In recent weeks, Yazan al-Saadi, a comic writer in Beirut, has been obsessed with a serious subject — the protests in the US that followed the killing of George Floyd.
Saadi was working on a script when he noticed a problem.
“I was thinking about … OK, if I want to write ‘Black Lives Matter’ and I see what the typical translation in Arabic is [...], for me, it felt off,” he said.
Saadi said the simple Arabic translation — “Black Lives Are Important” — didn’t sound exactly right. Because it doesn’t convey the power of the movement.
“The analogy that I’m trying to think of is that, imagine if you have certain groups of notes to create a chorus, but if they’re not well-put, the tune sounds off.”
“The analogy that I’m trying to think of is that imagine if you have certain groups of notes to create a chorus, but if they’re not well-put, the tune sounds off,” he said.
Saadi posted a note on his Facebook page. He asked if others had come up with a better translation for Black Lives Matter. There wasn’t a consensus, but one comment stood out.
One of his friends wrote, saying that to truly capture the concept of Black Lives Matter in Arabic, he has to first research the struggles of black Arabs in his own region.
This is just one example of how the events in the US have sparked conversations in the Middle East. It’s a discussion that’s long overdue, said Sofiane Si Merabet, founder of a website called The Confused Arab. He’s French Algerian and lives in the United Arab Emirates.
“You can be Arab, you can be black, you can be Muslim and you can be discriminated [against] even though you share a lot of different identities with the majority of the population.”
“You can be Arab, you can be black, you can be Muslim and you can be discriminated [against] even though you share a lot of different identities with the majority of the population,” he said.
In recent weeks, Si Merabet has been raising awareness about racism against black people in the Middle East mainly on his Instagram page, where he has about 30,000 followers.
Si Merabet says the experiences of black people in the region vary “because you know, when you go to North Africa, when we speak about blackness, you have an Indigenous black, local community; when you go to the Gulf, that’s something different. When it comes to the Levant [region], it’s different, too,” he said.
The history is unique, too. But the underlying problem is similar to the United States. Black people face discrimination because of their skin color.
This rings true for 25-year-old Nihal Abdellatif, who was born to Sudanese parents in the United Arab Emirates and went to school in Dubai.
“I was probably the only black kid, at least when I first entered school. And I remember times when even as a child, I was bullied by high school kids.”
“I was probably the only black kid, at least when I first entered school. And I remember times when even as a child, I was bullied by high school kids,” she recalled.
Abdellatif’s parents didn’t know how to help, she said, because “they were just not used to living in a country where the majority of people were not black.”
For years, Abdellatif said, she coped by just brushing aside the hurtful comments.
“But in the long run, it really affects your confidence and the way you see yourself,” she said. “It makes you always feel like you’re different. You’re an outsider. You don’t fit in.”
Abdellatif experiences racism even today. Like, when people call her “chocolate.” “Things like this that are pointing out to your skin color, but are concealed in a way to look like they’re compliments,” she said.
Other black Arabs have shared their own stories of experiencing racism in the wake of the protests in the US.
Palestinian actress Maryam Abu Khaled listed some comments she heard growing up. Like the time a friend’s mother told her not to play in the sun because she would “get burned and look like Maryam.”
Or when a boy asked his father why there are black people. And he said, “because their mothers forgot to take them out of the oven.”
Saudi video blogger, Abeer Sinder, said she was 6 years old when a kid at a playground called her a racial slur. Sinder didn’t know what the word meant and asked her mom to explain. The moment stuck with her, she said.
Discussions about anti-black racism in the Middle East have also come from non-black celebrities.
However, in some cases, their expressions of solidarity are a reminder of the extent of the problem — like when Moroccan actress Mariam Hussein posted a photoshopped image of herself with darker skin in support of the protests.
Or the Lebanese singer, Tania Saleh, who posted a photo of herself with an Afro hairstyle and darkened skin.
"I wish I was black, today more than ever, sending my love and full support to the people who demand equality and justice for all races anywhere in the world.”
"I wish I was black, today more than ever," Saleh wrote in posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, “sending my love and full support to the people who demand equality and justice for all races anywhere in the world.”
The posts received immediate backlash from social media users who commented that Saleh and Hussein should take down the photos immediately.
Hussein did but Saleh explained in another post that she didn’t see any problems with the image.
“I did not mean to mock the black people in any way,” she wrote. “All my idols in music and dance are black […] all I know is that I am different and I would have loved to be one of them.”
Blackface has a long history in Arab entertainment, said Eve Troutt Powell, who teaches history and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I was in Egypt with my older son in October,” she said, “and I watched a lot of television. I mean, I’m like, pulling all-nighters watching this: 1 out of 3 Egyptian films from recent to not-so-recent has blackface in it.”
In Libya, last year, a comedy show featured an actress not only in blackface but also pushing a baby carriage with monkeys inside.
Troutt Powell said in the past when she brought up racism with some of her Egyptian friends, they would scoff and say it’s a Western construct: “Racism doesn’t exist here,” they would say.
So now, when she sees young Middle Easterners discussing racism in their countries openly, she welcomes that conversation. Still, she’s not claiming victory yet.
“I think right now, it’s great that people are talking about this,” she said, “but you have to go even further so that it’s the voices of black people in the Middle East themselves who are being heard. Not just when there’s a moment of crisis as in Black Lives Matter, but all the time.”
For example, if the next time she turns on an Egyptian TV show, instead of blackface, she sees a black person running their own show.
“That would be a good start,” Troutt Powell said.
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