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Can Arabs and whites be real Africans? (I)

These two apparently unrelated events actually strike at the core of the enduring debate about what it means to be African. Are Arabs and Berbers…

These two apparently unrelated events actually strike at the core of the enduring debate about what it means to be African. Are Arabs and Berbers in North Africa “real” Africans? Can white settlers in Africa ever be “real” Africans? In other words, is blackness, however understood, infrangibly constitutive of Africanness?

My debater from Canada argued that Obama’s visit to Ghana, not Egypt, would be his first visit to Africa or, as he called it, “real” Africa. “I was referring to Obama’s first visit to a (sub-Saharan) African country–to see his own people, the real Africans,” he wrote. “By my strict Afrocentric definition, this would not include countries like Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, etc which, though located on the African continent, are inhabited by peoples of Arab descent.”

Not surprisingly, this view appears to enjoy wide currency among many black Africans. However, the supreme irony of this conception of what constitutes “real Africa” is that the term “Africa” actually originally exclusively referred to the same people and countries that this narrow, simplistic, and exclusionary conception seeks to exclude from it.

The name Africa is a holdover from present-day North Africa’s association with the ancient Roman Empire of which it was a province. “Afri” is the ancient Latin word for the amalgam of Berber peoples that inhabited (and still inhabit) what we today call North Africa, and “ca” is the Roman suffix for “land” or “country.” So “Africa” is basically Latin for “land of the Afri.” In other words, it means land of the Berbers. It was never used to refer to the people of “sub-Saharan Africa” until relatively recently.

After Arab conquest in medieval times, the entire area comprising western Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, and eastern Algeria was also called “Ifriqiya,” which is the Arabic rendering of “Africa.” Ifriqiya’s capital was Qayrawan (Kairouan) in what is today central Tunisia. (Under Roman rule, Carthage, also in present-day Tunisia, was the capital of the Africa Province of the Roman Empire). So, the countries that my debating partner excluded from his notion of what constitutes “real” Africa were actually known and referred to as “Africa” for more than a thousand years before European colonizers decided to arbitrarily extend the name to our part of the world.

I reminded my cyber conversational partner, too, that there were no Arabs in North Africa until about the 8th century. The indigenous groups there, as I said earlier, are broadly called Berbers. Ancient Greeks called them Libyans, Medieval Europeans called them Moors, and they call themselves some version of the word Imazighen (singular: Amazigh).  

According to historical records, there were three popes of Berber filiation who came from the Roman province of Africa, among them Pope Victor I who served during the reign of Roman emperor Septimus Severus (himself of Berber ancestry). (Zinedine Zidane, the France-based international football star, is probably the most famous Berber alive today).

 It was the Islamization of the people through the incursion of the Banu Hilal in the 11th century that Arabized them. But there are still many Berber cultural revival efforts (collectively called Berberism) fighting to either reclaim (such as in Tunisia and Algeria) or preserve (such as in Morocco and Libya) what the people consider the lost or dying glories of their pre-Islamic past.

And, in any event, Arabs have lived in the continent of Africa in large numbers since about the 8th century and have been referred to as “Africans” hundreds of years before us. We even have Nigerian Arabs, called Shuwa Arabs in Borno State, who have lived in that part of the country since at least the 12th century, that is, hundreds of years before there was a country called Nigeria. I asked my debating partner if he would consider Shuwa Arabs “fake” Nigerians since by his so-called Afrocentric definition of Africans Arabs are not “real” Africans.

Now, “skin color” can’t even be a criterion, much less the sole criterion, for “admitting” people into the “real” Africa, because the “purebred” Berbers of Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Algeria, etc (the original or, if you will, the “real” Africans) are actually, on average, “white” if we can, for now, arbitrarily deploy blue eyes and blond hair and pale skin as markers of “whiteness.”

Several studies have, in fact, shown that there are more blue-eyed and blond-haired people among the Berbers of North Africa than there are among southern Europeans (that is, Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Greeks, etc). The Berbers, additionally, have more genetic proximity with Europeans than they have with black Africans.

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