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Back to Africa, From Iraq

An intrinsic part of life here for centuries, black Iraqis were restricted under Hussein from exploring their heritage. Many are eager to begin.

January 17, 2004|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

BASRA, Iraq — His ebony skin, curly hair and facial features distinguish Mohammed Abbass as a man of African descent. But he has never set foot in Africa and knows little about the continent and its people. As long as he can recall, his forefathers have lived in Iraq, and his roots are deep in this Middle Eastern country.

"Of course I consider myself to be Iraqi," said Abbass, 35, a carpenter. "I don't have any knowledge about my history."

But that is something that Abbass, typical of the tiny percentage of blacks who have been a part of Iraqi society for centuries, wishes he could change. As has long been the case among African Americans and Caribbean blacks, many black Iraqis, most of them presumed to be the descendants of slaves, are keen to learn about their heritage.

"I have a wish to know what my history is," said Abbass, whose mother tongue is Arabic. "I also want to go to Africa to see what's there."

With the collapse of the despotic government of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, that eventually may be possible, as ordinary Iraqis consider a future of more opportunities and liberties.

For now, the demise of the former system has left government agencies and administrative departments in disarray, making access to statistical information on the ethnic breakdown of Iraq's population of 23 million difficult to obtain. Still, some academics put the number of Iraqis of African decent at about 1%, though others believe that figure could be as high as 5%.

Blacks are an intrinsic part of Iraqi society, and generally are treated as such. Some have ascended to significant positions in academia, trade and other professions. Like other Iraqis, they speak Arabic, and most are Muslims belonging to the country's Shiite majority or the Sunni minority.

"We are just like any other Iraqis, no different," said Marydosh Abbass, Mohammed's 72-year-old father, who recalled that his grandfather bore facial markings typical among certain African communities.

But some black and nonblack Iraqis acknowledge that some racial discrimination persists, and dark-skinned Iraqis often are viewed as less attractive and even inferior.

Blacks have tended to live together in such areas as the ancient and decrepit Qibla Sufat neighborhood of this southern Iraqi city. Few blacks rose to political prominence under Hussein, and many are said to have participated in the 1991 uprising against the dictator's regime.

Historical data confirm a link between Africa and the Arab world dating back as many as 1,500 years, when African villages were raided and thousands of people were taken as slaves to the Middle East, including present-day southern Iraq, Kuwait and Iran.

The slaves initially came from East Africa, including areas that became the countries of Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan. They were referred to as "Zanj," which academics believe is related to the word "Zanzibar," an island off the east coast of Africa -- today part of Tanzania -- which was also once a major exporter of human cargo.

As the demand for labor grew, Arab slave traders reached deeper into the continent. And by the 19th century, Basra -- now home to the largest concentration of Iraqi blacks -- had become a prosperous slave port.

Little is known about Iranians and Kuwaitis of African descent. According to historical accounts, the slaves brought to Iraq were used for pearl diving, date farming and the back-breaking, often dangerous work of building canals and clearing salt marshes for planting crops.

U.S. academics say African boys were sometimes castrated and made to serve as eunuch guards of royal harems. African women were often forced to be concubines. But some slaves were treated as indentured servants and some could buy or earn their freedom; others became soldiers, who also were liberated.

As many slaves began to convert to Islam, they were spared bondage because Islamic law forbids the enslavement of Muslims. Children born to a Muslim master and slave also were considered free, historians say.

Some blacks managed to rise in social status. Bilal Rabah, an Ethiopian slave, became the first Muslim muezzin -- the man who calls the faithful to prayer -- during the early Islamic era and the time of the prophet Muhammad.

Abdulrazzaq Abduljaleel Ibrahim believes he is a direct descendant of Rabah. The retired soldier, who was injured during the 1980s Iraq-Iran war and walks with a cane, said his family has lived in the same Basra stone house for 500 years.

In a back storeroom lies a treasure trove of heirlooms. He carefully dusted off a big wooden drum, in his family for 300 years and restored several times. He blew through a large seashell that in Africa would have been used to summon people together.

As he sat cross-legged and gently strummed on a traditional African harp-shaped instrument known as a tampora, Ibrahim sang words from a language he doesn't understand. The lyrics were passed down through generations. The only word he recognizes is simba, or lion, in the East African language Swahili.

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