Racist representations of black characters on television are symptomatic of the entrenched anti-blackness prevalent in the Arab world.

Egyptian actress and comedian Shaima Saif has come under fire for wearing blackface on the prank TV show, Shaklabaz. During the episode which aired on May 10, Saif’s character portrayed a Sudanese woman on a minibus, annoying passengers, attempting to steal their phones, and drinking alcohol. The episode offended many Sudanese people who voiced their anger on social media. 

“I don’t know how Shaima Saif and the producers decided to represent Sudanese women behaving in such a non-civilized way,” said Marwa Babiker, a Sudanese influencer. “While you were filming, we were involved in a popular revolution,” she continued, referring to the ongoing protests in Sudan.

There have been calls to boycott MBC Egypt, which instead of apologizing, distanced itself from the incident, claiming that it only bought the series for broadcast and had nothing to do with its production. 

Saif, on the other hand, apologized and declared that she “did not intend to insult the beloved Sudanese people, nor any darker-skinned individuals . . . . The program is comedic and only aims to make people laugh.” Saif’s apology was not enough, according to one official from the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate, Ahmed Ramadan, who has filed an official complaint against her with the Egyptian National Media Authority.

The incident is far from the first of its kind and highlights the problematic characterization of dark-skinned people for comedy on Arab television.

Shaima Saif in blackface

The Use of Blackface in Arab media

Blackface is a form of theatrical make-up used by non-black performers to represent a biased caricature of a black person. It was used in performances in the U.S. as early as the 1830s and continued to be used for over one hundred years. The practice depicted dark-skinned people as ”lazy, ignorant, hypersexual, thieving, and cowardly.” 

Blackface is not unique to America; it is found in the Netherlands’ “Zwarte Pete,” a character who hands out presents with Santa Claus, and in Iran’s Haji Fairooz, a character symbolic of the country’s Nawruz celebrations, and in many other places. 

In line with the damaging tradition from which Saif’s skit drew its inspiration, the comedian’s role of an ignorant, sluggish Sudanese woman, stealing, drinking, and dancing, only perpetuates the age-old misperceptions of black people that have been a feature of “entertainment” since the 19th century.

The use of blackface has caused controversy previously. Kuwaiti comedy series “Block Ghashmara,” translated as “The Block of Jokes,” aired in 2018 and showed a character in blackface impersonating a lazy Sudanese man. The skit did not live up to the show’s farcical intent. Rather than making its audiences laugh, it was heavily criticized for its bigoted representation of Sudanese people.

Egyptian comedy show “Azmi we Ashgan” (or “Azmi and Ashgan”), featured the lead actors donning blackface and using racist language. The program, which also aired in 2018, adopted bigoted typecasts of black servants speaking in broken Arabic and practising sorcery.

Such representation is rooted in the idea of “blackness as something to fear or ridicule,” according to Mona Kareem, a research fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. Kareem explains that focussing on skin tone does not capture the “complexity of the racial experiences that [black people] have had in the Arab world.” Discriminatory stereotypes on television only add to the damaging and pervasive misconceptions in the region.

Grappling with the History of Slavery 

A “culture of silence” has long prevented Arab countries from engaging in dialogue about racism, slavery, and skin color.

Indeed, there is widespread denial that anti-black sentiments exist in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Moroccan historian Chouki El-Hamel notes that a “culture of silence” has long prevented Arab countries from engaging in dialogue about racism, slavery, and skin color.

Eve Troutt-Powell, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that the offensive comedy Saif and other contemporaries produce is a “trope” that has existed for more than a hundred years in Egypt. “There is a larger history at play behind the racist caricatures of black people in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East as well, and that is the history of slavery,” Trout-Powell told AFP.

Arabs became involved in the African slave trade in the ninth century. This has impacted race relations throughout the region, the terms of which have made their way into the Arabic language. Racial epithets are commonly used to describe those of sub-Saharan heritage, such as “abed,” meaning “slave,” and “haratin,” meaning “free slave,” a term used particularly in Mauritania and parts of the Maghreb. 

The slave trade spread across the Arab world before it was officially abolished in 1970. Mauritania was the last country to comply in 1981, though slavery continues there in practice. While not all dark-skinned Arabs are the descendants of slaves, many in Arab societies assume that they are.

Pan-Arabism Fuels Inequality in Arab TV

Pan-Arabism, an ideology that emerged in the late 1800s and gained popularity in the 1940s, called for the political and social unification of countries in the Arab world based on a shared Arab identity. The pan-Arab model places great emphasis on Arab nations sharing an overarching identity, leaving little room for pluralism. 

Striking a balance between pluralism and unity is a challenge. Framing national or regional unity in terms of a single ethnic identity can lead to exclusionism and hindrance of discourse about how the dynamics of race affect different Arab communities. The lack of discussion on race dynamics in the MENA region indicates why Shaima Saif’s caricature of Sudanese women is readily accepted as a form of comedy.

Iraq demonstrates how having a shared Arab identity does not prevent prejudiced attitudes on skin color. An African-Arab community lies at the heart of the Zubair district in Basra, mostly descended from laborers, sailors, and enslaved groups from East Africa, whose presence in Iraq began in 800 AD. They predominantly speak Arabic, and most are Muslim. 

Pan-Arabism and the modern state-building process has theoretically included the community within a unified “Arab” identity. However, the daily dynamics of race relations exposes the limits of pan-Arabism in absorbing racial differences.

Pan-Arabism and the modern state-building process has theoretically included the community within a unified “Arab” identity. However, the daily dynamics of race relations exposes the limits of pan-Arabism in absorbing racial differences. 

Despite the fact that slavery was abolished in Iraq in the 1800s, the country’s African-Arabs still face racial discrimination and are referred to as “abed” (“slaves”). Anti-blackness is evident, particularly when it comes to biracial marriage. “I know a mixed couple,” said Doha Abdulreda, a 20-year-old Afro-Iraqi. “Her family rejected her [for marrying an African-Iraqi], that’s not uncommon here.”

Exceptions in the region do exist, but are far from common. “Black people have always been fully integrated into our community,” said 72-year-old Basra resident Said Al Mehdi. “Even my grandfather’s fourth wife was a black woman. I’d always kiss her hand with great devotion.”

The focus on a unifying Arab identity should not hinder the conversation that Arabs need to have about the region’s history of slavery and how it continues to fuel racist attitudes today. Arab media outlets bear the responsibility of ensuring that their programming does not sustain existent racial stereotypes. Production teams, as well as actors and actresses like Shaima Saif, must understand that such portrayals offend the communities they set out to entertain. Even more importantly, engaging in taboo discussions to prevent continuing prejudice and racism must take place beyond the television screen.