Last year, during the 2008 presidential election, I put up a post on the black Iraqis of Basra, Iraq.

Here is an update on their situation, 15 months later.





Joao Silva for The New York Times

A boy played in Zubayr, a scaled-down version of Harlem, in the southern city of Basra. There are about 1.2 million African-Iraqis.

Published: December 2, 2009
BASRA, Iraq — Officially, Iraq is a colorblind society that in the tradition of Prophet Muhammad treats black people with equality and respect.
December 3, 2009    

Joao Silva for The New York Times

Amani Hamid, 16, left school because her family could not afford the bus fare. African-Iraqis are denied even menial jobs.

December 3, 2009    
Joao Silva for The New York Times

Washing cars is the only source of income for many African-Iraqi boys and men, they said, because no one will hire them.

But on the packed dirt streets of Zubayr, Iraq’s scaled-down version of Harlem, African-Iraqis talk of discrimination so steeped in Iraqi culture that they are commonly referred to as “abd” — slave in Arabic — prohibited from interracial marriage and denied even menial jobs.

Historians say that most African-Iraqis arrived as slaves from East Africa as part of the Arab slave trade starting about 1,400 years ago. They worked in southern Iraq’s salt marshes and sugar cane fields.

Though slavery — which in Iraq included Arabs as well as Africans — was banned in the 1920s, it continued until the 1950s, African-Iraqis say.

Recently, they have begun to campaign for recognition as a minority population, which would grant them the same benefits as Christians, including reserved seats in Parliament.

“Black people here are living in fear,” said Jalal Dhiyab Thijeel, an advocate for the country’s estimated 1.2 million African-Iraqis. “We want to end that.”

On a recent weekday afternoon, a group of black children and adults wearing flip-flops stood in a dirt field waiting for cars to drive up so they could wash them.

It is their only source of income, they said, because no one will hire them.

In Basra, a southern oil and port city with winds that constantly whip the desert sands, car washing is not a bad way to survive, and over time the field has become a crowded gathering point for boys and men waiting with hoses and buckets for the next dirty car.

The children, most no older than 14, are school dropouts. Sometimes it was their choice, other times the decision rested with a father who had little formal education himself and an unsteady income.

“If I go back to school, then who will feed my family?” asked one of the boys, Hussein Abdul Razak, 13.

Hussein said he left school when he was 8 years old because he had fallen so far behind in his classes. His father, who also works at the car wash, was sick, so the family’s dinner this day rested entirely with whatever Hussein could earn. Unfortunately, things were slow, with too little sand in the air. He shrugged. He had earned nothing.

Mohammed Waleed, also 13, is one of the rare children at the lot who has a father with a steady job. His father drives a minibus.

Mohammed, who had come pedaling up on his bicycle, said he had left school so long ago that he could not remember how old he was then.

“Every year I failed and I failed, and so I left,” he said. He looked nervously at the boisterous children who had gathered around him, deciding whether to say what came next.

“I can’t read,” he said. The children grew silent.

Mohammed’s dream, he said, is to follow in his father’s footsteps and drive a Kia minibus. He said he already knew how to drive, but that he needed to wait five years to be hired.

“Until then, I’ll drive my bicycle,” he said. Everyone around him laughed.

Majid Hamid, a lanky 20-year-old who is among the lot’s oldest workers, said some days were better than others. It had been a bad day for him as well.

“From the morning until now, I haven’t washed a single car,” he said. It was past 6 p.m.

But even on the good days, he said, they still had to deal with customers who frequently used racially derogatory terms when addressing them. “They say, ‘Abu Samra,’ come on, go fast!’ ” he said. “What can I do? I can beat them up, but there will be trouble afterward.”

Lighter-skinned Iraqis consider Abu Samra a term of endearment, but the car washers said that for them it is a vicious slur.

They say they are called a lot of other names, and are often picked up by Army patrols and taken to bases where they are threatened with beatings and imprisonment if they continue to wash cars. They say the soldiers leave them alone when lighter-skinned people are working in the lot. Ahmed al-Sulati, deputy chairman of Basra’s provincial council, said neither racism nor color consciousness existed among Iraqis, and that the lives of African-Iraqis are no more difficult than anyone else’s. “There is no such thing in Iraq as black and white,” he said, echoing what most people here say publicly.

In a run-down neighborhood about a mile from the car wash, Mr. Hamid and thousands of other African-Iraqis live side by side with Arabs in mud-brick houses in various stages of collapse. His brother, Rafid, 19, also works at the car wash, but has a second job in a small satellite television repair shop where he works with his stepfather.

Their sister, Amani, 16, has been pulled out of school because the family can no longer afford the daily bus fare. “I miss school,” she said. “Sometimes I cry.”

Said Rafid, “Life here is very bad.”

Things could become even worse; the family of nine has not been able to pay the landlord for the past two months.

“We either pay the rent or we eat,” said Raja Abdul al-Samad, their mother.

Mrs. Samad said life in Iraq was far more difficult if one had dark skin. She said that over the years she had come to realize that she could maintain friendships only with those people who shared her skin color.

“It all starts O.K., but then they slip and say something by mistake,” she said. “Or, when they are with their relatives, they avoid us. I don’t like being with people who look down on us.”

Duraid Adnan contributed reporting.


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