When I was a child in post-revolutionary Iran, I heard a limerick titled “Black Person”:
Black person, black person
You’re the laziest in the class
You wanted a mark of “20” (equivalent to an A+)
From the teacher
But now that you’ve flunked
I feel sorry for you
So I’ll take you to the bazaar
And sell you for four thousand [tomans]
I’d never met a Black person but the limerick painted them as inferior and synonymous with slaves.
Iran has a largely forgotten Afro-Iranian population, descendants of those who arrived during the 19th-century Indian Ocean slave trade. Today, their descendants live primarily in southern coastal provinces such as Hormozgan, which partially explains why I never saw a Black person in Tehran.
I was only 6, but I understood there was something wrong with that limerick. Nevertheless, I didn’t give it much thought until 2019, when The New York Times Magazine ran its “1619 Project” — an initiative whose goal is to depict the United States as an inherently racist country but which the Times stated is a way to “reframe the country’s history” around “the contributions of black Americans.” That’s when I was reminded of that limerick and the often-neglected history of the slave trade in the Muslim world.
Although I never learned about the history of slavery in Iran, I studied this country’s history of slavery in an American junior high, high school and college.
Iran’s history of slavery might never become part of that country’s national consciousness. So it’s outrageous when Iranian leaders accuse the U.S. of human rights abuses, given that Iran is the world’s leading state-sponsor of terrorism and persecutes women, religious minorities and the LGBT community. In response to the May 25 death of George Floyd in police custody, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweeted on June 3: “The people’s slogan of #ICantBreathe, which can be heard in the massive protests throughout the US, is the heartfelt words of all nations against which the US has committed many atrocities.”
The response was swift and appropriate: Many people posted photos in the comments section below his tweet of Iranian prisoners, especially those hanging from cranes after being publicly executed because they were gay — a crime in Iran.
There may still be children in Iran singing “Black Person” without realizing how offensive it is. With the regime controlling the public’s access to information, residents would have to leave the country to learn more about its history of slavery.
If they did, they might learn from historian Roger Botte (cited in Yves Beigbeder’s 2006 book, “Judging War Crimes and Torture: French Justice and International Criminal Tribunals and Commissions”), from the ninth to the 20th century, 12-15 million Africans were brought to Muslim countries and enslaved.
The Arab slave trade gradually was outlawed or diminished after World War I in Muslim territories because of pressure from Western nations such as Great Britain and France. Iran didn’t abolish slavery until 1929; Saudi Arabia and Yemen didn’t follow suit until 1962; Oman finally ended slavery 1972. In Mauritania, slavery was so commonplace that laws relating to its prohibition were passed three times: in 1905, when France, which colonized Mauritania, declared an end to slavery but the practice still continued; in 1981, when a presidential decree made Mauritania the last country in the world to abolish slavery; and in 2007, when the ban against slavery finally was enforced and slaveholders were prosecuted. But according to the International Dalit Solidarity Networks, which works to end caste-based discrimination, in 2018, local human rights groups in Mauritania alleged that 20% of the population was enslaved, mostly as child brides, laborers or servants.
Slavery still exists in many countries that officially abolished the practice, including Mauritania and Libya. According to the Walnut, Calif.-based World Population Review website, which filters through and presents data in concise and accessible visuals and analysis, as of 2020, 167 countries still have some form of slavery, affecting 48 million people. (Modern-day slavery often is called “human trafficking.”)
According to a 2017 report by the International Organization for Migration, headquartered in Switzerland, hundreds of migrants, mostly young males, from sub-Saharan Africa who are emigrating to Europe are detained in North Africa by militia groups and smugglers in Libya and Algeria. They’re abducted and sold in makeshift-slave auctions in town squares and parking lots. Hundreds of female migrants, many of whom are traveling alone from sub-Saharan Africa, are rounded up by militias in Libya and sold as sex slaves.
A 2007 BBC online story titled “The Child Slaves of Saudi Arabia” detailed the devastating fate of thousands of children who are smuggled by gangs into the kingdom, mostly over the porous border with Yemen. Yemeni parents hire smugglers to traffic their children into Saudi Arabia, an effort by some parents to protect their children from war and famine as a result of Yemen’s conflict with Saudi Arabia, while other parents hope their children will work in the kingdom as unskilled laborers and provide some economic relief for the family. But after these children are smuggled out of Yemen, the gang masters who bring them to Saudi Arabia often force them to beg for money (none of which the children gets to keep, according to the BBC story). If the children refuse, they’re often beaten.
Americans who criticize the U.S. for its racial inequity overlook the history and existence of slavery in other parts of the world.
Brazil, which welcomes millions of tourists annually, accepted more African-born people as slaves than any other country — a staggering 5 million from 1501 to 1866, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, an Emory University digital library research initiative.
I recently spoke with a friend who is passionate about supporting Black Americans and the Black Lives Matter movement. He cheers when Confederate statues are torn down and believes that the United States is an inherently racist country. He said he couldn’t wait until pandemic travel restrictions were lifted so he could take a relaxing vacation far from America’s “hateful ghosts of slavery.” His preferred destination? Brazil.
But here’s the thing about America. In a true democracy, even a campaign that aims to paint the U.S. as inherently racist might lead to learning about life in Saudi Arabian streets, Brazilian plantations and Libyan town squares. And then you’re free to book your next vacation to Rio de Janeiro, COVID-19 travel restrictions permitting.
Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer, speaker and activist.