Two shows — one from Egypt and one from Kuwait — portrayed darker-skinned people from Sudan as either poor or lazy
DUBAI (AP) — In an attempt to capitalise on what’s become a ratings bonanza for Arabic satellite channels during the holy month of Ramadan, two comedies struck the wrong chord with audiences when their lead actors appeared in black-face, a form of make-up 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 West Asia.
A tale of two shows
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 black-face, wearing wigs with Rastafarian-looking braids.
Ms. Ghanem’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 on-screen, played by her real-life father, arrives at the house in hopes he too can live there.
In another sketch aired on state-run Kuwait TV, an ensemble of Kuwaiti actors appear in black-face, 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 Mr. 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.
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. “They need to figure out a better way to represent Black people,” he said. “It is laziness and a lack of talent that gets an actor to do that.”
When a viewer similarly criticised the Egyptian show “Azmi We Ashgan” on Twitter for relying on old racist tropes for laughs, writer Ahmed Mohy responded that the show did not mean to insult anyone, but he also defended the show’s take on humour.
Despite criticism on social media, the exchanges failed to produce a bigger society-wide discussion, analyst Hana Al-Kharmi wrote in an opinion piece for Al-Jazeera.
“There is almost no public debate about it within the wider Arab society. On the contrary, there is a popular outright denial that racist attitudes against Black people exist,” she wrote.
Beginning around the 1940s, Egyptian movies were not too unlike Hollywood films in that Black actors were often cast as servants and doormen. Darker-skinned women were often cast as housemaids.
Film critic and curator Joseph Fahim said part of the problem in tackling racism in Arab media is that there’s a general lack of understanding among audiences in the region as to why these skits are offensive. “There isn’t a culture of sensitivity,” Mr. Fahim said. “It’s not as if this has been thought through. It wasn’t even thought out. This is how it’s been done over decades, and people think that it’s OK.”