Disarticulating blackness or the semantics of (anti)blackness in Tunisia
Afifa Ltifi, Cornell University
Some ten years ago I was astonished to learn that the North Africans despised men of color. It was absolutely impossible for me to make any contact with the local population. I left Africa and went back to France without having fathomed the reason for this hostility. Meanwhile, certain facts had made me think. The Frenchman does not like the Jew, who does not like the Arab, who does not like the Negro.
It was in 2004 when the black Tunisian Affet Mosbah penned her timely “Etre Noire en Tunisie”, or “On Being Black in Tunisia”, a first person account on the predicament of anti-blackness that continues to resonate in the discourse of black-rights activists of the contemporary AfroArab world. Published in the pan-African Jeune Afrique— a magazine that was ironically founded in Tunisia by the French Tunisian journalist Bechir Ben Yahmed (1928-2021)—the entry had particularly amplified the double bind of belonging and alienation that impinged the social ontologies of black women: too black to be Tunisian, yet black enough to be readily displaced into an undifferentiated sub-Saharan African plane, often interpellated with the political misnomer “Africa”. The latter’s consistent misnaming rests, precisely, on an internalized North/sub-Saharan Africa divide wherein the “darkest Africa syndrome” continues to give the idea of “Africa” the cognitive coherence of a primordial stable site of blackness, as if Africa was a country and not a continent wherein Tunisia is itself located. Articulating the irony of this collective black plight, Affet writes:
[…] here [in Tunisia], a black is a ‘ucîf (“servant”, “slave” and, by extension, “black”). My fellow [black] Tunisians regularly hear “Congo” or “Senegal” hurled at them, as if we cannot be both black and Tunisian! The insults are compounded when the “victim” has the misfortune of being a woman—for the streets of Tunis stink with words so gritty to hear that it’s best to be accompanied with a man— a paradox in this country that, in 1956, had “emancipated” women with the promulgation of the Personal Status Code.
Affet’s testimony catalogues, inter alia, a fraction of the maze of the semantic allegories of blackness and the concomitant genealogical and geographical imaginaries black Tunisians instigate in the national psyche and parlance. At once anachronistic and functional, such formulaic fixtures of the like of ucif or “Congo”— to borrow from Albert Memmi— are “called forth and maintained” by unresolved local/global inherited histories and social transformations and/or inertias. They have been produced already by trans-Saharan slavery, its resilient epistemes and the hegemonic racial world making set in motion by racial slavery, European predatory imperialism, the rise of a capitalist world economy and its adjunct white supremacy that compounded its afterlives. These histories, however, do not follow a linear teleology that would explain the longevity of this lexis; rather, they spiral to precede, overlap, and sometimes outlast one another without the assurance of the dormant causality of one particular universalism.
To amplify such historical processes, I obliquely attend to them by foregrounding this taxonomy and its protracting breadth that seeks to articulate, index, and capture the layers of meanings that black Tunisians have come to embody interchangeably with the idea of blackness and Africa at the contemporary moment. I proceed by amplifying the present-day meanings taken to be intrinsic to this lexicon and the bodily experiences they historicize to show how blackness, as subjected to interspersed racialization processes, operates from within this northern shore of a continent that is presumably older than race, blackness and even the “idea of Africa”.
Slavery Epithets and the racialization of Slavery:
While racialized referents of “Congo” and “Senegal” signal the still hegemonic epistemes of racial world making, ‘ucifdenotes another enduring and competing one: the haunting traces of a trans-Saharan Arab slavery, which— even though it preceded and outlasted trans-Atlantic slavery’s historical span and episteme—remains eclipsed as an explanation of black racialization by the overwhelming scholarly attention that has been paid to the trans-Atlantic world. The epithet ‘uçîf that means a domestic servant and a second-class position in classical and modern standard Arabic, respectively, reifies a primary mode of enunciating blackness as an ontological category in modern day Tunisia. Marshalled through a (pre)modern semantics of black slavery and servitude, this mode configures blackness through a devious lexical retroversion wherein slavery and its derivative sociopolitical categories become racializing vectors that subsume blackness under a transhistorical captivity, social and structural antiblackness. Without evoking a chromatic blackness, ‘ucif, ‘abd (slave), shûshān (native-born blacks of slave or mixed lineage/legal status descent) and khādem (domestic servant) are often used to designate a social blackness that often accrues universal meanings that compete with the sociohistorical experiences they originally documented. Notwithstanding the meticulous socioeconomic categories, they came to rehearse, diachronic transformations of this nomenclature had rendered the epithets ‘ucif, ‘abd, khādem and shûshan synonymous with a phenotypical and a genealogical blackness, where new biological racial meanings and an ahistorical blackness-slavery-nexus are maintained.
Racialized referents of ‘ucif, abid (plural of ‘abd), shûshān and khādem, often taken to be interchangeable, have transposed onto the modern Tunisian vernacular not as cryptic anachronisms, devoid of meaning, but rather as derogatory epithets, used to deride blackness as a primary signifier of slave descent. When considered within their sociohistorical context, these terms perhaps denote the primarily socioeconomic categories of slavery and servitude that they came to particularize within Ottoman Tunisia’s tributary mode of production (1574-1957). While ‘ucif and khādem distinguished the servile position that enslaved and manumitted black sub-Saharan Africans have come to unevenly occupy in ottoman Tunisia, ‘abid, or slaves, was the term used to refer to the then recently enslaved West Africans, of the first half of the 19th century. The etymologically mystified shûshān, on the other hand, denoted the liminal category of native-born blacks who, despite their de jure freedom, remained encumbered by their said ancestral coercion into slavery.
This nomenclature, and the linguistic subtleties it enfolded, came to develop distinctively from the two asymmetrical slavery models that produced their own naming grid of “renegades”, “assirs” (captives) and “mamluks” (owned) which often diverged from the black slavery model that cohered with racial slavery in Ottoman Tunisia. The latter grid of categories did not consistently index the phenotypical difference upon which the nomenclature was based; rather, they marked the disparity in origin, the inner political and economic girds of the type of slavery that produced these unequal subordinate groups and their position within the mode of production they were destined for. The precarity of black enslaved and manumitted social conditions, unlike Georgians, Circassian and Northern Mediterranean enslaved subjects, rendered slavery’s meaning more in coherence with a global hegemonic definition of racial slavery.
This antiblack taxonomy emerged particularly in opposition to the Ahrār (singular Horr), or the freeborn subjects who were often understood to be theoretically not available for enslavement. As the anachronism horr subsists in the modern-day vernacular use, its modern meaning gives both a premodern sense of superior descent as well as a new one of an epidermal whiteness. Albeit unevenly, Ahrār and horr have become more and more obsolete today as the term “white”, (or abyadh singular and bidh. plural) has come to replace them. On Geneviève Bédoucha’s account, shûshān, for instance, have come to include free non-blacks in the southwestern oasis of Mansûra, who, for marrying free black women, were downgraded to the category of shwashin(plural of shûshān) through the generations that followed. This hence shows the diachronic transformations that render shûshān into a verb of a racial and a genealogical declassification process, wherein one’s free status, simply by way of its proximity to blackness, as a signifier of slave descent and social inferiority, is genealogically downgraded and blackened despite what is often taken as a phenotypical incompatibility.
Similarly, ‘ucif, has transmuted into varieties of racializing idioms such as in the case of the derivative expression of “twasfan” or “becoming ‘ucif”, or to gain a derided darker hue, characteristic of the historically enslaved black Tunisians. Becoming ‘ucif and shûshān hence, renders obvious the phenotypical and social blackness that superimpose on the terms that have become alienated from their original linguistic subtleties. While colorist meanings of the term remain implied, the color word black remains disarticulated.
As these terms have accrued new meanings, black Tunisian bodies have become racialized in the process through a multitude of pseudo racial ideas that explained their social exclusion, condemnation to endogamy and the general stagnation and deterioration of their socio-economic status.
Anachronisms of Descent and their Racial Undertones
Cultural idioms abound in modern Tunisian vernacular to racialize what they take as black fixed genetic traits that overlay existing proto-racial genealogical paradigms. ‘Ucif, for instance, became evocative of pseudo-eugenicist ideas in expressions like “ucif sham snana” (a ‘ucif who smelled his pungent body odor) alluding to the black Tunisian strong emotionalism, excessive merriment, arrogance, or anger. The idiom hence racializes what is already understood as a stable biological trait of a foul body odor responsible for triggering an excessive temperament attributed to blackness, or rather a black slave descent. In the southeastern town of Gabes, where lies a larger concentration of black Tunisians and where the palm drink “legmi” is a prized delicacy, the idiomatic expression “ ‘ucif ‘ucif wa kenn shkhakhou legmi” [ a servant remains always a servant even if he urinates palm drink], is one wherein a black slave descent is understood to bypass the unthinkable extra-human possibilities that might absolve the group in question. This, among many discursive tropes, as opposed to “horr (free, also white in this context) yabka (remains) horr (white/free) even when life/fate betrays him” allude to the rigidity of these genealogical structures of descent that racialize slavery and freedom as unalterable hereditary features that one can pass on trans-generationally.
The expression of “Rye ‘abid”, (the reasoning of slaves) is another eugenics-inflected idiom in Tunisia that describes what is often understood as a pathological predilection to failure in black people. “‘Abid ‘andhom ‘irk msakkar”, (“slaves have a dysfunctional vein in their brain”) is yet another one that explains black feeblemindedness. The trope perfectly coheres with Ibn Khaldun’s conclusions, shaped by the geoclimatic determinism of his premodern spacetimes, about black nations of sub-Saharan Africa. “Al-Irk dassess,” (“raceis insidious”) invokes ancestral immorality whenever intermarriage is encouraged. All these racializing tropes commune with the hegemonic episteme of racial blackness and the afterlives of its biological racism, especially in the expression “Kahla tsaffi el-damm”, (black women purifiers/cleansers of blood). Unlike the old stereotype of African American women’s susceptibility to Syphilis, black Tunisians women are often seen as healers of Syphilis in popular culture, where men believed that performing sexual intercourse with their enslaved black concubines, could rid them of this infection. Consider the trope of black women promiscuity and the historical practice of former masters who, were encouraged to copulate with black women to break what they believed was a curse of infertility. Black women are often seen as capable of healing “the sufferer, satisfy[ying] lust, dispel[ling] ills due to cold and damp, and eas[ing] back and joint pain.” In the realm of the metaphysical and spiritual world, the “picturesque expression of ettayer el eïn” (“to make the evil eye fly away”), shows how black Tunisians are demoted to the category of non-humans, for they are paradoxically endowed with an extra-human capacity to repel the evil eye that is posing threat to white-adjacent Tunisians. This expression is dehumanizing in so far as it reduces black Tunisians into objects, similar to fetishizing totems used to repel evil spirits in vernacular culture. Over time, racialized through pseudo-racial meanings of hereditary proclivity to failure, moral decadence, promiscuity, and the capacity to manipulate the spirits world and diseases, have become normalized as natural characteristics of black people in popular imaginary.
Materiality of Race
Suppressed from the official memory and historiography, slavery remained a sociopolitical taboo despite its haunting specters that incite to its discourse. Its semantic signposts and attached cognitive meanings on black Tunisians’ official patronymic last names, national identification cards, village and street names, burial sites and the violent idioms of invisibility and inferiority of the daily discursive and behavioral performances, never ceased to subsist. The afterlives of such event have equally shaped the material socioeconomic condition that haven’t drastically changed upon the so-called vanguard abolition (1846), as the absence of an emancipation project, gave in to their subordination as domestic workers, agricultural laborers as sharecroppers, wedding ceremonies’ minstrels and extras. Hence, black former slaves emerged doubly free; free to “exchange their labor, yet free from material resources,” suffering a social inferiority by way of their slave descent, a starkly low schooling rate, poverty, endogamy, political and cultural underrepresentation and even a spatial segregation in rural and urban peripheries.
For a long time in the southern town of Qibilī (Kibilli) in the Nefzaoua region, masters opposed black khammasah’s(sharecroppers) ownership of material resources, as well as the dissolution of the sharecropping institution, for “who will tend to the oases then”? For fear of the disruption of the economic productivity of the town, the historically slave-holding elite of the region became openly antagonistic to the black labor transfer to the metropole, as France initiated the recruitment of immigrant labor in the 1960s. Opening the doors of immigration for black Tunisians, meant, particularly, increasing khammassah’s chances for upward socioeconomic mobility, enabling their access to the means of production of the time. Today, Qibilī remains an exceptional town in comparison to the rest of the South, as the historical black “labor-drain” to France and later to countries of the Gulf, had ultimately led to major material improvements for its black population, upending the racist social structure through oasis-land ownership, and international money transfer to their hometown. As they became landowners’ black descendants of sharecroppers in neighboring el-Manchia, took—what the Tunisian scholar Mohammed Jouili called their “symbolic revenge” from the historically slave-owning elite—by refusing to sell their newly owned lands to non-black locals of the region.
Black Tunisians activism, conceptions of race and black consciousness:
Despite these colluding histories that produced black Tunisians’ “lineage” and “geo-cultural” displacement, the group had never articulated what could easily map onto a political black consciousness. As they broke their silence about the sociopolitical inequalities and the taboo of racism, its engendering memory of slavery and sustaining pseudo-racial genealogical grammar, the emphasis on dignity and their right to fully belong as Tunisian citizens, remained paramount. Unified around the happenstance of a black phenotype that exposes them to varying degrees of anti-black antagonism, black activists languaged their demands with the explicit recourse to the Tunisian revolutionary motto of “bread, freedom and national dignity”, recalibrating it to vehicle their demands for a dignified life and what it unfurled from economic, political, and social amends, on the eve of the 2011 uprising. The claim to a dignified belonging within the national body politics, had particularly played out the ambivalent culture of denial and the empty discourse of tolerance it kept wielding against the resurgent minority. Black Tunisians’ disavowal of race, supplemented with the direct condemnation of slavery semantics and paradigms, capitalized on such denial and discomfort around opening the dredges of the past to anchor themselves as rightfully belonging citizens who had equally pledged to close the chapters of the past, granted that antiblack practices get properly attended to.
As they continue to face racism, black Tunisian activists continue to disavow the political language of “race” despite the racial vocabularies used to express their grievances about existing prejudice. The disclaiming of race, is often substituted by the preferentiality to antiblackness, loosely translated to mûādāt al-sawād معاداة السواد as a growing solidarity with the itinerant Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and the recognition of the global antiblack condition is finding place within their discourse of activism. The absence and/or unintelligibility of a political diasporic pronouncements, however, neither wholly imply the validity of black Tunisians’ transnational genealogies nor does it leave unchallenged diaspora’s underlying intellectual paradigms that continue to mandate an expressed desires for home return; an outward reaching forced displacement out of Africa; or the adherence to a common consensus on what defines blackness and/or Africa etc., Black Tunisians’ phenotypical alignment with negative semantic of slavery and the imposing racial meanings and idioms and the symbolic and material social working they inflict upon them, thrusts them into a condition of an imposed and a forced diasporization, where their displacement, as epitomized by their consistent misrecognition, underrepresentation and often geo-temporal displacement through tropes of “genealogical isolation” and phenotypical incompatibility with what constitutes being Tunisian, render them diasporic both from within Tunisia and the continent of Africa, diasporic from within and without.
 Fanon, Franz. Black Skin White Masks. (Pluto Press, 1959),76.
 Affet Mosbah is the sister o the black right’s organization M’nemty’s founder Saidiya Mosbah and the Tunisian singer and composer Slah Mosbah, known for his scathing criticism of what he understands as state institutional racism.
 Mosbah, Affet. Etre Noire en Tunisie. Jeune Afrique. 2004. https://www.jeuneafrique.com/112359/archives-thematique/etre-noire-en-tunisie/
 It remains ironic that JeuneAfrique was founded in a country that continues to dissociates from the continent of Africa in its constitutional self-representation and where most Tunisians refer to almost every black person with the third person French referent “Africain(e.s)”. Even the late Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebssi, called sub-Saharan Africa “Bilad-al-ûçifān”(country of the servants) on a broadcasting program on Hannibal TV before his last election.
 Hassan, M.Salah. “The Darkest Africa Syndrome and the Idea of Africa: Notes Toward a Global Vision of Africa and Its Modernist Practice”,in Diaspora memory place, ed.Salah Hassan and Cheryl Finley (Munich: Prestel, 2008),130.
 The material and symbolic reflections of these Tunisian discursive idiosyncrasies caught the attention of the Egyptian Helmi Shaarawy, who worked as an expert in AfroArab cultural relations at the Arab League Educational Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO) in Tunis (between 1982-1986). In his autobiography An Egyptian African Saga, Shaarawy noted Tunisians’ distance from Africans and Africa’s affairs. “I thought that the country that originally held the name Ifriqiya, since the Roman times and until the Arab conquests, would be more attuned to Africa’s affairs and to Africans themselves. I was however surprised with the realization that I was the only one concerned with the African question [,…] and that Africans for them [Tunisians],ie., aljamaa Hazouma (“those people”) meant those black people residing in the South [of the country] and from whom I met the only ambassador who, before having the chance to properly know, was immediately sent to Cameroon”?[this is my own translation of the excerpt]. Shaarawy, Helmi. Sirā Masriyā Ifriqiyā.(Dar Alaïn lil-Nashr, 2019), 413. For more on Shaarawy and the North Africa, sub-Saharan divide, read Zeyad El Nabolsy’s contribution on Helmi Shaarawy.
 This is not an error of commission from Affet. She is only ironically alluding to the promises of independence, hence the date 1956 and the concomitant proverbial family law. The law was promulgated in 1956 but only came into effect in 1957.
 My own translation of the excerpt from: Mosbah, Affet. Etre Noire en Tunisie. Jeune Afrique. 2004.
 Memmi, Albert. Racism. (University of Minessota Press: University of Minessota Press, 1999),21.
 In his Disturbing the Peace, Bryan Wagner claims that “Africa and the diaspora are older than blackness. Blackness does not come from Africa. Rather, African and its diaspora become black during a particular stage in their history…Blackness is an adjunct to racial slavery… Blackness is an indelibly modern condition”. Wagner, Brayan. Disturbing the Peace: Black Culture and the Police Power after Slavery. (Harvard University Press,2009), 1.
 Mauritania is perhaps the world’s last country to abolish slavery in 1981 the last to criminalize its continuing practice in 2007. SeeEsseissah, Khaled. “‘Paradise Is Under the Feet of Your Master’: The Construction of the Religious Basis of Racial Slavery in the Mauritanian Arab-Berber Community.” Journal of Black Studies 47, no. 1 (January 2016): 3–23.
 Often used in the Southeast, the descriptor khādem (servant) is used to describe a female-gendered black person today. Khādem, is often used by the older generation that continues to use an outdated lexicon of slavery and servility, reserved mainly for black-skinned people.
Montana, Ismail. “The Bori Colonies of Tunis”,in Slavery Islam and Dispora, ed. Paul E.Lovejoy. (Africa World Press, 2009), 155-156. See also, Montana, Ismail. The Abolition of Slavery in Ottoman Tunisia, (University Press of Florida, 2013), 99. They were mostly of Kanuri and Hausa-descent, also referred to as the “Sudan -Tunis”. This is the wave that was ultimately declared “illegally enslaved” in 1846, for it was difficult to differentiate them from the legally free(d) black populations that preexisted them in Ottoman Tunisia. See Montana, Ismail. “The Bori Colonies of Tunis”,in Slavery Islam and Dispora, ed. Paul E.Lovejoy. (Africa World Press, 2009), 155-156..
 Mrad, Ines. « Esclaves noirs, Esclaves blancs dans la Tunisie du XIXème siècle : de l’affiliation fictive
à la primauté du phenotype », in Résistances et mémoires des Esclavages Espaces arabo-musulmans et Transatlantiques,ed,. (Karthala, 2014),56-61.
 Bédoucha, Geneviève. “Un Noir Destin : travail, statuts, rapports de dépendance dans une oasis dans le Sud Tunisien »,in Le Travail et ses Représentations, ed. M.Cartier, (Paris : Edition des Archives Contemporaines, 1984),77-122.
 Schmitz, Jean. « La Question Noire à Partir du Nord ou Sud-Sahara »,in Noirs au Maghreb : Enjeux Identitaires, ed.Stéphanie Pouessel,ed. Olivier Lservoisier and Salah Trabelsi, (IRMC et Karthala,2012),130.
 The translation of the term “irk” expands beyond the contemporary meaning of the term “race”. “Irk”, in this example, signifies origin, roots and one’s genealogy, which aren’t often taken to be as racialized as would the word “race” evoke.
 Similarly to Kahlouch (diminutive of black), Kahla is another derogatory term used for black Tunisians.
 Ennaji, Mohammed. Serving the Master: Slavery and Society in Nineteenth-Century Morocco, ( St.Martin’s Press: New York,1999), 34.
 “The dark pigmentation of the blacks also seems to constitute an effective “scarecrow” against the “jnun” [spirits] in Maghribi popular magic. The presence of a Negro in a family meeting is regarded as brining good luck, and in the Tunisian Sahel, one invites a Negro to attend marriage ceremonies for the express purpose of “making the evil eye fly away”.[…]Their power to protect them from the spirits is considered so strong that it is enough to make an image of a Negro out of cardboard, wood , bronze, or stone, and place it in a conspicuous place on a wall, for example, to obtain the same result”, (as quoted in Jankowsky, 2010,p18). See, Jankowsky,Richard. Stambeli: music. Trance, and Alterity in Tunisia, (University of Chicago Press, 2010).
 See Ghokh’s contribution on Yemen’s Akhdam where she makes a strong case of the different racializing tropes wielded against Akhdam, where, similarly to the Tunisians context, immorality becomes racialized as a hereditary, unalterable feature of this group.
 See Tremearne
 Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997),115.
 Mrad, Ines. De l’esclavage a la Servitude : Le cas des noirs de Tunisie. Cahier d’Etudes Africaines, 41 P.936
 Abdelhamid, Maha et al. Etre Noir, ce n’est pas une Question de Couleur. (Nirvana, 2017), 47-48.
 It was during the 1960s-1970s when black Tunisians from Gabes, Zarzis, Kibilli and other southeastern towns, immigrated in large waves to Europe. Compared to the smaller number of black Tunisians of the North, these groups had immensely benefited from immigration, for they managed to secure material goods, own land and exceed, in their economic status, even those who were still seen as genealogically superior to them. See, Mrad, Ines. « De l’esclavage à la servitude : Le cas des Noirs de Tunisie (From Slavery to Servitude:”Blacks” in Tunisia) », Cahiers d’Études Africaines, (2005),944.
 Ibid,. See also, Abdelhamid, Maha et al. Etre Noire n’est pas Une Question de Couleur: Rapports d’Enquête : Les Representations du Racisme chez les Noirs de Tunisie, (Nirvana, 2017), 48.
 Juwaylī, Muḥammad, and Tahar Labib Djedidi. Al-Thaʾr Al-Ramzī: Tamās Al-Huwīyāt Fī Wāḥāt Al-Janūb Al-Tūnisī. (al-Qāhirah: Markaz al-Buḥūth al-ʻArabīyah wa-al-Ifrīqīyah, 2008).
 Jankowsky, Richard.C.Stambeli: Music Trance and Alterity in Tunisia. (The Uiversity of Chicago Press, 2010), 16.
 Perhaps M’nemty remains one of the few organizations that focuses on disinterring the history of slavery, Tunisia’s black history and heritage. Despite the consistent allusion to transnational, diasporic connections, black Tunisians remain cautious about embracing the language or race and blackness in the country. For more on black Tunisians’ history of civil society activism, see,. Mrad,Ines. “Les mobilisations des « Noirs tunisiens » au lendemain de la révolte de 2011: Entre Affirmation d’une Identité Historique et Défense d’une Cause Noire », Politique Africaine 4, n.140 (2015) : 61-81.
 The case of Hamdan el Deli’s patronymic last name change in October 2020, shows how black Tunisians want to do away with the legacy of slavery, with a modest interest in confronting its history or the material workings that continue to affect them at the contemporary moment. Only in 2018 that Tunisia became, the only North African country to penalize racial discrimination, yet, the social and historical events that scaffolded anti-black violence remained at the margin of interests for black-rights’ activists.
 Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study, (Harvard University Press, 1982), 5.