The A-Word

Ahmed Twaij explores an often-overlooked issue in the Arab world; racism towards Black Arabs. In this episode, he looks at racism in his own community, taking us from his Iraqi roots, through to modern day slurs still commonly used in many Arab communities around the world.

This episode was produced by Ahmed Twaij, with editorial support from Dana Ballout, Nadeen Shaker, Zeina Dowidar and Alex Atack. Fact checking by Shraddha Joshi, sound design by Alex Atack, and mixing by Mohamad Khreizat. Music in this episode was by Ahmed Moneka and Blue Dot Sessions. Special thanks to Noon Salih and Sara Elhassan. Our marketing director is Bella Ibrahim, and Kerning Cultures is a Kerning Cultures Network production.

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HEBAH: Our story today comes from contributor Ahmed Twaij, who will be exploring an often-overlooked issue in the Arab world; racism towards Black Arabs and the Black community. Ahmed’s personal exploration of the racism in his own community will take us from his roots in Iraq, through to modern day slurs still commonly used in many Arab communities around the world. Here’s Ahmed.

AHMED: In today’s episode I decided to undertake some sort of self-reflection and research a topic many of us assume Arabs are not culpable of – but unfortunately, we are. It’s a topic that has come to the forefront given the Black Lives Matter movement and its global impact on addressing racism. It’s been an issue in the background for decades, but on May 25th, 2020…

[Archive tape]

AHMED: George Floyd’s murder once again brought the issue of racism to the forefront of our discussions.

[Archive tape]

AHMED: As Arabs, we often see this as being white America’s problem. But this is not just a western issue but affects communities worldwide.

[Archive tape]

MONEKA: Test 123, 123.

AHMED: This is Ahmed Moneka, a Black Iraqi actor and musician now living in Canada. In 2012, he became the first Black television presenter in Iraq. 

MONEKA: I studied theatre for 9 years, I became an actor, a well known actor in Baghdad, back in the days.

AHMED: Who comes from a family who found their roots in Iraq dating as far back as the 700s.

MONEKA: When say here to people in Canada they laugh, they’re like oh my god, 8th century, our country is 150 years only. It’s like my Grandpa’s house is older than the history of Canada. There is a lot of history, but my family, they were the first family who moved to downtown Basra as a Black family, carrying their heritage, carrying their traditions.

AHMED: Ahmed’s family eventually moved to Baghdad, where he grew up. It was there that he, even as a child, quickly discovered that people’s attitude towards him and other Black Arabs was different. People would make fun of him and his siblings in school, they’d call him names he hadn’t heard before.

MONEKA: I remember the first day in school I came back to my mum, I ask why god create us Black? Why we are different, why we are not normal? Why we are not like this? But here is the thing, my Mum she’s just observing it, she’s like, look at yourself, look at your mirror: you’re so beautiful. Come let’s take a shower, she take me shower, she gave me some money she said go walk, with open chest and if you open your ear, you will listen to the people say the son of Saleh is so beautiful. Look at him, he’s so clean, so nice. So all this voice of my mother in my head that is just filling us with love and compassion and you are unique because you have this specific thing that you have as skin colour or anything else, but your soul is so beautiful. And that is what really carried us.

MARWA: It’s very difficult because when people can’t consider you as a human, it’s very difficult because you yourself sometimes ask yourself am I human? Or animal? Or what?

AHMED: This is Marwa Jaber, she’s an activist and reporter, from Basra. This term, to be Black Arab. I had never considered it before. Even ticking census boxes in America, Arab is often under the category of White/Caucasian.

AHMED: And what’s it like growing up as a Black Arab in Iraq?

MARWA: Oh, Black Arab, you see few people use that word. Black Arab. Because so many people here in Iraq can’t consider us as Arab, and I’m laughing when I hear that. Arab, Black. Until now, so many people, not all, but most of them can’t consider us as Arab. Until now, most of them think that we are people who come from strange earth, strange country. Until now so many people look at us like ambiguous thing, not ambiguous persons, no, ambiguous thing. Thing! Not human, not persons, not people.

For me, yes, I’m Black Arab, because I was born here on this earth and my parents were Arab people, my relatives’ Arab people. We speak Arabic languages. We speak Arab languages and different Arab accents, and we can understand Arab language perfect. Of course, we love our lands, we love our society, this is my land, my mother city, my mother country, whether they love that or not, accept that or not but that’s the truth.

AHMED: To unpack these terms, I spoke with Dr Maytha Al-Hassan in California. 

AHMED: Do you wanna introduce yourself quickly say your name and like, say, hi I’m Maytha this is what I do…

MAYTHA: Oh my God, this is what I do is like a 20min answer. Hi, I’m Maytha, I do a lot of things.

AHMED: Maytha does a bunch of stuff, ranging from broadcast journalism and poetry to being a writer for the TV series Ramy as well as an academic. 

MAYTHA: I have a PhD, I’m a professor.

AHMED: Maytha explored the terms Black and Arab further.

MAYTHA: When we speak of who an Arab is, most of the time it is the most prominent vision of what an Arab is, which is a non-Black Arab. It’s also a term that has so many historical iterations and I think part of how we manifest racism in our community, especially non-Black Arabs is that we don’t understand the history of how this term came to be, we don’t understand the history of how it also operated as a way to distance ourselves from Blackness.

AHMED: It’s interesting to think, how commonplace expressions like Black American and Black British are, especially when helping us understand structural and institutional racism in today’s society. But when it comes to Arabs, why is such language often avoided and why do we presume Arabs to be white?

MAYTHA: For most of the history of the term of Arab, you see it not as an ethnic marker, but as a linguistic marker, so anybody that spoke Arabic would be called Arab. But, part of our legacy is a colonial one. So part of colonialism is the rise of identitarianism, that you can be only one thing and that it defines you totally.

AHMED: Unfortunately, within the Arab world, this identitarianism is often as superficial as being the colour of your skin, where just being Black subjects you to frequent racial slurs.

MARWA: The main word here in our society in Iraq – the word abid. It means slave – the same meaning of slave, abid.

AHMED: Yes, A. As in the word which quite literally translates to mean slave. And yet many Arabs, be they living abroad or in the MENA region, continue to abhorrently refer to those from the Black community with this A-word.

MONEKA: And Even the chocolate is racism, because of this chocolate thing. It’s called “ras al abid”

AHMED: Ahmed here is referring to the Middle Eastern treat that is the chocolate covered marshmallow, shaped like a dome and disgustingly called “head of the slave”. It was a pretty popular dessert in the 80s and 90s, you’d find it everywhere, in any grocery store. Recently, the company rebranded the chocolate to be called “Tarboosh” instead.

AHMED: Has it been used against you?

MARWA: Oh a lot. So many times. Especially when I was a student at early age, at 10, 11, 12. Until now, sometimes until now. When I go to some area in Basra, people don’t ask myself, just say ‘abid’, don’t ask what’s your name, for example. When I was a teenager I got angry, and I want to do something violent, just to talk loudly just sometimes to beat the students, to do something bad. But now, at that age of course now I just talk and say I’m not abid. I’m a person, I’m a human, my name is Marwa.

AHMED: We’ll be back after the break.


AHMED: I, myself, am of Iraqi background and have witnessed first-hand how racist Arab society can be. To this day some Arabs, including those living in English speaking countries, have migrated the racial slur with them and continue to refer to members of the Black community as this “A-word”.

MONEKA: Ya I remember this day, one day, this guy just saying it and running, so I ran behind him like crazy. I just wanna punish him, I wanna stop him, and he was laughing, he was making fun – we were kids – he didn’t mean to hurt me like that, but I was hurt.

AHMED: I distinctly remember the first time I came across the colloquial meaning of the word. I was a teenager at the time, it was summer of 2006 and there I was glued to one of those bulky flat screen televisions, passionately watching England play Trinidad and Tobago in the FIFA World Cup. It was the end of the school year and I was enjoying the game in the comfort of my home with my younger brother. And I remember that match for a couple of reasons, firstly Steven Gerrard, a footballing idol of mine scored a screamer in the final minutes. 

[Football match commentary]

And secondly my late grandmother, who grew up under British ruled Iraq and was on a visit from Baghdad at the time, asked me which team was England. Excited my Gran had taken an interest in the sport, I replied the team playing in white, and let’s not forget, this is a team full of Black English players, from Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell to Ashley Cole and David James. My Grandmother, ever so casually replied, “I didn’t know England had so many abids.” I paused for a second. It took me a moment to register what had just been said. I didn’t know what to say, I was rendered speechless.

The root of the A-word as a racial slur, and you can probably guess from where it’s derived, is because for centuries before the transatlantic slave trade, Arabs partook in enslaving Africans. So you find that Black Arabs have been a part of the region for centuries, going as far back as pre-Islamic Arabia. They now make up a significant minority in many countries, from North Africa to the Gulf. Even Sudan, a majority Black Arab country, has been labelled by the colour of its people’s skin. The name Sudan comes from “Bilad al-Suud” or “the Land of the Blacks”. 

What’s worrying is that these racial prejudices have somehow managed to persist in Arab culture. Even after migrating out of the Middle East, I have now heard the A-word used from Baghdad all the way to California. The N-word has been pushed out of most English dialogue, yet within Arab circles, the A-word is still far behind. To counter this, Maytha has been working on a campaign called Drop the A Word, addressing the issue.

[Archival tape]

MAYTHA: And we started in response to seeing online that Arabs were using a term to talk about Black people.

[Archival tape]

MAYTHA: When people come from a Muslim background and use this term like, Abdullah, abdul-fatah, the idea of slave of is servant of God. But Arabs would use that to talk about Black people, not as servants of Allah but as slaves.

[Archival tape]

MAYTHA: And so, the fact that travelled over to the US in English speaking Arab accounts was so wild to us. So there was an Imam in Detroit metro area who started to call them out.

QAZWINI: Unfortunately, in some societies and communities, even in Dearborn Community, some of us when we talk about the African American people, we call them “abid”, that’s not right my dear brothers and sisters.

MAYTHA: So we witnessed this as a collective and then we decided to educational campaigns with hashtags and one of the hashtags was drop the A-word and people explained why it was important to do so.

QAZWINI: We should not feel superior over any person. Black and white, they are all created by Allah. We are all Allah’s creation.

AHMED: As part of her PhD thesis, Maytha wrote about the history of Arab owned corner stores – or liquor stores – in Oakland, California, she found that this created a negative perception of Arabs and Muslims by the Black community. Back in the 1950s and 60s, however… 

[Archival tape]

AHMED: This divide between Muslims or Arab groups and the Black community was never so evident.

[Archival tape]

MAYTHA: The Nation of Islam and other Black Muslim groups were known as people who cleaned up the community.

[Archival tape]

MAYTHA: And they came in, they got people off of drugs, they got people off of drugs. They got people jobs.

[Archival tape]

AHMED: Malcolm X used to frequently advocate for Black American’s to stop their addiction to drugs and alcohol. Here’s a clip from Spike Lee’s biopic of Malcolm.

MALCOLM X: This is what they do. They send drugs down here in Harlem to pacify us. They send alcohol down here to pacify us! Why you can’t even get drugs in Harlem without the White Man’s permission! You can’t get gambling in Harlem without the White Man’s permission! Every time you break the seal on that liquor bottle, that’s a Government seal you’re breaking! Oh, I say and I say it again, ya been had! Ya been took!

AHMED: Over time, this trust between Arabs and the Black community began to break down, as Arab and Muslim immigrants began to profiteer from vulnerable Black neighbourhoods. What they started doing was opening various liquor stores throughout their communities.

MAYTHA: And then when you had Arab Muslims coming in with liquor stores, with hard liquor with single cigarettes, with lottery tickets, with all this sort of stuff. Then, there was a shifting image of a Muslim in their neighbourhood. Now it’s this brown foreign other who’s selling them things that don’t contribute to betterment of their community.

AHMED: And so in predominantly Black neighbourhoods, like the one Maytha wrote her thesis about in Oakland, California, Arabs started to become associated with these corner stores, which began causing a divide between the communities.

MAYTHA: And it became such a problem. There was growing tensions between the Black community, which included Muslims and non-Muslims and also the predominantly Arab Muslim community because of these liquor stores, and so I’ve been, as I said, screaming at the top of my lungs around it because its been one of the biggest obstacles towards solidarity.

AHMED: Now fast forward to 2020 and here we have Arabs who have bought into this structure of profiteering off the Black American community for their own financial gains, as well as contributing to gentrification.

MAYTHA: Absolutely, and that’s the hard part. And that’s what I mean about this Arab merchant class that creates wealth through literally extractive capitalist politics around either Black labour or Black wealth or whatever economic wealth they have. But then here we come now, to 2020, May 25th, and the store owner of the store that called the cops over an alleged $20 counterfeit bill is an Arab Muslim guy.

AHMED: And so that’s how it all links back. Arabs, racism, George Floyd.

[Archival tape]

MAYTHA: Ironically enough the guy who did own Cup Foods, which is the store that called the cops was known for heavily being involved in the community for 30 years and even employed people from the community which was rare.

MAHMOUD (ARCHIVE): We opened in 1989. I was 5 years old, I’ve been my first ever and only job.

AHMED: That’s Mahmoud Abumayyaleh, the store owner of Cup Foods. He declined an interview for this story because he felt he had received too much negative press since George Floyd’s death. He wasn’t present at the time when the police were called over the counterfeit bill, but has since explained how important his relationship with the community has been for him.

MAHMOUD (ARCHIVE): When we first opened up, the community welcomed us. We’ve always enjoyed being here, we’ve always known people and they’ve always had our back, they’ve always respected us and we’ve respected them. And we know people that are now grandparents who when they first came to our establishment were just kids, or teenagers.

MAYTHA: But he didn’t think about creating a cultural contract that didn’t involve the state, when issues that arised. 

MAHMOUD (ARCHIVE): The staff that called the police followed protocol, when he identified the bill was fake, the patron was out of the establishment. Most of the time when patrons give us a counterfeit bill, they don’t know its fake, so when the police are called there’s no crime being committed, they just wanna know where they got it from, and that’s usually what takes place.

AHMED: There’s an important distinction to be made. Mahmoud’s intention has never been to report the individuals for using a counterfeit bill, in fact for every 10,000 genuine bills in existence a counterfeit bill exists too, most people don’t know they are carrying one. The intention was only to alert the authorities that a counterfeit bill is even in circulation.

MAHMOUD (ARCHIVE): We want to extend our condolences to the George Floyd family. 

AHMED: How we engage with structural racism defines our solidarity with a community. Just because a law exists, does not necessarily mean its just. The death of Black Americans at the hands of the police force has seen demands for justice echo around the world. 

[Archival tape]

AHMED: Even in Syria and Palestine, we’ve seen messages of solidarity with Black Lives Matter as George Floyd’s chilling last words “I can’t breathe”, are spray painted across rubbled buildings in Idlib. 

[Archival tape]

AHMED: Arabs often choose to refer to themselves as also being “people of colour”, almost equating their struggle to that of the Black community and hijacking the Black cause. To the extent that whenever something happens against the Black community, many Arabs deflect back to say “but this happens in Palestine, or Iraq or Syria”.

MAYTHA: In the world of solidarity, we call that derailment and whataboutism. Instead of looking at the thing that is happening in the moment and trying to fully understand it, what we do is, we try to create analogies of understanding versus seeing the thing for what it is; the murder of George Floyd as being a very clear example of a long history, a track record of law enforcement targeting specifically Black Americans and part of a system of enforcement that is related to the prison industrial complex, that is related to so many different engines and apparatus of the state that is interested in either extinguishing, ethnically cleansing or radically repressing Black folks and especially Black resistance. Now, Black American community has historically sacrificed a lot to show solidarity with Palestinians. But at the same time, we need Palestinians to say, ok even though we are refugees, working class folks coming to the US, we shouldn’t be buying out liquor stores in Black working communities that add to blight. We shouldn’t be in this professional station that exploits and extracts from the Black community and puts up a plexiglass because we don’t wanna connect with them.

AHMED: So how can we escape this?

MAYTHA: I’m part of a collective called Arabs for Black Lives.  In our calls for action we directed people to donating to Black led orgs and antiracism organisations. We’re gonna be collaborating with other organisers who have already started developing scripts for people to talk to Arab store owners around anti-racism education, but also a whole curriculum around how to do that work. And A much of that work is offline.

AHMED: Despite all these divisions, it is inspiring to see how Ahmed Moneka has been able to remain a beacon of positivity to those around him. He was telling me about a time he addressed white guilt when he was sat with actors and directors for a theatre production in the US. 

MONEKA: Long story short, I was sitting one day in Minneapolis and people were like, they feel sorry, cos I’m Iraqi, Black, it’s too much. It’s like why you are sorry? Like, you know, sorry. No, don’t be sorry, behave good. If you feel guilty, behave good. Be responsible, don’t be sorry. Even to the Iraqi people. Don’t be sorry, behave good. Past is analysing, future is vision. The most important moment is the present. So all we could adjust, all could be good.

AHMED: What was extremely distressing, when producing this podcast, was not only finding out how racist slurs managed to migrate with Arabs to English speaking countries, but the choices made to continually contribute to structural racism. Yes, it really was an Arab who called the police over George Floyd’s alleged counterfeit bill. Yes, it was Arabs who stood outside their stores with assault rifles to supposedly protect their belongings from Black Lives Matter protestors. Solidarity does not include token symbolism by posting a Black square on your instagram and hashtagging Black Out Tuesday. Solidarity is the organising, actioning and unlearning of racist ideas we may have developed. It’s important for us to learn how we may have contributed to structural racism and more importantly, how we can escape that.

HEBAH: This episode was produced by Ahmed Twaij, with editorial support from Dana Ballout, Nadeen Shaker, Zeina Dowidar and Alex Atack. Fact checking by Shraddha Joshi, sound design by Alex Atack, and mixing by Mohamad Khreizat. Music in this episode was by Ahmed Moneka and Blue Dot Sessions. Special thanks to Noon Salih and Sara Elhassan. Our marketing director is Bella Ibrahim, and Kerning Cultures is a Kerning Cultures Network production, which means that in addition to this show, we have 7 other podcasts in Arabic and in English. Everything from love stories to thriller fiction adventures. Just google Kerning Cultures Network and you’ll see the list.

We’ll be back with a new episode next week.