Blackface, Staple of Arab Comedy, Faces Surge of Criticism

Blackface, Staple of Arab Comedy, Faces Surge of Criticism


In one segment, her character makes her son urinate into a bottle. In another, she tries to foist a bottle of Russian vodka on a fellow passenger, a taboo for observant Muslims.

After Sudanese viewers flooded Ms. Seif’s Facebook page with criticism, she appeared on an MBC talk show to explain herself. Yet instead of apologizing, she doubled down on her humor.

“Don’t be angry,” she chided, smiling and trying to make light of the controversy. “Nothing bad was intended.”

Ms. Seif and a spokesman for MBC did not respond to requests for comment.

Whatever the intent of such performances, critics say they amplify a tolerance of racism that takes many forms in the Arab world. Slavery was not formally abolished in some Persian Gulf countries until 1970. In many places, the word “abeed,” meaning slaves or servants, is still the racial epithet of choice for dark-skinned people.

What happens onscreen translates into behavior on the street, said Abdullahi Hassan, 24, a film student who has cataloged dozens of instances of racism in Arab movies and TV shows, mostly in Egypt, going back decades.

“Random people will call me names and find it funny,” said Mr. Hassan, who grew up in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. “They think it’s O.K. because they’ve seen it in comedy sketches or television pranks.”

As in the United States, blackface in the Arab world is rooted in a history of oppression. For centuries, Arab slave traders captured black Africans and transported them by dhow to the Persian Gulf. Today, African domestic workers often face rampant abuse in the same region.

“Racial stereotypes persist, including the idea that black people have bizarre cultural practices or are prone to stealing,” said Nicholas McGeehan, an independent human rights researcher who specializes in the Persian Gulf. “It can lead to horrific abuses,” including physical violence, he said.

In a rare instance of accountability, a court in Belgium prosecuted eight princesses from the United Arab Emirates in 2017 on charges of human trafficking and degrading treatment of their mostly African domestic workers.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, casual racism is endemic and rarely punished. In Lebanon, where domestic workers from Ethiopia have been refused entry to beaches and social clubs, the pop diva Myriam Fares drew an online backlash in November for a jungle-themed video in which her body was painted black.



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