Black in North Africa
Like the color it purports to name, the social label black absorbs, integrates, and obscures distinct but interrelated phenomena: a skin tone of context-dependent shade, a racial classification from bygone times, an ethnic designation, a class marker, an immigration status, an ancestry, a cultural heritage, and an index of historical wrongs still fresh in memory. Black has often served as shorthand for of African descent, but perhaps nowhere most complicates that substitution than a region on the continent itself: North Africa.
Many outside North Africa see the region as an extension of the Middle East: Arab and Muslim, filtered from the history and politics of the rest of the continent by a vast and inhospitable desert. But the region’s strategic geographic location has long made it a site of cultural migration, coexistence, and mixture under conditions both forced and friendly. The trans-Saharan slave trade moved millions of black Africans throughout the Arab World for more than a millennium, with women sold into domestic and sexual servitude and men into military service, hard labor, and royal eunuchry. Legal in certain countries until the latter part of the 20th century, slavery made skin color as much a marker of class as race, with many anti-black Arabic slurs associating blackness with subjection and servitude still in use. But unlike in the Americas, slavery only partly accounts for the appearance of black communities in North Africa. In addition to indigenous darker-skinned populations like Nubians in Egypt, Afro-Arab populations in Northwest and Northeast Africa have testified to centuries of cultural and economic mixture accelerated by colonialism and globalization.
From the cosmopolitan coastal metropolises of Morocco and Tunisia to the sparse Sahelian borderlands of Mauritania and Sudan, North Africa has had a complex relationship to blackness, pan-Africanism, and the continent with which they are associated. Nationalist regimes in the 20th century privileged Arab culture to the exclusion of ethnic minorities, and the recent rise in political Islamism has often ignored—and at times scapegoated—the region’s many black Muslims. Official demography often excludes racial and ethnic identification (and therefore data on identity-based inequality), making the case for cultural recognition and legal protections difficult. But on the ground, the Arab Spring emboldened civil rights activism in places like Tunisia and Egypt while the Mediterranean migration crisis has renewed international attention, however briefly, to the conditions driving mass displacement across the continent.
In isolation, stories of inequality and insecurity are too often dismissed as exaggerated and exceptional or, perhaps worse, forgotten. But each contributes to a library that, taken as a whole, reveals a climate that conditions the lives of those who live within it by choice, need, or force. The first in Outlas’s Citations series, this digital catalog is an evolving collection of recent commentary, features, and analysis of the contemporary and historical conditions affecting life in North African countries for Afro-Arabs, non-Arab black North Africans, sub-Saharan immigrants, and traveling black diasporans.
Trans-Saharan Slave Trade
- Arab slave trade (Wikipedia)
- “Trans-Saharan Slave Trade and Racism in the Arab World” (Ballandalus, November 2013)
- “Scholars focus on the Arab trans-Saharan slave trade” (University World News, April 2012)
- “Slavery’s last stronghold” (CNN, March 2012)
- “Too Black to be Arab, too Arab to be Black” (Media Diversified, January 2016)
- “Ending Sudan’s identity crisis” (The Guardian, June 2011)
- “In Sudan, No Clear Difference Between Arab and African” (The New York Times, October 2004)
Black Cultural Politics in North Africa
Although Algeria has been home to fewer black communities than its North African neighbors, estimates put the number of black Algerians and sub-Saharan immigrants at more than a million in a country that has occupied a prominent place in the history of European-African relations. With the black population accounting for as much as 75% of Algeria’s large Saharan south, black Algerian communities have had to contend with resource disparities, regional chauvinism, increasing drought frequency, and poor economic prospects.
- “Black in Algeria? Then You’d Better Be Muslim” (The New York Times, May 2016)
- “Les invisibles d’Algérie” (Le Monde, January 2016)
- “Quand les Algériens noirs frappent à la porte” (Jeune Afrique, April 2014)
- “Soyez ce que vous voulez en Algérie, mais pas noir” (SlateAfrique, January 2014)
- “‘Femmes des Noirs’” (El Watan via Courrier International, December 2013)
- “Dans la peau d’un Noir en Algérie” (Chouf-Chouf, October 2013)
- “Les noirs dans l’Algérie contemporaine” (Politique Africaine, February 1988)
Anti-black racism in Egypt has drawn increasing domestic and international attention in the wake of protests and political instability emerging from the 2011 Arab Spring. Indigenous Nubian communities have protested government policies that have expropriated them of historical lands and fought for greater political and cultural representation in the country. Egypt has also hosted large numbers of refugees as the political instabilities of East Africa have driven mass flight from Eritrea, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, and its southern neighbor Sudan, with “Sudanese” or “Sudani” having become a pejorative part-for-whole substitution for black people.
- “Memory and Resistance: Black History Month in Egypt’s Nubia” (teleSUR, February 2016)
- “Being black in Egypt” (The New Arab, July 2015)
- “Black Egyptians decry daily racism” (Al Jazeera, July 2013)
- “Racism in Egypt” (The Egypt Monacle, June 2012)
- “Egypt’s Race Problem” (The Root, February 2011)
- Black in Egypt (Arabic blog)
Black Libyans and immigrants have struggled in the post-Qaddafi era, having been caught in anti-Qaddafi sentiment and targeted by rebel forces as Qaddafi sympathists and mercenaries. After anti-immigrant pogroms in 2000 drove significant numbers of sub-Saharan immigrants from Libya, the post-Arab Spring persecution has been another blow to an already precarious community, with many from communities like Tawergha displaced from their homes into poorly resourced camps. Libya has also become ground zero for many sub-Saharan refugees seeking asylum in Europe. The ongoing trans-Mediterranean migration crisis has been facilitated by human traffickers who have taken advantage of Libya’s political instability to make money off of migrants, leading to the deaths of thousands and the indefinite detentions of many more.
- “Five years on, displaced Libyans languish in camps” (Al-Monitor, February 2016)
- “Racism and revolution: the plight of black Africans in Libya” (Equal Times, October 2013)
- “Sub-Saharan migrants keep their heads down” (IRIN, September 2011)
- “In Libya, the peril of being black” (The Washington Post, September 2011)
- “Libya’s spectacular revolution has been disgraced by racism” (The Guardian, August 2011)
Mere kilometers from the coast of Spain, Morocco has long been situated at the crossroads of European and African migration. The country has become a destination for wealthy students from south of the Sahara, but their economic privilege relative to immigrants of less means has not translated into insulation from street taunts, media targeting, and housing discrimination. As in many places throughout the Arab World (and the world at large), black people in Morocco struggle from official denials of the presence of anti-black racism in the country.
- “Morocco, Long A Stopover For African Migrants, Becomes A Destination” (NPR, April 2016)
- “Sub-Saharan Africans suffer discrimination in Morocco” (Al-Monitor, February 2015)
- “Moroccan Survey: African, But Not Completely” (Al-Monitor, January 2014)
- “The question of race in Morocco” (Al-Monitor, January 2014)
- “Complicity and Indifference: Racism in Morocco” (Jadaliyya, August 2013)
- “Sub-Saharan Students in Morocco: Both Welcomed and Shunned” (Al-Fanar Media, July 2013)
- “New Texts Out Now: Chouki El Hamel, Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race, and Islam” (Jadaliyya, April 2013)
- “Being black in Morocco: ‘I get called a slave’” (France 24, August 2012)
Tunisia occupies an important position in the history of black-African migration. Tunis was a central port in the trans-Saharan slave trade, but the country was also one of the first to legally abolish slavery when a decree declared the practice illegal in 1846 (though the practice carried on for another half-century). Today, an estimated 10-15% of Tunisia’s population is black, including both families who have been in Tunisia for generations as well as recent migrants from West African countries. In Tunisia’s south, black communities face ongoing discrimination, economic exclusion, and segregation in the poorest part of the country.
- “Tunisia’s Dirty Secret” (Al Jazeera, March 2016)
- “The ‘Blacks’ of El Gosbah: Exile in Tunisia” (Your Middle East, March 2016)
- “Slavery: Tunisia’s Bitter Inheritance” (Tunisia Live, October 2015)
- “Slavery’s Legacy Still Echoes In Tunisia’s All-Black Village” (The Huffington Post, March 2015)
- “‘Never keep silent’: Tunisia confronts racism” (Al Jazeera, April 2014)
- “Black citizens say racism is still an issue in the new Tunisia” (The National, February 2014)
- ADAM (in French)
To follow the conversation, bookmark this page and check back for updates. Stay tuned for Outlas’s second Citations, which continues the overview of black history and communities in the Arab World across the Red Sea in the Middle East.