A Legacy Hidden in Plain Sight

By Theola Labbe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 11, 2004

BASRA, Iraq -- The word was whispered and hurled at Thawra Youssef in school when she was 5 years old. Even back then, she sensed it was an insult.

Abd. Slave.

"The way they said it, smiling and shouting, I knew they used it to make fun of me," said Youssef, recounting the childhood story from her living room couch.

"I used to get upset and ask, 'Why do you call me abd? I don't serve you,' " Youssef said.

Unlike most Iraqis, whose faces come in shades from olive to a pale winter white, Youssef has skin the color of dark chocolate. She has African features and short, tightly curled hair that she straightens and wears in a soft bouffant. Growing up in Basra, the port city 260 miles southeast of Baghdad, she lived with her aunt while her mother worked as a cook and maid in the homes of one of the city's wealthiest light-skinned families.

In the United States, Youssef's dark skin would classify her as black or African American. In Iraq, where distinctions are based on family and tribe rather than race, she is simply an Iraqi.

The number of dark-skinned people like Youssef in Iraq today is unknown. Their origins, however, are better understood, if little-discussed: They are the legacy of slavery throughout the Middle East.

Historians say the slave trade began in the 9th century and lasted a millennium. Arab traders brought Africans across the Indian Ocean from present-day Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan, Ethiopia and elsewhere in East Africa to Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Turkey and other parts of the Middle East.

"We were slaves. That's how we came here," Youssef said. "Our whole family used to talk about how our roots are from Africa."

Though centuries have passed since the first Africans, called Zanj, arrived in Iraq, some African traditions still persist here. Youssef, 43, a doctoral candidate in theater and acting at Baghdad University's College of Fine Arts, is writing her dissertation about healing ceremonies that are conducted exclusively by a community of dark-skinned Iraqis in Basra. Youssef said she considers the ceremonies -- which involve elaborate costumes, dancing, and words sung in Swahili and Arabic -- to be dramatic performances.

"I don't complain about being called an abd, but I think that's what provoked me to write this, perhaps some kind of complex," said Youssef, who began researching and writing about the practices of Afro-Iraqis in 1997, when she was studying for a master's degree. "Something inside me that wanted to tell others that the abd they mock is better than them."

"By the 9th century, when Baghdad was the capital of the Islamic world, we do have evidence of a large importation of African slaves -- how large is anyone's guess," said Thabit Abdullah, a history professor at York University in Toronto.

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