March 5, 2008 3:00 PM
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.
All this plays out against a backdrop of political and media messaging within the Arab world asserting that the Muslim Arab man, in human terms, is far superior to the occidental man. Bilal ibn Rabah, a black disciple of the Prophet Muhammad and first muezzin (caller to prayer) of Islam, is often held up by religious clerics as a symbol of the inclusiveness of Islam, while much is made of the perceived plight of African-Americans in the US.
Egyptian and Syrian soap operas set in colonial times paint the western colonisers as one-dimensional pillagers while western media and films are accused of depicting Arabs in a poor light. Historically, the lack of a modern institutionalised slavery system in the Arab world in addition to the absence of laws enshrining racial segregation (like those that existed in the US until the 20th century) enhances this sense of superiority in comparison to what is perceived to be the "modern" occident.
This sentiment in turn precipitates its own racial stereotype: that of a white man who is fundamentally racist ... polite and patronising ... but ultimately arrogant and fastidious in his belief that all other races are inferior.
Even if that were the case, it is a welcome relief to know where one stands.