Constructions of Black Identities within Jordan
By: Kawther Berhanu
May 11, 2018
Understanding constructions of racial identities beyond the U.S. context is always a humbling reminder of the literal black and white lens in which I view the world as an American. The racial binary that operates within the United States is rare. Due to Western imperialism in academia, I have found that we are beginning to impose our racial discourse in contexts that have different—not necessarily better or worse—dynamics. For example, black Jordanians do not have a sense of peoplehood in the way that the black community has in the United States. There is no law in Jordan that explicitly addresses racial discrimination. While some explain that the lack of laws addressing racial discrimination is because Jordan a color-blind society, others find that this stifles conversation.
It has also been interesting to see U.S.-produced racial stereotypes manifested here. Many classmates and I have interacted with people who asked us about black gangs in Chicago or used the n-word casually. It became increasingly clear that for most people in Jordan, they have very limited interaction with black people, and most of their information about them comes from Hollywood. Along with the n-word, there have been other interesting politics surrounding terminology used to describe black people. The term abd, for example, is a common term used to describe black people, but it literally means “slave” in Arabic. To give a sense of its use, an Afro-Palestinian woman told me her friend, a non-black Arab, went to the beach and upon returning she pointed out her tan boasted about how abd she had become. Even in a more professional setting, a classmate of mine was describing herself as sawda (black) and the professor quickly corrected her and told her to describe herself as samra (brown). The word samra was initially used to refer to darker Arabs but has extended to describing black people out of an effort to be polite; perhaps, because being called black is seen as insulting.
People often assume black people within Jordan are non-Arab or at the very least non-Jordanians. However, there is a considerable amount of people who are from Jordan, meaning as far back as they can trace their ancestry. Afro-Jordanians primarily come from two places: Al-Ghor (the Jordan River Valley) and the Afro-Palestinian community. I had several interesting experiences when engaging with members of these communities, and many of them immediately perceived a sense of shared identity between us. When in Al-Ghor, I visited a farm with some classmates and immediately upon entering, the family gravitated toward me, bringing me sweets and tea and taking pictures with me. They said they had never seen someone who “looked like they could be part of their family” visiting with a study abroad group. I also was excited and told them that I heard black Jordanians existed, but that I had not seen any yet. They quickly corrected me saying they were not black, they were Jordanian (many people feel this to be mutually exclusive), and that their dark skin was merely a product of their profession. “We’re like you: we’re samra (brown-skinned), but we’re not Africans. We’re Arabs.” The mother of the family who was telling me this had clearly bleached skin, as did her friends. I wondered how much of the desire to create distance from the continent came from negative perceptions of blackness and how much of it—particularly in a country that is as diverse as Jordan—came from the effort to prove their nationality.
Interestingly enough the more research I did and more people I spoke to, I learned that these people were descendants of slaves of a nearby tribe, and to this day the people of Al-Ghor are still sometimes referred to as the slaves of that tribe. The Afro-Palestinian community apparently has similar origins. When I went to Jerusalem, I learned that the African or Afro-Palestinian quarter is often referred to as the abd corridor. This semester I have spent a lot of time outside of the classroom working with an organization which focuses on supporting African-origin refugees. Jordan has often been nicknamed the “eye of the storm” in the region and has a large refugee population. Priority often goes towards individuals from Syria and Iraq. A number of factors including regional politics, race, and attention placed upon certain conflicts and size of communities impact the priority for Syrians and Iraqis. Regardless, refugees from African origins often get the shorter end of the stick. Most of them, specifically refugees from Sudan, are not recognized as being refugees despite most of them escaping from Darfur.
Obviously no two people’s experiences are the same, but when speaking with community members, many of them have expressed their challenges integrating with the greater community. Many have expressed feeling invisible, or quite the opposite: sticking out so much and getting adverse reactions. Younger students described incidents where they dealt with bullying at school and being called “Ya Sudania” (literally means "Sudanese girl") or "Ya Aswad” (black person), but both terms double as slurs. Young men have described being harassed by the police more frequently then their non-black peers for things such as loitering and randomly being asked to present their identification. This is an experience of young black men which seems to be consistent throughout the world. Because some members of the Sudanese and Somali community may remain in Jordan on overstayed visas, they often find obstacles to obtaining suitable work and have few protections to keep them from being exploited in the workplace.
Despite the many challenges they face here, African migrants and black Jordanians seem to carry an overwhelmingly similar desire to assimilate, blend, or as one person I spoke to described it, “add to the Jordanian rainbow.” Many expressed concerns over increased conversation on the topic of fear that it may create more obstacles for them in the future. Many community organizers are working to balance celebrating the identities of these individuals to develop confidence and challenge stereotypes while being conscious that too much focus on the racial identity may create a fragmented community. To prevent such a phenomenon, black migrants and refugees at large are invested in community-level projects that integrate other Jordanian society members, including this skate park project I volunteer with. I hope to continue learning from the nuanced relationship to race here and how it informs various sectors of life.