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Scholars Confront a Silence About Blackness in Middle East Studies

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. studieswhich 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.

Silence was a point to which the discussion frequently returned. Some silences, panel members noted, are built into the structure of academic disciplines. Idris highlighted how studies of North Africa almost always relate the region to Europe or the Middle East. “You have a field where you’re more likely to study Libya in relation to Syria than in relation to its actual neighbor, Chad,” Idris said.

“You have a field where you’re more likely to study Libya in relation to Syria than in relation to its actual neighbor, Chad,”

Razan Idris  
PHD student at Penn

This institutional blindness means that many important cultural exchanges are ignored. “You have religious exchanges, trades of goods, artistic influences, musical influences, migration, crop and cuisine travel,” Idris said. “These are all really rich histories, which I think we should be fascinated by and drawn into.”

Race Happens ‘Over There’

Another way that race in the Middle East becomes hidden, Seikaly said, is that “in scholarship of the Middle East, race is something that happens ‘over there’—that is, in North America or Europe.” She said that “we can contend, as many people do, that race functions differently [in the Middle East]. The problem has been that that contention has served as an excuse for not looking at race.”

While issues of race will be different in Morocco and Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria, this doesn’t mean scholars shouldn’t look for commonalities, panel members said. Troutt Powell noted that race and racism are often legible across cultural contexts. “There are so many different ways in which these things translate,” she said.

Yet race is often neglected when scholars write about the region, panelists said. (See a related article, “Black Saudi Author Focuses on Neglected History of African Migration and Slavery.”)

“Race has always been seen as inferior to the discussions regarding nationalism, citizenship, identity formation,” Çakmak said. “All these studies have thus far privileged ethnic and religious differences.” Meanwhile race, Blackness, slavery, and diaspora have all been treated as “matters of the West,” she said. Researchers have treated race as though “it’s not our area of responsibility, not our garden to take care of.”

Yet when it comes to issues like postcolonial identity formation, Idris noted, race is central. The concept of “civilization,” she said, often meant “not being like the backward, underdeveloped African nations.” This, she said, should lead to questions such as: “How did they talk about race when they were forming these identities, and how does that affect how people think about them today?”

Deciding Whose Stories Matter

It is not only in academia that Black Middle Eastern lives are rendered invisible, but also in the news media, panel members said. Several drew attention to the contrasting attention media outlets have paid to the human toll of the August 4 explosion in Beirut and that of the catastrophic September 2020 floods in Sudan. While one received an international outpouring of attention and support, the other barely made headlines.

“Race has always been seen as inferior to the discussions regarding nationalism, citizenship, identity formation,”

Ezgi Çakmak
 PHD student at Penn

Troutt Powell said that, when media editors decide “whose tragedies are worth monumentalizing, most of the time it is not those who are Black.” (See a related article, “Sudan’s Floods Destroy Schools and Dreams.”)

Seikaly added that she was particularly struck by a widely shared video of a woman playing the piano in her damaged apartment after the explosion in Beirut. As the video pans around the apartment, it briefly shows “a Black domestic laborer who’s picking up the shards of the glass,” Seikaly said. When the video went viral, the pianist was lauded as a symbol of Lebanese and human resilience. The domestic laborer, however, went largely unseen, unmentioned and unnamed.

‘Our Very Presence Is Important’

In order to shift discussions in academia, panelists said, it’s important to draw on not just theory, research, and archives, but also on people’s lived experiences.

Çakmak said that, without pioneering works by Black Middle Easterners, it would have been hard for her to begin her research at all. In order to follow and trace your history, you need to know that you have existed in that geography,” she said.

Troutt Powell said that, at times, scholars have avoided issues of race because it is so deeply entangled with lived experience. “This is not a field or a set of questions or an issue that you come to cold,” she said. “This is a very personal issue.”

She added that she has run across a number of people in academic circles who are shocked to find a Black person working in Middle Eastern studies, and also shocked to discover that there are Black Middle Easterners. For these reasons and more, she said, “I think that our very presence is very important.”

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Preparing to Be Uncomfortable

Idris stressed that there was important knowledge production happening outside academia: on blogs, among activists, and on social media. She said that, if she wanted people to take away something from the 90-minute panel, it was “the conclusion that they need to listen to Black people in the Middle East. We should be pushing ourselves to have more and more interesting and more and more inclusive conversations about Blackness in the Middle East through centering Black people.”

Seikaly said that her takeaway was that race is key to understanding the Middle East. While race has often been treated as “somehow beyond the scope” of Middle East studies, she said, it should instead be “a central category that must be engaged with, as centrally as we think about gender, as centrally as we think about class.”

She added that, in challenging ourselves to see what’s hidden in plain sight, we need to “be prepared to be uncomfortable. That’s what this conversation requires.”

In a related conversation, the Middle East Librarians Association has launched a lecture series titled “Stories and Silences: Research on Race in the Middle East,” set to run from this fall through the spring of 2021.


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