Black Iraqis In Basra Face Racism Iraqis of African descent in the southern port city of Basra say they're still discriminated against because of the color of their skin. Long relegated to menial jobs or work as musicians and dancers, some have recently formed a group to advance their civil rights.

Black Iraqis In Basra Face Racism

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It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Some residents of Iraq had personal reasons to celebrate Barack Obama's election. They are Iraqis of African descent, and they face discrimination even though they've been in Iraq more than a thousand years. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from their home city, Basra.

(Soundbite of people drumming and singing)

COREY FLINTOFF: When there's a big wedding in Basra, people call the drummers from the district called Zubair. The traditional welcome for a Basrawi bride and groom is provided by a row of musicians in traditional Arab dress, long dishdasha gowns, and red-checked headscarves. They sway in unison to the rhythms they slap out on broad tambourine-like drums and drive up the excitement as the newlyweds cross the threshold of a Basra hotel. They're black men, descendants of the people who came here from East Africa as sailors or slaves over the course of centuries. And while they're welcome fixtures at joyous events all over the city, they say they're not as welcome in Basra's political, commercial, or educational life.

Mr. JALAL DIYAAB (General Secretary, Free Iraqi Movement): (Through Translator) People here see us as slaves. They even call us by the word that means slave.

FLINTOFF: Jalal Diyaab is a 43-year-old activist, the general secretary of the Free Iraqi Movement. He sits with more than a dozen other men in a narrow, high-ceilinged room in a mud-brick building in Zubair talking about a history of slavery and oppression that he says dates back to at least the ninth century.

Mr. DIYAAB: (Through Translator) Black people worked on the plantations around Basra doing the hard labor until there was a slave uprising in the mid-800s. Black people ruled Basra for about 15 years until the caliph sent troops. Many of the black rebels were massacred, and others were sold to the Arab tribes.

FLINTOFF: Slavery was abolished here in the 19th century, but Diyaab says black people in modern-day Iraq still face discrimination.

Mr. DIYAAB: (Through Translator) They still look at us as being incapable of making decisions or even governing our lives. People here are 95 percent illiterate. They have bad living conditions and very few jobs.

FLINTOFF: Diyaab takes visitors across the street to a warren of mud-brick courtyards where dozens of people are packed into tiny rooms without running water or sewage. The narrow passageways reek of excrement.

Mr. DIYAAB: (Through Translator) These houses are like caves. This house? This is the entire house. This yard is the entire place where 15 members - the family of this man - are living.

(Soundbite of thunderstorm)

FLINTOFF: As a thunderstorm sweeps in from the Persian Gulf. The men show another room where more than 20 people will have to take shelter. They say the rain will flood these rooms and courtyards ankle-deep with muck and sewage. Diyaab says there are more than two million black people in Iraq and that they want recognition as a minority, like Christians, whose rights should be protected. He says his group's demands have been ignored by the Iraqi government, but they have found an ally in a Sunni political party, the National Dialogue Front. Awath al-Abdan is the head of that party in Basra, and he says he thinks black Iraqis have a strong case for getting their minority status recognized.

Mr. AWATH AL-ABDAN (Leader, National Dialogue Front): (Through Translator) We expect this cause to become a political reality soon, because it just started to get publicity. We're working hard to get these people's message heard.

FLINTOFF: For now, the message that most people in Basra hear from the black community is the joy its musicians help bring to weddings. But there's an entirely different feeling when they play for themselves. The community has preserved many traditions from its African roots, including healing ceremonies that call up spirits from their ancient homeland.

(Soundbite of men preparing for healing ceremony)

In a mud-brick courtyard in Zubair, men hang bright flags and prepare an altar for a ceremony they say will summon a spirit from Africa. At the center of the altar is a model of an Arab sailing dhow, the kind of ship that brought their ancestors to this city. Baba Sa'eed al-Basri is a prominent local musician, but he's also the leader of this religious sect which combines elements of Islam with African spirit traditions.

Mr. BABA SA'EED AL-BASRI (Musician; Religious Leader): (Through Translator) These rituals are inherited self-expressions that were brought to us from Africa through the ships that traded in this port.

(Soundbite of Islamic invocation)

FLINTOFF: The ceremony begins with an Islamic invocation, "There is no God, but God." But soon, the singers say, another being announces his presence. The singers repeat, "A stranger is calling. The sea is calling." Then Baba Sa'eed, who's been doing a seated dance by the altar, goes rigid and begins speaking in what he later says was an African dialect punctuated by phrases in broken Arabic.

Mr. AL-BASRI: (African dialect and Arabic spoken)

FLINTOFF: He says this place has been blessed. The ceremony ends with a song that Baba says will send the spirits back to their homes, retracing the journey that his ancestors made back across the sea to Yemen and then on to the coast of East Africa.

(Soundbite of people chanting)

FLINTOFF: The candles and the incense are extinguished, the flags are taken down, and the model ship is put away. The black musicians of Zubair pack up their drums and get ready to play another round of weddings. Corey Flintoff, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You can see photos of that ceremony preserving African roots in Basra at our Web site,

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