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Race in the Maghrib and the Arabian Peninsula – Comparisons, Connections, Contestations

Panel V-15, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
This panel contends that critical attention to histories of race formation and present-day iterations of race can shed greater light on empire, statecraft, and inequality in the Maghrib and the Arabian Peninsula. This panel unfolds from the premise that race is a constructed, and thus, unstable analytical category – to paraphrase theorist Stuart Hall, it is a fictive concept with material consequences. How have conceptions of race in the Arabian Peninsula and Maghrib converged with other categories of difference-making, such as gender, sexuality, dress, religion, lineage, ethnicity, age, ability, and class? How have transregional connections in the Maghrib and Arabian Peninsula produced, reproduced, and/or transformed racial ideologies? This panel has two principle themes of inquiry and spans the sixteenth to twenty-first centuries. The first focuses on how the category of race has indexed political economies of early-modern and colonial empires as well as contemporary nation-states. One paper analyzes how sugar production under the sixteenth-century Sa’dian dynasty shaped the methods and networks of the broader Northwest African and Atlantic worlds. The second contends that the 20th-century political economy of bondage crystallized bonds between the African continent and the Arabian Peninsula under French empire. In the present, a third paper examines how UAE residents perceive belonging and rights through the lens of race. And a fourth investigates how ideologies of “racial purity” in present-day Yemen have been exacerbated by war, determining access to labor, education, and social integration. The second theme complements the first: here papers focus on how popular ideas about race have transformed at the ideological crossroads of the local, national, and transregional. One paper argues that race as a social marker of genealogy in 18th-century Ottoman Tunis shifted toward the phenotypical by the early 19th century through informal European imperial intervention. The other traces how cinematic performances of the “Western Other” in 1940s Egyptian films shifted in the Nasser era to reflect nationalist homogeneity via race, class, and masculinity. This panel’s broad regional and historical span promises to uncover how race formation has been central to the political economies and exclusionary practices of empires and nation-states from the sixteenth century to the present. Ultimately, by focusing on regions that are often relegated to the discursive frontiers of “the Middle East,” this panel contends that critical examination of race formation in the Arabian Peninsula and Maghrib can generatively challenge the geographic, political, and cultural bounds of the field.
Media Arts
Political Science
  • Centered in the Ottoman province of Tunis, Sites of Servitude compares two groups of enslaved people and their descendants: individuals with presumed social origins in the Mediterranean island of Tabarqua (Ṭabarqīn), and individuals with presumed social origins in West and Central West Africa (ʿAbīd). This project unfolds from the premise that maritime exchanges of Mediterranean captives served as significant engines of wealth for rulers and notables of both Christian and Muslim kingdoms through the mid-18th century. Tunis also operated as a major terminus for the Trans-Saharan trade in West and Central West African captives, a trade that escalated over the late-18th and 19th centuries while Mediterranean corsairing receded. Notably, by the early 19th century, individuals once marginalized and enslaved as stateless Mediterranean “Ṭabarqīn” were able to ascend into higher social strata of Tunisian society, particularly the royal household and bureaucracy, compared to individuals of presumed sub-Saharan African descent. Sites of Servitude asks: why did this dramatic change in fortunes take place for the Ṭabarqīn, and not for the ʿAbīd? What can a social, cultural, and environmental history of enslaved people and their descendants tell us about broader shifts to notions of enslaveability in Tunis, and beyond? I contend that such a phenomenon was possible because of two intersecting transformations: exclusive legal protections afforded to “Ṭabarqīn” by the early 19th century, and the emergence of anti-Black racist ideologies crystallizing transimperially in Ottoman Tunis, Europe, and lands across the globe increasingly exploited by European empires by the early 19th century. To support this claim, I have gathered diplomatic, literary, fiscal, environmental, and administrative sources scattered across public and private (religious) archives in Tunisia, France, Italy, and England. Employing close-readings to examine markers of “difference” in human categorization, this project amplifies the archival presence and rich complexity of subaltern actors, even within dehumanizing documents. Sites of Servitude ultimately charts new ways of thinking about comparative slavery, informal imperialism, and transformations to ideologies of difference and belonging.
  • In the early 20th century, members of the Greek and Italian communities of Egypt in general, and multicultural Alexandria in particular, were designated by the locals as khawaga (pl: khawagat), which later became a synonym of “Western.” Along with the effendis, Upper Egyptians, and others, khawagas were frequently among the staple characters appearing in Egyptian theatre and films, both as members of the local/national community and the non-Egyptian “Other.” The main tropes of their representations evolved in the 1940s and 1950s, then under the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956–1970), when the national film industry became an instrument of nationalist propaganda, and the multicultural nature of Alexandrian society gradually came to an end. Khawaga roles were often played by mutamassireen, foreigners who had settled in Egypt, adopted the culture, and were accepted as locals, but sometimes also by native actors. Constructing the image of the khawaga involved a uniquely Egyptian notion of “white-facing”, a complex set of representations concerning race, class, masculinity, language, and appearance. Such representations were mainly rooted in local understandings of class, race, and ethnicity and were affected by colonial experiences and the transnational flow of silver screen images. Through the performances of three renowned actors, the Italian-Hungarian mutamassir Estefan Rosti (1891–1964), Lebanese-Egyptian Edmond Tueyma (1897–1975), and native Egyptian Fouad Ratib (1930–1986), this paper explores the representations of the khawaga in the golden age of Egyptian cinema and its subsequent development in the Nasser era.
  • In recent years the United Arab Emirates has introduced longer-term visas, and even pathways to citizenship, typically targeting highly skilled individuals or high-net-worth individuals. These changes are likely to have material and symbolic consequences for the Emirati nation, which is racialized as Arab. Drawing from Dahinden’s ‘migrant-citizen nexus’ concept and interviews with young Emirati citizens and non-citizens from Dubai, this paper explores the relationship between class, migration, race, and legal status, and the ways in which their interactions complicate the citizen/migrant binary in the context of the UAE. By attending to racialized understandings and vocabularies of difference, this paper provides insights into the ways in which young people think about nation-ness, who should have the right to citizenship, who is deserving and under what conditions. Overall objective of the paper is to reflect on the contingent relationship between race and nation- particularly as the racial contract in the UAE is being reconfigured towards a neoliberal political economy of belonging.
  • In 1954, a black French citizen named Awad el-Djoud returned to his native French Soudan (Mali), and told of his enslavement, which had taken him from West Africa to Mecca. Slavery had been officially outlawed in French West Africa in 1905, however the French colonial administration had considered Awad a “[customary] dependent,” or servant (serviteur) of a white Tuareg notable undertaking Hajj. Awad's case, and others from across the French-ruled Sahara, are directly linked to the pilgrimage. This paper, then, relies on such cases to make larger arguments about the study of the Hajj, the trans-Saharan slave trade, and connections between peripheries of North African History (the Sahara) and the Middle East History (the Arabian Peninsula) in the 20th century. While histories of the Hajj under imperialism have proliferated in Middle East history and Islamic studies over the past few years, they pay little heed to histories of slavery and the slave-trade in Mecca, directly tied to the pilgrimage. Similarly, work that takes note of slavery in the Arabian Peninsula has focused on trafficking routes in the western Indian Ocean, rather than the trans-Saharan routes. Unlike their British counterparts, French consular archives from Jeddah are virtually silent on both the trafficking of French colonial nationals to the Arabian Peninsula from West and Equatorial Africa, as well as regarding the few referenced French consular manumissions. While what may have existed was administratively destroyed at France's diplomatic expulsion from Saudi Arabia at the start of the Suez War of 1956 (lasting through the end of the Algerian Revolution in 1962), traces remain of trafficking and enslavement across the colonial administration's correspondences in French West Africa, in mediatized cases such as Awad's, as well as travelogues, correspondences, and memoirs in Arabic of the same people and groups trafficking Black Africans for enslavement under the guise of Hajj . Read together, this paper argues that these disparate sources demonstrate that the absent presence (McKittrick, 2006) of bondage was as foundational as the bonds of Islam and Arab-ness to the links between North and West Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula.