Diasporic deliverance: Black Arab pioneers you should know and celebrate
22 February 2022
Contrary to how the Arab world is often perceived, the region is awash with racial, ethnic, religious diversity. One especially prominent group are Black Arabs, who have been a cultural and political force throughout the Arab world’s history.
The African diaspora is often depicted as the large dispersal of peoples of mainly Black-African ancestry to Western nations such as the United Kingdom, the United States, countries within the Caribbean and South America, as a result of the Transatlantic slave trade and economic migration in later centuries.
However, Black peoples in the eastern hemisphere of the world are lesser well-known, particularly Black or Afro-Arabs, Arabs with full or partial Black-African ancestry. These may include Sudanese, Yemenis, Mauritanians, Algerians and in countries such as Occupied Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Jordan.
In the past several years, the subjects of racism and discrimination experienced by Black and Afro-Arabs have gained greater traction. Not least because of the multifaceted nature of race within the Arab world, and how socio-political, tribal and national characteristics determine or challenge notions of indigenousness.
“The African diaspora is often depicted as the large dispersal of peoples of mainly Black-African ancestry to Western nations… as a result of the Transatlantic slave trade and economic migration in later centuries”
Part of the discussion includes highlighting the contributions that Black and Afro-Arabs have made within their respective societies and the wider world.
The New Arab looks at some of the most illustrious Black Arabs, past and present, who have made huge strides across entertainment, literature, academia and the media.
Esmeray Diriker (Morocco, Turkey)
Esmeray was one of Turkey’s most illustrious singers and is celebrated as a symbol of the country’s racial and ethnic diversity. She was an Afro-Turk whose ancestors migrated from Morocco to the Ottoman Empire during the 19th century.
Esmeray Diriker: An Afro-Turkish Icon
She first began her career in acting from the age of 11, participating in Istanbul City Theatres and several others until 1974. However, Esmeray is best known for hit songs such as Gel Tezkere Gel (Come, Come, Come, I’ve been on the road) and other songs praising Turkey’s military. But some of her work highlighted the frustration she experienced with racial prejudice. Cultural anthropologist Kornelia Biniceicz says about Esmeray’s 1976 song 13.5: “Marching drums break the atmosphere and the low, deep and proud voice of Esmeray takes us into a different level of understanding about what it means to be a Black Turkish girl.”
After her classical album Surpriz, Esmeray ended her musical career in 1986 and returned back to her first love- theatre- until her death from brain cancer in 2002.
Samirah Srur Fadel (Occupied Palestine)
Born in Yafa (Jaffa) in 1951, Samirah Srur Fadi is an Afro-Palestinian advocate and the founder of the Abraham Center of Languages which she launched in 1994 after two decades of teaching Arabic and Hebrew.
The inspiration came from her experiences as a language teacher and by the Folk High School movement in Norway. The centre was founded to provide language teaching that would open doors — cultural, commercial, academic, political and personal — to the outside world.
It was envisioned as a place for celebrating and sharing the Palestinian civilisation and cultural heritage, at the same time giving Gazans the chance to learn about other cultures and histories. Samirah is also credited as an advocate for the idea of an Afro-Palestinian identity.
Malik Badri (Sudan)
In October 1962, Malcolm X wrote in The Pittsburgh Courier: “In 1959, I visited Khartoun [sic] and Omdurman in the Sudan, and also visited the Muslims in Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt and Arabia. I was impressed the most by the Muslims of Sudan. Their religious piety and hospitality are unmatched anywhere. I really felt at heaven and at home there.”
Two years later, he warmly remembered the two Sudanese students he met in Makkah who randomly told him, “The Sudanese people love American Negroes.” One of those men was Malik Badri, a 27-year-old psychology student, who played a role in welcoming the civil rights activist at the Grand Hotel in the capital, Khartoum and showing him around Omdurman, Sudan.
In an interview with the Cambridge Muslim College, he said he felt Malcolm X took his name Malik although he did not ask him explicitly. Malik went on to become an illustrious professor of psychology.
He is dubbed the ‘father of modern Islamic psychology’ because he contested the absence of religion and spirituality in Western psychology. He published influential books such as The Dilemma of Muslim Psychologists (1979). He passed away a few days short of his 89th birthday in Kuala Lumpur on February 8, 2021.
Ahmed Osman (Sudan)
The other person Malcolm X referred to as Ahmed Osman, a development economist who Malcolm X met in July 1963 (at the time he was 22) at Temple №7 in Harlem, while the latter was a Nation of Islam minister.
Ahmed Osman was one of the most influential people in Malcolm X’s life. Academic Hisham Aidi says in an interview with Sapelo Square that Ahmed was instrumental in drawing Malcolm X to Sunni Islam and introducing him to “Black Saudis that were also important in his reversion including Muhammed Suroor Sabban, a poet, politician and Saudi Arabia’s second Minister of Finance.
“Sabban was a Saudi of African descent who took Malcolm under his wing, and appointed the Sudanese Sheikh Hassoun as his spiritual adviser.”
Ahmed arranged for Malcolm X to perform the pilgrimage to Makkah and delivered a eulogy at the funeral of the civil rights leader in 1965. His friendship with Malcolm X is the subject of Aidi’s documentary Malcolm X and the Sudanese (2021) in which Ahmed explores his affection for Sudan and the Afro-Arab community.
Layla F. Saad (Tanzania, Kenya, Qatar)
Layla F. Saad is a 39-year-old British author and social media commentator who started the Instagram hashtag #MeAndWhiteSupremacy, which formed the basis of her New York Times Best Selling book of the same name in 2020.
Saad’s mother was from Zanzibar, Tanzania, while her father was from Mombasa, Kenya. They both moved to Wales, where they met and where Layla was born and raised. The family moved to Qatar when Layla was aged 15.
She currently lives in Qatar and runs ‘The Good Ancestor’ Book Club and podcast which educates and gives white people the tools to dismantle white privilege and systemic racism.
She is inspired by the late African-American writer, Toni Morrison, who once said, “Being a black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn’t limit my imagination; it expands it.”
Mahmoud Trawri (Saudi Arabia)
Mahmoud Trawri is a literary editor at the newspaper al-Watan and is known for winning the 2001 Sharjah Award for Arab Creativity for his first novel, Maymounda. It’s a story of several generations of a family of African immigrants to Saudi Arabia, which touches on the racism they encountered and the role of local merchants in the slave trade.
According to Fanar media, Maimouna is regarded as one of the most significant works of fiction about the history of Black Saudis. Trawri began his writing career when he was 12, by sending commentaries to local newspapers and magazines, working his way up to write for Iqra Television when it first launched in the late nineties.
Colette Dalal Tchantcho (Cameroon, Kuwait)
Colette is a gender-fluid actress of Cameroonian and Kuwaiti heritage. She has performed in The Witcher and other notable shows and films including Domina, (2021), and BBC’s Doctors (2018), as well as theatrical productions including Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
“The subjects of racism and discrimination experienced by Black and Afro-Arabs have gained greater traction. Not least because of the multifaceted nature of race within the Arab world, and how socio-political, tribal and national characteristics determine or challenge notions of indigenousness”
She was invited by the Shakespeare World Stage at the Globe Theatre to translate and perform five of Shakespeare’s sonnets in Kuwaiti Arabic.
She is passionate about education, dyslexia, identity and discourses relating to Afro-Arab identities. Colette is currently working on an autobiographical solo show, Dreamer, which depicts the realities and experiences of a Black woman in Arab society, and specifically the ‘Black-Kuwaiti’ specific story.”
Kuwaiti/Cameroonian actress Colette Dalal Tchantcho
Mutaz Essa Barshim (Qatar)
Mutaz Essa Barshim is a track and field athlete and is the current reigning Olympic Champion for the high jump, a Qatari high jumping world champion, holder of the Asian record and, at 2.43 metres, has registered the second-highest jump in history. It almost places him on par with legendary Cuban high jumper Javier Sotomayor, and his 1993 world record of 2.45 metres.
Track and field athlete, Mutaz Essa Barshim
Born in Doha to a Sudanese family, Mutaz followed in his father’s footsteps, who was also a track and field athlete. Mutaz said in an interview with the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), “I grew up, nothing special, like any kid in Qatar. I joined a club because my father was going to the club training so sometimes he used to take me there with him. I knew athletics because of my father.”
He won a bronze medal in the London Olympic games in 2012. He received silver at the Rio Olympic games in 2016. When he is not scoring gold on the field, he enjoys art, fashion design and cartoons to relax.
Adama Juldeh Munu is an award-winning journalist that’s worked with TRT World, Al-Jazeera, the Huffington Post, Middle East Eye and Black Ballad. She writes about race, Black heritage and issues connecting Islam and the African diaspora.
Follow her on Twitter: @adamajmunu