Centuries-old black community still on the margins in Iraq

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Adnan Abdelrahman shows off the drums he learned to play at age 12. He belongs to Iraq's centuries-old black minority, guardians of musical traditions but relegated to the margins of society.

Centred in the city of Zubair near Basra in the far south of Iraq, the community has its origins in East Africa.

Like other remote parts of Iraq, Zubair is a place of poverty and decaying public services, where dusty roads are lined with simple cement houses.

While activists denounce the community's marginalisation, talk of racism or discrimination offends Zubair's inhabitants, who prefer the euphemism "dark skin" in Arabic to the word black.

Abdelrahman, 56, is a member of one of the popular music troupes that have made Zubair famous throughout the country and in Kuwait, only 30 kilometres (20 miles) away.

"It's a profession you inherit," he said, explaining that his uncle sang and his father played the drum. "If someone dies, his son takes his place so that the art doesn't disappear."

Equipped with darboukas, tambourines and large goat skin drums, musicians liven up weddings by leading the "zaffa", a procession of song and dance to celebrate the bride and groom.

Abdelrahman, who has played for four years in a heritage group sponsored by the culture ministry, said the majority of players are black and added that he does not feel discrimination.

"Racism is something we have never seen," he said.

- History of slavery -

But many activists within the black community disagree, among them 32-year-old Majed al-Khalidy.

"Those with dark skin are fifth-class citizens, not even second-class," said Khalidy, who works for an oil company in Basra.

"Since the establishment of the Iraqi state, we have not seen anyone from the community occupy a senior position in the state. We have not seen a governor, a minister or a lawmaker."

He said the community faces a high drop-out rate from school, poor job opportunities and offensive language, even from religious clerics, with many people still using the Arabic term "slave" to designate a black person.

The minority numbers 250,000 to two million people, according to a wide range of informal estimates. Their ancestors came from Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan, said historian Ibrahim al-Marashi of California State University.

They are centred in Iraq's southern Basra region, where black slaves were brought from East Africa "for the backbreaking work of draining the salt marshes" east of the city, said Marashi.

"In the historical record, the first mention of the community is in 869 CE when they revolted" against the Abbasid Caliphate, he said.

Today "black Iraqis continue to face systematic discrimination and marginalisation", according to the Minority Rights Group International.

The London-based MRG says in an online report that Iraq's black community suffers disproportionately high illiteracy and unemployment rates and that "many cannot find employment other than as labourers or domestic workers".

- 'Below poverty line' -

In a recent sign of progress, a state-run TV news channel hired a young black woman, Randa Abdel Aziz, as a presenter -- but such steps remain rare.

More change is needed, said Khalidy, the activist.

In a multi-faith, multi-ethnic country, he demanded the inclusion of his community in the quota system which reserves parliament seats for certain minorities, including Christians and Yazidis.

"To claim your rights, you have to be close to the decision-makers," he said about a political system where lawmakers can open the doors to all kinds of state largesse, especially public sector jobs.

Saad Salloum, an expert on religious and ethnic diversity, agreed that "discrimination is seen at all levels" against black Iraqis.

"Politically, they have no representation. Socially, certain stereotypes remain rooted in the dominant culture. Economically, the majority live below the poverty line."

The group MRG recalled that after the fall of former dictator Saddam Hussein, "black Iraqis began to organise and develop a political consciousness for the first time".

The Free Iraqi Movement, the first group to defend the rights of black Iraqis, was founded in 2007 and encouraged by the election in the United States of Barack Obama as president.

Several members of the movement ran for the 2010 provincial elections in Basra, though none were elected, MRG recounted. In 2013, its founder Jalal Thiyab was murdered in the city.

"There is still a long way to go to achieve equality for this and all other minorities," said Salloum

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