Racist tropes in Ramadan TV satires anger black Arabs

Ramadan, PTI file photo

In an attempt to capitalise on what's become a rating bonanza for Arabic satellite channels during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, two comedies struck the wrong chord with audiences when their lead actors appeared in blackface, a form of makeup that darkens the skin to represent a caricature of a black person.

Criticism was swift on social media but failed to trigger a deeper discussion on racism in the Middle East. The shows — one produced in Egypt and the other in Kuwait — also poked fun at Sudanese culture, making a mockery of the Sudanese Arabic dialect and portraying darker skinned people from Sudan as either poor or lazy.

In the Egyptian show called "Azmi We Ashgan," which aired on the privately owned Al-Nahar channel, comedian Samir Ghanem and his daughter Amy Ghanem appear in blackface, wearing wigs with Rastafarian-looking braids.

Amy's character is a half-Sudanese, half-Malawian housemaid who works for a rich, older Egyptian man who makes unwanted sexual advances toward her. Her father onscreen, played by her real-life father, arrives at the house in hopes he too can live there. Her boss responds in anger, saying: "Did I get this house for fun or did I buy it to set free some slaves?"

In another sketch aired on state-run Kuwait TV, an ensemble of Kuwaiti actors appear in blackface, wearing traditional Sudanese turbans and jalabeyas, the long garment worn by men in Upper Egypt and Sudan.

In the show, called "Block Ghashmara," Kuwaiti actor Dawood Hussein's character lounges around on a daybed and constantly falls asleep. He repeatedly says "ayy" in a horse-like pitch, exaggerating the Sudanese dialect.

The backlash from Sudanese viewers was swift, prompting Hussein to issue an apology for what he said was a "misunderstanding with our brothers, loved ones and family in Sudan."

"I have the bravery to apologise if this offended people and I don't want anyone offended by me," he said. In a nod to Sudan's often overlooked contribution to Arab Gulf countries, he also noted that he was proud to have been taught by Sudanese teachers in Kuwaiti schools.

Khalid Albaih, a Sudanese political cartoonist living in Denmark who spoke out online against the skits, said it surprised him that so many actors, writers and producers on both shows didn't stop to question the offensive nature of the scenes before they aired.

"They need to figure out a better way to represent black people," he told the AP. "It is laziness and a lack of talent that gets an actor to do that." 

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Racist tropes in Ramadan TV satires anger black Arabs

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