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Racism in the blood

Racism in the blood

Saudi Arabia’s long running struggle with racism has rarely been publicized, until now. Tareq Al Haydar, a Saudi novelist, has highlighted the racism inherent in his nation’s society, and forces Saudis to confront discrimination in their nation


March 16, 2009 10:01 by

There has been little public discussion about discrimination against people of African descent in Saudi Arabia 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, a 29-year-old English lecturer at King Saud University, has written a novel addressing the issue of discrimination in the Kingdom.

His novel, “Helat Al-Abeed” (Arabic for Slave District) depicts the life of a young Saudi man named Yusuf who is unintentionally causes his mothers’ death, and finds himself with only one friend, Raja, a man of mixed Saudi and Mauritanian parentage. Yusuf’s friendship with Raja – who Saudi society regards as black and foreign – reveals the social discrimination inherent in the Kingdom’s social structure.

The title of the novel is taken from the name of a district in Riyadh. Helat Al-Abeed is an old area of Riyadh, which was once used as a slave market. 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 the novelist, 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 added.

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