Blackface, Staple of Arab Comedy, Faces Surge of Criticism

A hidden-camera sketch on a Libyan comedy show featured an actor in blackface whose “babies” turned out to be monkeys. (“The New York Times”)

Blackface, Staple of Arab Comedy, Faces Surge of Criticism

Originally published in The New York Times

August 18, 2019

Declan Walsh

CAIRO — On the Libyan comedy show, the punch line was in the baby carriage.

An elevator door slams shut, separating the mother — an actress in blackface — from her babies. A hidden camera shows unsuspecting passengers trapped inside with the baby carriage.

“Watch my babies!” the mother calls out in mock horror.

But when the passengers pull back the carriage cover, a pair of monkeys leap out.

A hidden-camera sketch on a Libyan comedy show featured an actor in blackface whose “babies” turned out to be monkeys. (The New York Times)

Blackface, a racist entertainment device with roots in 19th-century America, is alive and well in mainstream Arab entertainment. On television networks across the Middle East, performers regularly darken their faces in comedy skits to wring cheap laughs from demeaning stereotypes and centuries-old prejudices.

The practice is offensive enough in the United States that when a photo of a man in blackface was discovered on the medical-school yearbook page of Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia, he faced widespread demands to resign. In Italy, the state airline Alitalia was forced to pull an advertisement in July in which an actor in blackface portrayed former President Barack Obama.

In the Arab world, where racism is a deeply rooted yet rarely discussed issue, blackface comedy is facing a surge of criticism on social media, even forcing the occasional apology. But the practice remains widespread and acceptable enough to be a staple on major television networks.

The monkeys skit, shown on a private Libyan channel, may have been a particularly egregious example. But in the past year or so, comedy shows in Egypt and Kuwait have also featured blackface performances, and so has a music video by a Lebanese pop star.

Several aired during the holy month of Ramadan, the high season for new television programming in the Middle East, when families gather to watch their favorite shows after breaking their daily fast.

Some Arab entertainers defend the device as a harmless joke.

“It’s just comedy,” said the popular Egyptian comedian Shaimaa Seif after she donned blackface for a show that aired in May on MBC, the region’s biggest satellite network.

The targets of that humor — most often from Sudan, a sprawling Arabic-speaking country in Africa — say there is nothing funny about it.

“Blackface is disgusting and offensive,” said Sara Elhassan, a Sudanese writer in the United States. “It’s not just about skin color; it’s about stereotypes.”

She listed some common tropes in Arab comedy: “The black person is lazy. They don’t speak Arabic properly. If they’re Sudanese, they have a ridiculous accent. Or they’re lying on a bed, always falling asleep.”

After years of silently ignoring offensive skits on television, some Arabs are turning to social media to vent their anger and demand change.

On Twitter, the Libyan activist Nader Elgadi slammed the monkeys-in-the-baby-carriage sketch and called for a campaign “to punish everyone involved.” In an interview, he said the clip reflects deep-seated prejudices in a country where 600,000 mostly African migrants live in desperate conditions.

But he was heartened to see that, at least online, many Libyans shared his revulsion.

“People were like, ‘This is not O.K.,’” he said. “It’s a good first step.”

Al Ahrar, the private Libyan channel that aired the show, did not respond to a request for comment.

In other cases, though, public shaming has had little effect.

In the clip that brought criticism of Ms. Seif, the Egyptian actress, she played a boorish Sudanese woman who swears, drinks and talks gibberish on a public bus.

“It’s just comedy,” said Shaimaa Seif, an Egyptian comedian who wore blackface to play a boorish Sudanese woman on MBC, the region’s biggest satellite network. (The New York Times)

In one segment, her character makes her son urinate into a bottle. In another, she tries to foist a bottle of Russian vodka on a fellow passenger, a taboo for observant Muslims.

After Sudanese viewers flooded Ms. Seif’s Facebook page with criticism, she appeared on an MBC talk show to explain herself. Yet instead of apologizing, she doubled down on her humor.

“Don’t be angry,” she chided, smiling and trying to make light of the controversy. “Nothing bad was intended.”

Ms. Seif and a spokesman for MBC did not respond to requests for comment.

Whatever the intent of such performances, critics say they amplify a tolerance of racism that takes many forms in the Arab world. Slavery was not formally abolished in some Persian Gulf countries until 1970. In many places, the word “abeed,” meaning slaves or servants, is still the racial epithet of choice for dark-skinned people.

What happens onscreen translates into behavior on the street, said Abdullahi Hassan, 24, a film student who has cataloged dozens of instances of racism in Arab movies and TV shows, mostly in Egypt, going back decades.

“Random people will call me names and find it funny,” said Mr. Hassan, who grew up in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. “They think it’s O.K. because they’ve seen it in comedy sketches or television pranks.”

As in the United States, blackface in the Arab world is rooted in a history of oppression. For centuries, Arab enslavers captured black Africans and transported them by dhow to the Persian Gulf. Today, African domestic workers often face rampant abuse in the same region.

“Racial stereotypes persist, including the idea that black people have bizarre cultural practices or are prone to stealing,” said Nicholas McGeehan, an independent human rights researcher who specializes in the Persian Gulf. “It can lead to horrific abuses,” including physical violence, he said.

In a rare instance of accountability, a court in Belgium prosecuted eight princesses from the United Arab Emirates in 2017 on charges of human trafficking and degrading treatment of their mostly African domestic workers.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, casual racism is endemic and rarely punished. In Lebanon, where domestic workers from Ethiopia have been refused entry to beaches and social clubs, the pop diva Myriam Fares drew an online backlash in November for a jungle-themed video in which her body was painted black.

The Lebanese pop singer Myriam Fares painted her body black for a jungle-themed music video. (The New York Times)

Racism is even an issue in countries that are themselves the butt of bigotry. In Sudan, darker-skinned people from marginalized regions like Darfur have long suffered discrimination at the hands of lighter-skinned, more powerful tribes from other regions.

The persistence of blackface is not limited to the Middle East. In a rash of publicized incidents in 2016, white Australians painted their faces in tribute to black sports and entertainment stars, like Serena Williams and Kanye West.

A year later, the Malaysian retail giant Watsons was forced to pull an ad that depicted a man who recoils in horror before a woman in blackface. In March, a Mexican actress was assailed for wearing “brownface” in a parody of the indigenous Mexican actress Yalitza Aparicio.

Public apologies for racism are rare in the Arab world, although there are some signs of growing awareness. A new media law in Egypt criminalizes racist content, with an offending television station facing a possible fine or even a shutdown.

Yet the law has yet to result in high-profile prosecutions, and critics worry it could be abused to silence legitimate satire. And more broadly, dark-skinned people remain woefully underrepresented in Egyptian popular culture.

“Rarely do we have a popular black actor,” said Mohamed Azmy, founder of the Egyptian Observatory for the Elimination of Racism, which campaigned for the racism provision in the media law. “Egyptian cinema is a white man’s cinema.”

Still, ever-louder challenges on social media have caused at least some in the Arab world to question tropes like blackface — including the actors performing them.

After Kuwait’s state television station came under fire last year for a crude blackface comedy skit targeting the Sudanese, the show’s lead actor, Hasan al-Ballam, took to Instagram to apologize.

Henceforth, Mr. al-Ballam said, he would no longer perform impressions of anyone.

“I ask for forgiveness from everyone,” he said.

Nada Rashwan and Farah Saafan contributed reporting from Cairo, and Hwaida Saad from Beirut.