By Momtaza Mehri
Nothing resists interpretation like a long, hot, summer. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, a summer of burning precincts, historic protests and global reckoning with the pervasiveness of racial violence followed. This year, a spring of Palestinian resolve catches alight. For both struggles, artists, cultural workers and scholars convened. Online and on the streets, they gathered where they could. Many welcomed the potential of these uprisings, realigning their practice with their responsibilities. Some marched, pulled together statements, pressured fickle institutions, divested, and staged public interventions. Last year, I participated in many of these actions, sometimes with quiet trepidation. Mostly, I was throbbingly curious. The anti-racist upswell had sparked fevered discussion and a lively schedule of talks, seminars, readings, and interruptions which re-energised pockets of Middle and Near Eastern Studies (and even Ottoman Studies). Scholars who had stuck out rigid disciplines and knowledge systems with a habit of dismissing Black thought took the lead. Everywhere, the atmosphere was thick with the humility of latecomers. Area Studies could no longer ignore the Black figure’s capacity to unravel its fundamentals. Brick by brick, the foundations would have to be grasped and grappled with.
Minorities in the Arab World, Lebanese-British historian Albert Hourani’s 1947 study, was a useful compendium of racial, ethnic and religious minorities in the Arab world that somehow did not include Afro-Arabs. In Race and Related Ideas in the Near East, a paper prepared for the 1954 Conference on Race Relations in World Perspective held in Honolulu, Hourani argued that there were “no clearly separated “races” in the Near East, and, therefore, no “racial conflicts”. Hourani counted the “succession of empires”, Old World trade routes, the “continual moving and mingling of people”, and the freedom from European direct rule some parts of the Near East enjoyed as factors preventing the entrenchment of racial difference. Decades of scholarship continue to stress, or imply, the comparatively benign nature of the Indian Ocean slave trade when contrasted against its Atlantic counterpart. Those who have contested these claims, who dared prod at any similarity or interrelatedness between the regimes of anti-blackness festering across both the West and the Rest, could expect to be sidelined. At best, they have been dismissed as misguided, cranky Afrocentrists. At worst, they have been accused of leaning into propagandistic Black Orientalisms. Resisting an interdisciplinary vision grounded in the SWANA region’s imaginative peripheries results in the obvious; continued collaboration with the historically colonial demarcations between “Black Africa” and the “Middle East”. Those at the mercy of borders continue to defend the bordering of thought. Irony soaks the page. Increasingly, there is a growing awareness of Orders-within-Orders, of the exhaustive nature of anti-blackness across an undeniably diverse Arab and Arabophone world. Minneapolis is not a Western exception. There is no such thing as a solely American, European, or Western “race problem”. Accusations of muddying, or muddling, contexts won’t fly any more. Even amidst othered Others, the Black figure bears the cost of slavery’s legacies, colonial taxonomies, fraught ethnonationalisms, pan-Arabist failures, and the airbrushing of unfinished postcolonialisms. Complicating the picture is collective work. We must be willing to contend with the cavernous gaps Black thought thrives in, those chasms of dissonance, familiarity, desire and mutability. We must interrogate what forms of knowledge we rely upon to validate our realities.
I make no apologies for fixating on academia. It is where many of us seek answers to gnawing questions. We look for what legitimizes, and renders legible, the tumult inside us. We want to feel sane in our assessment of the worlds we inhabit. Maybe that’s where we go wrong. Yet, long after we have outgrown this therapeutic dependence, we can still remain addicted to the high provided by a theory which unnervingly sticks. This dull thud of recognition is felt in the stomach. If it fits like a glove, it must be true. Knowing feels good. It is a kind of settling, a slotting into purview and position. In his piece Who No Go No Know, Nigerian critic and writer Emmanuel Iduma writes of the overwhelming loneliness and desolation experienced on Rabat’s streets. An African dislocated in Africa. He spends time with fellow Nigerians, reflecting on the lives of migrants hailing from “countries south of the Sahara”. Blackness in the Arab world is punctured with strange disavowals and affiliations, many of which make maligned strangers of Africans walking the boulevards of African cities.
Feel-good arcs are alluring. Too often, we rely on nostalgia-drenched approaches, on historical excavations of Tricontinental transnationalisms and Afro-Asian solidarities which disproportionately draw from Black thinkers outside of Arab contexts. Fanon’s writings, as well as his devotion to Algerian liberation, cannot do all the legwork. He may have been born Frantz and died as Ibrahim, but he was also “the Black Doctor”' who aroused suspicion in Tunisian psychiatric hospitals. Regardless, what does any of this mean to the contemporary Black subject living in, or tied to, an embattled, politically febrile Arab landscape? Yes, the shadow of the Casablanca Group lingers. Somewhere, Al-Fayturi is reciting his Afro-Arab love poems. But the spirit of Bandung should not become an affective bind. How do we reanimate atrophied dreams without losing ourselves in them? Where are our curiosities directed?
She is still beautiful. She is not dead —Asmar, charif shanahan
Or was she, to you, never living?
Citation does not always indicate serious engagement or sustained relation. Still, it reveals plenty. Which Black thinkers do we invoke in our elaboration of these solidarities? The Afro-Arab’s hyphen is sutured with the theoretical contributions of others. Everyone but the thinking, theorizing Afro-Arab is drafted into such alliances. Black thought emanating from an Arab context is neglected in favour of the sufficiently foreign. Abstracted beyond comprehension, the Afro-Arab is an elastic figure. She is whoever we need her to be. She is disappeared even as she is named. Only the demographers, anthropologists and ethnomusicologists seem interested in her living present (with friends like these...?). The politics of solidarity reverberate around her absence. Even the likes of Bernard Lewis step in to exploit these silences. What would happen if those in the region spoke to, and alongside, each other? If we worked and thought against the hyphen? If we committed ourselves to the serious study of the vibrant ecologies of Blackness within the SWANA region? Are we willing to cede ground? Can we overcome barriers of language and specialist tunnel vision?
Blackness discoheres the national subject, stretching across the Khaleej, Levant, Iraq, Egypt, Sudan, and the Maghreb. These starting points extend outwards, defying ethnogeographic boundaries and finding disarticulations in places as varied as Comoros, Somalia, Djibouti, Chad, Socotra, and Zanzibar. Ali Mazrui’s Afrabians are triumvirate in their affiliations. Their ties to the Arab world are cultural, ideological, and/or demographic. What cannot be doubted, however, is the stubbornly slippery nature of Blackness in the region. Anti-blackness hardens this plasticity into a set of persistent associations; native, slave, concubine, marabout, infantryman, eunuch, conditional co-religionist, guardian, troubadour, daqaqa, domestic worker, migrant, internally displaced refugee, Kafala/Iqama-bound subject, expat, athlete, popstar, blackface punchline, a local vector of Black American cool.
But the margins have always been fertile. Blackness finds its expressions in pre-Islamic and contemporary poetry, philosophical tradition, liberation struggles, oceanic histories, cultural rituals, musical influence, and elsewhere. Without accolades or esteemed regard, it transforms from within. This is the Blackness I have witnessed across the region. From Jeddah to Muscat, from Damascus to Beirut, these are the worlds which have left a formative impression on me and many of those I count as family and friends. This is Blackness as rupture, as a shard of light thrown against the incoherence of Arabness and Arabisation. Both formulations oscillate with instability, expanding and shrinking their orbit over centuries of violently asymmetrical encounters and exchanges. This is a relationship worked out, and against, the millions of Black people — local and otherwise — living in the Arab world. Some carry Western passports and call themselves expats. Some do not even identify as Black, or agreeably Afro-Arab. Others do not have the luxury of such a choice. Afrabia is a distant horizon, one obscured by our tussles over volatile categories. This is the splinter in the representation’s throat. How do we begin to represent what we do not yet understand?
Shubbak’s 2021 Festival offers us its windows, setting the stage for different kinds of encounters. This festival’s 10th anniversary coincides with commemorations of the Arab Spring, marking a decade that has cemented Shubbak as the largest biennial festival of contemporary Arab culture in Europe (reaching both British and global audiences). Shubbak’s programme of talks and workshops reflects the heightened interest in Black narratives. Creating While Black is one example, bringing together a breadth of perspectives, from the Sudanese futurisms explored by designer Rayan Elnayal to the provocations of cartoonist Khalid Albaih. Amna Ali is another participant whose Black Arabs Collective represents a burgeoning movement of younger generations using digital spaces to raise consciousness. Along with his Khartoons, Albaih spotlights the creative sensibilities of Doha’s migrant workers via his Doha Fashion Fridays project. Nareeman Dosa expands narrative possibilities through Kalam Casual, a MENA-centred podcast and forum for political and cultural debate. Dosa is also behind Black Pearls at Levantx, a platform covering everything from Black people’s political histories in the region to snapshots of Afro-Turkish life. Actor and theatre-maker Colette Dalal Tchantcho draws on her Cameroonian-Kuwaiti background to elucidate the lives and sonic resonances of Black women in Khaleeji society.
Another talk, Mainstreaming Subaltern Writing, contends with literature and the “consensus” of gender. Can the Subaltern write? Few can hope to resolve Spivak’s question in one evening, but we can share in her insistence on the irretrievable heterogeneity of the subaltern subject. Contributions from Houda Mzioudet, Fatma Emam Sakory and Sabah Sanhouri reflect practices and concerns ranging from political analysis of the Maghreb to the challenges faced by Nubian activist-researchers in Egypt and the storied lineage of Sudanese fiction. This event is a collaboration with Dardishi, a Glasgow-based community arts project which supports and celebrates the creativity of Arab and North African women and gender minorities. Beyond learning from this gathering, I will also be participating.
The difficult pleasures of incoherence cannot be reconciled with until they are articulated. Shubbak’s array of featured artists, researchers, scholars, writers, performers, and cultural workers exemplify the fullness of the Black and minoritised experience. Through dynamic engagements with visual art, film, theatre, dance, and literature, this year’s festival points towards a commitment beyond the seasonal. Other ways of knowing await.