Racial tropism in Afro-Arab relations. Notes based on some ordinary incident

Racial tropism in Afro-Arab relations. Notes based on some ordinary incident

Abdourahmane Seck, Université Gaston Berger, Saint-Louis, Sénégal


In prologue: a question

Why and how does “race talk”, so politically incorrect in an intercultural community of faith, nonetheless continue to imbue the consensual discourse of cousinhood and brotherhood of Afro-Arab relations?


Africans and Arabs: ambiguities of an intercultural community of the same faith

When it comes to considering Afro-Arab relations, there is what we may call a ‘bridge imaginary’ that is translated through a constant production of archives that concern scholarly literature, popular statements, routes, and even reciprocal influences that these two communities might have maintained for a long time. The materials and corpus that rhythm my contribution cut out in this imaginary two main assertions, each of which represents a determining axis in the production of Afro-Arab community or fraternal discourse:

– The celebration of an intercultural community with a shared faith

– The sharing of a Third World or South-South political condition

From each of these statements of convergence or consensus, I attempt to question the asperities or dissonances that cross them, whether in a filigree or crude manner. Within this logic of counterpoint, I set the scene with two telling vignettes taken directly from various persistent forms of oral culture.

The first is a story of singing miracles and pilgrimage, which I witnessed surprised and joyful ten years ago.

In the popular district of Yoff, a fisher village located in the northwestern part of the Senegalese capital, a voice rips the air and comes closer. It is that of a baay-faal, a member of a sub-branch of the Murid brotherhood. One may consider the baay-faal as both a mendicant order and a service corps of order for the Murid Community. A passing baay-faal is never without entertainment, but it remains, after all, trivial for the inhabitants of the country. Yet for this baay-faal, something was unusual. He was not asking for alms by reciting a qasida of the founder of the Sheikh or singing the name of the founder of the sub-branch. He was singing the odyssey of the pilgrimage to Mecca of one of the most popular caliphs of the Murid brotherhood, the sheikh Fallou Mbacké (1888-1968). In his voice that rose and fell, shifting in pitch and tone, one could almost relive the gesture of his hero, seeing him literally talking to the dead, to the jinne and the angels. Hearing him speak to the Prophet; watching him solve mysteries and edify the scholars of Mecca; joining him in the prayers he led; admiring him in his polite way of foiling the plans of the Meccans who, seduced and helpless, wanted to keep him with them and not let him return to his homeland. In a word, the Black hero “astonished” the “Arabs.”

The second, more recent, takes place in Essaouira, Morocco. In a meeting that addresses migration and diasporas, but which intends above all to celebrate the fresh breeze of royal recognition of the African roots (also) of Morocco’s identity.[1]

After the inaugural session, coffee break: a gentleman came in my direction, just for small talk. I was soon to understand that he knew Senegal and had stayed there. The customary salamaleks with a couple of words in Wolof. Then, the crux of the matter. His point: the unacceptable behavior of the “Lebanese” in Africa. In a few minutes, work and social relationships were discussed. And not much was forgiven or recognized to them. Then, to mark the “frank comradeship” between Moroccans and Senegalese, my new friend said, about the girls of my country: “We, at least, when we get them pregnant, we marry them!”

While the vignette literally depicts a battle of precedence between Blacks and Arabs, the second one proceeds, entirely, from the remains of imaginary uses of Black Women’s bodies reducible to concubines. More broadly, these two vignettes introduce us to the ways in which ideas of “Africanness” and “Arabness” are dialectically linked. They are also enlightening, in that they haunt the intellectual, cultural, and political construction of relations between two spaces well-versed in the arts of celebrating their shared Islamic faith and South-South solidarity.


Speaking Race in an intercultural community of faith and political destiny

“La religion en partage, la “couleur” et l’origine comme frontière. Les migrants sénégalais au Maroc [The religion shared. “Color” and “Origin” as a border. Senegalese Migrants in Morocco]” is the title, both revealing and beautiful, of an article by Mahamet Timéra published in 2011.[2] The author points to the central problem of social relations formed in the community of Islamic faith that aggregates Blacks and Arabs. He shows how the confraternal relationship claimed is always caught up by the memories of Black slavery and the contemporary problems of “statutory servitude” which prolong them in the socio-economic and symbolic architectures of Arab and Maghrebian societies.

Nazarena Lanza has addressed these aspects, particularly those of the construction of borders, by color and origin, in a book chapter entitled, “Les domestiques sénégalaises au Maroc [Senegalese domestic servants in Morocco].”[3] In addition to describing the imaginaries and practices that surround domestic work in Morocco, the author’s work uses numerous interviews with members of Moroccan communities in Senegal. The author distinguishes here two phases: a first one which goes back to the second half of the 19th century to the 1950s, and a second one which goes from the 1950s to the present day. She notes, particularly in the second phase, the existence of a break in the culture and mechanisms of integration of Moroccans in Senegalese society with the arrival of new generations of traders who, unlike the first, no longer take women in the host communities and are more reluctant to engage in social and cultural integration.

A young shopkeeper confided to her, “I’ve been living here for ten years but, beyond appearances, I don’t feel integrated. I don’t want my children to grow up here because it’s not a real Muslim country. I can’t accept that my daughter goes to a club, and here it’s impossible to prevent it, because there is too much freedom. Besides, everyone drinks, smokes… Morocco is not the only place where people don’t drink, but at least it is not considered so normal.[4]  In the same vein, one of his interlocutors, a young student, told her: “I’ve been living in Dakar for 3 years, but I’ve never had Senegalese friends. I prefer to stay with the Moroccans, because it’s easier with them, we have the same habits.[5]

These passages are of genuine interest for the discussion because a few years later I had to do some fieldwork with these same communities and meet some of the actors that Lanza had interviewed. But the harvest of my interviews was made of a completely different content.  Most of my interlocutors had only spoken to me of “privileged relations” based on religion and confraternal obedience, between two “fraternal countries.”[6]

The figures that emerge both in these extracts and in the hilarious or sorrowful features of the shared sketches, form the heart of a racial and symbolic battle over the representation of Islam. Who represents Islam and who cannot represent it almost by nature? The syntagms, “Arab-Islamic cultures” on the one hand, and, on the other hand, “black Islam” open, in this perspective and in their impossible conjunction, a field of confrontation whose stake is in the hierarchical principle that binds a Center holding the monopoly of legitimacy vs a possibly accessory Periphery. This divide implies most interestingly here an idea of a division of tasks and prestige between the “Black Africans” and the “Arabs.”

In a symposium organized in 1988 on the theme “Africa and Arab-Islamic culture”, the Director General of ISESCO, in his opening address, suggested the following: “The Arab-Islamic culture is distinguished by its great capacity for assimilation. It gives as much as it receives. It gives to Africa the basic principles of Islam and the rules for the healthy building of society. It borrowed from Africa the sense of good, love and peace.[7] Without overly forcing the interpretation, it is difficult not to hear under these lines, the cliche of the good savage that Jean Jacques Rousseau has defined as innocent, who comes to clash with another cliche, the ferocious Arab whose temper must be softened. Like the burden of the white man, the African Black Muslim is here the object of an unceasing mission of Islamization and Islamic education that is the duty of the Arab Muslim Man to undertake.

African authors, such as Amar Samb (1972), have shown that the idea of African (intellectual) contribution to the mission of propagating Islam is to be thought, above all, as a form of identity affirmation, even a racial one.[8] This awareness of a divide built on the idea of race is strong and structuring. The sources that feed it draw their materiality from various historical and temporal sequences, ranging from the question of slavery in Islam to the history of Western domination of the rest of the world. The problem that I pose is therefore that of reciprocal or mutual definitions, charged with identity assignments that are more often negative than positive, which can be identified as repetitions of formulations carried by the racialist and racist anthropological imagination that accompanied Western domination of the world. Certainly, the Afro-Arab relationship precedes the arrival of the West and is already the bedrock of the production and circulation of multiple modalities of mutual and reciprocal definitions. However, and this is the hypothesis defended here, the westernization of the world order carries with it recompositions of narratives through which self-images and those conveyed of others are modified and repositioned on the basis of patterns that are not necessarily continuities of the ones that prevailed before.

For my part, I have shown that Sufism phenomena and its popular appropriations have constituted some mystical world in which radical responses have been constructed to challenge and reverse the centrality claimed by Arab-Islamic culture.[9]The adventures of the pilgrimage of Sëriñ Fallou, sung by the young baay-faal, are ultimately intended to show a bedazzlement of Arab-white in the face of the prodigious gift of the Holy Black. But it is less this astonishment, which is the end aimed by the song than, rather, something else. Indeed, what is most at stake here is the proof that Allah, in a way, has decided the debate between “Arab Muslims” and “Black African Muslims.” In this circulating imaginary, the predominance of Sufi Islam in Africa can no longer be the consequence of a pagan breeding ground on which Islam would have been grafted, but a project of faith that encompasses a political action of reconfiguration of the cartography of proximity with Allah and of the representativeness of his privileged community.

Turning now to the issue of Afro-Arab relations from a more secular perspective, I would like to engage the following questions: what have the great phases or great moments of the decolonization movements and the emergence of the Third World renewed or recomposed in the discourses and imaginaries that structure Afro-Arab’s relations? I would like to answer this from a perspective of International and South-South Cooperation between African and Arabic World that Samir Amin speaks of in terms of “experience” (we can infer historical). He approaches it by posing an important question: “Does this experience initiate a different mode of cooperation, from a perspective of strengthening the “collective autonomy” of the Third World vis-à-vis the North? Or is it merely an extension of traditional North-South relations?”[10] For Amin, despite promising postulates, this cooperation, though far from being negligible, ended up being a simple cog in the wheel in the accompaniment of the “logic of the global system”, becoming, in doing so, a “partner – despite him perhaps – of the “creditors” of the third world.”[11]

One can be surprised here by the erasure or absence of what would represent a specific marking supposed to highlight the exceptional character of the relationship that one seeks to praise. Elsewhere, I have analyzed, the Senegalese reception of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit held in Dakar from 9 to 11 December 1991.[12] What was supposed to be a “feast of friendship” turned into a source of emotions and resentment… The absence of the great leaders of the Arab world made the host President, Abdou Diouf, say, “Africa will remember for a long time.” Diouf added: “Arabs in general should consider the Blacks more. There is a problem there and I do not want to go so far as to use the expression of cultural contempt. We respect the Arabs more than they respect us. This sixth OIC Summit illustrates this.[13] The editorialists urged African leaders to get out of what they called the “alienating aid” that binds them to Arab countries. A columnist for the national weekly Wal Fadjri wrote: “The investments of the Arab oil countries in parts of the world populated by Muslims are insignificant compared to the mass of money they inject in the developed countries. Of course, this is where the best profits are made. (…). But these Arab countries are also members of the OIC, which is developing an attractive phraseology of religious solidarity and economic cooperation. This could not be reduced to a few “Arab-something” banks, the construction of a few cultural centers (…) or Arab schools. Still less to the carcasses of sheep sacrificed during the pilgrimage to Mecca and returned sometime later to poor countries in the form of donations offered by the Saudi Arabian authorities.[14]


In conclusion: a short leaflet

In this paper, I sought to interrogate the problem of “dissonance” in an intercultural community of faith that is quick to exhibit the consensual rhetoric of cousinhood and confraternity. The corpus mobilized for this purpose consists of both ordinary interactive situations and discourses carried by scholarly or political elites. In these materials, the idea of Arab or Black race is what is at stake in both the unitary discourse and that of the quarrel. This is what I call here a racial tropism or “race-speak” in the Afro-Arab relationship. In investigating this topic that carries an order of “oppositions and hierarchies” as Etienne Balibar would say, the problem I invite to finally reflect on is what answers can be thought of, from the Afro-Arab relationship, to what Balibar has also called the “return of race”, detailing what is at stake: “(…) is the return of race the continuation of yesterday’s history, or the beginning of a mutation of the structures of hatred, which it would be important to measure in order to give back to the idea of humanity the capacity to overcome its deficiencies and surpass its limits?[15]





[1] See the Speech of the Throne, July 30, 2014, by King Mohamed VI.

[2] Timéra, Mahamet., « La religion en partage, la « couleur » et l’origine comme frontière », Cahiers d’études africaines, 201, 2011, pp. 145-167.

[3] Lanza, Nazarena., « Les domestiques sénégalaises au Maroc » pp.119-145 in D’une Afrique à l’autre. Migrations subsahariennes au Maroc. Michel Peraldi (Dir). Editions Karthala, Cjb, Ciss, 154 p.

[4] Speech of the Throne, July 30, 2014,, p.123. In French in the Text. My translation.

[5] Speech of the Throne, July 30, 2014, In French in the Text. My translation.

[6] Seck, Abdourahmane. « Sénégal-Maroc : usages et mésusages de la circulation des ressources symboliques et religieuses entre deux pays « frères » » in S. Bredeloup, Afrique et développement, Volume XL, No. 1, 2015, pp. 159-181. Conseil pour le développement de la recherche en sciences sociales en Afrique (CODESRIA), 2015.

[7] Isesco (Publications)., L’Afrique et la culture arabo-islamique, Imprimerie Najah El Jadida, Casablanca, 245 p. 1988. In French in the Text. My translation.

[8] Samb, Amar. Essai sur la contribution du Sénégal à la littérature d’expression arabe. Dakar, IFAN, 1972

[9] Seck, Abdourahmane., La question musulmane au Sénégal. Essai d’anthropologie d’une nouvelle modernité. Paris, karthala, 2010.

[10] Amin Samir., Préface à l’ouvrage de Charbel Zarour, La coopération arabo-sénégalaise. L’Harmattan, 1989, p.110, p. 7. My translation

[11] Idem

[12] Seck, Abdourahmane., La question musulmane au Sénégal. Essai d’anthropologie d’une nouvelle modernité. Paris, karthala, 2010.

[13] Le Monde, November 10th, 1991. Quoted in Seck (2010), p. 199. My Translation

[14] Walf-Fadjri, n°290, 1991. Quoted in Seck (2010), p. 200. My translation

[15] Balibar, Étienne., « Le retour de la race », in Mouvement, La Découverte, 2007/2, n°50, pp.162-171