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Middle east

Iraq’s blacks dream of their own Obama

Video by Jessica LE MASURIER

Text by Alaa AL-HATHLOUL

Latest update : 2009-01-29

Iraq’s black community hopes that Jan. 31's provincial elections will provide an opportunity for the descendants of African slaves to field their own political candidates and reverse centuries of discrimination.

The January 31 provincial elections in Iraq mark a change for the country’s black community, which represents five to six percent of the total population. These descendants of African slaves, who have been in Iraq – primarily around the southern Iraqi city of Basra - for about 1,000 years, have historically been treated as second-class citizens in a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional society.

“The black man is not a full citizen,” explains Jalal Dhiab, secretary general of the Movement of Free Iraqis, the only association of black people in the country. Founded in July 2007, the group seeks to combat racism and discrimination against Iraq’s black community.

For the first time, eight candidates of the Movement of Free Iraqis are running against 1,503 other candidates in the Basra province. Their objective is to win one or more of the 35 seats up for grabs. It will be an uphill battle. But “the sheer fact of being able to participate is already a success for us; we could finally break the wall of the segregation”, says Dhiab.  

Banning the ‘slaves’ label

Dhiab would especially like to the word “âbd” (slave) declared a discriminatory term. Iraqi law so far has been blind to this semantic discourse. “Iraqi society has always regarded the black man as a slave, and the government has made no effort to help us,” says Dhiab. “There have been white slaves in Iraq’s history but, curiously, the term “slave” is only associated with the black community,” he says.

The use of the word “âbd” is common in Iraq and most Arab countries and is often employed or implied in a pejorative - even abusive - sense.

“If this community has never been attacked or threatened, it does not mean that they have not suffered society’s scorn,” says Iraqi historian Raâd Jawad. Mixed marriages are virtually non-existent, and not a single black Iraqi is known on the Iraqi political scene.

Most of the one-and-a-half to two million Black Iraqis live under difficult conditions. Some of them are like slaves, controlled by the tribe they have served for generations and whose tribal name they go by, despite the fact that slavery was banned by King Faisal of Iraq in 1924.

The first African slaves arrived in Iraq around 860 AD. They were taken from the island of Zanzibar on Africa’s eastern coast in order to join the ranks of Abbasid caliph Jaâfar Al-Mutawakkil’s army.

They were allowed to enroll in public schools only in the 1960s. “We have a long way to go before one of our young people becomes a leader in the country.”

An Iraqi Obama? ‘Perhaps one day’

The election of Barack Obama in the United States has spurred this community to push for dignity and respect. “The arrival of a black candidate at the White House is a victory for all humanity, it encourages us to continue our fight,” says Dhiab, who would like to meet Obama during a likely US presidential visit to Iraq.

Obama’s success was hailed by Iraq’s black community, especially in the Basra province, where the community represents 15 to 20% of the population. “We celebrated his victory as if he were one of us,” says Basra resident Mohammad Jassem.

On Jan. 20, blacks in Iraq marked Obama’s inauguration by distributing sweets in the streets…as they wait for their own “Iraqi Obama”.


Date created : 2009-01-29