Dean’s Global Forum examines slavery and racism in the Middle East

February 20, 2021

From the Ottoman Empire to Black Lives Matter, renowned scholar and authority on the topic, Eve Troutt Powell, discussed the historical relationship between slavery, colonialism, and racism in the Arab world and its legacy today, at the inaugural Dean’s Global Forum – a new lecture series at Northwestern University in Qatar.

Dean Marwan M. Kraidy hosted the event and noted that with the school’s focus on the Global South “this new initiative reflects our mission to promote interdisciplinary discussions on important topics and big ideas that are shaping our world today and tomorrow.” 

Troutt Powell is the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of History and African Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. An authority on colonialism and slavery in the Ottoman Empire and the Nile Valley, she has received fellowships from the American Research Center in Egypt and the Social Science Research Council and has been a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. In 2003 she was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow. 

Kraidy and Troutt Powell’s conversation focused on the prejudices and stereotypes that Black Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa experienced as a result of the legacy of the region’s multicultural, multi-ethnic slave trade during the Ottoman Empire in Egypt, Sudan, the Caucasus, and Western Europe.

According to Troutt Powell, the late-nineteenth-century slave trade in the region crossed ethnic and racial lines and included fair-skinned Circassian slaves as well as Black Sudanese and Nubian ones, which resulted in different forms of discrimination that continued after the Ottoman Empire. 

As an example of the intricacy of the relationship between race and power in the Arab region, Troutt Powell pointed to the period of British colonial rule over Egypt and Sudan. During this period, she said the Egyptian elite distinguished themselves as “racially superior to their Sudanese subjects, in much the same way that the British colonialists distanced themselves from their Egyptian subjects.”

Troutt Powell noted that while Arabs have historically associated anti-Black racism, colonialism, and slavery with the Atlantic slave trade experience, often dismissing them as issues in the West, the cultural impact of the slave trade, she said, “continues to affect the lived experience of Black Arabs in the Middle East today.”

Troutt Powell also discussed the role that popular and mainstream media in the Middle East continues to play in shaping the understanding of race and racism and warned against the off-screen consequences of misrepresenting Black people in the media.

While no longer featured across much of the mainstream art or entertainment in the Western world, Troutt Powell said that Blackface and caricatured depictions of Black people are still prevalent in the Arab media, particularly in Egyptian comedy movies and shows, which reflects the long history of anti-Black racism in the region.

Troutt Powell received her BA, MA, and PhD in history and Middle Eastern studies from Harvard University. She is the author of A Different Shade of Colonialism: Egypt, Great Britain and the Mastery of the Sudan, the co-editor, with John Hunwick, of The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam and Tell This in My Memory: Stories of Enslavement in Egypt, Sudan and the Late Ottoman Empire.