Monday, March 26, 2007

Slavery in the Arab world

"There was still slavery there when I went in the 1960s." With this aside, Michael Binyon, The Times's resident expert on the Middle East, produced perhaps his most resonant description of the backwardness of Saudi Arabia. It was January 2005, and I was still trying to get a visa to visit the country to complete my ground-work for Setting the Desert on Fire. Mr Binyon had kindly agreed to meet me, and thought that my hopes of going were mad to say the least, since violence against westerners was on the rise.

Michael Binyon's reference to slavery returned to me this week amid commemorations of the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade here in Britain. When, having ignored his advice, I finally got to Saudi two months later, the signs of that trade were very visible. In Jeddah, on the Red Sea coast, black African faces mingle with Arab. Yet interestingly, despite the obvious difference in appearance they are regarded as just as Arab as the local Bedu. The reason for this was explained partly in a BBC radio programme yesterday, when an expert on the Arab slave trade explained that, whereas in the British trade (which was focused on providing labour on the plantations) men outnumbered women two to one, in the Arab trade, that ratio was reversed. The simple reason was sex: east African women were enslaved and shipped to Arab lands as concubines. Truly degrading though the practice was, it is interesting that the offspring of these unions were much more readily accepted into Arab society than is the case elsewhere.

1 comment:

Diaa said...

Hi James, your point is valid regarding the different status of the desendents of black slaves in Arab society. However, the situation is far from idea. The popular descriptive for a black person in Arabic is 'Abed' - literally, slave. White skin is generally prized in the Arab world, and men and women with dark complexions tend to marry people of similar color. Only once in five years of living in different countries in the Arab world did I ever see a mixed Arab white/black couple. I have personally known Arab men who would not only reject black men wanting to marry their (white) daugthers, but would also express outrage that a black man would even dare to ask.