There has been a recent string of box-office hits about the black civil rights movement in the United States (“The Help”, “The Butler”, “12 Years a Slave”), as well as South Africa (“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”). These films are required viewing, not just as masterpieces of entertainment and drama, but as insightful, historical narratives of heart-breaking injustice and heart-warming triumph.
Arab audiences in particular should relate to the theme, because we have experienced both sides of the issue. We too have suffered terribly under Western colonialism and imperialism, and have been similarly dehumanized, demonized and disenfranchized.
This is movingly portrayed in French-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb’s brilliant 2006 film “Days of Glory” (“Indigenes”), about how Arab and sub-Saharan Africans both faced discrimination by French colonial authorities, and how together they demanded equality.
However, large parts of Arab society now behave little better towards domestic workers and other foreign labor than how white people treated those of color not long ago. We have learned the wrong lessons from our own experience of oppression, by becoming oppressors ourselves.
“The Middle East and North Africa are home to some of the worst abuses against domestic workers,” Nisha Varia, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a report published in Oct. 2013.
An ever-growing number of written accounts and videos of abuses are appearing online, some so appalling that they lead to questions about their authenticity, not because they lack credibility, but because it is hard to fathom that human beings can treat others in such a way.
These people clean our streets and homes, build the skyscrapers we boast about, and take care of our loved ones. They do the jobs that many Arabs consider beneath them. How, then, can they be treated with such disdain or indifference?
I have personally witnessed acts of cruelty and indignity that are enacted in “The Help” and “The Butler.” It is often an assertion of dominance simply for the sake of it. The only thing worse than seeing it first-hand is to be unable to speak up because it is not your home. Arabs who watch such films should be doubly affected, because they are in effect watching two parallel injustices, one of which is literally at their doorstep.
No lack of piety
Black Christians in the United States had to endure the wrath of pious white co-religionists. Similarly, there is no lack of piety in the Arab world from people who willingly abuse fellow Muslims, particularly from Africa, South East Asia and the Indian subcontinent - basically, those who are darker. This is not only acute hypocrisy and racism, but a direct contradiction of the teachings of all religions.
How can we demand our rights, humanity and dignity when we deny them to others?Sharif Nashashibi
I vividly remember being questioned for some time a few years ago at a Gulf airport because I had committed the supposed sin of having a copy of Men’s Health magazine. I was made to feel like a ‘bad Muslim,’ by staff who were contemptuously barking orders and waving fingers at Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers and even travellers. That, apparently, is being a good Muslim.
There is even inter-Arab prejudice, particularly towards those who are black or simply darker. This from a people who wholeheartedly championed the anti-apartheid movement, and who fought together, regardless of color, against Western colonialism. I have heard countless times from supposedly liberal, progressive Arabs that it would be scandalous to bring someone home who is black or brown, even if they are also Arab.
There are adverts in the Middle East and North Africa (as well as other regions) for a skin bleach called Fair & Lovely, depicting people who have become successful, popular and attractive simply because they have lightened their skin. Meanwhile, white people risk cancer in pursuit of a tan.
Given that we have been negatively stereotyped throughout Western history, and continue to be so, when did we acquire this ‘white envy’? How did a people who constantly and justifiably lament its lack of unity become so hopelessly divided and divisive? How can we demand our rights, humanity and dignity when we deny them to others?
“Americans always turns a blind eye to our own back yard. We look out to the world and judge,” said Cecil Gaines, the main character in “The Butler.” So do Arabs. These contradictions and prejudices make us no different from other peoples through the ages, or indeed in the present day. However, they hold a particular significance and pain when they affect one’s own community.
Arabs are renowned for their hospitality and generosity, yet in our treatment of foreign labor, we are creating generations of people who have the worst possible impression of us. Who can blame them when that is their only experience?
“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others,” said the late Nelson Mandela, a hero among Arabs. As such, though the Arab world has fought so hard to unshackle itself from colonialism and imperialism, are we really free?
“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion,” said Mandela. “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” His words provide hope that what has been taught can be untaught, because there is nothing inherent in denigrating or oppressing one’s fellow man.
I urge Arabs to watch these movies, not just as a window into black history, but as a mirror of our present. It might seem obvious and cliche to urge that people treat others the way they would like to be treated, but we evidently need reminding.
This article was first published in the Middle East Magazine.
Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash