from Africa.
As America commemorated Juneteenth for the second time only, I set out to look for the closest equivalent in the Middle East. I couldn’t find an Arabic announcement stating that the last of slaves were now free. Slavery had initially lost part of its popularity when the Prophet Muhammad made his message public in Mecca. He denounced slavery and declared that all enslaved people should have equal rights. Bilal of Abyssinia, a slave to a powerful Meccan household, heard this message and converted to Islam. He became one of the earliest, and later among the most popular, Muslims in Mecca. Tortured to a near death by his master, Bilal was purchased by another new convert to Islam and set free. Though Islam discourages slavery and encourages freeing individuals, it never outright prohibited enslavement. The concept of enslavement gradually died out on its own over the centuries, but it was the religious establishments’ reluctancy to declare it an inhumane misdeed that opened the doors for it to continue despite Islam’s message of social equality.
One little-known or little-discussed example of slavery after Muhammad was the Arab slave trade in the Persian Gulf. During the Abbasid dynasty in what is now Iraq in the early 9th century, farmers in the city of Basra bought thousands of men from East Africa to drain the large salt marshes in the city. In Arabic, they were referred to as “Zanj,” derived from the Arabic pronunciation of Zanzibar, which in turn means “land of the Black man.” While the n-word and zanj have different socio-historic contexts that make the first of the two words inappropriate and racist, the second refers to a particular period in which African men were enslaved and lived under miserable inhumane conditions. There should be a “Z” word in Arabic, but till this day there isn’t. I am, in fact, using it quite deliberately writing this article. The Black slaves of Basra endured cruel work conditions with little subsistence for survival for decades, and like most injustices, a rebellion was born from the heart of suffering. Many historians consider the “Zanj Rebellion,” which lasted nearly 14 years, as one of the most violent events of the Abbasid era. Other historians have argued that it was a social and economic revolt and not one led by slaves eager for freedom. Most historians agree that it was a social revolt inspired by slaves who joined other discontented Basrans to stage a huge political upheaval against their Baghdad rulers.
Slavery was officially abolished in Iraq under Ottoman rule in the 19th century. Yet the stereotypes persist to this day despite growing social awareness in many other sensitive topics such as religious fundamentalism and our less-than-ideal but over-glorified history. There could be many reasons this part of history is not discussed in Iraq.
One is that most Iraqis of African descent live in the Zubair district of Basra, where most of their ancestors were brought in. The restriction to one area in south Iraq made this issue more local and less national. Second, and perhaps more damaging, is how racist tropes and stereotypes in Iraq are so common that it is hard to distinguish a light-hearted joke based on a stereotype from a hurtful, racist comment built on “othering.” There are stereotypical jokes about certain attributes and characteristics of Mosul, for example, but none attacks the very being of a citizen from Mosul. That is categorically different from using the word “abed,” which literally means “slave” to describe an Iraqi of African origins. There are an estimated 1 million African Iraqis in the country today, but they have no political representation. Though most identify as Iraqi Shi’a and are allowed to vote, they do not possess the same status in Iraq’s society as their Shi’a fellow nationals of Arab background. With social discrimination and near-invisibility from the rest of Iraq outside Zubair, seeking political representation sounds logical. Yet all attempts to establish political representation in the post-2003 order were silenced, literally. In 2007, inspired by the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama in the U.S., the “Free Iraqi Movement” was established to defend the right of African Iraqis. The party ran in more than one local election in Basra but failed to win any seats. In 2013, its founder, Jalal Thiyab, was assassinated. According to a study by the International Republican Institute, African Iraqis experience high poverty and low educational attainment rates.
I learned of the existence of Iraqis who were originally from Africa in the ’90s while listening to the songs “Khala w ya Khala” by Basim al-Ali and “Ridit minek Tiji” by Haithem Yousif. Both songs feature an up-tempo catchy beat that generates what I refer to as “the shoulder factor,” a reaction in which your shoulders automatically move to a certain rhythm. The videos include a group of joyous Black men dancing. I later learned that the “khashaba” dancing was one of many dances in Basra that were made mainstream by African-Iraqis. Though I was initially thrilled at the discovery, it quickly reminded me of a time when African Americans and Latinos were seen as just entertainers and athletes. Despite the historic significance if the Zanj Revolution, there is no mention of it in Iraqi history textbooks. There has not been, to the best of my knowledge, an issued acknowledgement or apology to the offspring of these slaves who live in Basra today. Granted, they are full Iraqi citizens and enjoy, theoretically, all the rights that any Iraqi citizen has, but do they not deserve a Juneteenth of their own? An Iraqi Juneteenth is overdue. If there is not a certain date, there are many consequential dates to choose from. As part of the celebration, maybe we could outlaw “zanj” and “abed” from our social vocabulary, too.