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On The Afro-Arab Experience

I am all parts of my ethnic, cultural and racial identities

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As an Afro-Arab, or a Black Arab, or (more narrowly) as a Sudanese person—I feel very blessed. Blessed that I can speak to both experiences from quite a personal perspective.

I consider myself very much Arab, very much African, and black. My language is Arabic, and my culture is predominantly Arab, I think. But my African blood is in there, too. Very much so. Maybe I’m not as African as a particular Zimbabwean beauty, and I’m not as Arab as a certain Yemeni soul. Maybe I am very much Afro-Arab. But I think all ethnic, cultural, and racial experiences are equally valuable. (And delicious, from a scholarly, student-of-those-human-experiences viewpoint.)

Despite the good vibes I constantly send to my identities—my various me’s—others are not always so gracious or understanding.

For example, something that sometimes gets to me in my experience as an Arab is that some people say or think that I’m not really Arab. As in I’m not legitimately Arab. The reasoning I’ve gotten as to why is that this is mainly due to the fact that I’m black, or dark-skinned, or however it is put.

But does being dark-skinned or black negate Arabness? Does not having a light mocha shade as the darkest hue of your skin mean you’re not legitimately Arab? Not really, is the answer. There are some Saudis who are a lot darker than my coffee-with-creamer skin color and yet they are as Arab as you can get, from most people’s perspective.

I kinda wish I had given this set of facts to my classmate a few semesters ago in college. He had asked me where I’m from and after hearing Sudan, he asked me what my language is. I replied Arabic and he looked kinda incredulous and confused. “It’s not really Arabic though, right?” he asked. I think he had meant something along the lines of “Maybe it’s a language of your country (like how Zulu, Afrikaansand English are all official languages of South Africa), but it’s not the native language of your people.” But—yes. Yes, and yes—Arabic is the native tongue of the Sudanese, and of me and my family.

I think my classmate’s and others’ disbelief and confusion comes from people’s predisposed ideas of “culture" and its set appearances. The truth is culture, ethnicity, and race don’t have a standard face behind them—they don’t have a "natural look," or even poster-children who represents the “purest” form of those institutions.

I think the following sentences from Atlanta Black Star:

“Black Arab” may be a confusing concept to many people in the West, where Arabs are classified as Caucasian people. However, all uses of the word “Arab” prior to the rise of Islam in the 7th century refer specifically to people belonging to the Bedouin ethnic group.  After that and leading up to the 13th century, people with no Bedouin heritage began to refer to themselves as Arabs.

Today, there are still many “Black Arab” ethnic groups, such as the Tuaregs and Nubians of North Africa to the Mahra of Southern Arabia, who are still in existence, and whose presence in the “Middle East” predates the coming of the paler-skinned Asiatics. Today’s Arabs are a mixture of these groups, with those of darker skin facing the typical discrimination and oppression seen by the darker people of the world.

Ibn Mandour, of the 13th century, writes in his well-known Arabic lexicon Lisan Al Arab, (Al Fadl ibn Al Abbas), ‘I am pure’ because the color of the Arabs is dark”. Mandour further describes the pure Arabs by saying, “Lank hair is the kind of hair that most non-Arab Persians and Romans have while kinky hair is the kind of hair that most Arabs have.”

I myself am not too bothered about who is pure Arab and who is not, even if the intention behind that is to dispel myths of how Arab people are supposed to look like. All I care about is the experiences I and many others have of their Arab lives. And/or their other ethnic, cultural, and/or racial identities as in my case.

I think many Spanish-speaking and Portuguese-speaking people experience this same societal resistance in respect to their culture, ethnicity, and other similar identifying factors. As just one example; many Brazilians are dark-skinned, by the world’s standards…they “look black” (I’m pretty sure people mean “dark-chocolate-hued,” or “mahogany,” with this expression).  But does being dark-skinned mean that they are not Latino, or not of Portuguese origin, or whatever other ethnic/cultural phrase they choose to identify with?

Does a Brazilian or a Latino or a Portuguese/Spanish-speaking person have a certain or fixed way of looking? The answer to all the above; no. Not at all. To say that dark-skinned Brazilians’, Latin American or Portuguese identities are not as legitimate as their lighter-hued counterparts is as erroneous as saying that the Sudanese peoples’ Arab identity (or the Mauritanians’, or Chadians’, or dark-skinned Egyptians’, or anyone else’s) is not as legitimate as the Libyans’, or the Syrians’, or whoever else there is. The truth is, all those peoples are Arab, despite (or perhaps because of, as the aforementioned Atlanta Black Star article states) their facial features, hair texture, or skin color. They all equally add to the rich Arab identity and story.

In reality, everyone has elements of different genes, races, and cultural or geographic roots in them. I think it can all go back to the Islamic hadith (no matter what one’s views of Islam, or religion, are); “Man/Adam was created from black clay, red clay, and white clay. Allah s.w.t. then breathed his soul into him, and placed him on the Earth.” We all have various roots, in us and factually (and spiritually) speaking, we are all one.

In places here and foreign lands,  the rainbow can be seen in hands that make the world a better place, a rainbow of the human race. - N.N. Charles  

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