On Apprehentions about Race(ism) in the Arab world… (and by Arabs in America)


One of the reasons why Egypt did not find a way onto my “been-there, done that list,” is because of my apprehensions about being black in a brown world.

That is, I knew that color  is important and that darker skinned peoples did not always fare too well, and did not know if I could handle being in a place like that so soon after being in Morocco.

Now, it’s not that these fears have evaporated at all.  But Alhamdulilah I am a little older and have had other brushes with being black in a brown world so I can handle it… or can I?

Race relations, or colorism or whatever the heck you want to call it, in the Arab world is a beast all its own.  I am trying to flush this out more and more before I get there…again.

It certainly felt like “White makes right” In Qatar, but that of course was with certain caveats.  Nationality outranked everything. In class, I certainly felt like my white, American counterpart was seen as the strongest, the most interesting, the smartest… even more so than European students in my class.  In fact, some of them even joked about how instructor(s) doted on this individual while they could care less about anyone else.

I of course blogged about how people treated me one way when they thought I was a black African (which technically I am) and completely different way when they found out I am American.  By the end of my stay there, I began to reflect on certain things, and feel  that some of my instructors at least, had an estimation of me as a student that did not match up to the grades I received from the very courses they taught!  Yes, there were student who felt the same way, but them I just ignored.  I won’t go into longer explanations of what

The two incidents that stood out to me were: One instructor in particular, although he tried hard, could not hide his shock at finding out   that I would continue Arabic at the graduate level upon my return to the U.S.  2. the program itself misprinted my final grade on my certificate (an entire letter grade).  On one hand I chocked it up to one of the many randoms that happened in Qatar.  On the other hand, for something as important as this, one would think that they would have taken the time to put the correct information on there.  And then the thought came to me, this program is not that big, everyone pretty much knows each other.  How could this kind of mistake happen?  Was there something working in the subconscious of the instructors that be?

Is this the reason behind my conundrum?

Fast forward to my fall semester here in the U.S. and I am met with a heaping helping of frustration and incompetence.  Not one, but two instructors blatantly insulting my intelligence weekly if not daily.  Instructor A: Egyptian.  He was disorganized and his lessons inherently incoherent.

I could go on and on about the hell that was his class…lol… but the most important thing for the purpose of this post is that He always, always put me down.  The literature that I enjoyed reading was “nonsense”  (he literally told me this).  If I produced a particularly well written piece of work,  I was praised for it, followed by the question “Did you write that yourself, I mean without help from anyone else?”   Honestly, I did not get it.  paperwise, and based upon my performance in the summer, I was/am one of the strongest students in the program… so why was this guy insulting me? There was slew of other problems with this instructor.  He certainly did insult almost everyone in my class…(although not the same intelligence focused, comments that he threw at me).  So I don’t know what was really up with him.  Could have been color, could have been his crappy personality.

Instructor B was even worse.  Instructor A was so horrible (as were/are many other facets of my program) that I almost did not detect his treachery before it was too late.  Instructor B always gave me blank stares when I spoke, you know those  “why tf did you just open your mouth?” type stares.  He never understood me when I spoke… like Ever.  It practically became the job of the native Arab in my class to explain to him what I was saying.  I was perpetually perplexed because my accent while noticable, is not thaaaaat bad.  I would go on to venture that I speak far more clearly than many of the other people in my class that other people, native and non-native alike have remarked at their difficulty in understanding them (people, might I add, whom this instructor never seemed to have problems understanding and who sat further away from him).  But what really irked me, is that the other native speaker understood me just fine.  So what was his problem?

To add insult to injury, when it was my turn to lead class discussions, he actually gave me the questions that I should ask, something that he NEVER did for any other student in my class.  He actually even read each question to me and explained what he wanted to ask… I can read Arabic just fine.  In short, the instructor treated me like I’m slow to the take.   Again, I was perpetually perplexed.

But, I didn’t mind too much because my grades on all of his exams were “excellent” (literally his words, not mine) as a matter of fact, I scored an A- on an exam where the native speaker in our program scored a B., one of the highest in our cohort.   My final paper, he could find no fault with substance wise (to start off with it was on a topic that he has woefully no knowledge of) and it was clear that it was thoroughly researched, well thought out.  I won’t lie, that assignment was probably my favorite one the whole semester, and so I relished reading the sources (English and Arabic ones) that brought my paper to life.  Contrast that with many of my classmates who literally put something on paper the week before. … I am not saying that they are not intelligent, capable individuals, but I put months into my work and it showed.

After quickly praising my work, he slammed it because I did not separate it into sections (something not stipulated before) and because I did not use the word “I”!

My final grade for the course, a  B+ was a kick in the face.  He had no real reason to back himself up. Thankfully I never throw anything away, and prefer correspondence in writing… so I was ready to challenge this nonsense.  I was in the right, and  had all the hw, tests, quizzes and emails to prove it.

The issue was resolved in a compromise of sorts.  But what I leaves me a little bitter about this experience is the question, “why? ”

Why was I being denied the grade that I had earned?  What was it about me that made this man, who did not know me from Adam, evaluate me so low?  At least one conclusion, reached by those other than myself, Arab and non-Arab alike, is that for this man “White makes right.”  It would not be a stretch to believe that he could not look past my skin color and acknowledge my intelligence.

But, I don’t go too far down that road, because I have to ask myself, How much of this is my perception?  How much of this has to do with race(ism)/color(ism) Being at work, I will never know.  But what I can not, unfortunately ignore, is that it is there at all.

I know all too well that it exists in the Arab world.  I have friends and acquaintances that have intimated as much and or blatantly said what I would call racist things.  As well as  people who have been disowned for going “black.”   I have Arab friends and acquaintances who have objected to people calling them racist terms usually reserved fro black people.  Not because they are inherently wrong, but because they aren’t ethnically black.  Yes.  I know all to well that racism exists in Arab societies whether it be Arab country X  or random Arab instructor living in the USA.

And that is what I am thinking about as I go to Egypt. Qatar certificate aside,  before this program, the thought never occurred to me that I could be graded down because of race… unfortunately, that could be the case….sigh.

Some of the Arabs I know certainly seem to think so… Whatever the reason may be, I’m ready to document every interaction and file every piece cw, hw and exams… sigh.


Anti Sudanniya?


The title of this post means are you Sudanese?  And it’s a question I tend to get from Arabs once they know I can speak Arabic…

The most recent incident of this was just today, My mom has been on my case to get her a Kibbe recipe, which I like a good daughter I got from one of my professors at school.  She then ignored the kibbe experiment after buying all the other ingredients except for the pine nuts, which she wasn’t really sure what they were. (despite having eaten kibbe tons of times).

At any rate, it looks like the kibbe will be prepared before 2011 or shortly thereafter, because after trying to buy some from the international grocery two weeks ago and them sending us on a wild goose chase, we stopped at the the local Middle Eastern grocery store.  The guy inside was helpful, even though at first, he was a bit confused about what I wanted since Arabs call pine nuts something else (snobar).

At any rate, while ringing up my snobar I asked the cashier if he was Lebanese, as I had heard him speaking on his cell phone in a the Levantine dialect and I erroneously assumed him to Lebanese.  He answered, no I’m Palestinian.  I don’t remember the rest of the details, but in the end he was a bit confused because he thought I was an international student.  ha ha!  I kept saying I’m an Arabic student and he thought I was saying I was an Arab who happened to be a student… lol…

“You speak Arabic, right?”  — my response “I’m an Arabic student”

He asked me if I was Sudanese and I was like, um no my family is from Sierra Leone…

I guess it was to be expected when a black chick walks into the store asking for the white seeds that go in Kibbe and speaks Arabic, but was not being clear.  I realize now I could have something like “I’m a student in the Arabic department” or “I study Arabic rather” than I am a student of Arabic….

it was a funny encounter, because it took me back to Morocco where I ended up just telling people I was Sudanese because they wouldn’t believe or just couldn’t get over that my real nationality was Sierra Leonean or American.  I could be Senegalese up until I opened my mouth and nothing sounding close to Francaise came out…. It’s just interesting I guess.

on the one hand, I guess my accent isn’t that bad, or else it would be awkwardly and painfully apparent that I am American.  Come to think of it, we had a guest speaker, a poet from Palestine a few months ago.  I happened to be in scarf/not trying to tame my poofy hair phase so I guess I looked a hijabi (confused the heck out of my new language partner who saw me for the second time the next week without a scarf and didn’t recognize me at all, but I digress).  At any rate, I asked some question or other during Q&A period.  While he didn’t say so to me, he asked the student coordinator if I was Arab!

I don’t take it as a negative thing at all, it’s just oober surprising when it happens, like uh, for real?  You think this fruit is that connect to the vine?… hotness.

So yeah, I’ve got no problem being Sudaniyya.  It sure beats people saying to me “oh your studying Arabic?” immediately after I say something in Arabic. The next time someone asks I might just say

اه انا سودانية مئة في مئة

(Yes, I’m 100% Sudanese)

Being B(l)ack in Spain: Morena vs. Negra


Of course being in Spain puts race on the top of my reflections list. My Catalan teacher, despite our rough introductory sessions, is pretty cool. (well we don’t talk about Africa anymore…lol… and she’s an Obama supporter… whatever that means).

We were talking about the difference between people’s experiences in Catalonia vs. other parts of Spain. Of course she was proud that her region was more progressive than others, and I would have to agree with that.

Specifically, I told her about how living in Cordoba was difficult because there were so few black people in the town. Every where I went it was “negrita” this and “negrita that” and that was when people were being polite.

My experience in Catalonia hasn’t been perfect, but talking to my teacher about what I’m called made me realize that I’m referred to as morena here. I prefer this term because frankly “negrita” is to close to the N-word (cultural relativity aside… Don’t call me a NEGRITA!).

Case in point:
Walking through Placa Catalunya (more or less the heart of the center of the city). I heard someone yell out to me “hey morena que guapa estas” or something like that (hey black girl, you are so pretty!) Well, let me make it clear, I wasn’t smelling myself that day. One of his friends said, “that one over there?” and he replied “No, una morena- morena!” (no, not a brunette, a black girl!). I thought it was funny.

Today I went to buy a cell phone and all the clerks sat behind little stands scattered around the store. Customers just need to wait and then walk up to whichever one is open. When I came in there were two people standing at the door (a man and a woman talking on a cell phone) and two sitting down waiting for a friend. I came in and was a bit confused by the store set-up so I stood and watched to see what everyone else did. Two other people came in and just walked up to the empty stands and conducted there business. When one was done, I walked up and the woman begins yelling “hey we (i.e. the man that was at the door) have been waiting way before she came in!”

I am not about to cause an international affair because of some random rude woman. So I said, ok whatever, I will wait. The guy at the door took my place. But esa  mujer did not stop there. She said something about me to the person she was talking on the phone with, I didn’t hear it all, but I did hear “una morena” (a black girl) and, “no they can’t just do what they want.” (something to that effect) WTF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I was so mad after hearing that! But then she went up to her kiosk. Then again, what would I have said/done anyway? On one hand I know what I heard, I may speak Spanish with a stutter, but I hear it just fine. On the other hand, one must be absolutely sure. Raising a raucous in a room full of white folk in a country that is not my own, in a language that is not my first, is probably not the best thing to do either.

Actually I am even madder now, because its only as I write this that I realize that two WHITE people/Spaniards (whatever the heck they were) had come in after I did and jumped in line (hence the confusion) y esa mujer did not say anything. It’s only now that I am fully convinced that her actions ring of something that starts with an R and ends with an –acism.

Now, I am mad at myself, because if I had realized it earlier, I would have made that point. But the time is passed.  I hate events like these because they for me they are the ones that cut deep. I was minding my business, just trying to grab a phone before catching a train ride home.
They were just words, but I hate myself for having such a delayed reaction/reflection time. I don’t remember her face in fact I could meet her tomorrow and not realize it. But I will always remember what happened today. That is what for me is the saddest part of it.

No, I’m not going to walk around ready to hit the next Catalan I see, but its events like these that give me pause and remind me that of what some people still think being black/of color signifies. It aslo makes me swear off living abroad.

Event like these, even if they only happened once a year, are much more than I care to encounter. No the U.S. is not the holy Grail when it comes to race relations, but it’s a dynamic that I have grown up in and like it or not, am a part of.

Dealing with events like these would make me one of two things: 1. Crazy/clinically depressed 2. Angry + volatile= dangerous. Life is too full of other things to add racist b&^%7@!, no matter how petty, to it.

On Being b(l)ack in Spain


March 18, 2008

Alright so its been a few days since I arrived and there is so much to write about. First of all, I don’t have internet access in my apartment and have to wait till I get to school to type.

The keyboard funnily enough isn’t even Spanish, it’s German (as is the version of windows… es un fastidio verdad). So, I type my blog entry on the computer at home, save it to a usb, and copy paste when I get to school. It’s weird. Blogging is a form of release for me and it feels incomplete to just write and save rather than upload….oh well, hopefully, this will at least mean fewer typos (yes, I realize that I have tons of them… oh well… you get what I’m trying to say anyway).

I am taking Catalan classes and right now I’m wondering if it wasn’t un decision fatal. Catalan is a cross between Spanish (more correctly known as Castellano, the native language of the Castillian region of Spain) and French. I’ve never tried to learn another language tan aparecida a una lengua que ya hablo… oh wait, did I just type that in Spanish? …lol.

I’ve never tried to learn another language so similar to one I already know. Even with Arabic, the only dialect I’m familiar with is the Moroccan one, and those who know about it know that it is an entity in and of itself.

Furthermore, my teacher is overdosing on excitement.  Apparently no one comes to learn Catalan so she’s super excited that I am actually interested in her language and culture (I love Catalunya…..  no matter what happens…. I love Catalunya— remember that).

She gives so much homework, you know the busy repetitive type that you get when you first start out:

Em dic Gazelle, y tinc 23 anys. Jo Sóc estudiant… (my name is Gazella, and I am 23 years old I am a student) blah blah blah.

I guess we just have different goals. There is no way I am going to master the language in one month and counting. I just want a firmer foundation in the grammatical basics and vocab then I can read and hear the language better. Bump the speaking… Castellano gets in the way…lol.
I never realized how much I slur my words and lisp others until this class. It seems I can’t pronounce anything right, even the words that are the same in Spanish… oh well…. Blame it on my professors…lol.

Then there is the differences in perspectives on identity . The first day I had to say where I was from (Les Estats Unis of course) but since I was born in Sierra Leone she made me say “I live in the U.S. but I am from Africa.” And then today, I had to fill out a mock government form and had to put down “African” as my nationality.

Of course, this situation boils my oil for a lot of reasons . First of all, Why would I call myself African and not Sierra Leonean? It’s been said a million times, Africa is a  continent. I tried to point this out to her, and it took her a good minute to get what I was trying to get as calmly as possible:

Me: You said that your nationality is Spanish. So why should I put down African in the nationality section when you do not put down European?

Her: uh…. (and then something about double nationality or place of birth technicalities)


Secondly, the whole identity thing throws me for loop in Europe (well, Spain) every time. I have lived in the U.S. for 21 of my 23 years. The only culture that I really know is the American one. So yes, while I am Sierra Leonean I am more American than anything else. Saying “ I live in the U.S.” implies a temporality in that situation that is not my reality. I do more than live in the U.S. my life is in the U.S!!!! situations like these make me so grateful to be AMERICAN and to have the right to say that in the U.S. and no one bats an eyelid. I know the good ole US of A has its problems, but no place is perfect. I still think that in many instances though its immigration and identity philosophies offer many lessons for even the most progressive of European immigration hot spots (like Catalonia).

At any rate Pero, no es lo mismo por los Espanoles (it’s not the same for Spaniards). You are where you were born. Period.

I remember having this conversation with my grammar professor back when I was in Cordoba. She just didn’t get what all the hypen-American identity stuff was all about.

Oh well.  In the end, it’s just something I have to get readjusted to.  No one should have the right to tell me what I am or am not but me— but that’s not always the reality on the ground.