Africa's mark on Arab world; The legacy of the slave trade to the Middle East has influenced life in southern Iraq and neighboring Kuwait.


USUALLY, BLACK History Month focuses on the accomplishments of African-Americans or the past glories of African civilizations. When the issue of slavery is explored, the focus is almost always on slavery in the United States. Seldom, if ever, do we ponder the history of slavery in Africa or the Arab slave traders who exploited Africa long before the 15th century when the Portuguese became the first Europeans to buy and sell Africans.

What happened to the millions of Africans who did not make the voyage west across the Atlantic but wound up in bondage in the Middle East?

I didn't give it much thought while growing up here in the United States, I never saw any images of Arabs with dark skin and African facial features on television or in the newspapers. All the Arabs I saw in news accounts seemed to have about the same complexion as Saddam Hussein. So you can imagine my surprise when I -- a journalist who happens to be an African-American and a Muslim -- traveled in the Middle East and saw lots of people who looked like my friends and relatives in the United States.

Four years ago, I had an unusual experience while on assignment in Iraq. It was the fifth anniversary of the Persian Gulf War, or "The Mother of All Battles," as the Iraqis call it.

One day, I drove to an elementary school in West Baghdad. I was stunned when I met the principal, Fawzia Ahmed Jasem, who bore an uncanny resemblance to my maternal aunt, Marian Sipes, who lives in Detroit.

At the end of the interview, I told her:

"I know this sounds strange, but do you know that there's a woman 10,000 miles from here who looks exactly like you?" Then I told her how much she resembled my aunt.

I asked Jasem where she was from, determined to find a link between this Iraqi woman and my aunt, a child of the American South. She told me she grew up in Baghdad, but her roots took her to Basra, in southern Iraq, not too far from the border with Kuwait.

A few minutes later, I met a teacher, Wafaa Mohamed. Wafaa had a beautiful caramel-colored complexion, thick shoulder-length dark-brown hair and large, brown eyes. She reminded me of the "sistahs" I went to school with at Howard University. Wafaa told me that she also was from Basra but had grown up in Baghdad.

An earlier trip

Then I recalled an earlier trip to Kuwait where I had met Abdel-Razak Idriss at the Ministry of Information. He wore a white dishdasha, or flowing body shirt, and the headdress -- a white kaffiyah and black aqal or head rings -- which are the national dress of most Kuwaiti men. And he had distinctly African features -- dark brown skin, a broad nose and thick lips. Wearing street clothes in the United States, he would easily been mistaken for a "brother."

Eventually, I began to trace the link between Africa and the Arab world. My research took me back more than 1,500 years to African villages where slaves were captured, tied together and marched to seaside fortresses. Then they were herded onto ships, and many of them wound up in what is now southern Iraq and Kuwait, where they became laborers, farm hands, servants, handmaidens, concubines and eunuchs.

In the late ninth century, the slaves rose up in a 14-year uprising called the "Zanj Rebellion," a detailed account of which was recorded by a scholar, Ab Jaafar Muhammad bin Jarr Al-Tabari.

The roots of the rebellion began in the fourth century. That's when the Persian Sasanids, who ruled what is now Iraq, began to import large numbers of Africans. Omanis from the southern Arabian Peninsula were heavily involved in the slave trade. With their large fleet, they controlled the lucrative seaborne routes along Africa's Indian Ocean coast.

The seafaring Omanis, many Afro-Arabs themselves (the result of previous contacts), built a series of slave forts in Zanzibar and what are present-day Somalia and Kenya. Initially, many of the slaves came from Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and what is now Somalia.

Need for crop land

Slaves were brought to what is now southern Iraq to build canals and to turn marshlands into growing areas for crops, including cotton. The rulers needed more arable land to feed the region's rapidly growing indigenous population.

The demand for slaves grew, but the supply dwindled along Africa's Indian Ocean coast. Two factors contributed to their scarcity: some African ethnic groups began to resist the traders and others converted to Islam. Muslim slave traders were prohibited from enslaving fellow Muslims. This forced the Arab slavers to go deeper into the Africa, eventually reaching present-day Malawi, Zambia, southern Sudan and the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Arabs also enslaved Persians, Kurds, Jews, Indians, Chinese, Slavs, Turks, Caucasians and others. But most of the slaves were Africans. A glaring difference existed between Muslim slavery and slavery under the Europeans. In the United States, slavery often lasted a lifetime. Slavery under the Muslims was closer to indentured labor, and slaves could often purchase or earn their freedom.

Eventually, the African slaves came to be known as the "Zanj." Some academics say Zanj comes from the Arabic word, "Azania," which literally means the "land of the blacks."

But others trace it to an old Arabic or Farsi colloquial expression related to Zanzibar, an island off the East African coast, which was a major shipping point for slaves headed to what we call the Middle East and other Muslim lands.

In the mid-ninth century, the Zanj are believed to have numbered about 3 million. Written accounts from the era are replete with racial slurs denigrating the intelligence and physical characteristics of the Africans. These slurs are strikingly similar to those expressed by European slave masters centuries later in the New World.

In A.D. 869 , an itinerant Muslim preacher and self-proclaimed prophet, Ali bin Muhammad, traveled through southern Iraq in search of followers who would adhere to his puritanical Kharijite Muslim beliefs. He was able to persuade a small group of African slaves to rise up against the rule of the Abbasids.

At first, the rebellion, like at least two previous ones, started small, affecting only a few isolated farms. But the insurrection spread. The Caliphate sent poorly trained and equipped troops who were unable to deal with the rebels' hit-and-run tactics. The Zanj soon began to target large plantations, freeing large numbers of their slaves. As news of the rebellion spread throughout the southern marshlands, large numbers of slaves escaped and joined the uprising.

Ali bin Muhammad proved to be a remarkable leader and a military genius. Some scholars claim he had African blood and others say he was Persian.

The rebellion spread quickly as groups of Zanj warriors, armed with spears, swords, and bows, marauded across the countryside raiding caravans and razing entire villages, towns and cities.

Ironically, the Zanj did not prohibit slavery and often forced their former masters to work in the fields as slaves and took their women as concubines.

The Abbasids, alarmed at the rebellion, sent more troops -- some African slaves trained

Many words of the Arabic dialect spoken in present-day southern Iraq can be traced to East Africa.

as soldiers -- to the south. But the Zanj, with their superior knowledge of the local terrain, launched ambushes from the palm-dotted marshes. So ferocious were the Zanj in battle that many of the soldiers fled and or joined the rebellion.

Abbasid naval expeditions, using flat-bottom boats and galleys, landed troops to fight the Zanj along the intricate network of canals and bridges of southern Iraq. The Zanj forces managed to repel these attacks, captured many of these vessels and subsequently established their own navy, which they used to launch counterattacks against the Abbasids. Eventually, the rebels controlled vast swaths of land and the waterways. They even managed to lay siege to Basra, which they sacked.

As the rebellion grew, Ali bin Muhammad established a republic and declared al-Mukhtara ("the chosen ones") as the capital, where he built an impressive palace. The Zanj increased their hold over the region, establishing military bases, exacting tribute and started minting coins.

Before Ali bin Muhammad and his followers could consolidate their fledgling Zanj republic, the Abbasids, fearful that the rebellion would reach Baghdad, sent a huge military expedition south to finally subdue the rebels. This time, better armed, better supplied and better trained, the Abbasid troops managed to inflict heavy losses on the Zanj, to cut off their supplies and to begin a two-year siege against al-Mukhtara. One major factor that helped turn the tide of the conflict was the promise of the Abbasids military commanders to grant freedom to any of the former slaves who would switch sides against the rebellion. (Some of these Zanj warriors were formed into Abbasid infantry units and would later distinguish themselves in battle.)

Unable to reverse the trend of battlefield losses and significant defections, Ali bin Muhammad and his remaining followers continued to resist until al-Mukhtara fell to the Abbasids amid tremendous bloodshed in A.D. 883 Although there are no precise figures, the number of Abbasid and Zanj casualties is believed to be at least 300,000 and perhaps as high as 1 million. The rebellion had a major impact on the region, said Thabit Abdullah, a history professor York University in Toronto.

"As a result of the Zanj rebellion," Abdullah said, "the Abbasids never again tried to establish the system of plantation slavery, even though the institution of slavery continued. So, in many ways, while the revolt ultimately failed, it did put an end to plantation slavery in what became Iraq."

The African influence did not end with the Zanj rebellion. Abdullah points to many words of the Arabic dialect spoken in present-day southern Iraq, that can be traced to East Africa.

For example, the haywa, a popular dance practiced in Basra and Kuwait, is believed to have East African origins, along with "boza," homemade beer brewed throughout southern Iraq.

Some of the Iraqi classical music, composed by the late musician, Munir Bashir, is based on the African-influenced music of southern Iraq.

In Basra, which was sacked twice by the Zanj, are areas called "Mahalat al-Abid ("Quarter of the Slaves") and Jisr al-Abid ("The Slaves' Bridge"), which refer to areas where African slaves were sold or transferred.

And the African genetic imprint survives in the faces of some of the people of southern Iraq, Kuwait and southern Iran, who are referred to as "Zanji," and bear a close resemblance to their distant kinfolk in other places touched by the African Diaspora.

Iraqis of African descent speak Arabic and almost all are Muslims, belonging to Iraq's Shi'a majority or the powerful Sunni minority. Intermarriage with lighter-skinned Iraqis is common.

Divisions within modern Iraqi society are primarily based on class, religion, region, genealogy and sex -- not necessarily race. But that's not to say that racial prejudice does not exist there.

Some Iraqis view Africa as an inhospitable land of jungles, savagery and heathens. And there have been incidents in which Iraqis in Baghdad have insulted African diplomats and students.

As for Iraqis with African blood, the fact that even a distant ancestor was once enslaved carries a considerable social stigma. This has as much to do with the degrading nature of slavery, which implicitly confers cultural, and often genetic, inferiority on the slaves and their descendants. As a result, there are few, if any, public displays of cultural affinity or identification by African-Iraqis with their hereditary homeland of sub-Saharan Africa. Instead, they identify with the prevailing Arab culture.

This is also the case throughout the modern Arab peninsula, which has included a significant number of Afro-Arabs since the pre-Islamic era. The birth of Islam and the institution of the annual hajj, or religious pilgrimage to Mecca, have brought literally millions of Africans to Arabia.

The hajj has long demonstrated, since ancient times, that neither Africans nor Arabs considered physical barriers or long distances as insurmountable obstacles. Large numbers of African pilgrims never returned to their native lands as far away as Senegal, and settled throughout the Middle East, including parts of present-day Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Palestine/Israel, Iran, Lebanon, Yemen, the Persian Gulf countries and Turkey.

In the past 30 years, the appearance of immense petrodollar wealth in the Arabian Peninsula has fueled another wave of immigration to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states.

Millions of contract workers, as well as numbers of political and economic refugees, have settled in the region. This includes large numbers of Africans. Yet, these newcomers have arrived and exist as distinct and separate expatriate communities of Chadians, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Nigerians, Somalis, Sudanese and other nationalities -- quite apart from the indigenous communities of Afro-Arabs.

A number of prominent Arabs of African descent includes Kuwaiti Crown Prince Saad and Saudi Arabia's longtime ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Also included are many popular musicians, such as Mohamed Abdu of Saudi Arabia, members of the Miami Kuwaiti Group and Nabil Shuail of Kuwait, as well as Yemeni musician Abu Rab Idriss.

Despite diverse social and cultural differences, these natives of the Arabian peninsula have historical and genetic ties to the African diaspora. And they also share a common bond with African-Americans and others of African descent who live in Europe, the Caribbean and Africa.

Sunni M. Khalid is a free-lance journalist and was a former foreign correspondent based in Cairo, Egypt.

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