Racial Formations in the Middle East and Africa

Racial Formations in the Middle East and Africa

Noah Salomon, University of Virginia

In this commentary, I will offer a synthesis of the archive compiled through the writings and discussions that comprised the first day of the groundbreaking workshop that POMEPS and PASR held virtually from February 25-26, 2021, “Racial Formations in the Middle East and Africa,” papers from which appear in the present volume. While both days of the workshop offered extremely important interventions into the conversation the organizers sought to foster, I will limit myself to the papers presented and discussions forged in that first day. It was here that we really laid the groundwork for the remainder of the conversation that took place on Day 2, and has branched out from the workshop subsequently, and thus I think that this conversation in particular deserves reflection as an individual unit.

In the following, I will attempt to draw out what I see as some of the key themes and still-unresolved questions and tensions in the conversation these papers establish, as well as to offer a few places where we might delve deeper into some of the key tensions that emerge across the works presented.  These are not tensions in the sense of things that need to be resolved, but rather tensions that constitute a productive animating buzz, as each of the papers sought to get beyond dichotomous ways in which race in the Middle East and Africa has been addressed in previous studies.

The first tension I want to explore is that between what we might call particularism and universalism in studies of race in the Middle East and Africa; in short, in what ways can the racial formations we encounter in Africa and the Middle East be studied as individual particularities having to do with the particular circumstances of the societies in question, and what way are they part of phenomena with global reach?  As Diana Kim put it wisely at the outset of the workshop, “the idea of the seduction of comparisons [is] something to embrace but not entirely to succumb to.”  Each one of the papers dealt with this topic in some way, shape, or form, as it sought to translate or contextualize its particular case within broader global or regional processes.

For many, American discourses on race haunted the conversation, and was a discourse we could never escape entirely, as well as being one that, many argued, we might not want to escape entirely even if we could.  In Stephen King’s paper where he critiques L. Carl Brown’s assessment of a more humane kind of slavery in the coastal regions of North African by pointing us to the forms of slavery that exist in the desert region, which he calls “much closer to the brutal chattel slavery of the American South,” we see a way in which the American model provides a measuring stick. Though the two scholars differ in their assessments of slavery in North Africa, the American model remains a touchstone for both scholars as a negative measuring stick to assess the relative horrors of forced labor in the region. From another direction, Zachary Mondesire’s paper asks, “to what extent do individuals who, due to phenotype, would be racialized as black in the US, become or remain black without juxtaposition to individuals racialized as white?” asking “what are the signposts that harness the qualities of an abstract experience of blackness globally to lived experience in historically, materially, and spiritually constituted time and space?” Again, to paraphrase Kim, can we both embrace comparison and not succumb to it entirely, to pull on the strength of what Neha Vora and Amelie le Renard remind us, in their critique of reigning scholarly models of Gulf exceptionalism, cannot be collapsed as particularisms in the Gulf region that they study, but are instead parts of global flows of racialized capitalism? As Vora put it, “Ideas about Blackness also circulate transnationally and between/across empires. They don’t develop distinctly in the Atlantic vs Indian Ocean.” This is critical: sometimes what we think is comparative is in fact part of one larger racial formation.

This theme was fascinatingly picked up in practice in the debates that Gokha Amin Ashayif outlines among the Muhamishin, between those activists who pull on the particularism of their context in order to advocate for rights (appropriating the word Khadim for example), and those who push against genealogy as a defining characteristic, and instead try to connect to transnational discourses of Blackness. This is the tactic of the activist she discusses, for example, from the Free Black Peoples Movement in Yemen. He cites the U.S civil rights movement and apartheid and “resists the genealogical imagination by stripping it and saying that these genealogical imaginations are not important and not powerful. What is important is this global struggle against the violence that black people are facing and also the global anti-blackness that they face everywhere.” Of course, the seduction of comparison is not just a scholarly conceit but something to which activists themselves admit. Annie Olaloku-Teriba’s work on the Black radical tradition again suggests a framework that might help us to better understand the labor that goes into the struggle to construct movements of solidarity across such impossible divides.

But, as Bayan Abubakr reminds us in her paper, the urge to universalize, to create solidarities across regions can also blind us to local dynamics. Indeed, it is a major strength of so many of the papers, and our conversation collectively, that the tension between these local dynamics and global processes were kept alive and active rather than siding with one side or another as a methodological approach. Abubakr takes us to the year 1964 when two events that are happening simultaneously—Malcolm X’s trip to Egypt where he proclaims Afro-Arab unity and the displacement of Nubians by the Aswan High Dam (also discussed in Yasmin Moll’s paper) — seem to be utterly unaware of one another. Indeed, the vignette about 1964 could be a symbol for a great portion of our conversation: the strength of global solidarities in recognizing what are, in the end, dynamics global in scope, but the danger of losing out on understanding the modes of domination that cannot be homogenized within their frames, what she calls, provocatively, “what Malcolm could not name.” She writes, “How would the history of these international movements of solidarity evolve if it was informed by the current, historical, and elemental racisms of the Afro-Arab world?” She asks us to consider our perspective, again neither picking one or the other—global solidarity or local particularism— but seeing how they might synergize with one another.

Zeyad el Nabolsy’s paper also reminds us to treat these claims of solidarity by political elites with caution, asking how and why the kind of pan-African solidarity promoted by Nasser has seemingly no effect on the geographical and racial consciousness of Egyptians, leading to the kinds of phrases Mondesire mentioned hearing in Cairo, “I hope one day to travel to Africa.” This phrase, as Mondesire recognizes, is not so much a shocking example of someone confused about his physical location but is rather a wise and telling recognition of the fact that geography and race are always combined. That Egypt, per al Nabolsy’s paper, is not in fact in Africa in the consciousness of so many, no matter Nasser’s protestations, because the historical processes of racialization, both imposed by western experts and internal, has been to constitute it as outside, despite the protestations of the map.

While articulations of Blackness and civil rights have proven a powerful way to conceptualize and internationalize struggles for justice of some actors these papers discuss, as well as a useful analytic frame for many scholars, Diana Kim’s helpful paper looked at the transportability of another category of racial categorization, this time from South Asia, that is, caste. Instead of a wholescale importation of this framework to look at Nigeria and Korea, Kim asks provocatively, “what would it look like to decouple, analytically, untouchability from caste.” She writes, “Now, consider an alternative perspective that looks sideways, rather than vertically, at the place of the so-called outcastes in their respective communities and societies.  And relax the presumption that what happens in the life of an individual called untouchable necessarily makes sense in reference to someone higher up in a shared system of stratification, comprised of overlapping intimate, social, economic, religious and ritual realms. Does untouchability still exist without caste?” Again, while it has been American race studies that has predominated as a comparative frame, Kim reminds us that other sorts of analytics, from other places, can be brought productively to bear on conversations about racial formations in the particular locales in which we work to help us see things that transect the local contexts we study.

So much for the tensions between universals and particulars, solidarities and local modes of confronting racial violence.  A second tension crystalized around history and the present, genealogies of racial formations and the stabilities that seem to work across time and space. If Bayan Abubakr’s 1964 could be the vignette that framed the last theme, Sumayya Kassamali’s “joke” from the Lebanon she studies, “where is your Sri Lankan from?,” might frame this one.  Here we have an example of a historical genealogy of racialization that is so strong that Sri Lankan (the category) exists and can be occupied even long after Sri Lankans (the individuals) have left.

Dahlia Gubara’s helpful comments during the workshop discussion about the present day racial slur of ‘abid and the danger of too quickly collapsing it with the historical process of al-‘ubudiyya, is a helpful jumping off point for the tension I am discussing here as well, warning us away from a kind of anachronistic reading of race. This is echoed in Dennis Regnier’s paper, which considered an important shift in thinking about slaves that comes about at the moment of the colonial abolition of slavery, where they attain a kind of hidden essence.

Parisa Vaziri’s essay offers another sort of warning about history. In it, she asks, “What are the ‘processes of subjectification made possible (and desirable) through the very idiom of the archive’? “What are the conditions of possibility that lead to the assumption that we must look to the archive for the truth of slavery?  Is there a truth of slavery? ” And if so, what suggests that this truth is located in history?” Back to the topic of comparison, but here in a historical register, she continues “Again, a comparative logic sutures Atlantic and Indian Ocean slavery, this time, not only along the lines of the archive’s comparative abundance or poverty, but in terms of the hegemony of racial blackness, which is not only ‘out of place’,’ but deranges Indian Ocean slavery’s non-racial truth. This means that, despite the purported lack of an ‘engaged constituency,’ that is despite the supposed absent politics of slave descent consciousness in the Indian Ocean, another kind of consciousness infects it—consciousness of Blackness. The historian’s task is to immunize, defend against this infection.” In other words, there are truths that the archive does not, indeed cannot, tell. Her model of “Enfleshing slavery,” one that, through an insistence on maintaining the conceptual salience of racial Blackness, “refuses to release slavery to a transparent and ‘objective’ account of itself,” offers a challenge to the dominance of the archive in so much work. “To write history is to repress history,” she reminds us.

Yet it is not only subaltern racial categories that have a genealogy.  Neha Vora and Amelie Le Renard turn our attention to genealogies of so-called purification, racializing in terms of creating whiteness. How the dominant narrative racializes as well, through things such as national dress and language.  Writing, as I am, from Muscat, Mondesire’s mention of a video of Sultan Qaboos speaking Swahili in the 20th century, something unimaginable in the 21st, was particularly evocative of this point.

The Gulf is also an interesting site to explore another question around history that came up several times, notably in the Maghreb countries such as Tunisia: to what extent does it matter how the descendants of former slaves claim their former slave status to understanding the politics of race in the present? How does this then shape the academic discourse?

The final tension I want to discuss is the one that, maybe predictably given my own training, I felt was mentioned several times and in several papers but never received sustained analysis: that is the intertwining of race and religion.  Zekeria Ahmed Salem’s book burning vignette forced us to think about the ways religion is often mobilized both to justify slavery and anti-Blackness and to provide a liberal alternative. Sabria al-Thawr took us in another direction asking us to look at Islamic genealogies of uncleanliness. She offers a really fascinating reading of the Houthi movement and the conflicts that have ensued, arguing that essentially it is not about sectarianism, but about race, at least in the sense of descent, perhaps answering a question that Hisham Aidi asked in the Lebanese context about whether the Shi‘a can be considered a race.  This issue of asl as a category that spans race and religion (and what it means both racially and theologically to be bidun asl, as al-Thawr’s story about the dead child in the mosque tells so vividly) is fascinating, and underexplored.

Sean Jacobs’ paper resonates here particularly in the vignette with which he ends his paper on why Islam is not considered an African religion in South Africa. Here contempt for Black neighbors is articulated within the language of Islam, where “Siqalo residents ‘don’t know how to lift themselves up by their bootstraps because they lack sabr’,” again forcing us to think about categories that straddle discourses of race and religion. When are they mutually constitutive? Finally, George Bajilia’s paper asked us to explore the way in which race can migrate across religious categories, as he invited us to an Eid meal attended and prepared by Christians and Muslims alike, asking us provocatively to look at the period of waiting to migrate as equally important as the period of coming and going both for how it forms the individuals in their community and in the way that the communal sentiments formed around and across religion can transform into other kinds of solidarities.