Race may play a different role in the Middle East than it does elsewhere, but the topic has too often been shrouded in silence, hidden, and avoided, scholars said in a recent virtual event. This social and institutional silence around race was a central theme running through much of the panel discussion, titled “Blackness in the Middle East.”
More than 100 people joined the September 16 discussion, hosted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Middle East Center.
“This is an urgent topic,” John Ghazvinian, the center’s interim director, emphasized in his introduction to the discussion. The center had initially envisioned an in-person symposium on the topic, he said. But when coronavirus shutdowns derailed those plans, “we didn’t think we had the luxury to wait several more months to put together a perfectly formed event.”
Panel members included Eve Troutt Powell, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, and Sherene Seikaly, an associate professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Also on the panel were two doctoral students at Penn—Ezgi Çakmak and Razan Idris—and Kamal Suleiman, an undergraduate. The panel was moderated by Jane Abell, a Ph.D. student.
Silence in Society and in the Archives
Çakmak opened the discussion by talking about two types of silence that have shaped her study of Blackness in the Arab region. The first, encountered during her earlier work with African migrants in Istanbul, was “the great feeling of silence and invisibility surrounding the ideas of race, and particularly Blackness, in society.”
She encountered a second level of silence during her Ph.D. studies, which focus on African slavery in the late Ottoman period. This silence was “waiting for me in the archives, and in academia in general,” she said. When she began her research, she said, race and Blackness were hardly mentioned.