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Big, Black, and Nappy in the Persian Gulf Part III: So Do They Have Black People There?

3 September 2008 5 Comments


Answer: That would be a yes.

The first thing I noticed about Doha was that black movies and television shows came on all of the time. I’m talking about Jumping Jack Flash, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (twice in one month!), Meet The Browns, Juice, the Eve show, All of Us – I mean everything. Alex Haley’s Roots just happened to be on television five or six times while I was in Doha, often in casual marathons like they were “Police Academy” installments. The real zinger was that at 4:00 AM every morning guess what was on? The Creflo Dollar Show of all things – in a Muslim country. In sum, there was more black entertainment on Qatari television than I’d ever find during the blackest Black History month on TvOne. As is further evidenced by the tourist knick-knack that I spotted in Souq Waqif (above), the Persian Gulf knows what black America is – the most beloved yet downtrodden culture on the planet, naturally!

One of the undercover burdens of being black when travelling is that we’re always keeping an eye out for other black folks, even though in most cases these “black people” have nothing in common with us in the cultural sense. All of that side-eyein’ requires lots of energy, but there’s no way to turn it off, so “Negro Detection” may as well be the way that we meet people abroad. During my month in Doha I only met two black Americans, but I was far from being the only big, black, nappy person in the Gulf. I’d estimate that 15% of the Qataris on the street would be considered “black,” by our standards. Take, for example, the above poster of some Yemeni singing sensation whose name I don’t even know. His picture was up in every music store and if that is not a black person I don’t know what is – I know naps when I see ’em!

Black women in western dress were very few, so I was often asked if I were African. No, I’m African-American, I’d reply. And every single time the asker would say “Hmmm. So are you African or American?” and then further probe about which country my ancestors are from. The clear suggestion here, which I’ve encountered in other countries as well, is that Americans are uniform enough that hyphenated terms are meaningless, and most people outside of the US have not really thought about what slavery was all about as far as our loss of known lineage. Instead of a black American I was looked upon as an American who happens to be black. As a result, the Lousiana Hot Sauce above, spotted in a Qatari grocery store, was not considered “black” hot sauce (which all of us know it is), and even relaxer kits (below) were for “Afro Heritage” or “Frizzy” hair. Likewise, when I mentioned Barack Obama to Qataris all of them considered him an African Muslim, not biracial, not Christian, and not a black American. Their reasoning was that according to Islam, faith and lineage is dictated by the faith of your father alone, and since his father was a Muslim Kenyan so is Barack. Many people I spoke to considered Obama’s proclaimed Christianity a crime against Islam worse than any political position, while others would rather see Obama in office over any war-monger like McCain. In spite of these details, almost everyone I spoke with considered an Obama victory a victory for people of color worldwide.

To further educate myself I made sure to ask one of my Qatari colleagues – let’s call him “Ahmed” – as many questions as I could about what it means to be black in the Gulf. This was, of course, only after I heard him refer to himself as “black”; the absolute worst feeling in the world is realizing that you have to convince another black person that they’re one of us and I didn’t want to insult him by doing so. Ahmed was super cool, and looked more like my geechee uncle than an Arab. In fact, I’m sure that if any of you saw him you would call him black, especially since his straight hair was covered in traditional Qatari garb. When I showed him what a geechee looked like he was none too pleased, but every time I leave the country I’m told that I look like Missy Elliot so I didn’t mind passing the buck. He told me that while he is black, there are many members of his family who are “white,” or what we’d consider Arab. He said that he has cousins with nappy hair who are amazed at his straight hair, and white friends with children who don’t want to kiss him because they think the black will come off. He told me that the only stereotype about black people is that we sweat a lot, and that Qataris colloquially call the Afro pic with the fist a “Jackson Five.” Ahmed also told me that although the Gulf is filled with people of all colors and hair textures, since you don’t usually see any one’s hair, male or female, hair is not a huge issue in society. He stressed the fact that being a Qatari was unrelated to race, and amongst his countrymen your family name was way more important that your skin tone.

As much as the concept of race seemed to have its trappings, it was clear very early on that ideas of country, class, and religion trump something as flimsy as race in Gulf society. The order of things, especially the emphasis on class and social standing, was refreshing but also troubling. I’m not sure whether class or race has a more dramatic effect on discrimination in the United States, but I didn’t spend nearly as much time being homesick as I would have had there been no black culture influence whatsoever in Doha. In fact, if we had to leave the United States in droves I would list the Gulf as one of the best places to start a new black American colony. Just a thought…

5 Comments »

  • Reginald Dorsey said:

    Crystal Hot Sauce as the key to Pan-African/tangential-negroid solidarity? It just might work.

  • Jazzy said:

    Thembi I have really enjoyed your recount of your trip to the Middle East. I might actually be able to convince my husband to travel to the region now.

  • Lovely Lady Luxe said:

    LOL! Creflo Dollar? I never would have guessed!

  • Anonymous said:

    What is your thought on why so much black culture from the “US is being piped into Qatar when they don’t, by your words, consider themselves “black”

  • Janet said:

    This was fascinating to read. That musician looks just like one of our Bachateros from the Dominican Republic. I don’t think your hair texture should categorize you as black, white or whatever. Tony Shalhoub, the guy who plays Monk has that hair and he is Lebanese. We Americans have a fixation with color and race. I still have my head divided into two when it comes to this.
    I was on vacation back at the homeland (DR) and was watching American television with my cousin. He said “Those black guys sure can dance. They come up with some good stuff” I just looked at him and my American mind thought “You’re ebony! Black guys back home would give you hell for that comment!” I have to constantly keep in mind that culture and nationality comes first for them. This is not to say that there is no racism. It’s just more accepted and not as taboo. For them I’m fair skinned. Here at home I might as well send in my membership application to the NAACP. Culture shocks galore.

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