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THE AFRICAN EASTERN DIASPORA IN ARABIA, THE MIDDLE EAST, NORTH AFRICA, THE GULF STATES AND POINTS EASTWARDS

It is a truism that Africans in general are not informed of their history. This assertion is repeated at page 161 by Wariz.O.Alli, in his contribution to the book ‘Africa and the African Diaspora’. He states that one of the major problems confronting African policy makers is their low level of appreciation of the African Diaspora. Many African leaders are not aware of the many possibilities of the African Diaspora. Lack of appreciation goes beyond denial of the Diaspora. Many are disinterested in integration within the continent, due to ignorance about Pan-Africanism, which is dynamic, not cast in stone, but adaptable to circumstances. This raises the issue of curriculum development. Today the question increasingly should be, what can and should Africa do for the African Diasporas ?

Evidence and cultural implications need to be researched, of the early, changing and continuing African presence in the now largely Arabised and Islamic north African lands (Morocco to Egypt and Mauritania to the Sudan) and in those lands immediately north-east of Africa (Palestine/Israel, Lebanon, Syria/Jordan in the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq and Iran). Ancient, pre-Islamic and continuing Saharan desiccation and consequent African long-term out-migrations, south and north-wards should be exposed. The rise of Islam: modalities of its spread across northern Africa and gradual penetration of the Sahel and other parts of Africa south of the Sahara need to be taught to the youth. The crucial institution of Arab/Islamic/Muslim slavery in Africa; its scale and persistence; its long-term interactions with the European, Christian Atlantic chattel slavery; its demographic and cultural impact in selected territories that were recipients of enslaved Africans; evidence of African resistance in these lands; the nature and effects of ‘traditional’ Africa’s encounter with this military and cultural-cum-religious complex, including the Islamic verses Ethiopic Christian encounter in Ethiopia, are all of importance for African youth. Some recent/current problem sites to be studied are the Sudan and Mauritania, for their implications for and impact upon the cultural and political unity of Africa.

Hunwick and Powell at page xii of ‘The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam’, refer to the relative absence of Black conscientiousness in north Africa, amongst Black communities there. This is in part due to a reluctance to admit a past of slavery. In the Muslim world a past of ‘unbelief’ (Kufr), that one’s antecedents were pagans, is a heavy burden to bear. Also in the Mediterranean lands the Black voice may also be silent due to the number of clearly identifiable descendants of slaves, as well as their depressed social status and lack of education. According to Hunwick, as at 2007, only one scholarly study of Blacks in north Africa existed and this was of an isolated agricultural community in southern Tunisia. In general Black north Africans tend to live in interior towns and oases, not in cities, near economic life. Finally the issue of slavery of Africans in Muslim countries has not been of interest to American and European scholars. This area of interest falls between African and Middle Eastern studies. Hunwick is clear that Black Africans in the Islamic Mediterranean world, including Turkey, Arabia and the Gulf, are part of the African Diaspora. According to Islam and Sharia law slavery is sanctioned by God. African slaves being Black had inferior status to White slaves. Blackness of skin in Arabia was and still is considered synonymous with the word slave. In Arabic the word for African is Abeed, meaning slave. From Mauritania to the Sudan, to the Gulf States, the legacy of slavery lives on. The long war in south Sudan saw a return of slave raids by the north against south Sudan.

Muslih. T. Yahya, Associate Professor of Arabic Literature, Department of Religious Studies, University of Jos, Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria, in the 1999 publication entitled ‘Africa and the African Diaspora’, published by Mazlink, Jos at page 35 defines persons of African descent living in the Middle East, as members of the African Diaspora and goes on to include northern Africa as part of the Middle East. He distinguishes between Africa north and south of the Sahara. Trade routes linked the two areas. Movement between them became more noticeable with the advent of Islam.

Few Black Africans in Africa’s Arab Eastern Diaspora achieved celebrity. The best known in Islamic history was Bilal Ibn Rabaah, the Muezzin of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The Black Eastern Diaspora grew also due to trade and scholarship between Africa and the Middle East, with many Nigerians settling in places such as Saudi Arabia and Sudan, along the Haj route to Mecca. Sudan President Bashir is a descendant of Nigerian Fulani, known as Falata in Sudan.

The Zanj Rebellion of 870-883 in Iraq, in the Abbasid era, in Islamic history, was similar to the slave rebellions in the Caribbean and Americas, in this case of Africans, originating from East Africa, who worked the saltpeter mines of the lower Euphrates. There are today people of African descent in places such as Basra in Iraq. These, like those living within Arabia including north Africa, have been Islamised, Arabised and denationalised as Africans and remain marginalised in Iraqi society. Indeed Blacks in Arabia remain at the lowest levels of Arab society.

On the issue of ‘Africanism’ in the Eastern Diaspora, due to the power of Islam many in Arabia trace their genealogy to Islamic historical figures of Arabia, who were Arabs. This holds true for Blacks who have lived for generations in Arabia. There is the Islamic principle of ‘God’s land is wide’. One knows where one is born but cannot know where one will die and be buried. So ‘home’ is where one is able to practice Islam and feel settled. According to M.T.Yahya, the ‘movements of the Black Diaspora in the Middle East has created a kind of cultural interaction and cultural relation which has not been exploited to the fullest. These include areas of language, literature, trade, industry and politics. Researchers are presently turning attention to some of these areas’. Yahya talks of ‘The potentials of enhancing the unity and mutual understanding among African countries’, when referring to the interaction between Africans at home and in the Diaspora in the Middle East, where cultural history ought to have created a symbiotic relationship.

By B.F.Bankie, (Bankie Foster Bankie) former Researcher at the Kush Institution, Juba, South Sudan

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