Hidden in Plain Sight: Basra’s Legacy of Slavery

Theola Labbe, The Washington Post
Publication Date: 
Wed, 2004-01-14 03:00

BASRA, 14 January 2004 — The word was whispered and hurled at Thawra Youssef in school when she was 5 years old. Even back then, she sensed it was an insult.

“Abd.” Slave.

“The way they said it, smiling and shouting, I knew they used it to make fun of me,” said Youssef, recounting the childhood story from her living room couch.

“I used to get upset and ask, ‘Why do you call me abd? I don’t serve you’,” Youssef said.

Unlike most Iraqis, whose faces range in shades from olive to pale, Youssef has skin the color of chocolate. She has African features and short, tightly curled hair that she straightens and wears in a soft bouffant. Growing up in Basra, the port city 260 miles southeast of Baghdad, she lived with her aunt while her mother worked as a cook and maid in the homes of one of the city’s wealthiest light-skinned families.

In the United States, Youssef’s dark skin would classify her as black or African-American. In Iraq, where distinctions are based on family and tribe rather than race, she is simply an Iraqi.

The number of dark-skinned people like Youssef in Iraq today is unknown. Their origins, however, are better understood, if little discussed: They are the legacy of slavery throughout the Middle East.

Historians say the slave trade began in the 9th century and lasted a millennium. Arab traders brought Africans across the Indian Ocean from present-day Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan, Ethiopia and elsewhere in East Africa to Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Turkey and other parts of the Middle East.

“We were slaves. That’s how we came here,” Youssef said. “Our whole family used to talk about how our roots are from Africa.”

Though centuries have passed since the first Africans, called Zanj, arrived in Iraq, some African traditions are still present today. Youssef, 43, a doctoral candidate in theater and acting at Baghdad University’s College of Fine Arts, is writing her dissertation about healing ceremonies that are held exclusively within a community of dark-skinned Iraqis in Basra. Youssef said she considers the ceremonies — which involve elaborate costumes, dancing and words sung in Swahili and Arabic — to be dramatic performances.

“I don’t complain about being called an abd, but I think that’s what provoked me to write this, perhaps some kind of complex,” said Youssef, who began researching and writing about the practices of Afro-Iraqis in 1997 when she was studying for a master’s degree. “Something inside me that wanted to tell others that the abd they mock is better than them.”

Once a month, Youssef makes the six-hour trip north to Baghdad to study and research. One day recently, her heels clicked on the campus pavement as she headed to her adviser’s office, a copy of her dissertation clutched under her arm. The 104-page paper had been handed in and was moving slowly through administrative channels.

Youssef hugged Waleed Shamil, an assistant theater professor who supported her idea for the dissertation.

“Some scholars they say, ‘This is not of Iraqi origin, it came from the outside.’ But anything in the society, when it remains after so long, it becomes part of the culture and society, whether we received it from Africa or China,” Shamil said.

In the 9th century, as today, Basra was a major trading city on the Shatt Al-Arab waterway, which empties into the Gulf. With date plantations in need of farming, Arab leaders turned to East Africa — Mombasa on the Kenyan coast, Sudan, further inland in Tanzania and Malawi, and Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania that gave the Zanj their name.

“By the 9th century, when Baghdad was the capital of the Islamic world, we do have evidence of a large importation of African slaves — how large is anyone’s guess,” said Thabit Abdullah, a history professor at York University in Toronto.

In addition to working on plantations, Abdullah said, some African slaves were soldiers, concubines or eunuchs. Arabs also enslaved Turks and other ethnic groups as high-ranking army officers and in domestic positions.

Unlike in America, slaves in the Middle East could own land and their children could not be born into slavery. In addition, conversion to Islam could prevent servitude since according to Islamic law, Muslims could not enslave other Muslims.

Even though Islam teaches that all people are equal before God, Abdullah said that medieval Arab slave owners made distinctions based on skin color. White slaves, known as “mamluks,” which means “owned,” were more expensive than black slaves, or abds.

To protest their treatment, Zanj slaves working in the Basra fields staged a revolt against Baghdad’s rulers that lasted 15 years and created a rival capital called Moktara, believed to have been located in the marshlands of southern Iraq. By 883 the Baghdad army finally put down the revolt. “This slave rebellion is so important to the history of slavery in Iraq because after that, no one wanted to take a risk by trying plantation-style slavery again,” Abdullah said. Slavery continued until the 19th century, but dark-skinned Iraqis never again organized as a group to make political demands.

In a country that revolves around religion rather than race, the term “abd” may be used by light-skinned Iraqis in a matter-of-fact was to describe someone’s dark complexion. Dark-skinned Iraqis say the word may or may not be considered an insult, depending on how it is used and the intent of the speaker.

In many ways, the low visibility of dark-skinned Iraqis has been a blessing. During his 35 years in power, former President Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party government killed and tortured thousands of people based on ethnic and religious affiliations. Ethnic Kurds in the northern reaches of the country, and Shiites, particularly the so-called Marsh Arabs, living in the south all have testimonials of suffering. The dark-skinned Iraqis were spared Saddam’s wrath.

Awatif Sabty, 47, is ambivalent toward skin color. A secretary at Basra Agricultural College, she is more apt to talk about Saddam’s wrongdoing than about her own caramel-colored skin or her marriage to a lighter-skinned man, Salah Mousa, 47.

Her mother was disappointed in her choice. Her husband’s mother objected to the union. Sabty said Mousa’s family even tried to intimidate her with threatening phone calls. Now she shakes her head and dismisses it all as long-ago history. “Objections and barriers exist, but in the end it’s all solved,” she said in her soft voice, smiling.

Her middle-class home in Basra’s Abbasiya district has painted cement walls and two televisions and is immaculate. Sitting on a couch draped in white protective cloth, Sabty explained that intermarriages like hers are common in Iraq.

“We don’t have a problem with color, and we don’t deal with someone based on color.”

For instance, she said, her older sister married a light-skinned Iraqi and has a daughter with blond hair. Her brother married a dark-skinned woman and their child is dark-skinned. Sabty’s two young children are olive-complexioned with straight, shiny hair, showing no trace of Sabty’s caramel coloring.

Suddenly she paused. “In the coming generations we will have fewer dark-skinned children, and this pains us,” she said. “We are proud of this color because people of this color are a minority in Iraq. Maybe DNA will bring us the color again.”

Few local government leaders in Basra, some of whom were selected by the US-led occupation authority, are dark-skinned. In Hakaka, a poor neighborhood of 600 families — about 100 of them dark-skinned — town council members elected last August vowed to make changes. All of the eight council members are light-skinned.

“People applied to be members, and no one black applied,” said council President Abdullah Mohammed Hasan, 54, in the sandwich shop that serves as the council’s headquarters. Hasan has two wives, one of them dark-skinned.

“They have good manners and are very easy to deal with,” Hasan said of dark-skinned Iraqis. “It would be better if they were members.”

Youssef, the doctoral candidate, grew up in Hakaka. When she was a child her family did not have much money, but the modest neighborhood was clean. Now it lacks a septic system and reeks of waste because there is no garbage pickup.

Youssef goes back at least once a month to see her 74-year-old father, who sometimes needs her help because of his failing eyesight. She also visits with her brother, Sabeeh Youssef, and his family.

Sabeeh Youssef, 47, dropped out of school early to help support the family. He works fixing broken lighters since losing his job at an oil company in 1989. But he is a self-taught carpenter, capable of carving elaborate antique cars and miniature ships. He proudly showed the works that line the cement walls of his modest home, which lacks running water.

He would love to have his own shop, “but I don’t have the materials and I don’t have the money to buy them,” he said, as his daughter Duaa Sabeeh, 5, grew restless in his lap. “I’m very happy and proud of my sister,” he added. “She did the things that I couldn’t do, or that my father couldn’t do. She did it.”

Each time Thawra Youssef returns to Hakaka, well-dressed in pressed clothes and a loosely draped black headscarf, she looks like a queen visiting for a day among the poor families dressed in house clothes who hover at their doorways and call out to Youssef by name.

“I don’t feel like a stranger here,” she said. “I have something deep inside of me that is connected to the local Basra ceremonies. I can’t abandon them.”

The practices, she said, came from “the motherland where we came from: Africa.”

Youssef said she was raised to be a proud Iraqi and Muslim but her mother also said that the family had roots in Kenya. Her grandfather and his relatives came from Africa through slavery, her mother said.

When she was 9, her mother sent her to stay with an aunt, Badriya Ubaid. She lived in a more upscale neighborhood and was the lead singer in the nationally acclaimed band Om Ali.

“My aunt, she was the first one pushing me to study,” Youssef said. “She said, why do we let them say that black people can only do dance and music? Why don’t we show them that they can be an important part of the community, that they can study? She wanted me to answer this question.”

In college and graduate school, as she studied theater and dance, Youssef also sang with Om Ali. If someone said that the dark-skinned Iraqis were only good for entertainment, Youssef said, her aunt was quick to point out that her niece was studying for an advanced degree. Youssef quit Om Ali in 1999 to pursue her doctorate full time.

Youssef also danced in a local arts troupe. She found the moves reminiscent of the dances in the ceremonies. She wrote her master’s research on body movement, and when it was time to pick a topic in 2000 for her dissertation, she decided to look at the healing ceremonies from her community.

“It’s not only going to give ideas about dark-skinned people, it will give an idea about our inherited ceremonies, which we have to protect,” said Youssef. She wants to teach and publish her work in a book.

“The most important thing is that I started it,” said Youssef. “People will come after me, God willing.”

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