58% North African, 22% South European, 14% West African, 7% Ashkenazi; these were the DNA results of a close friend of mine, who looks phenotypically like me, and whose culture is the same as mine. Somebody commented on his Facebook post where he announced his genetic make-up: “Nice! My results showed 50% North African…then the rest a bit from everywhere.” These results revived an old question I had experimented with for a long time: why is North Africa persistently treated separately from the rest of Africa south of the Sahara? and can that be related to the dynamics used in the United States towards other communities?I posed this question to my professor of African politics and society once, when she announced that the class would focus on Sub-Saharan Africa, and leave out North Africa. She was a field scholar who did extensive research on East Africa in general, and Kenya in particular. She acknowledged the remark, and invited me to work on North Africa, and try to research the connections between the two sides of the Sahara. This is an example that ended with a positive compromise.
But not all intellectual and academic inquiries acknowledge this. In fact, I think that academia consciously engages in this division, following a tradition of a “pigmentocratic” worldview. The tradition of separating Africans from their achievements, or belittling them when there is no way of denying that it was an African exploit, is a constant trend in European academia, dating back to Herodotus, and extending into the 21st century understanding of many communities, based on their present phenotype, and not as a dynamic and complex group, which changed drastically though intermarriage and constant migrations.
One of these groups is the Moors, or the indigenous North Africans. The term Moor -from which Morocco originates- comes from the Latin word Mauri, and Greek word Maurus, which literally means black. The term used during the Hellenistic period to represent North West Africa is Mauritania, or the land of the blacks. Accounts from Visigothic Spain during the invasion of the Moors in 711 describe an army of Blacks accompanied with a minority of Arabs (upward of 300) Arabs. Furthermore, even those Arabs -whom the Europeans tried to separate from the African continent- are closely related to the Kushite, Ethiopian/Abyssinian, Nubian, Meroic, Himyarite civilizations, all of which had Africoid features, and their languages shared similarities with Africans.
In the Middle ages, the famous Almoravid emperor Yusuf Ibn Tashfin led an army of veiled Africans in a journey across North Africa and into Spain, to create a vast African empire with a European extension. The same is to be said about the Almohad empire, which succeeded the Almoravids in Andalusia. The images found in Alfonso X’s text, Las Cantigas are among many testimonies to the phenotype of these Moors coming from Africa to civilize Europe (this is also something that academia rarely acknowledges: the crucial role of the Moors in the genesis of the Scientific Renaissance in Europe). But as Europe moved towards the inquisition, black started representing an episode in the past that is to be forgotten or at least vilified.For many centuries, the Saharan desert and the Mediterranean Sea were not seen as barriers; instead they were bridges between different parts of the same economic, political, and cultural continuum. Another concept that can sheds the light on the myriad of colors found in North Africa is slavery. Hundreds of thousands of Slavs (which is thought to be the root for the word slave) and other Europeans were taken into slavery, and many of them were to be seen in Andalusia, Morocco, sometimes even in Timbuktu in Mali. This process of concubinage, which lasted for centuries, led to the creation of a new phenotype in North Africa. Many original Berber tribes in southern Morocco still maintain their phenotypical similarities with people south of Sahara.
Back to the European “pigmentocratic” worldview, the process by which Europeans tried to create different identities for the same people: the MOORS, reminds me of the systemic attempt in the United States’ history to create different categories of Mulatto, Mestizo, light-skinned… This strategy proved efficient in creating frictions within the African American community based on a European standard that categorically sees White as the model for beauty.
This ambiguity in defining North Africans is a struggle I face whenever I want to fill out any application. As Dena Takruri from AJ+ has remarked in a post recently, all Middle Eastern and North African folks in the United States must mark the White box when filling out demographic data. Well, I for one have never marked that box; because I recognize the complexity of my identity, which stems from an African root, and extends to include Arabic, Mediterranean, Jewish, and other tributaries, that is why I always identify as two or more races. I do not think that I fixed this identity challenge, but I feel that I actively seek to explore more edges of my identity, and not favor one element over all others.
Hamza El Anfassi