On Afro-Arabs


Okay well, they aren’t really Afro-Arabs per se, but I wanted to jot some thoughts I have about all these African Muslim women who were raised in the Arab World and how that changes their perspectives on their own countries, on Islam and even on beauty.

It’s one thing to read about the way expats change things in their host countries upon return from Saudi, Kuwait or wherever, and it’s another thing to sort of see it in action.  I don’t know what to think, I guess I am still thinking out loud about it… you know remarking to friends and acquaintances here that “wow you know you look Eritrean, Somali, Sudanese, Mauritanian, Nigerian etc. on the outside, but you are sooooooooooooo A-rab!”

It’s not a compliment, it’s not a diss, but just an observation.  I think growing up in the Arab world, and in the Gulf in particular creates a connection and disconnect from the homeland that is different from the immigrant experience in the US or even Europe.  I don’ t know how I feel about this yet, if it even matters.  At any rate let’s look at how/why?

1. many of these girls were born in Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia etc and their parents lived/have lived in these countries for decades, but they NEVER had hope of gaining citizenship.  The end result is loads of people who are born and raised in a place but carry the passport of a country that they hopefully go to once a year, but a lot of times haven’t been there more than 5 times in their lifetimes.  How strange it is to have someone answer “I am from Eritrea” or Djibouti or Mauritania when you ask, but then they don’t know much more than you do about their country, or worse yet, talk about their African homelands as if they were the dirtiest, most corrupt place on earth.

At the same time though, I have found that most of the girls are not even trying to claim Arab identity at least not verbally even though they admit that their mindsets, musical tastes etc. have more to do with what’s hot in the Arab world than it does in the African one… granted some of them are from Arab-African countries.

2. Islam. Islam. Islam. Well, religious practice is more like it.  I find it interesting that some of the girls here hold beliefs that are more in-line with the local Arab population’s practice of Islam than it is with the realities on the ground at home.   More gender segregation, more hijab wearing— as a symbol of religious piety/following a religious edict, more abaya wearing— well not as much as the locals do, but I see more of that than people wearing whatever the national dress of their countries are … in general.  And of course there is Sufi bashing…lol….

It never ceases to amaze me when I see an African woman going crazy over a strand of hair/ piece of ankle/arm/leg showing or frowning/being scared to interact with men (I mean talk to a classmate kind of way) when I know and she knows people in her community don’t usually act like that..lol…

BUt seriously, this is probably someone’s dissertation topic or something, but the question that keeps coming up for me is why?  —– Why do you appropriate something that is foreign to your own culture, especially in the religious realm?

Is this the result of the primacy of (Gulf) Arab customs in the minds of these expats? Or is it simply that they believe that the way things are done here, are correct? (which leads back to the previous question). Or is this just a natural part of living in a new country, adapting to a new environment?

I haven’t had a any straight,well complete answers on this one, I just want to understand people better, but I think/guess I am asking questions that people don’t think about/haven’t thought about so it’s hard for people to formulate answers…. or maybe I already have an answer in mind and I trap them with my own reasoning so they can say what I already assume (totally possible unfortunately)

3. Language, well this happens in the states too, they can speak Arabic like water, but many of them can not string together a sentence in their parent’s mother tongue.  I think it’s sad when it happens in other places and I certainly think it’s sad here.  I wish I spoke my mother’s language, just because it’s such an important part of culture and such a beautiful way to keep future generations connected… but oh well, it’s hard to do in a foreign country, especially one where African languages don’t have the same sort of cache as Arabic would…

but still strange in the sense that I would think there would be more preservation of that part of the cultural tradition, because of the host country’s unwillingness to let people assimilate at least on the official level…

4. Food, goes in tandem with language, but it seems like a lot of the Afro-arabs don’t know a darn thing about foods from their homelands, but they can tell you where to get the best tabouli, shwarma, and random Khaleeji dishes etc.  This to me is a bit surprising considering that some of them come from countries that don’t really specialize in that sort of thing… but oh well.

5. Marriage— they still marry within their communities.  This is interesting to me at least… I don’t know what the stats on second-generation kids are in states whether they branch out or not when it comes to tying the knot… but I find it interesting that the women I have spoken to about it look at me like I’m crazy when I talk about them marrying a man not from their country… of course they say that they would prefer someone from their own culture (not a man straigght from Djibouti, Eritrea or Mauritania, mind you) but …. whatevs, I get the picture.

Interesting stuff…. to me at least.

On one hand I do feel a little disappointed. Sometimes, I look into a face that in the States would mean we had some common experiences/mindsets, approaches, but that face just doesn’t see that in me.  Many of times the woman will either be super conservative or one who likes to “Party all the time!…” (whatever that means in a university in a country that is ridiculous about gender segregation and making female students be back by 10pm).  It’s not like that with all of them, but it is for too many… I hope that I can look at more of them like my peeps and not these strange Arab women with black faces.

7 thoughts on “On Afro-Arabs

  1. KG

    How large are the African immigrant communities in Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia? I’m not sure I’d be surprised that these women have adopted the cultural practices and outlook of the host countries, especially if the immigrant communities are relatively small. I would imagine that there’s enormous societal pressure to conform to whatever the majority thinks is the norm. If most of my peers growing up were wigging out about wearing hijab and people around me as well as the media were telling me it’s not acceptable for women to talk to men, I think I might develop a complex about it too, despite whatever behavior predominates at home.

    Haven’t there been studies showing that children of immigrants tend to assimilate to the host country, picking up the culture of the children they’re going to school with? I know it’s true for accents–children of immigrants will have American accents and pick up speech mannerisms from children around them, even if their parents have really strong non-American accents.

    So, I guess I would be surprised if these women weren’t picking up Arab cultural tendencies–unless their immigrant communities were so large that they had little interaction with the majority Arab community, and they were only going to school with other immigrant children. My impression, at least from your posts (and correct me if I’m wrong) is that that’s not the case.

    • gazelledusahara

      hat is the funny thing… in the Smaller Arab countries foreigners outnumber the locals by a very large margin… it’s certainly the case here in Qatar,

      I am not too sure about Saudi or the Emirates, but their guest worker populations are pretty huge compared to the local populations as well. The difference is though that there isn’t a single demographic but rather several big ones- the Indonesian-Phillipino- Malaysian bunch

      the South Asian conglomerate and then the Arab-Africans (Sudan, Mauritania, Morroco (depending) and the Arabs from poor Arab countries (Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Morocco (depending). It’s not like Latinos in the US, but it’s still a sort of strange set-up or rather strange results from this set up.

      From what I understand, just like they do in the states, they tend to cluster together, they all tend to live in the same towns/city, and many of them say point blank that they don’t really associate with the Gulf Arab girls, of course many of them are from Arabic speaking countries (well of Arabic speaking decent) so of course there is going to be some meshing in that respect.

      Of courese they are going to learn Arabic, especially if that’s what is used as the language of instruction, but so many of them don’t know a lick of any other language, and that is strange to me considering the living situations. I mean you have a problem in the Gulf where Gulf Arab children are actually losing their ability to speak Arabic because many of them live in homes where the nannies/house workers are from Asia (seriously, one of our Arabic teachers is fluent in Hindi because that’s where her nanny is from) meanwhile this other group is falling over itself, losing its language—-

      I don’t know what the school situation is, but the way people talk here, kids aren’t falling over each other to interact with the local Arabs so I don’t get such an almost complete loss of language comprehension…. then again, this isn’t a scientific study.

  2. anafricaninsouthafrica

    That’s an interesting post. I can see why you would be disapointed to look straight into the face of someone who looks like you but has a completely different outlook in life.

    Regarding religion, I think the Wahabi trend in Saudi taints people and Msulims who go to Saudi tend to to feel that it’s the ‘purest’ form of Islam that exists. The obsession with hijab/abaya and others are more a uniform than a true act of worship or piety.
    Marriage – it is understandable that they stick to their own, after all the Arabs are more likely to reject them and at the end of the day, they will stay with whoever looks like them.
    Immigration – now this for me hit home. It’s interesting how you mentioned the way they think that back home [wherever it is is backward] b/c people tend to do that. I think the belief that immigration is a consequence of escape [economic, religious, political, cultural, etc] makes people think that well if it was that greta why would my family leave. It is also parents’ fault as they tend to shelter their children from what is home, from their experiences growing up, from the good [and focus on the not so good and the ugly].

    In my particular case, I see it even here as an adult in South Africa. As I’m preparing to leave, people are puzzled. They cannot understand why it is that I want to leave the ‘powerhouse’ of Africa and go back to my boundocks. For them, it’s like this: you have so many opportunities here and the money is good and blah blah, why are you not over the moon b/c we know how you all struggle back in west Africa. And when I give them a dignified picture of where I’m from. When I talk about everything I love and miss, they fail to comprehend it. What’s more shocking is that it’s mostly Blacks who don’t get it. Netx time I’ll just say: well, apartheid is over, yet you choose to live in the township, why? B/c it’s home. It might be a shack, it might be dirty and crowded and full of crime and deprived of lights and electricty but it’s ekhasi or mzanzi, it’s home. Similarly for me, I might come from a poor country but guess what, 8 million people live there and I migth say many of them find happiness.

    Even in terms of culture, Blacks here [whether South Africans or Southern Africans] have this complex of wanting to be Westerners in all aspects of life, b/c that’s what evolution, progress is….to the extent that they have not really developed their own clothing, food, etc. It’s basic and then they borrow from other cultures. There’s nothing wrong with that but if that means looking down upon Blacks who define themselves differently, then it’s an issue.

    Sorry for being long.

    • gazelledusahara

      you bring up an interesting point. I kind of think about the difference between how West African vs. Southern African culture has taken shape.

      As far as the A-Rabs here (as I affectionately term their in-be-tween African and Arab status) I am getting used to interacting with them. For one of the ones that I am closer to, I challege her perspectives of home (Africa) and I think she didn’t realize how negative she seemed. Every little bet helps, right?

  3. this was an interesting read. while reading this, i had a sort-of lightbulb moment. i’ve met Africans in Europe and most of these people tend to hold onto their culture in one form or another. thus even if they can’t speak their mother tongues, they at least know what jollof rice and moi moi tastes like.

    i may be making a very incorrect assumption but i can say that (most likely) in the case for Nigerian Muslims, they are willing to drop their cultures (which they view as lesser) preferring to adopt Arab cultures (which they feel with let them go to heaven). it’s a weird mix of religion and i guess cultural supremacy? i think this attitude is present among Nigerians of different faiths. for example in Nigeria, Muslims think that in heaven we will speak only Arabic and most people in heaven will be Arabs while Christians believe there is a quota as to the number of people that will go to heaven and out of this number a high percentage are going to be Israelis.

    i guess with this sort of mentality, people are going to be more willing to abandon their cultures for that which they view as superior. while i do find cultural genocide (i know that’s a big word for this!) disturbing, i can’t really say much as i’m not exactly a ‘true Nigeria’, as they say.

    • gazelledusahara

      lol… I guess we will all be surprised when we get to heaven…lol.

      yeah, the privileging of Arab identity and/or European identity is abounding among many Africans (and people of color in general), sad but what can you do? Until people recognize their own agency nothing will change.

      I was watching an Aljazeera presentation on the libraries in Timbuktu and how they hold precious manuscripts. Sadly some of them are dying out— getting burned and/or damaged without being preserved. Sadly enough, it’s American Universities like Harvard that support the book preservation projects and not any of the countries in the ARab world…. Islamic manuscripts!

      boils my oil… oh well.

      • haha you have no idea how many times i’ve imagined the heaven scenario. tbh, i’ve not encountered many Muslims of colour who adopt the Arab cultural supremacy thought. however i may be automatically more harsh on Africans as i happen to be one who is very proud of our African cultures. and you’re right, we do need to recognise our own agency.

        it makes my blood boil too. i just want to go on about how unfair it all is. Timbuktu! i am pretty sure that back in the day even Arabs went to Sankore University to study. oh well, it is at times like these that we thank those unlikely saviours. i’ll check out the Al Jazzera presentation though i have seen a similar documentary on Youtube. it’s really sad.

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