An ‘Individual of Color’ Breaks a Barrier in Iraq—How this fits Arab Perceptions of Race
By John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer
A young Iraqi Arab woman was found in a café speaking classical or standard Arabic to her friends. She just happened to be a woman of color, a descendant of slaves. Her story of being recruited by a major TV station as a newscaster underscores the exception to the rule of Iraqi ‘blacks’ rising to positions of prominence. The writer also briefly relates his experience with color differences among Arabs he’s lived with.
Young Iraqi Woman of Color makes it into Prime-Time TV News
Interestingly, the New York Times broke a story about a young Iraqi woman of color who surprisingly found herself on Iraq television as a news reporter. As the Times story reported, Randa Abd Al-Aziz was recruited for a broadcast position in Iraqi news TV, a first for the TV industry, given “Black citizens’” absence from Iraq’s media.
The Times uses the term “Black” in its charming story of this young Iraqi woman, who it describes as “…relaxing in a Baghdad café, making her friends laugh by reading a cosmetics pamphlet aloud in classical Arabic, the exaggeratedly formal language of speeches, official decrees — and TV anchors.” Randa’s rendering of classical Arabic was overheard by someone described as a talent scout, who introduced herself – and the rest became history.
Ms. Abd-Al-Aziz’s life was changed by this experience, in which she received a “totally unexpected and life-changing offer—to become a news reader on Iraqi TV. She is described as atypical of people of her background—in Arabic, asmara, a person of dark color—namely because of her middle-class roots. She earned a degree in agricultural economics and was working in the import sector when she was recruited to a TV position. Most asmara people in Iraq, 1.5-2 million, who live in the south around Basra, are poor.
While Iraq’s political system is tribal-denominated, Iraqi asmara people are descended from east African slaves beginning in the 9th century. They have no representation in politics, with no lawmakers and few in senior positions in government ministries. The slave trade that brought the asmara to Mesopotamia has lasted into the mid-20th century, resulting in their debased socioeconomic position in some other Arab countries in the region. In Iraq, they are concentrated in the south and they are poor and uneducated.
These conditions are what make the situation of Randa Abd-Al-Aziz so remarkable. According to the Times, there was some demand “…to see all colors on Iraqiya TV.” There were already channels for people of Turkmen, Kurdish, and Syriac background, so why not one for so-called asmara people? Given her background as a minority, Randa was reluctant make the move into the anchorwoman position on Iraqi major TV. Randa’s route to major TV news presentation involved months of voice lessons and training in Iraqi regional and international politics, in which she’d had little interest.
Abd-Al-Aziz’ progress has been strong and, per the Times, “The ease she feels now is a far cry from her first live bulletin in September when she said she was frozen with fear.” Her rise to acceptance on national TV, however, is totally atypical and in no way alleviates the suffering of the asmara people she represents.
A brief history of Iraqi People of Color
In addition to their origins in East Africa as slaves dating to the 9th century, the majority of Iraq’s asmara population identify as Shi’a Muslims. Many of these slaves worked in agriculture, converting salt marshes into arable land through difficult manual labor. A half million slaves revolted against their condition of slavery in 869 in a rebellion called Zanj, out of which arose a self-ruling capital. Baghdad violently put down this rebellion.
The absence of an educated class among these former slaves deprived Iraq’s asmara population from government positions, a major form of employment in Iraq. Recently, the asmara have begun to develop their own political identity, under the rubric of the Free Iraqi Movement. According to Minority Rights Group International, “Spurred by the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, many black Iraqis began to advocate for an end to discrimination and a greater role in Iraqi politics.” None of their candidates, however, was elected to provincial office.
Asmara Iraqis are purportedly discriminated against and marginalized and are too often referred to as abd or slave. As noted earlier, they suffer from high illiteracy and unemployment. Abd-Al-Aziz is an exception to this generalization of poverty and illiteracy, which is why her story is important.
A brief account of this writer’s experience with color differences among Arab peoples
Having lived with Arabs in a small Libyan oasis community deep in the Sahara Desert and among urban Arabs in Benghazi and Tripoli, Libya and with Cairenes in Egypt during several years, I found a healthy respect for differences among people based on their color. “Black” may have been used as a descriptor for sub-Saharan Africans, a cultural distinction as much as a racial definition. Many of my friends and neighbors in the Libyan oasis village had origins in the slave trade carried out by long-ago Romans but also by Arabs. The people in this community of many colors made almost no distinction among themselves along lines of color.
For me, personally, this absence of color distinctions was liberating, in that it was almost irrelevant. Perhaps there were subtle distinctions that I didn’t observe, but for the most part they were just not there. In the domain of Arab Americans, they now have their own ethnic identifier as defined by the Census Bureau—MENA (Middle East/North Africa)–which denotes a cultural distinction. But like Americans with all their differences, historical, ethnic, language, cultural, color, Arabs for the most part have appropriately and easily fit into the American societal pattern.
Perhaps color distinctions among Arabs are not irrelevant but, under a strong religious tradition defined by both Islam and Christianity, a person’s color seems to be merged into her or his cultural and ethnic identity, which diminishes its importance as a super defining issue.
“A Black Iraqi’s Sudden Career in TV News: ‘They Wanted to See All Colors,’” New York Times, 2/4/2022
“Black Iraqis,” Minority Rights Group International, 11/2017
John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID, Department of State, and the World Bank in 65 countries.
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