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Monday 16 March 2009 (20 Rabi` al-Awwal 1430)

      Tackling discrimination issues in Saudi Arabia
      Najah Alosaimi I Arab News

            Book Cover: Helat Al-Abeed (Slave District) by Tareq Al-Haydar. (AN 
      THERE has been little public discussion about discrimination against 
people of African descent in the Kingdom in the past. However, the election of 
the US' first black president, Barack Obama, has led Saudis to begin tackling 
the issue.

      Tareq Al-Haydar has previously experienced racism, particularly when he 
visited Seattle, United States, in 1996. "Someone out of the blue called me a 
sand-nigger," said the 29-year-old English lecturer at King Saud University.

      Al-Haydar feels the US has come a long way in eradicating the problem. 
Al-Haydar has recently written a novel - "Helat Al-Abeed" (Slave District) - 
that is being sold at the ongoing Riyadh International Book Fair, to stop 
racism in Saudi society. The 160-page novel describes a young Saudi named Yusuf 
who, unintentionally involved in his mothers' death, suddenly finds himself 
with only one friend - Raja, who is of mixed Saudi and Mauritanian parentage. 
Yusuf's relationship with Raja leads him to closely observe the social 
discrimination his friend, who is seen as black and foreign, experiences.

      The novel, the title of which is taken from the name of a Riyadh 
district, sold out at the fair within six days. Adel Al-Hoshan, marketing 
director of Dar Tuwa publishing house, said the novel is one of the best 
selling publications this year with more than 800 copies sold.

      Helat Al-Abeed is an old area of Riyadh, which was formerly a location to 
a slave market that no longer exists. The area is now home to restaurants 
serving local delicacies such as lambs' heads and hooves, and camel liver, as 
well as shops selling musical instruments and fruit-flavored tobacco. The local 
authorities have changed the name to Helat Al-Ahrar (District of the Free), but 
the name has never caught on and people still refer to it as Helat Al-Abeed.

      "Yes! We are like other societies which suffer from many forms of 
racism," said Al-Haydar, adding that many people think Saudi society only 
suffers from "tribalism."

      Al-Haydar said black people suffer discrimination partly because of their 
color, and also because they do not belong to a tribe, which is still important 
to many Saudis.

      "Blacks are seen by many people in the Kingdom as inferior," said 
Al-Haydar, who holds an MA in English from the UK. "This is clearly observed 
through the names which many Saudis use to call or describe a black person," he 

      Even though slavery has been abolished, the word "abd" (Arabic for slave) 
continues to be used to describe a black person. Al-Haydar said many Saudis 
like to define their identities in opposition to the other. "People gain their 
sense of self-worth from the fact that there are others who are lower than them 
on this (arbitrary) hierarchical tree," he said.

      "The word 'khadheeris,' meaning 'questionable lineage,' was always used 
to describe a person who doesn't belong to a tribe and there is no way a family 
descended from a tribe would allow their daughter to marry a man of 
questionable lineage," he added.

      The Riyadh-based writer pointed out that racism in the central region is, 
unlike other parts of the world, more verbal than physical. Al-Haydar says he 
feels Saudis live in contradiction. "We pride ourselves at being Muslims, but 
Islam ended slavery," he said.

      Perhaps racist views are culturally inherited. However, not too long ago, 
Saudi Arabia was, for the most part, a desert with warring tribes and clans. In 
that climate, people clung to their tribes to survive. As a modern nation with 
people living in an urban setting, the survival element has gone, but the mode 
of thinking and behavior remains.

      Last March, Sheikh Adel Al-Kalbani was appointed by Custodian of the Two 
Holy Mosques King Abdullah as the first black imam of the Grand Mosque in 

      Al-Haydar said racism is a social phenomenon. "People didn't believe that 
a black man would have such a position but I think the fact that he's black 
should be an afterthought, a nonissue," he said.

      He thinks Saudis can change the way they think about racism and 
tribalism. "I think it has to start with raising awareness. Islamic scholars 
should tackle this issue head-on and explain to people how this kind of 
behavior is un-Islamic. Also, schools should be firm in tackling these issues. 
Moreover, the government needs to establish rules to stop these kinds of 
attitudes," he said.

      Al-Haydar has still not secured the right to distribute his novel in 
bookstores from the Ministry of Culture and Information. It is, however, 
available for sale at the Riyadh International Book Fair.

      "I have very little control over this, but of course I would love to see 
my novel sold at local bookstores and hopefully available at school libraries," 
he said



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