African studies has long suffered from a divide between north and south of the Sahara. Scholars of the sub-Saharan strained to buold bridges with the studies of North Africa, which from Braudel to the present has been integrated neatly (and not illogically) into the Mediterranean world. Pan Africanists of course emphasize the unity of Africa and recent single-volume histories of the entire continental land mass earnestly attempt to identify robust multi-directional links between North and South.
One challenge for both approaches to understanding Africa is race. The sub-Saharan and “black Africa” are largely viewed as coincident. North Africa, by contrast, is chiefly viewed as part of the “Arab world,” whatever that means (and if it means anything, it means something different to different thinkers). One meaning of course is to read Arab as synonymous with Islam, and yet the meaning of Islam in the North is often quite different than in the sub-Saharan.
The thicket of issues grows even denser when the subject of race within the African continent is broached. Here the divide between North and South appears, on the surface at least, quite real and impenetrable. North Africans often present their region as so hybridized that race is irrevelant. And yet the status (or lack of it) of actual black people in, say, Egypt or Morocco, suggests that North Africa isn’t race neutral but rather decidedly ambivalent about the embrace of racial diversity.
Simplistic notions about race and North Africa are coming under growing scholarly scrutiny, part of an important effort to document and analyse the scale and scope of black slavery in the North and to assess and comprehend the degree of prejudice and marginalization that blacks experience in the North to this very day. One benefit is a rising appreciation of the role of Africans from the sub-Saharan in North Africa and in the image and understanding of “blackness” in societies north of the Sahara. One of the most significant figures in this scholarly re-assessment of race in North Africa is Chouki El Hamel, a colleague of mine at Arizona State University and one of the world’s leading authorities on the Gnawa people of Morocco.
The Gnawa are best known in popular culture, as El Hamel writes in his forthcomng book, entitled Black Morocco, as “a spiritual order of a traditional black Muslim people who are descendants of enslaved sub-Saharan West Africans.” Embraced by the jazz musicians Randy Weston and Pharoah Sanders, the Gnawa have become well known to fans of world music. But their social and historical significance, both for Morocco and black Africa, are virtually unknown. In the hands of El Hamel — a beautiful writer as well as a Moroccan challenging his own country’s norms — the Gnawa are a gateway into a neglected, even hidden, aspect of the African diaspora that El Hamel elegantly and bravely seeks to expose to the light of reason.
El Hamel persuasively argues, drawing on a mountain of original evidence, that Moroccans ought to answer to their own history of domination of sub-Saharans, who sometimes were brought to the North as slaves. “This denial and refusal to admit to the injustices of slavery and its legacy,” he writes, “produces the unfortunate effect of seemingly eradicating the historical truths surrounding race and slavery and does an injustice to those who were enslaved.”
El Hamel does more than reclaim the lost voices of the Gnawa and the discarded history of multi-racial Morocco. He also reinforces an important truth about the African diaspora: there is more to the story than the New World of the Americas. El Hamel highights “a less researched but no less important aspect of the global African diaspora,” the movement of peoples “internal to Africa.”
By examining “the forgotten role of Blacks in Morocco,” El Hamel provides important new evidence for the complexity of the Pan-African dream — at once underscoring the contested nature of the claim that geographic and cultural unity ought to be coincident — while at the same time demonstrating that the two-way traffic between north and south of the Sahara deserves greater understanding.