The black cleric speaks in perfect Persian. “These are the words,” says Sheikh Ali Mwega, “that you must never say to a black person.”
The Iranian-raised, Kenyan-born cleric lists in a two-minute video posted to his Instagram account the insulting and racist words and “common jokes” used by Iranians when referring to black people.
“Right now because of the events that have taken place in America, for many there have been questions about racism,” he continues in the speech, which has gone viral on Iranian social media.
Throughout the Middle East, shock and anger over the treatment of African Americans following the asphyxiation of 46-year-old George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police has evolved into a broader discussion about casual bigotry and systemic racism across the region.
Mr Floyd’s murder was caught on video and ignited a global discussion about persistent racism in the United States and the rest of the world. Many people of sub-Saharan African descent living in the Middle East also identified with the plight of Floyd and other Black Americans, and have begun to speak out about the racism they’ve experienced at the hands of lighter-skinned Arabs, Persians and Turks.
Black people of the Middle East and North Africa include descendants of slaves clustered in coastal communities in Iran and Turkey, recent immigrants and ethnic groups such as Libya’s Tebu or Egypt’s Nubians who just happen to have darker skin.
Peter Chol, a South Sudanese engineering student in Egypt, describes near daily taunts he received on the streets of Cairo, which is the capital of a nation that includes the darker-skinned southern population. “Racist sneers are always directed at people of colour, especially when you move around places where people have never seen an African person,” he tells The Independent.
Almost every time he moves beyond the relatively cosmopolitan campus, he dreads being the target of insults like “oonga boonga” or samara, which means black.
“There are racists among them. Big time. Big time,” UK-based Shia cleric Sheikh Nuru Mohammed, a South African, says in a recent television interview describing his treatment at the hands of Iranian and Pakistani clergy. “They look at your colour, and they scream.”
Communities of African origin in the Middle East tend to be mired in higher levels of poverty and have less access to economic, educational, and social opportunities than their white counterparts. They often live on society’s margins in forgotten rural villages or run-down districts of cities, according to experts.
There remain societal taboos on inter-marriage between people of different complexions or ethnic origins.
Black people are often invisible in Arab and Persian film and television series, and when they do appear are relegated to stereotypical or menial roles such as servants or entertainers. During Iran’s Persian New Year festivities, young men dress up in blackface as Haji Firouz, a character resembling the offensive minstrel characters in the west.
In Turkey, other than a few athletes and singers, the Afro-Turk community – numbering tens of thousands – is largely invisible.
“There’s a lot of brotherly relations between Afro-Turks and other Turks,” says Sakir Doguluev, 65, president of the Afro-Turk Association, and a resident of the Turkish city of Izmir, where the descendants of Ottoman-era slaves live are concentrated.
“But we get discrimination because of our skin colour. It’s because there are not Afro-Turks all over Turkey, people who don’t realise we are here, they get surprised. They look at us and laugh. They point at us, and laugh.”
Last week, in response to the global uproar over Floyd’s killing and the spread of the movement loosely grouped under the Black Lives Matter slogan, the United Nations launched a special commission to examine persistent racism in the US and elsewhere.
But many darker-skinned people themselves have already begun to speak out, posting videos to the internet describing the hurt and anguish caused by the racist words and taunts of their fellow countrymen and colleagues.
“When I tell them not to say it, they say it on purpose,” explains a darker-skinned Libyan in a video produced by the group Libya in the UK, referring to the term abeed, which means slave in Arabic. “Especially when you’re a kid, your mind doesn’t comprehend.”
The Palestinian stage actor Maryam Abu Khaled, who is of darker complexion, posted a video describing the humiliating daily racism black people encounter in the Arab world.
“I think it’s time for me to respond to people saying ‘Oh, Maryam, you’re comparing the racism in America to the racism that happens here in Arab countries. It’s not so bad. At least we don’t kill’,” she says. “‘And any word we say is completely spontaneous. It’s all well-intentioned.’
“But do you know that those good intentions completely broke that person emotionally, and shattered their self-esteem?” she continues.
“[There was] a women who would tell her daughter, ‘Go home, enough playing in the sun, so you don’t get burnt like Maryam.’ The man whose son asked him, ‘Dad why do these people look like that?’ And he simple answered, ‘Their parents forgot them in the oven, son.’”
We get discrimination because of our skin colour. It’s because there are not Afro-Turks all over Turkey, people who don’t realise we are here, they get surprised. They look at us and laugh
Beeta Baghoolizadeh was in the southern Iranian city of Bushehr several years ago when her driver made an odd comment. “We’re now entering Arkansas,” he told the researcher as they entered a predominantly Afro-Iranian district of the Persian Gulf city. “My neighbourhood is California.”
For Baghoolizadeh, a professor at Pennsylvania’s Bucknell University who is writing a book on race in Iran, the comment showed how African-rooted communities in the country are refracted through the lens of Hollywood stereotypes. It also showed ignorance and a lack of reckoning with Iran’s own traumatic experience with slavery.
Billions of people worldwide are familiar with the trauma of the United States coming to terms with the legacy of slavery, an institution destroyed by war in 1865. But few Iranians know that slavery was legal in their own country until 1929. Turkey didn’t formally end slavery until 1933. Libyan human traffickers have been accused of auctioning off vulnerable sub-Saharan African migrants as slaves in underground venues.
Slaves in the Middle East weren’t exclusively from Africa, and included lighter-skinned peoples and even Europeans. “There were Caucasians, Central Asians and, of course East Africans,” Baghoolizadeh says in an interview.
But over the decades, the stigma of slavery became associated almost exclusively with people of African descent.
Though there are still likely Iranians who were born slaves, the entire vestiges of the institution were erased. There are no memorials to the slave trade in the Middle East, or even much academic research into the institution. Slave quarters at palaces were demolished.
Iran’s leaders considered slavery an embarrassment. After slaves were emancipated they were handed identity cards like normal Iranians and told to move on with their lives. Records documenting slavery were lost. Even as they learn about American slavery in secondary school, they learn little of Iran’s experience.
“The erasure is very deep and runs on both ends,” says Baghoolizadeh. “It was so stigmatised that no one wants to be associated with it, and because no one wants to be associated with it no one talks about it on either end.”
In much of the Middle East, the stories of the Africans who were sold into slavery in east Africa and trafficked are absent from history books. Many lighter-skinned Iranians or Turks are shocked when they encounter a darker-skinned person with African features speaking flawless Persian or Turkish.
“They first say something in English or Arabic and then when you say something Turkish, they think we’re recent immigrants,” says Doguluev. “I say we are more Turkish than you are. We’ve been here for hundreds of years.”
When he was conscripted to serve in the armed forces in the 1970s, many of the other draftees were shocked to see him in their midst.
“They would come up to me and ask why am I black,” he recalls. “I would say it was really hot and I fell asleep in the sun. I would play along. I would use this as a way to defuse the situation, and then be like, are you this ignorant? And that would make them feel bad. And some would apologise. They never knew there were Afro-Turks.”
Iran’s African-rooted communities have a distinctive cuisine and a musical tradition which is celebrated internationally.
But along Turkey’s Aegean Sea coasts, the descendants of the African slave trade say they have lost much of their history. Using documents from Ottoman archives, Doguluev managed to discover he is the descendant of slaves who were brought in 1840 from what is now Sudan, but knows little else.
“Our culture is lost,” he says wistfully. “That’s why we came up with the association – to find out more about it. But we are too late. Most of the elders have passed away. There’s nothing left of our culture.”