Louis Gossett Jr: One of his most iconic roles gives an inkling into the reasons behind some of Africa’s recent wars

Race is the “elephant in the room” in the Arab World

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Tuesday 02 April 2024
(Left) Anwar Sadat and (Right) Louis Gossett Jr

Louis Gossett, among Hollywood’s tallest actors (literally and figuratively), died at a rehabilitation centre in Santa Monica, California, on March 29, 2024, at the age of 87.

While most would remember him as Emil Foley, the tough instructor to the character played by Richard Gere in An Officer and A Gentleman (1982), it is one of his other roles — of the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat — and the controversy surrounding it that can give an inkling to why some of the most recent conflicts in Africa are taking place, one of them even threatening to destablise a whole country.

Sadat, a 1983 two-part, four-hour made-for-television biographical film, explores the life of Anwar Sadat, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s protégé, who later came into his own as the leader of Egypt, until he was tragically assassinated by Islamists in Cairo on October 6, 1981.

The role earned Gossett an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series. He was also nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Miniseries or Television Film.

However, the film’s reception in Egypt was not benign. The Egyptian Ministry of Culture banned the movie (and all other movies by production house, Columbia Pictures), accusing the film makers of “distorting history and slandering the Egyptian people”.

A suit was also brought against six Americans, including directors, producers and scriptwriters, by Egypt’s artists and film unions. It was later dismissed, according to the New York Times (NYT).

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One of the main objections of the Egyptian government was the portrayal of Sadat by a Black man. The NYT also noted in a report from 1984 that Sadat “had appeared particularly sensitive throughout his presidency about his dark complexion, which was the brunt of jokes and ridicule”.

The portrayal of Sadat by a Black man had revived the issue of race in Egypt, it added.

Last year, a similar reaction took place after OTT platform Netflix aired a trailer of its show on Cleopatra, the Ptolemaic queen of Egypt.

Queen Cleopatra depicted the Egyptian queen as a Black African woman. The Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt, named after one of the generals of Alexander the Great, was of ethnic Greek origin.

In the wake of the trailer, many Egyptians again accused the filmmakers of “falsifying history”.

These two instances show that race is the “elephant in the room” in the Arab World.

An ambiguous attitude

Mark Perry, in his study Perceptions of race in the Arab world notes that the relationship between the Arabs and Africans have always been ‘ambiguous’.

“On the one hand, Arab merchants were long perceived by Africans as exploitative opportunists. On the other hand, Islam’s strikingly positive attitude toward the African peoples became established on an early footing in the days of Muhammad himself,” he writes.

Perry alludes to the Quranic verse 49:13 (Surat Al-Hujurat):

O people! We have created you from a male and a female and we have made you into confederacies and tribes so that you may come to know one another. The noblest among you in the eyes of God is the most pious, for God is omniscient and well-informed.

Another instance of the equality enshrined in Islam comes from the life of Bilal ibn Rabah. An Abyssinian slave, he was chosen by the Prophet himself as the first Muazzin. Bilal, in his mellifluous voice, gave the first call to prayer (Adhan).

However, as Perry notes, racial prejudice in the Islamic world, while less than in the West, “has been a consistent and prominent feature. The historical record shows that the spirit embodied in these verses was not translated into social practice in daily life”.

The Arabs were responsible for the trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slave trade, which are not as well known as their transatlantic counterpart.

Perry adds:

As Europe’s power arose following the Renaissance, white slaves became rarer, until “by the seventeenth century blackness of skin [or] African origin was virtually synonymous in the Arab world with both the notion and the word ‘slave’; they were `abíd. Even to this day the word for Africans in many dialects of Arabic remains just that—`abíd—“slaves.”

And it is this perception of Black people as ‘slaves’ that continues to colour Arab attitudes. It is reflected in the racist caricatures and stereotypes of Black Arabs (like those from the Sudan) as well as people of African descent in general in Arab mass media.

The kafala system, an exploitative and extractive system of labour in the Arab world, “allows employers to withhold domestic workers’ passports and severely limit their freedom and ability to protest abusive work conditions”, notes The Atlantic Council on its website.

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“In Egypt, the Nubian community continues to be a target of racist slurs, cultural discrimination, and violent attacks,” the Council adds. Nubia is a region that stretches from Upper Egypt to northern Sudan.

But perhaps the biggest legacy of this ambiguous relationship between the Arabs and Africans is playing out currently across the entire African continent: From Mauritania in the west to Zanzibar in the East.

Africa’s Colour Wall

Perry observes that “the twelve centuries of contacts between sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab Middle East have been asymmetrical”.

The Arabs “have felt superior as the conveyors of a “civilized” culture, and have generally tended to be condescending towards those regarded as “inferior.”

Africans, on the other hand, consider Arabs “as cunning, crafty, dishonest, and untrustworthy, not least because their racial and cultural arrogance continues to revive “memories” of the rampages of slave traders in their region”.

Perry draws attention to a host of Arab-African tensions and conflicts, that have existed throughout the fringes of the Arab world.

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He points to Zanzibar in the 1960s and Sudan, Libya, Chad, Somalia and Mauritania today.

Among these conflicts, Sudan now threatens to become a humanitarian catastrophe. The country split in 2011 as its predominantly Black African southern regions became the newly-independent South Sudan.

Southerners had been at the receiving end of what has been called a “genocidal conflict” by Omar al-Bashir’s Arab-dominated government in the north.

Also, in 2003, tensions exploded in the western part of Sudan. Arab militia units, known as Janjaweed overran Black African villages in Darfur, western Sudan, leaving a trail of massacres and rapes.

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While the refugee crisis due to South Sudan and Darfur is not over yet, a new front opened in Sudan last year when a power struggle ensued between the Sudanese Army and the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary.

And while the current crisis in Sudan is neither religious nor racial in nature, its roots definitely lie in Omar al-Bashir’s 3-decade-long autocratic rule, which led to the wars in South Sudan and Darfur.

In his paper, Perry advises that “Research needs to be conducted on present-day attitudes toward skin color in Arab society; the issue of skin-color in Arab film and television; the application of human rights guarantees to foreign workers; the prevalence or absence of intermarriage”.

He also calls for ethnographies of coherent African and African-Arab communities in the Arab world and in Africa.

“The ongoing practice of slavery, in all its forms, needs to be brought to light by Arab scholars. Comparative studies must be conducted relating the Catholic Church and Islam in their respective practices of slavery,” says Perry.

And while Gossett Jr has passed, his portrayal of Sadat and the ensuing backlash should remind us that racism continues to be embedded in the Arab psyche, despite the egalitarian message of Islam.

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