Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Basra's Blacks Claim Discrimination

Descendents of slaves say they want more political rights.
By Ali Najdi
The burden of their ancestors continues to haunt black Iraqis from the southern province of Basra.

In schools, on the streets and in offices, black Iraqis continue to be referred to by their ancestral name – slave. It is a long-standing insult for a group which has lived in Basra for centuries, but whose roots lie in Africa.

Black Iraqis from Basra have long faced discrimination because of the colour of their skin and remain an underclass today.

While some have become influential local entertainers and artists, many are labourers with limited upward mobility. No black Iraqis serve on provincial councils or in parliament, their children are teased in school and intermarriage with lighter-skinned Arabs remains a taboo.

A local organisation campaigning for the rights of blacks is fighting to end what they describe as widespread discrimination against the community.

The Basra-based Movement of Free Iraqis wants the black community officially recognised as an ethnic minority, which would guarantee them political representation. It also pushes anti-discrimination laws to protect the group.

Community leaders estimate that as many as two million of Iraq’s 27 million people are of black origin. Basra is home to the largest community of blacks in the country but they have no political representation, according to Movement of Free Iraqis head Jalal Diab.

The group made its first bid for office during the provincial council elections in January.

“We didn’t win any [seats] but we gained a lot,” Diab said. “We have broken the barrier of fear that engulfed black-skinned people.”

African slaves are believed to have arrived in Iraq from East Africa around the fourth century. The slaves became known as Zanj – a derogatory term that is still used today.

Descendants of slaves in Basra rose up against the Abassid government between AD 869 and 883 in what was coined the Zanj Rebellion. The uprising is one of the most famous slave revolts in history.

Slave references are commonly used in Basra, and for some members of the black community, the term has motivated them to take political action.

Diab, 44, remembers that he and other black students in his intermediate school were “utterly humiliated” when a poem about slavery was read out loud during class.

He recalled a verse, “When buying a slave, don’t forget the stick!”

Decades later, Diab logs similar complaints from members of the black community.

“Many complaints are filed with the movement regarding ongoing discrimination in elementary schools, where teachers are calling black students humiliating names,” he said.

The insults are widespread, activists say. When a black Iraqi journalist became chief of the Basra Journalists’ Union some members objected because of his race, arguing that “a slave” could not lead them.

But Mehdi al-Timimi, head of the government’s human rights bureau for southern Iraq, said institutional discrimination against blacks in Basra does not exist and that his department has never received a complaint about discrimination against the community in Basra.

“All sects and races are on equal footing … they are all well-respected,” Timimi said.

The Movement for Free Iraqis claims otherwise, arguing that systemic discrimination has deeply affected their community. Many black Iraqis are poor, which is a “huge barrier” for accessing political power, Diab said.

Abdul-Hussein Abdul-Razaq, who founded the movement, said the group will not be able to run in the upcoming parliamentary election because of financial constraints.

Their primary demand, he said, is for the “Iraqi government to treat us like Christians and other minorities”, whose political representation is secured through quotas. They also want the government to outlaw discrimination against blacks, including prohibiting racial slurs against their community.

Black Iraqis have made an impact culturally. Basra’s famous Khishba drum and dance is rooted in the city’s black community, and many singers and dancers are of African origin.

Basra blacks also hold healing ceremonies for illnesses. The ceremonies, believed to have come from Africa, include Swahili chants and are largely secretive, though some Arabs have been treated.

The cultural traditions have been accepted and even embraced by Arabs, but Basra residents say social discrimination and disdain for intermarriage are the biggest hurdles to integration.

Haider Nasir’s family disowned him after he announced he was marrying a black woman. Rather than live with his parents, as is tradition, he moved away from his district in Basra and started a new life.

“I have three children with my wife now,” he said. “We are happy.”

Abduladhim Karim is an IWPR staff reporter in Basra. Ali Najdi is an IWPR-trained journalist in Basra. IWPR-trained journalists Ali Abu Iraq and Hadheel Kamil contributed to this report from Basra and Baghdad.

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