Too Arab for some Americans, too black for some Arabs

The Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama, has come under frequent attack in the US because his middle name is Hussein. But in the Middle East itself, it is Obama's blackness that is frowned upon.
The New Yorker's controversial cover, which played on some Americans' prejudices against Barack Obama. The Arab world too has its share of prejudices. R.R.

CAIRO, October 27, 2008 (MENASSAT) – It was one of the more memorable moments of the US presidential campaign. At a campaign rally for Republican nominee John McCain, a woman supporter voiced her mistrust of Democratic nominee Barack Obama by saying, "He's an Arab."

McCain, shaking his head in disapproval, said, "No, ma'am. He is a decent family man that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign is all about."

McCain's well-meaning comment led to much humorous speculation on the late night talk shows about the possibility of a person being of Arab descent yet still somehow loving his family.

Ironically, if John McCain had been addressing an audience in the Middle East, the comment might well have been, "He's black."

'Better them than us'

While in America it is considered uncouth to mention the "race" factor in the elections, there are some in the Middle East who have no qualms about opposing Barack Obama's candidature simply because he is black.

In that camp falls Ahmed Roshdy, an Egyptian businessman in his fifties, who seems to harbor the view that Barack Obama is unqualified to be the President of the United States solely because of the color of his skin.

"I just don’t see how he will be able to be president of America. The Americans would never vote for a black guy, especially not in the middle of the mess they are in right now. He would ruin everything", says Roshdy, while reclining in his seat at the exclusive Heliopolis Sporting Club in Cairo.

He concedes, however, that he would ultimately prefer an Obama presidency to a McCain one, if for no other reason than that he would rather see the US continue to "sink in chaos" than to have any more turmoil in the Middle East, which he believes a McCain Presidency would bring. "Better them than us," he chuckles.

While this level of racism may come as a shock to the average American voter, for people living in the Middle East it comes as no surprise.

Racism against black people has been alive and well in Arab countries for a long time, with Saudi Arabia ending its own private brand of slavery only at the beginning of the sixties and Mauritania still maintaining a very active slave trade until this day. Even in countries in which the practice of slavery never existed, the view of blacks as inferior has been prevalent for many years, and carries its own brand of prejudice culturally and politically.

Black = slave

In old Egyptian movies, the servants of the house were all black, either Sudanese or Nubian. The Egyptian government still carries out discriminatory policies towards Egypt's Nubian population, and the idea of having a suitor for one's daughter who happens to be dark skinned is grounds enough for the parents to disapprove of the marriage in many Arab countries.

One of the highest selling type of cosmetics in Egypt, Sudan and the Gulf today are skin-whitening creams that carry names such as "Fair and Lovely," "Ultra Fair" and "B-White," and whose advertisements send the message that girls will get the job/ men/look of their dreams if only they were whiter.

"Most westerners do not have an idea of how racist a place the Middle East can be," said Anthony Badran, a Lebanese Fellow for the DC-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. "They are completely unaware, for example, that in many Arab countries, the word still used to refer to a black person is 'abed' or 'slave.'"

While he believes that such a view is reprehensible, he acknowledges that it is shared by many people, and that the world-wide goodwill that the average American Obama supporter hopes an Obama presidency would bring, might not translate very well in Arab countries, or even with Arab leaders.

Many people expressed amusement at the notion of the first time either the Egyptian president Mubarak, or the Saudi King Fahd, who are both in their eighties, would have to meet with Barack Obama – an African-American half their age – as the president of the most powerful country in the world.

Ahmed Gamal, an Egyptian political analyst, holds a different view. Although he admits that some Arabs may harbor racist views, he says it ultimately doesn't matter because they would welcome an Obama presidency if for no other reason than the change it promises to bring, whether to the US or the region. "After eight years of Bush, any change at all is welcome," he said.

This view is also shared by Zaghloul Rabee', a newspaper salesman in the luxurious Cairo neighborhood of Mohandeseen. "His skin color doesn't matter to me. My skin tone is tanned, and so are the majority of Egyptians, with many being very dark-skinned. We were never really white people."


But Rabee' has a different reason to oppose an Obama presidency.

"I heard he was a Muslim named Hussein, but since the Jews who control America would never allow a Muslim President, he stopped being a Muslim and changed his name to Barack [like former Israeli PM Ehud Barak,] to make them happy. Why would I be happy to see someone like that being the President of the United States?"

Indeed, the American view that if some Americans attack Obama for being an Arab, then the Arab world must certainly support him, is not necessarily correct. As Robert Lane Green and Josie Delap, both writers for The Economist, argued in an article for the conservative journal, The New Republic, Arab pundits "have been arguing that [Obama] is not so unconventional an American politician when it comes to the Middle East, and that the people of the region have reason to be worried about an Obama presidency."

The souring of Arab opinion-leaders against Obama has primarily revolved around his Israel platform, say Green and Delap.

"His recent speech to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group, caused particular dismay. He promised to maintain billions in military aid to Israel, and said that "undivided" Jerusalem must remain Israel's eternal capital."

The recriminations from Arab opinion pages were swift, Green and Delap note.

In Al Sharq Al Awsat, journalist Nazir Majali noted that "Obama's words were more biased towards Israel than the speeches you hear at Likud conferences." In Al Masri Al Yawm, an Egyptian newspaper, Wahid Abdul Majid predicted that Obama's rhetoric on Israel will become more belligerent because "Obama feels he is weak as a result of the suspicions raised around his affiliations, his family, and the Muslim identity of his father."


Mahmoud Salem blogs at He was one of a group of Arab bloggers who traveled to the US in September to cover the elections campaign as part of a project by the Kamal Adham Center for Journalism Training and Research at the American University in Cairo. Salem is leaving for the US again on Thursday and will be covering the elections for Menassat.