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African Iraqis, or what is known nowadays as Afro-Iraqis, suffer from longstanding and persistent marginalization in Iraq that constantly refused to acknowledge the existence of racial discrimination against them. Although the age of slavery ended a long time ago, the word “slave” is still used to call individuals of this group who prefer to be called “brown” or even “black” over being called a slave.
What happened occurred in a complete absence of any action, not just empty words, to stop or change this discrimination culture, especially since many of them are unwilling to speak publicly about the racism and discrimination they are subjected to.
The origins of the Africans of Iraq go back to the tribes descended from the eastern countries of the African continent, such as Nubia, Zanzibar, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya and Tanzania.
Some of them came to Iraq back with the beginning of the Islamic conquest in the seventh century, when general Utbah bin Ghazwan brought the first wave to Basra. The presence of the majority of African Iraqis dates back to the Abbasid era when some African immigrants came to the region. They were either sailors, labourers or farmers, in addition to slaves and soldiers.
Most of the African Iraqis live in the southern regions of the country, especially in the Batha region in Basra, Maysan and Dhi Qar. There are few concentrations of them in Baghdad and Wasit. Their numbers range between 500,000 and 1 million, while some unofficial statistics indicate they are about 2 million. Most African Iraqis embrace the Shiite sect and speak Arabic with a southern Iraqi dialect after the extinction of the Swahili accent that used to accompany their dialect over time.
A Harsh Life
Most African Iraqis suffer from poor living conditions, with a complete absence of social justice. The vast majority lives in slums, while the rest live in illegal housing or local areas with poor public services.
The African Iraqis laboured since their arrival at the hands of Arab slave traders to Basra, which gained immense importance in this trade since it had the most important seaport at that time. Their work was harsh and continuously associated with bad conditions, such as draining the marshes and removing the salt layer from the soil to make it suitable for agriculture. Some were used in conflicts between clans, while some were used in palm and sugar cane farms.
That has affected the type of work practised by African Iraqis today, as most do service work. Some work as policemen, soldiers, cleaners, drivers or guards. And some had to work on the farms or serve in sheikhs’ diwans and capitalists like their predecessors.
However, that did not prevent a small group of African Iraqis from working in urban planning, judiciary, and arts. However, no Iraqi of African origins has ever held a senior position in the Iraqi government, nor have representatives in provincial councils or the Iraqi Parliament. According to a document leaked by WikiLeaks, Ramon Negron – director of the U.S. regional embassy in Basra – said that they would have easily won at least one seat if it hadn’t been for the discrimination they suffer under the ruling political regime.
Marriages between African Iraqis and other Iraqis are rare, and if they do occur, they will result in births called “Muwallad.” The look of contempt towards these is not less severe than that directed to their predecessors, which prompted many Iraqis to refrain from involving in this type of relationship with the African Iraqis.
As for education, no more than 25 per cent of African Iraqis are educated due to the harsh Iraqi laws against them. Despite the criminalization of slavery in Iraq in 1924, during the era of King Faisal I, that look full of contempt and slavery towards them did not change. Their children were not able to enrol in public schools until 1960.
The African Iraqis added a lot to the artistic stock of southern Iraq with their dances and music. Despite all the devastation they experienced, many of them have preserved their folk musical heritage in its original terms, such as the songs of Pep, Liwa, Gunbasa, and Nuban. These folk songs differ from each other depending on the used musical instruments.
African Iraqis are also distinguished by weekly rituals or occasions in which they practice in buildings called “Makyad.” The Makyads are temples, but they differ from the well-known Islamic mosques because they mix music with religious rituals, and they involve practices that are fundamentally different from the composition of Islamic society. Anika, Abu Nazim, and Saeed Mansour are among the most famous Makyads in Basra.
Part of the African Iraqis integrated into the southern society, where they acquired the customs and traditions of south Iraq, to the point where their original culture has completely dissipated. Those who worked for the sheikhs and capitalists were imprinted with the characteristics of those they worked for, adopted their beliefs, and carried the lineage of the clans that owned their ancestors.
The oldest political movement of African Iraqis dates back to the period between the seventh and ninth centuries due to the deteriorating social and economic conditions at that time. In that era, African Iraqis staged three uprisings. The first was in 67 AH, during the rule of Musab bin al-Zubayr to Mesopotamia. The second occurred in 75 AH during the reign of Al-Hajjaj bin Yusuf al-Thaqafi.
The third uprising is considered the most serious, as it lasted for more than 14 years. It took place in the city of Basra between 255 AH and 270 AH under the leadership of Ali bin Muhammad. This uprising broke out because of hunger and deprivation, and led to the establishment of political autonomy and the siege and destruction of the city of Basra, hence the famous Iraqi proverb “After the destruction of Basra.” This uprising was ended completely when the Abbasid state decided to crush it and disperse the African Iraqis into different clans and regions.
Since then, African Iraqis have not revolted in Iraq or elsewhere, especially during the reign of Saddam Hussein, who tightened his grip on the country. After the fall of the former Iraqi regime in 2003, the Afro-Iraqi community was led by Jalal Dhiab, who was called the Martin Luther King of Basra. Dhiab founded the Human Freedom Supporters Association. The association began by giving workshops to teach new professions such as sewing, computer science, hairdressing and make-up. It also established a financial fund to marry off young African Iraqis and to help their poor. The association established a school to end illiteracy among black people. The association established a school to end illiteracy among black people.
Dhiab’s political vision crystallized between 2005 and 2007 when he founded the Free Iraqi Movement, a movement similar to the American Civil Rights Movement to achieve justice and equality and end racial discrimination. But the dream that Jalal Dhiab awakened was silenced with bullets in 2013 when he was assassinated in Basra. His movement posed a threat to the political parties trying to impose a different culture in the country and treating the Free Iraqi Movement as the reason for losing their positions. With his death, the Afro-Iraqi dream of realizing their aspirations have vanquished without a trace.
Today, African Iraqis demand representation in Parliament and aspire to reach significant positions in the government like any other Iraqi group. The African Iraqis reiterate the demands of Jalal Dhiab, who sought their inclusion in the quota system (relative quotas for minorities) like other minorities, whether in the national Parliament or local governments.
Today, this period is witnessing a turbulent political and social situation, as Iraq has gone through new parliamentary elections, full of dangers and good old false promises. The government held these elections despite being boycotted by many popular groups. On the other hand, youth movements seek to change Iraq and eliminate corruption and corrupt individuals by destroying the current political structure to build a new Iraq where all groups and sects are equally treated. Some parties are trying to silence the African Iraqis, just as they killed their only voice before, and buy their votes for purely personal ends, which are not at all in their interest. Meanwhile, educated African Iraqi youth spread awareness among the people not to be drawn into false promises of some parties, reminding them of the long history of betrayal.
- Al Samer, F., Zanj Revolution, Al-Mada Foundation, Baghdad, 2000. (Arabic version).
- Black Iraqis. (English version)
- Sasacom, I am an Iraqi Citizen, not a Slave. The Agony of Black people in Iraq. (Arabic version).
- Al-monitor.com, Black Iraqis face Discrimination and Racism. (Arabic version).
- com, Iraq: Jalal Dhiab, the Mne Who Fought Racism. (Arabic version).
- Salloum, S., Arab Reform Initiative, In the Footsteps of Martin Luther King: Will We Witness a Revolution Against Racial Discrimination in the Middle East? July 2020. (English version).