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.

February 13, 2000|By Sunni M. Khalid

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.

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