Orientalism for kids

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By Khaled Diab

Despite the racism contained in Tintin and other classic children’s tales, I believe that children should be exposed to them.


Tuesday 3 November 2015

My son’s long-standing love for comics betrays his Belgian side. At nearly six, he has now graduated to more advanced comic-books, including Tintin.

But the Cigars of the Pharaoh edition had his Egyptian side scratching his head, as its depiction of his other homeland did not match what his own eyes and ears had witnessed of that country and the wider region.

From the mummies of Egyptologists and the pharaonic wall-paintings of bowler-hatted Europeans with cigars and briefcases to bloodthirsty and violent Arabian tribesmen, none tallied with his real-life experiences.

Iskander’s reaction reminded me of a caricature by Kevin Moore I have seen of Tintin with a frown of concern on his face as he flicks through the pages of a book. The caption reads: “Tintin discovers Orientalism.”

In a similarly orientalist vein, Belgium and the Netherlands have been discovering the latent racism of Zwarte Pieten in recent years. These traditional characters, translated as “Black Petes”, are Moors who help Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas or Santa Claus) distribute sweets on his saint day (December 6), which is a huge deal in the Low Countries.

But Zwarte Pieten are usually depicted by actors in “black face”, with exaggerated thick red lips and a mop of thick curly hair, a racist representation of African faces once common in the West. Now, the Netherlands is phasing out the character’s trademark look from its schools, sparking controversy and outrage, particularly among conservatives.

While the tradition undoubtedly has its roots in early 19th-century attitudes to African slaves, my wife and I take it all with a pinch of salt. Overt references to the race of the Zwarte Pieten were excised a generation or two ago and, with the far more ominous forms of racism around today, this is hardly a battle worth fighting.

Besides, as is the case with many other children, Iskander loves the Zwarte Pieten far more than Sinterklaas. In fact, when he was a toddler, he was terrified of the old man’s long beard and would not go near him.

Back to Tintin. Should he and other classic tales be banned for their offensiveness?

Tintin in the Congo – which the comic genius and pioneer Hergé was specifically instructed by his ultraconservative Catholic publisher to draw to shore up colonial sentiment among a people who had never possessed a colony before and were not terribly interested in one – is probably the most obvious example of this bigotry.

Framed in the classic mould of the “white man’s burden”, our swashbuckling young reporter travels to the Congo to investigate conditions there, uncovering a sinister diamond-smuggling operation in the process.

The album depicts the indigenous Congolese as “noble savages” who are essentially good but lazy. In contrast, the white Belgians are portrayed as efficient and industrious, building villages and facilities for the natives, educating them and leading them down the path to Jesus.

In one panel, a missionary shows Tintin his mission. “This is the schoolroom, and there, in the middle, is the chapel,” the priest explains. “When we first arrived here a year ago, this place was bush.”

“Missionaries are the tops,” barks Tintin’s dog, Snowy, brimming over with admiration and enthusiasm.

At one point, a young native, eager to be educated by the white man, rushes up to the missionary to inform him, in pidgin, that the priest tasked with teaching them is too sick to give them lessons.

Helpful to a fault, Tintin volunteers to be the replacement teacher for the geography lesson, despite, presumably, not being much older than the pupils. “Today, I’m going to teach you about your country: Belgium,” Tintin pompously informs the class.

When Tintin finally departs the Congo, the supposedly primitive and dim-witted Congolese erect a shrine for him and his dog Snowy, and a pious native is pictured prostrating before it.

For a strong believer in equality and human dignity, this kind of superiority and casual racism makes me highly uncomfortable and leaves a bad taste in my mouth. That said, I don’t think it should be banned.

After all, many children’s classics contain at least some content that we would consider unacceptable today, from Walt Disney cartoons to popular Arab fairy tales.

For instance, the frame story of the 1,001 Nights involves an insulting depiction of a black slave who sleeps with Shahryar’s queen, portrayed as a fickle and untrustworthy woman, and a tyrant who feels it is within his rights to murder a woman every night. As this example attests, it is not just racism that is a problem with old tales.

Sexism is a major issue too. Tintin, for instance, has almost no female characters and the only notable one, Bianca Castafiore, is whimsical, absent-minded and self-centred.

As a strong believer in freedom of expression and thought, the idea of bans does not appeal to me, especially since unsavoury attitudes need to be actively tackled, not swept out of sight. This is especially the case when it comes to historical literature.

Tintin was very much a product of his time, as reflected in the runaway success of the series and how little controversy around the world it elicited when it was published – ironically, Tintin’s adventure in the Congo remains hugely popular there and across francophone Africa.

Despite how unsavoury and even alien the attitudes above seem to us from our 21st-century perspective, when Hergé first published Tintin in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the views of his young hero were sadly commonplace, especially in the conservative Christian circles to which Hergé belonged.

Four decades later, Hergé expressed regret, describing the Congo strip as a “sin of youth”. “All I knew about the country was what people said at the time,” he admitted.

In some later adventures, in which both Hergé and Tintin matured, the cartoonist sought to atone for this “sin”.

In Blue Lotus, Hergé, who had consulted a Chinese art student who became a friend, tackles colonial attitudes head on. Tintin defends a rickshaw driver against a savage beating from a white man who complains: “Can’t we even teach that yellow rabble to mind their manners now? It’s up to us to civilise the savages!”

“Tintin himself is vehemently anti-racist,” one reader contends, “and is often seen sticking up for downtrodden locals over the objections of imperial powers.”

Whether or not Tintin, the character, is anti-racist does not absolve the comic, especially its early editions, of racism.

However, episodes of racism and sexism notwithstanding, Tintin was a pioneering work of comic art and his boyish adventures tickle the hero instinct in children and appeal to their longing for the independence and self-determination of which we adults deprive them.

In addition to not wishing to deprive my son of such simple pleasures, I feel Tintin and other classics of bygone eras present a wealth of educational opportunities. As the enduring appeal of the far-right suggests, these bigoted attitudes are, sadly, still alive and well in our societies, and so it is our duty to prepare our children by making them aware of this reality.

An unthreatening comic full of exotic destinations and outlandish storylines could be utilised as a great teaching tool. Although my son is still blissfully oblivious to the ogres of discrimination, I intend to use Tintin and other stories to discuss with him and to help him learn, as he gets older, about these unsavoury aspects of human culture.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 17 October 2015.

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Circassian beauties and the ugly face of race

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By Khaled Diab

The curious cases of Rachel Dolezal and the Circassian ladies show just how meaningless race is, while Dylann Roof underlines the dangers of racism.

Circassian lady

Tuesday 7 July 2015

Rachel Dolezal is not the first white American woman to sport a fake Afro. A century and a half earlier, so-called “Circassian ladies” were all the rage as circus sideshows.

The bizarre phenomenon capitalised on the craze created by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s pseudo-scientific theories of race, which traced the roots of white people to the Caucasus, and his belief that “the purest and most beautiful whites were the Circassians”.

These whiter than white circus performers were not actually Circassian and, unlike the ideal of Circassian beauty elsewhere in the West, their hair was not of a luxuriant and smooth silky texture, but was wild and curly, an effect produced through liberal shampooing with beer.

“The hair may have been an effort to suggest blackness… a nod to popular conceptions of African female sexuality,” wrote Charles King, an expert of the Caucasus at Georgetown University.

The long shadow of slavery can also be discerned in this hybrid depiction. American audiences were both intrigued and horrified, given their false association of slavery with Africans, by the fact that Circassian women were among the most sought-after concubines in the Sultan’s harem ­– hence the need to make them appear somewhat African.

“Both African slaves and Circassian slaves were subject to sexual exploitation… and this is the point of contact that played so powerfully on white Americans’ imagination,” wrote philosophy professor Gregory Fried. Beyond America’s shores, however, slavery was a multiracial institution, and slaves could sometimes even reach the highest corridors of power, as the Mamluk warriors – slaves mostly from the Caucasus – who ruled Egypt illustrate.

The curious case of Dolezal and the Circassian ladies demonstrate just how meaningless the notion of “race” is. My five-year-old son and his friend made child’s play of the self-evidence of this truth at the beach the other day.

Though both boys are half African from the actual African continent (Egypt and Somaliland), in American racial parlance, my blond son would easily pass for “white” while his silky-haired mate looks quite “Hispanic”. In short, these two multicultural polyglots, who are still blissfully oblivious to any attempts to pigeonhole their identities, would completely confuse America’s rigid racial compass.

Official White House photo by Pete Souza. www.whitehouse.gov

Official White House photo by Pete Souza. www.whitehouse.gov

Despite the complexity and ambiguity of people’s identities, America generally prefers clarity when it comes to African-Americans. This applies even to the highest echelons of the land. Take, as an example, Barack Obama, whom it would be most accurate to describe as “mixed race”, “transracial” or “multicultural”, but is rarely referred to as such.

This compartmentalisation does not begin to capture the nuance of his multiple identities. Obama’s absent Kenyan father only gave him his name and half his genetic make-up. In contrast, his white mother, Ann Dunham (and maternal grandparents), gave him the other half of his genes but, more vitally, his upbringing. “What is best in me, I owe to her,” Obama admitted in passing in his memoir which, nonetheless, was titled Dreams From My Father.

Despite this, Obama is almost invariably described, both by admirers and bigots, as “African-American”. Though genetically he is as “white” as he is “black”, and culturally he is more the former than the latter, Obama is, as far as I’m aware, never referred to as “white”, though this is perhaps a more valid description.

For the late Ann Dunham, who did not believe in racial difference, questions of black or white mattered not a jot. However, society did not agree, and her son was labelled black from a young age, with all the discrimination that involves.

And the inability of the most powerful man in America – who is truly “transracial” – to escape racial categorisation can help us better understand the circumstances surrounding the Rachel Dolezal case.

It is easy to understand why African-Americans are offended by Dolezal’s claim of being “transracial”. She evokes painful memories of “blackface”, and the long tradition of white Americans mocking, exploiting and appropriating black culture and identity.

Though clearly an impostor and possibly unhinged, Dolezal is not the only one pedalling untruths. After all, despite the overwhelming scientific, social and cultural evidence that race is a fantasy, Americans of all political stripes still believe, in one way or another, in this fallacy.

At the core of America’s racial identity crisis lies the legacy of slavery – both for the descendants of those who benefitted and those who suffered from its crushing weight. In this light, attempts to separate racial identities are, paradoxically, important to those trying to maintain white privilege and often to those combating it.

In America, even possessing slight African heritage is enough – culturally today, legally in the past – to qualify you as black.

For instance, when I was a kid I was intrigued by how Lisa Bonet (who is of mixed African-Jewish descent) was a “black” character in the Cosby Show, even though she was paler than I was. Her one-time husband, Lenny Kravitz, who is also of a mixed African-Jewish background, was criticised early in his career for being not black nor white enough in his music.

Though race is a myth and an artificial social construct, racism is a far-reaching and bitter reality, as illustrated by Dylann Roof  and his horrendous, unprovoked cold-blooded murder of black worshippers in Charleston. “Segregation did not exist to hold back negroes. It existed to protect us from them,” claimed Roof in a manifesto he wrote. “Integration has done nothing but bring whites down to [the] level of brute animals.”

Of course, the overwhelming majority of Americans find the Charleston terror attack reprehensible and a heinous crime against peaceful worshippers and innocent citizens. However, though dangerous and deadly, it is not this form of racism that has the greatest collective impact. It is the common-or-garden, mundane, institutionalised variety that condemns millions of African-Americans to dwell disproportionately behind the actual bars of prison and the figurative bars of poverty and marginalisation.

This everyday racism in the contemporary USA needs to be challenged with as much urgency and resolve as the white supremacist, “retro” variety of yesteryear’s Confederacy.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 25 June 2015.

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The tip of Egypt’s snobbery iceberg

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By Khaled Diab

The replacement of one snobbish justice minister in Egypt with another who believes judges are lords and masters shows how deep elitism runs.

A_Group_of_Boys_at_Moqattam_Village_Dec_2009Wednesday 20 May 2015

Mahfouz Saber was certainly no minister of social justice. The now-former Egyptian justice minister said during a television debate that the judiciary was not a suitable career option for the offspring of rubbish collectors and other modest occupations because “a judge must hail from an appropriate environment”.

His remarks, which effectively marked millions of Egyptians as human refuse relegated to the dustbin of society, unleashed a wave of popular outrage across Egypt. “When the concept of justice is absent from the nation, nothing remains,” tweeted Egyptian Nobel laureate and former figurehead of the anti-Mubarak opposition Mohamed ElBaradei, who is himself a legal scholar.

Part of the outcry was due to the symbolic importance of Saber’s job, even if the judiciary does discriminate against women too. As justice minister, he must have been aware that his remarks conflicted with the guarantees of equal opportunities and the prohibition of discrimination based on class, religion, race or gender enshrined in Egypt’s constitution, not to mention the many international human rights treaties to which Egypt is a party.

In addition, for the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets during the revolution to demand “bread, freedom and social justice”, this was yet another rude slap in the face reflecting how little Egypt had changed in the meantime.

The blogger Mina Fayek saw the incident as “yet [more] proof that justice in Egypt is just a farce”. With Egypt’s increasingly politicised judges meting out once-unimaginably draconian rulings, including mass death sentences, it is hard to believe today that the judiciary was until very recently seen as one of the few (relatively) independent institutions and an important check on the executive’s excessive powers.

As calls for Saber’s resignation multiplied, the justice minister was persuaded to fall on his word, with Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab saying that the disgraced minister was leaving out of “respect for public opinion”.

Though this is a hugely important symbolic victory for the cause of equal opportunity in Egypt, Saber’s attitude is simply the tip of Egypt’s snobbery and nepotism iceberg. The opinion Saber voiced was more politically incorrect than factually incorrect – and not just in the judiciary. People applying for prestige posts, such as the diplomatic corps, are routinely vetted socially.

In fact, a number of activists recalled the tragic case of Abdel-Hameed Sheta who, even though he came first in the entry exam for the diplomatic corps and had proven himself repeatedly at university, was passed over because he was deemed “unsuitable socially.” After years of material sacrifice on the part of his impoverished parents and endless hard graft on his part, the shock proved too much for Sheta and he took his own life.

Some believe that nepotism also played a role. Whether or not it did in Sheta’s case, it certainly is rampant in Egypt, where the sons and daughters of the wealthy, well-positioned and powerful mysteriously always seem to land on their feet, even if it crushes other people’s toes.

That is why Egyptians have so many colloquial synonyms for nepotism and cronyism, including the famous Arab-wide expression “wasta” (“connections”) and “mahsoubiya” (“cronyism”), as well as the baffling “kousa” (“courgette”). Claims voiced by a leading judge have emerged that Saber himself got into the judiciary thanks to his father’s wealth and the good word of his uncle, a prominent judge.

This social reality is a far cry from the ideals espoused by two revolutions, in 1952 and 2011. The Free Officers were successful in abolishing the old feudal order and the monarchy, and their socialist-inspired coup brought about universal education, land reform and introduced the principle of egalitarianism.

However, it quickly became apparent that the old landed gentry were simply replaced by a new elite made up of army officers, who talked the talk of equality but walked a very different walk. With the neo-liberal reforms first introduced by Anwar al-Sadat and completed by Hosni Mubarak, the military top brass allowed a new business elite to join it at the high table, bringing Egypt full circle.

Throughout, and despite the lip service paid to equality, classism has survived in Egypt at most strata of society. This is reflected in how the old titles, such as Pasha and Bey, though robbed of any official weight, continue to be used with gay abandon by Egyptians wishing to express deference to people they see as their social betters.

It also lives on in such insulting descriptions as referring to someone as being “ibn/bent nas” (“son of people”), as if implying that others are the offspring of animals, or the lengths to which many Egyptian families go to ensure that their children marry someone of their class.

That said, there is social mobility in Egypt, as reflected in the (relatively) modest backgrounds of every single Egyptian leader since 1952, and the opportunities afforded many by universal education when it was still of a decent level.

However, many who do make it up the ladder, too often kick it away and many even downplay their own roots, as reflected, for example, in how almost anyone with an education or career, regardless of where they came from, adopts the Cairene accent of the well-to-do.

For a beautiful, fleeting moment in the Republic of Tahrir these class divisions were ignored and there was a conscious effort to erase them. Let’s hope the justice minister’s departure is a sign that Egyptians are rediscovering their appetite for social justice.

President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi swears in Ahmed al-Zind.

President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi swears in Ahmed al-Zind. Photo: Egyptian presidency


Unfortunately, the state has shown its own appetite to be lacking in this respect. In fact, in Egypt, justice has proven itself to be both blind to reason and deaf to protest. As if to slap down those who dared object, it was announced that Saber’s replacement would be Ahmed al-Zind, whom has been described as just as elitist “yet more extreme“. As a sign of this extremism, al-Zind said in a controversial 2014 television interview: “On the land of this homeland, we are the lords, and others are slaves.”

It is clear that al-Zind is no fitter to be justice minister than his predecessor. I think it’s time to start a campaign to demand the new minister’s resignation and ask that al-Zind be replaced by the son of a rubbish collector from al-Zabbaleen. Only then can we be certain that we will have a justice minister who cleans up garbage rather than spews it out.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 12 May 2015.

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Send Qatar off and bring on Tunisia for 2022 World Cup

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By Khaled Diab

If Qatar gets a red card for the 2022 World Cup, Arabs should enter a joint bid to host it in Tunisia, regional role model for revolution and reform.

Jubliant Qataris celebrate news of 2022 win. Image: Qatar 2022 official site

Jubliant Qataris celebrate news of 2022 win. Image: Qatar 2022 official site

Thursday 12 June 2014

Like many people of conscience around the world, I am alarmed that Qatar is set to host the 2022 World Cup.

Qatar’s successful bid to organise football’s greatest tournament has trained the international spotlight on the inhumane and dangerous treatment of South Asian migrant workers in the tiny emirate and the wider Gulf region.

Many Qataris and some other Arabs see hypocrisy in the controversy. “Over 20 countries have organised the tournament and they only make this fuss about Qatar,” one Twitter user complained.

Some went even further: “We have to stand assertively against this kind of racist behaviour,” said Kuwaiti politician Ahmad al-Fahad al-Ahmed al-Sabah, who is also the president of the Olympic Council of Asia.

Though I don’t think racism comes into it, at a certain level there do appear to be double standards.  After all, there is a long history of the World Cup being abused as a political football by unscrupulous regimes: from fascist Italy in 1934 to junta-ruled Argentina in 1978. Inmates at the notorious Esma detention centre could hear the ecstatic crowds cheer Argentina to victory against the Netherlands in the final.

Even the 2014 Brazil world cup has not been without controversy, with protests over the costs and the treatment of indigenous tribes.

But it looks likely that allegations of bribery, which Qatar denies, rather than human rights abuses, may drive the final nail in the coffin of the Qatari tournament.

Both Qatar’s initial awarding of the 2022 World Cup and the possibility that it may lose it have stirred mixed emotions in the wider Arab world. It sparked enthusiasm in Qatar and some quarters that an Arab country had finally joined the major league of organising football.

“Congratulations to Qatar and to us for the football victory,” wrote Jihan al-Khazen in the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat back in 2010. “Winning the right to host the championship is an honour to all Arabs.”

Even if they were perplexed as to why minute Qatar with little footballing tradition to speak of had gained this “honour”, many Arabs echoed al-Khazen’s sentiments. For example, both Egyptian fans and the Egyptian Football Association sent Qatar congratulatory messages at the time.

However, the recent strain in Egyptian-Qatari relations over allegations that Qatar bankrolled and supported the despised Muslim Brotherhood have curbed the enthusiasm of some Egyptians.

This prompted Kamal Amer of pro-government Rose al-Youssef to urge his readers last year to overlook what he described as temporary differences and to focus on the “Arab, Middle Eastern and Islamic dream” of hosting the World Cup. He even suggested that Qatar could benefit from Egyptian expertise in the run-up to the event.

So far, the latest round of allegations has elicited little reaction in Egypt, which is preoccupied with meatier matters, such as the recent presidential elections and the anointing of its probable latest dictator, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.  Nevertheless, the FIFA corruption allegations have received a civil handling. For example, the outspoken, pro-regime TV presenter Amr Adeeb, rather than gloat at Qatar’s predicament, focused on the ethics of the matter.

“It’s not a question of whether Qatar should host the World Cup, it’s a question of morality,” he said on his popular talk show Cairo Today. “We were happy that Qatar was the first Arab country that would embrace the World Cup,” Adeeb noted.

However, if Qatar gets the red card for the 2022 championship, which I think it should still stay in the region. The World Cup has left its traditional venues of Europe and Latin America, to visit Asia, the United States and Africa, so the Arab world should get a shot too.

Although I prefer the idea of a fixed venue  classified as international territory, I believe holding the World Cup in the Middle East can be an opportunity to honour all those who sacrificed for the dream of the Arab Spring, provide relief to a troubled region and promote some inter-Arab co-operation amid the strained relations afflicting the region. This can be done through a joint Arab bid from several countries.

Given how it spearheaded the Arab revolutionary wave and has been a relative trailblazer in democratic reform, I would argue that the honour should go to Tunisia to be the actual host. Moreover, the Eagles of Carthage have significant footballing pedigree. Tunisia has qualified for four World Cups and was the first African side to win a match at the championship, back in 1978.

However, given the country’s modest means, a regional fund should be established, bankrolled by the rich Gulf states, including even Qatar, to finance preparations for the tournament. Other regional footballing heavyweights – like Egypt, Algeria and Morocco – can provide their technical expertise.

In addition, to avoid the waste associated with the tournament (which can only truly be curbed with a fixed venue), a blueprint should be drawn up that creates the maximum number of jobs ethically and every piece of infrastructure must be recyclable.

This would not only help to raise Tunisia’s prestige and stimulate investment in the country, creating much-needed jobs, it would also promote a deeper sense of shared identity across the region.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 5 June 2014.


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Black pride in the Holy Land

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By Khaled Diab

Africans in the Holy Land are challenging the whitewashing of their identities and are taking greater pride in their heritage.

Friday 30 March 2012

You wouldn’t guess it when introduced to her, but Madeha Alkmalat is a “Bedouin”. Turned out in casual evening wear, she is the picture of the young, educated, sophisticated urban woman. She is more at home in the 21st-century metropolis than in the still-prevalent Orientalist fantasies of the noble-yet-primitive nomad woven by the likes of “Lawrence of Arabia” or captured on film by Lehnert and Landrock.

“People expect Bedouins to be dressed in traditional Arab dress and the women to be covered up and invisible, so when they see a modern, uncovered woman, they are surprised,” says Alkmalat, who links her empowerment not only to her independent personality but also the support of her enlightened family.

Another thing which caught my eye about this Bedouin-Palestinian when I first met Alkmalat in a trendy Haifa restaurant in the shadow of the sublime beauty of the Baha’i gardens was that she also happens to have a dark African complexion.

On the other side of the bitter political chasm separating Palestinians from Israelis is Tali Ysia, also a young, educated, articulate woman who stands out because hers is the only Ethiopian or black African face in the cosy West Jerusalem patisserie where we met for hot drinks and conversation.

Alkmalat and Ysia, though they don’t know each other and their communities rarely interact, belong to a new, more assertive generation of African-Palestinians and Ethiopian-Israelis who are struggling with the complexities of their identities, taking greater pride in their heritage, and demanding to be regarded and treated as equals.

Identity is a complex minefield for both young women. “I used to be ashamed of my Ethiopian roots,” admits Ysia, who identifies herself, above all else, as an Israeli.

Alkamlat, whose tribe has for centuries lived in Rahat, in the al-Naqab (Negev) desert, which is today in southern Israel, feels a deep connection with her Palestinian identity, which is understandable given that her only connection with Africa is her skin tone.

However, on top of her Palestinian, Bedouin and African identities, she also holds Israeli citizenship, speaks fluent Hebrew and studied at an Israeli university. But defining yourself as both Israeli and Palestinian can be like walking on a tightrope through a political minefield – it truly puts the conflict into conflicting identities. As one Palestinian-Israeli memorably put it, “My state is at war with my nation.”

Not all African-Palestinians have their roots lost in the mists of time. Some, like the small Afro-Palestinian community in Jerusalem of some 300 to 400 people, trace their origins back to the late Ottoman era, when they were brought over by the sultan to guard the al-Aqsa complex, or by the British mandate as workers.

Despite their closer links to Africa, they define themselves primarily as Palestinians. “We are Palestinians of African origin,” describes Yasser Qous, who heads the African Community Society in Jerusalem. “We are like coconuts: we are dark on the outside but inside we are Palestinians to the core. We are immersed in the Palestinian reality, though we cannot forget our roots.”

Many of Quos’s community lives in two beautiful beautiful buildings just outside the magnificent architectural splendour of the Dome of the Rock. Built in the 13th century, these ribats (hostels) originally functioned as housing for Muslim pilgrims from across the world, including Africa. In fact, African pilgrims have been settling in the holy land for centuries and many stayed behind, though these have long melted into the population at large.

Like African-Palestinians, Ethiopian-Israelis find dealing with their different identities challenging. In fact, their African and Israeli identities may be in greater conflict because the vast majority of this 120,000-strong community has only been here since the famine and civil war in Ethiopia in the 1980s prompted Israel to smuggle the small Ethiopian Jewish minority out of the devastated country – even if a small Ethiopian community connected with the church has lived in Jerusalem since Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire.

Although the Israeli government has put in place numerous programmes aimed at helping Ethiopian Jews to fit in which apparently draw lessons from previous waves of immigration, the integration process has been far from smooth and, successes notwithstanding, poverty is three time higher and unemployment double among Ethiopian Jews compared with the Israeli mainstream.

In addition to the challenges posed by the sudden shift from an agrarian society to an advanced modern economy, as well as the absence of robust family and social networks, Israeli policy effectively concentrated most Ethiopians into self-contained ghettoes of poverty, deprivation and lack of opportunity.

This harsh reality has provided bigots with the excuses they need to justify their prejudices and has fuelled a certain amount of racism, which Ethiopians have recently been protesting against, with slogans like “our blood is only good for wars”.

“The stereotypes about Ethiopians in Israel are similar to those about African-Americans,” Tali Ysia tells me. These include that Ethiopians are criminals, violent, primitive and alcoholics. “These stereotypes are unfair but people

hold them because this is all they hear about Ethiopians in the media.”

However, negative stereotypes were not a problem in Ysia’s personal experience: “I never made my colour an issue. If you don’t make a big deal out of it, most others won’t either.”

Part of Ysia’s ease in navigating mainstream Israeli society derives from the considerable foresight exhibited by her mother, who is a living legend in their household. Her pregnant mother not only led a four-year-old Ysia and her older brother on a 10-week, nocturnal march from Gondar in Ethiopia to Sudan, where they were airlifted to Israel as part of the clandestine Operation Moses, she also insisted on settling her young family in the white coastal town of Herzliya, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, rather than in predominantly Ethiopian neighbourhoods. “My mother didn’t want us to live in a closed community. She decided that for us to be successful, we had to become fully Israeli.”

Ysia’s journey from the Ethiopian highlands was not only long and arduous physically, but also culturally and emotionally. From a traumatised child who could not stop playing with the magical light switch for her first few days in Israel and who was fascinated by the existence of white people, and especially white people who were also Jewish like her, she and her siblings have battled the odds to get a decent education and jobs.

But this success came at the price of the African identity, which her family felt compelled to leave behind in Ethiopia. Then, while studying in Jerusalem to become a teacher, Ysia attended an Ethiopian pride course which opened her eyes to her heritage, as did an African-American stranger she met in the States. “Now I am proud of who I am. I can succeed because of who I am. I don’t need to deny it,” she emphasises.

Though longer-established, and hence better-integrated, African-Palestinians also suffer from their unfair share of discrimination. “A lot of people around still call us ‘abeed’ (‘slaves’),” notes Madeha Alkmalat, though this is unheard of in the more urbane north.

Historically, some Africans in Palestine are the descendants of slaves – as personal servants, concubines, soldiers or even as manual labourers on the Ummayad sugar plantations – but many more arrived in the Holy Land as pilgrims or merchants.

Yasser Quos also insists that modern Palestinians’ grasp of the institution of slavery has been affected by the far better-known American context. “I’ve always said that Spartacus was not black, and he was the first rebel in the slaves’ revolt,” he notes.

In previous centuries, whites were perhaps as likely to wind up as slaves as were blacks, especially if they ended up on the losing side in a war. In addition, though slavery is an abhorrent institution, in the ancient world, many slaves held high status as teachers, doctors, ministers and elite warriors. For instance, Egypt was ruled for centuries, and enjoyed one of its golden ages, under the rule of an elite military caste of slaves known as the Mamalik.

Quos also holds that the discrimination faced by African-Palestinians is largely unrelated to race and is mostly isolated to the area of marriage. “The problem for African-Palestinians is more to do with class than colour,” he explains. “Palestinian society went from being feudal to become bourgeois. Marriage used to be brokered on the basis of the property the two families entering it owned. Even today, marriage is generally not between individuals but between families of the same class.”

But there is a significant, and rising, amount of inter-marriage, though it is still relatively rare among the Bedouins, as Quos himself demonstrates. His father moved to Jerusalem from Chad and married a local Palestinian woman. His wife is also of mixed Palestinian and African origin.

Although the narrowing of identities caused by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has caused both African-Palestinians and Ethiopian Jews to suppress their African side, discrimination, modern communications and their growing assertiveness has led the two communities to feel greater solidarity with Africans elsewhere.

“I feel solidarity with Africans around the world. We have similar histories, even if our religions are different,” says Tali Ysia.

“I don’t know about Africa, I have no connection with Africa and I’ve never been there,” asserts Madeha Alkmalat. “However, I do feel a certain belonging to my colour. This is perhaps because of discrimination and also because of how I was raised. I’m always happy when I see black people getting ahead. I was over the moon when Obama became president. His victory challenges the stereotype that black people are only good at sports and music.”

Even Obama’s openly pro-Israel stance has not diminished African-Palestinians’ sense of black pride. “When it comes to American foreign policy towards the Palestinians, we know that Obama is like a mannequin,” says Quos. “We knew that the talk of ‘change’ in his speeches had limits… but he may mark the beginning of change.”

Qous also believes that most Palestinians respect the African community and especially the significant role it has played in the Palestinian national struggle. One example is Fatima Bernawi, who became the first female Palestinian prisoner of conscience and has held a number of prominent positions in the Palestinian leadership.

For her part, Ysia says that most Israelis she encounters are reasonable and are open to having their prejudices challenged, and the situation will only get better as Ethiopians become more integrated .

And many African-Palestinians and Ethiopian-Israelis are determined to become more successful and let their success speak for itself to society at large and act as a role model for the forthcoming generation.

Ysia, who is the only Ethiopian teacher at one of Jerusalem’s top primary schools, dreams one day of opening up her own school which would not only provide excellent education but teach Jewish children from different backgrounds the value of coexistence.

Alkmalat also wants to give back to her community and society at large. She works for a civil society organisation in Be’er Sheva, where she now lives, which seeks to empower Bedouin women and enable them to carve out their own space in a largely traditional, male-dominated community.

Moreover, whether or not they find common cause in their struggle for full equality, African-Palestinians and Ethiopian-Israelis, by their very existence, challenge the rigid and simplistic “us” and “them” division that underpins the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and offer hope that one day identities will become more fluid and inclusive again.

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Inverting the pyramids

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By Khaled Diab

The world isn’t short on wacky theories about Egypt’s greatest monuments. The reality is less fun, but more illuminating.

August 2008

Who built the pyramids?

Who built the pyramids? Was it these two?

The quack theories about my country’s history can be very entertaining, with the all-time classic being that only aliens could have constructed something as magnificent and precise as the pyramids. Astoundingly, up to 45% of people who took part in a recent survey believed that the pyramids (and Stonehenge) were physical evidence of alien life. Of course, this poll appeared in the Sun, the same newspaper which reported on an ‘alien army’ that had been spotted over England and Wales. Some UFOlogists even claim that civilisation itself was an alien import

One man of the cloth has come up with an ingenious solution to the mystery of the pyramids which also ‘disproves’ evolution. Maltese evangelist pastor Vince Fenech believes that dinosaurs helped build the pyramids, presumably after being domesticated. There is a certain eccentric beauty to this ‘Flintstones’ theory: the ancient Egyptians didn’t have any mechanical heavy-lifting equipment that we know of, so let’s give them a biological variety. 

But even when human agency behind the pyramids is acknowledged, the credit for them is disputed. The most famous alternative theory is that Israelite slaves built these colossal structures. The late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin stirred up a furore in Egypt when he claimed, prior to arriving for the first official visit by an Israeli leader to Cairo, that his ancestors built the pyramids. 

Of course, no archaeologist takes this theory seriously, since the pyramids were already pretty ancient when the Israelites are presumed to have been in Egypt and it is now generally accepted that slaves did not work on the project.

There is also no biblical evidence that the Israelites worked on the pyramids. Baruch Brandel, the director of the Israel Antiquities Authority library, notes that: “The Torah only mentions that the Israelites built Pithom and Ramses during the New Kingdom period.” 

So, where does this legend come from? Scotland, actually. Charles Piazzi Smyth believed that the mysterious Hyksos – who may have invaded, or simply migrated, to Egypt nearly a millennium after the pyramids were built – were the Hebrew people, and that they built the Great Pyramid. 

Some Jews began to prescribe to this far-fetched theory to draw pride amid discrimination, just as the 19th century Afrocentric movement in the United States extended the period of Kushite (modern-day Nubia) rule for two centuries during the Third Intermediate Period to all of Egyptian history in order to claim that ancient Egypt was “black African”. 

This flies in the face of all the evidence that points to the fact that Egypt – an integral part of the Fertile Crescent and sitting on the northeastern edge of Africa – was always a multiracial society but that the basic make-up of the population has not changed much since ancient times. Besides, skin colour did not mean anything beyond the physical to the Egyptians, who were more interested in whether you were culturally Egyptian or not. This is reflected in the fact that both free people and slaves in Egyptian wall paintings were of various colours and races. 

This includes the Biblical Israelites. But identifying who exactly this wandering people were is fraught with difficulty, as no non-biblical evidence exists that identifies their presence in Egypt conclusively. 

Israeli archaeologist Ze’ev Herzog says that the available evidence points to the fact that: “The Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom.” 

So, why create these myths? Egypt was the mega-power of the region and the Levant was part of the Egyptian empire for centuries. Perhaps once a group of vassal rulers managed to shake off Egyptian hegemony, they needed to create a heroic back-story which, at once, demonised the Egyptians and borrowed from their grandeur. In addition, there is plenty of historical evidence of Canaanite tribes settling in Egypt in times of famine and some became slaves, and the stories of their sporadic return could have been amalgamated into one epic legend. 

In addition, the idea that the Israelites were originally not monotheists, but practised monolatry, i.e. the worship of a local god as the top god while recognising the existence of other gods, does not sit comfortably with the Abrahamic traditions.

Despite Egypt’s polytheistic reputation, monotheism was actually invented in Egypt, as far as historians can ascertain. Amenhotep IV (renamed Akhenaten) began the worship of Aten as the one god, probably for political reasons, because he wanted to clip the wings of the powerful priesthood of the supreme god Amun-Ra. Akhenaten’s iconoclasm did not survive him, and the old priesthoods re-formed after his mysterious death. 

Moreover, Egyptian themes are found throughout the Abrahamic faiths, and not just in the explicit mentions of Egypt in the holy scriptures. The idea of the ‘messiah’, which means the anointed one, bears a striking resemblance to the identity of pharaoh, who was also the anointed one and god’s representative on earth, while the Virgin and Child story seems to be a rehashing of the Osiris-Isis-Horus myth. In some ways, a rationalised form of polytheism is actually alive and well, if we consider God as Osiris and the devil as a sort of Seth, while the angels are equivalent to the legion of minor deities. 

Naturally, the Middle East is not ready for this shock to the system: not only are these biblical legends crucial to Zionism’s historic claim, they also form the bedrock of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths in a highly religious region of the world. 


This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 18 August 2008. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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