Located in the Zubair region, near Basra in the far south of Iraq, the community has its origins in East Africa. Here, as in all the remote villages of Iraq, poverty and the decay of public services are displayed on every street corner, with dusty roads lined with blind cement houses.
If activists denounce the marginalization of the community, talking to Zubair about racism or discrimination offends the inhabitants who prefer the Arabic euphemism of “dark skin” to the use of the word black.
At 56, Mr. Abdelrahmane is part of one of those popular music troupes that made Zubair famous throughout the country and as far as border Kuwait, only about thirty kilometers away.
“In Zubair, we have lost count of the number of troupes,” the musician told AFP, sitting on a mattress on the floor in his living room. “It’s a profession you inherit. If someone dies, their son takes their place, so that the art doesn’t disappear,” he explains, adding that in his family, his uncle sang and his father was playing the drum.
Equipped with darboukas, drums and daf (large drum) made of goatskin, the musicians enliven weddings by leading the “zaffa”, a procession consisting of celebrating the bride and groom, dancing and singing.
Mr. Abdelrahman, who has been performing for four years in a “Heritage Association”, sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, recognizes that “the majority” of artists are black but ensures that he does not feel racism.
– “Discrimination positive” –
Activists, however, take a completely different view.
“Those with dark skin are fifth-class citizens, not even second-class,” laments Majed al-Khalidy, an oil company employee in Basra.
The 30-year-old calls for decent job opportunities and housing and denounces the deschooling that is wreaking havoc. He also criticizes abuses of language, widespread even among religious clerics, the term “slave” in Arabic still being used to designate a black person.
Historically, the black minority – between 250,000 and two million souls, according to informal estimates – has ancestors from Kenya, Ethiopia or even Sudan, historian Ibrahim Al-Marashi told AFP.
It was in the Basra region that slaves arrived to carry out “the grueling work of draining the salt marshes”.
“In historical writings, the first mention of the community dates back to 869 when they revolted”, adds the expert, in reference to the “rebellion of the Zanj”.
This uprising against the Arab dynasty of the Abassids allowed former slaves to establish their own city for fifteen years, before being defeated.
Today, Majed al-Khalidy believes in “positive discrimination” in the multi-denominational and multi-ethnic country, and calls for the inclusion of his community in the current system of quotas allowing certain minorities, Christians or Yazidis for example, to elect a representative to Parliament.
“To claim your rights, you have to be close to the decision-makers”, justifies Mr. Khalidy. Because even if it is anti-system, it remains realistic in an Iraq where a third of the population of 41 million lives in poverty and is led by clientelist parties, whose deputies can guarantee public jobs.
– “Long road” –
Illustration of a timid change? The first state news channel has had a young black woman among its presenters for more than a year, Randa Abdel Aziz, who now declines interviews to escape the spotlight after making the buzz.
On its website, the international NGO Minority Rights Group (MRG) mentions “disproportionately high rates of illiteracy and unemployment” in a community largely confined to the jobs of laborers and domestic workers.
“Discrimination can be seen at all levels,” admits Saad Salloum, an expert on questions of religious and ethnic diversity in Iraq.
“Politically they have no representation. Socially, certain stereotypes remain rooted in the dominant culture. Economically, the majority live below the poverty line”, sums up the expert.
In 2013, Jalal Thiyab, founder of the first association for the defense of minority rights, was assassinated shortly after local elections in Basra.
“There is still a long way to go in order to achieve equality for this minority and all the others,” said Mr. Salloum.