During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims are meant to abstain from food, drinks, smoking, sexual activity and offensive language. Understandably, during this month, TV broadcasters across the Arab world tend to tone down programming and promote more family-friendly content.
Yet year after year, racist mockery and derogatory language against Afro/black Arabs and black African migrants make it to the TV screens of millions of Arab families gathered to enjoy TV series produced especially for Ramadan.
This year’s Ramadan TV content failed to “disappoint” in this regard.
The Egyptian comedy series “Azmi we Ashgan” (Azmi and Ashgan) created by controversial Egyptian producer Ahmed el-Sobki, featured the lead actors donning blackface repeatedly throughout the series, as well as the use of racist language (including the use of the n-word) and the portrayal of black people as servants who speak in broken Arabic and practise sorcery.
The Kuwaiti comedy series “Block Ghashmara” (The block of jokes), on the other hand, dedicated a whole episode to actors in blackface portraying Sudanese people as lazy and cynical.
Despite the outrage on social media, the film crews behind the TV series defended themselves.
Ahmed Mohy, the scriptwriter of “Azmi we Ashgan,” downplayed the racial slurs in his show, said on Twitter that “[the team] do not aim at insulting part of the Egyptian people, because we are all one people”.
On Instagram, the Kuwaiti actor Hassan al-Ballam, who starred in the controversial Block Ghashmara episode, apologised, but said that the criticism against him was exaggerated and that he was “misunderstood”.
These exchanges and criticism, however, were limited to social media and as in the past, failed to produce a bigger society-wide discussion. This is hardly surprising given that racism in Arab popular culture and in Arab cinema, in particular, is pervasive and there seems to be little interest in the Arab society to change that.
Arab cinema’s racist tropes
“Why are you turning off the light? You are already dark by nature,” says the main character to a black prostitute in the 1998 Egyptian film Sa’eedi fil gamaa el amrekeia (An Upper Egyptian at the American University).
“Is there a power cut in there or what?” – says one lead character when he sees a group of black people walking out of a night club in the 2001 Egyptian film, Africano.
“Did someone burn this apartment before or what?” – laugh three of the characters in the 2005 Egyptian film, Eyal Habiba (Habiba’s children), as they look at a wall of family photos in the apartment of a Sudanese man (played by an Arab in blackface).
These are just a few examples of anti-black racist language which has dominated Arab cinema for decades. The industry continues to inject its popular drama series, movies and talk shows with a despicable amount of racism to create undignified images of Afro/black-Arabs and black African migrants.
The portrayal of black people in Arab cinema reflects the widespread anti-black sentiments and racism that exists across Arabic-speaking countries.
On the screen, black people are cast into subordinate roles, reduced to servants, housemaids, prostitutes, clowns and doorkeepers working for rich families.
Black men and women are constantly depicted as dirty and sluggish and their skin colour is subject to racist mockery and associated with bad luck.
When the main character, Khalaf (Mohamed Henedy), in Sa’eedi fil gamaa el amrekeia hears the news of someone’s death, he turns his gaze towards a prostitute played by a black woman, and declares: “The lady died because of your black face”. The same movie contains many racist comments about the black prostitute illustrating how Afro/black Arab women are perceived as ugly and unfeminine.
Even black children have fallen victim to this racial mockery. In the 2003 Egyptian comedy, Elly Baly Balak (My thoughts are your thoughts), the protagonist addresses his wife after mistaking a black maid’s child for his own, saying “You are white and I am white, how could we have this bar of dates as a child?”
It is apparent that the Arab cinema industry has no qualms about practising Arab-washing, following in the footsteps of Hollywood and its penchant for whitewashing stories and characters.
But while in the US the use of blackface has been largely phased out, in Arab cinema it is constantly used in order to have non-black Arabs cast in black roles. They often don blackface, put on exaggerated fake buttocks, thick Afro curly hair and bright-red lipstick.
It is also indicative that for decades the first and only dark-skinned actor who played leading roles in Egyptian cinema was Ahmed Zaki (1949- 2005). But even he did not escape racial characterisation: He was nicknamed the “Bronze Star” and the “Black Tiger”.
The taboo subject of slavery
Despite the persistence of this negative portrayal of black people and the perpetuation of racial stereotypes against them, there is almost no public debate about it within the wider Arab society. On the contrary, there is a popular outright denial that racist attitudes against black people exist.
Every darker-skinned person in the Middle East has been exposed to racial epithets and has been called different derogatory names. The most common racial slur is “abd”, meaning “slave” or “servant”. This language of racism is an enduring legacy of the history of slavery in the region.
That legacy, however, is still seen as a taboo subject and when raised, Arabs often try to deflect it by talking about Bilal Ibn Rabah, a black slave who Prophet Mohammed freed and who became the first muezzin (the person who calls to prayer). This episode of Islamic history is brandished as proofof the existence of egalitarian and inclusive Islamic society in which there wasn’t and isn’t any discrimination based on race.
However, the emancipation of Bilal did not really end slavery in the region. On the contrary, for centuries various interpretations of Islam were used to justify a flourishing slave trade and the culture of concubines across the Middle East and North Africa.
Slavery in Arab countries was abolished completely by 1970 (with the exception of Mauritania, which did so in 1981). While not all dark-skinned people in the region are descendants of slaves and not all slaves were black, people with darker skin are stigmatised and, by default, considered to have such background, regardless of how they self-identify.
This, in turn, impacts social relations, perceptions and social and political positions. In 2008, for example, when Adel Al-Kalbani, a black Saudi imam, was appointed to lead the prayers at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, he faced a barrage of racial insults, with some Muslims openly protesting his appointment.
An Arab identity that excludes and discriminates
Beyond slavery, Western colonialism certainly contributed to the racism present in Arab society by ascribing the idea of beauty to whiteness and ugliness to blackness and by favouring certain ethnic groups over others. Yet, it was not the main factor that shaped identity and perceptions of race in the region.
It was the coercive pan-Arabism ideology that established the hegemony of a specific, racialised Arab identity over all others. It has contributed to systemic socioeconomic discrimination and created strict racial hierarchies, which relegate black people to a subordinate position within the Arab society.
The most populous Arab countries are in the African content and black Arabs have been a part of non-black Arab society since the early Muslim conquest of the region. But there is a staggering contempt for everything that is African or black.
Naturally, any industry, such as cinema, that is dominated by non-black Arabs would reflect this sentiment and fail to embrace the racial diversity of the Middle East and North Africa.
This has negatively affected many young black people who struggle to find positive role models, as they remain largely unrepresented in mainstream media. The social stigma has pushed some of them to disassociate themselves from their black identity. Some deny their African heritage, participate in intra-racial racism, strive to assimilate and even attempt to change the colour of their skin through skin-bleaching.
It also continues to inflict grave harm on migrants and migrant workers. The harrowing stories of abuse of Ethiopian women in Lebanon and the shocking practices of torture and slavery of African migrants in Libya are just two examples of how dangerous this centuries-old undercurrent of entrenched racism in Arab countries can be.
Racial prejudice in Arab cinema and society persists because we have failed to push for an open debate and for effective measures against racism. Depicting Afro/black children and adults in a degrading manner and even encouraging mockery and violent behaviour in the Arab film industry should not be tolerated or normalised.
To overcome the stigmatisation of black people, we need to shake off the legacy of our unpalatable past and end the “culture of silence”. It is this “refusal to engage in discussions on slavery and racial attitudes” which in the name of “Arab-Islamic hegemony” has sought to conceal this issue – as Moroccan historian Chouki El Hamel has noted.
We Afro/black Arabs have to come to terms with our own identity, decolonise our own self-perception, reclaim and embrace our blackness and march against racial prejudice and the degrading images and treatment which we are exposed to on the screen and on the ground.
We should speak out at all levels of Arab society and the Arab film industry should be leading this social revolution. We should look inward and scrutinise our racial attitudes so that we can stop reproducing the culture of racism and move forward.