Black Iraqis keep to traditions during Ramadan

Mon, April 18, 2022

…Say George Floyd’s death sheds light on their centuries-long plight

STORY: Dressed in traditional clothes and playing folkloric tunes, a group of black Iraqis paraded through the streets of Basra’s Zubair neighborhood, surrounded by children clapping and singing along for the occasion of the Garga’een festival.

Celebrated each year during Ramadan, the Gargee’an festival is celebrated in the Gulf and has made its mark on southern Iraq as well.

“We have our own particular rites and traditions that we like to keep alive since the old days,” one of the music group members, Nadel Sabri, said.

Gargee’an is celebrated every mid-Ramadan. It marks the birth of Imam Hassan, believed to be the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.

During the festival children dress up in traditional costumes and go from door to door to collect sweets.

The community, many of whom are descendants of African slaves, want recognition as a minority group

African-Iraqi men sing after their group "Free Iraqi Movement" was approved as a political party to run in the coming local elections in Basra, 420 km (260 miles) southeast of Baghdad December 6, 2008. Inspired by Barack Obama's election in the United States, some black Iraqis plan to run in a forthcoming election, to end what they call centuries of discrimination because of their slave ancestry.  Picture taken December 6.  To match feature IRAQ/BLACKS     REUTERS/Atef Hassan (IRAQ)
African-Iraqi men are calling for equal representation and rights. December 6, 2008. Reuters   

Meanwhile, the death of George Floyd during his arrest in the US city of Minneapolis in 2020 has shed light on the plight of another community: Black Iraqis.

They say racial discrimination against them is on par with the racism experienced by African Americans, sometimes even surpassing it, as they not only face a lack of recognition, but also economic, political and social atrocities.

Many of them are descendants of African slaves brought to Iraq and have lived in the southern city of Basra for centuries.

They want recognition as a minority group whose rights should be protected, but some told The National that their demands have been ignored by the Iraqi government.

Many say they are unfairly represented and want to prohibit being called “slaves”, especially as the burdens of their ancestors continue to haunt them.

The killing of Mr Floyd has put the global spotlight on racism, one that Black Iraqis say has been brushed off by authorities.

Members of Iraq’s black community, estimated to be around 2 million, have shown solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Footage that gripped the world showed a white police officer kneeling on Mr Floyd’s neck to pin him to the ground for more than nine minutes went viral.

The movement calls for an end to racism and police abuse.

Mr Floyd’s killing has raised awareness in Iraq about the government’s neglect of Iraqi-African rights, Mohammed Falih, a 31-year-old photographer from Basra, told The National.

“What happened to Floyd must never happen again, it is not only a Black issue, but is a matter that concerns people from all over the world, we will keep fighting until racism ends,” Mr Falih said. 
He says getting employment in Iraq has been very tough for those of African origin.”Getting a job is like a dream, both the government and private sectors see us as second class citizens in the community,” Mohammed Falih.

“Getting a job is like a dream, both the government and private sectors see us as second class citizens in the community,” he said.
For decades, Black Iraqis have been humiliated, degraded and have had their dignity taken away from them, Abdul Hussein Abdul Razzaq, founder of the People of Brown Skin movement, told The National.
“Blacks have lived in Iraq as slaves for centuries, they are among Iraq’s most poorest and vulnerable, which is a testament to the fact that racism in Iraq is worse than what exists in America,” Mr Razzaq said. 
“The equality that the constitution talks about is a lie,” he said.
Mr Razzaq, who lives in Basra, said the community wanted to hold a vigil for Mr Floyd but due to the coronavirus restrictions they were unable to carry it out. 
He has also co-founded the Free Iraqis Movement, which calls for equal rights.

Its goal includes amending the Iraqi Constitution to ban discrimination against blacks, getting them elected to parliament and to have a fair chance at getting employment.
“We want to have our dignity back and to end social discrimination. The government must compensate us for what we have missed out on,” Abdul Hussein Abdul Razzaq.

Blacks in Iraq have been relegated to menial jobs or work as musicians and dancers.

“Some prefer to keep the jobs of their ancestors such as being servants in the homes of tribal sheikhs. Very few have managed to cross the racial barriers,” he said.

Mr Razzaq demanded that Black Iraqis have their “dignity back and to end social discrimination.”

“We want the government to compensate us for what we have missed out on,” he said.

There has been virtually no attention on discrimination against Black Iraqis, they say.

It is still common today to hear references to black Iraqis as “slaves,” whether on the street, in the workplace, or even from official figures, Ms Puttick said.

Ali Al Bayati, a member of the Independent Human Rights Commission in Baghdad said they have taken racist discriminators to court. 
“We are working with some of the Black Iraqi representatives and have filed a lawsuit against an institution part of the culture ministry that held a play that promoted racial discrimination,” Mr Al Bayati said.

The play described Black people in Iraq as “slaves and monkeys” and the case against the organisation is ongoing, he said.

“We also filed another lawsuit against an Iraqi judge in Basra who described those who complained against the play as slaves,” Mr Al Bayati said.

UN committee addressed discrimination against many minorities in many countries, including Iraqis of African descent. Its conclusions shed light on the marginalization of this almost forgotten minority

Meantime, a UN committee addressed discrimination against many minorities in many countries, including Iraqis of African descent. Its conclusions shed light on the marginalization of this almost forgotten minority — forgotten especially years after the 2013 assassination of one of its main leaders, Jalal Diab, in Basra.

Diab had posters of Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama on the walls of his school dedicated to teaching poor African-Iraqis in the slums of the Az Zubayr area of Basra. The two pictures showed an unexpected awakening of identity in the areas of the oil-rich Basra province where this minority lives. And this same province has witnessed popular protests in recent years.

Inspired by Diab, and subsequently his death, this group raised its voice in protest, seeking an end to discrimination and to gain the rights afforded to all other minorities. 

Thus, the observations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) can be considered the victory of Diab, who spent his life fighting for these rights and was known as the “Martin Luther King Jr. of Iraq.”

CERD, during its session in Geneva on Nov. 26-Dec. 14, raised the issue of civil society’s responsibility to promote tolerance and prevent discrimination. It called for national cohesion and pointed out that a country’s educational curricula should reflect its people’s linguistic and cultural differences. The committee said it was concerned about persistent structural racial discrimination, stigmatization and marginalization of people of African descent.

The committee recommends that the “Iraqi State party redouble its efforts to effectively combat” this discrimination “by taking special measures to reduce the poverty and the social exclusion of people of African descent and increasing their access to adequate living conditions, education, health, housing and employment.”

In its first reaction to the topic, the Iraq High Commission for Human Rights (IHCHR) published on its website that Ali Akram al-Bayati, a member of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), has stated that the UN has issued the first international convention acknowledging the rights of black Iraqis to political representation and assignments, among other things. The UN has called on the Iraqi government to fight racial discrimination, stating that Bayati “considers this convention a victory for humanity crowning the efforts of the OHCHR and the work it has invested into this noble outcome.”

“This will be a giant leap in this field,” IHCHR said.

African-Iraqis are of several ethnicities. Some are Nubians from Egypt, others are from Zanzibar (an island in the Arabian Sea facing Yemen), or from Ghana or Ethiopia. African-Iraqi heritage expert Sawra Yusuf specifies their descendance based on the rites and customs they have been practicing for centuries in specific areas called al-Makayed (“restricted”) and in certain locations within Basra province like Az Zubayr and Abu al-Khaseeb.

Yusuf told Al-Monitor, “Each group has different rites. The Nubians from south Egypt in Africa, al-Habash from what is currently Ethiopia and the Kenyans particularly from the coast share Bambassa tribal roots. These rites were transferred through slave trade during the Abbasid Caliphate between 750 and 785. After the slaves settled in Basra, they established their own society and practiced their rites as reassurance while they were away from home.”

Yusuf called on the Iraqi government to help preserve African-Iraqi rites and their oral history, while African-Iraqi activists focus on political rights.

Ammar Jassem, vice president of Ansar al-Hurriya al-Insaniya (Movement of Free Iraqis), one of the major organizations representing African-Iraqis in Basra, said IHCHR’s observations present the Iraqi government with “a door to engrain the demands that the community has been calling for over the years to improve its political representation, grant it the quota [of parliament seats] it deserves just like other minorities and end the racial discrimination through passing a law penalizing anyone who practices it.”

Jassem had previously run for election to provincial committees to represent African-Iraqis in Basra. Diab supported him in 2013; however, after Diab’s assassination, Jassem stepped down and temporarily left Basra as he feared for his life — especially since he was in Diab’s car at the time of the incident.

Years after Diab announced the movement to protect African-Iraqis’ rights, as he headed Ansar al-Hurriya al-Insaniya that would become the first political framework for their rights in the Middle East, CERD observations and its recommendations to the Iraqi government are the community’s opportunity to obtain justice after centuries of discrimination and inequality.

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