Arab World: Racism and the Slave's Head Candy Controversy

Are we – Arabs – racist? It's really hard to tell. Some might argue that racism is against our religion, and that people are never discriminated against because of their skin colour. On the other hand, other tiny aspects of our lives might prove that we are. It seems to be normal, for instance, to make fun of black people [Ar] in the cinema, and even call a candy “The Slave's Head” because of its colour.

Jordanian blogger Roba Al-Assi, wrote about the name given to the marshmallow chocolate in that part of the world.

I know that the word “slave” by no means has the same implications in Arabic as it does in English. Yet, I can’t be less amused by the name of the marshmallow chocolate “Ras ilabed”, literally meaning “the head of the slave”.

It seems that the candy producers had the same feeling like Roba. Hussein Wehbe wrote in his blog about Ghandour, one of the candy's producers who decided to rename their product.

في خطوة تتلاقى مع مواجهة التمييز العنصري المتفشي في لبنان، قامت شركة غندور بتحويل اسم أحد منتوجاتها الّذي يعدّ من الأكثر شعبية “رأس العبد” الى “طربوش غندور”. ف”المشترى” اللّذيذ الّذي يحمل رأساً أسود كان يسمّى رأس العبد بسبب لونه، ما كان يشكّل شكلاً من أشكال العنصريّة حتّى في أبسط الأمور الحياتية في لبنان.
In a step that fits in the fight against racism in Lebanon, Ghandour decided to rename one of its most popular products, “Ras El Abed”, or “Slave's Head”, and call it “Tarboush Ghandour”, or “Ghandour's Hat”. The sweet product that looks like a brown or black head, was used to be called slave's head because of its colour, which was considered as a sort of racism even when it comes to a tiny detail of the Lebanese life.

Sambo, the new name for Slave Head. Photo taken from Roba Al-Assi Flickr account under Creative Commons license Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Another producer of the same candy has also renamed its product. But Roba Al-Assi found the new name and package even more racist.

Sambo, my favorite manufacturer of ras il abed, recently rebranded. While I am very happy with the advancements in hygiene, it is amazing that it somehow became even more racist.
I know that we Arabs look at racism with a grain of salt, but should this really be okay in this day and age? Aside from being insensitive, I also think it portrays a terribly wrong message for the hoards of children indulging in this delicious dessert.
I say… Keep the name, but lose the racist visuals.

Lebanese blogger, Farfahinne, shares a story about journalist “Khaled Sagheya”, who wrote here about how they used to call a black woman who used to sell them toys and T-shirts with “Disney characters” and “The Smurfs“the slave”.

كانت صاحبة الدكّان تحمل جنسيّة سودانيّة على الأرجح، وكانت بشرتها سوداء. وهكذا كان أبناؤها أيضاً. أمّا زوجها، فلبنانيٌّ من مدينة طرابلس. وفي الواقع، لم يكن الدكان ومنتجاته وحدها ما سحرنا، لكن أيضاً العائلة نفسها التي بدا كل أفرادها جميلين ولذيذين. لقد أحببنا الدكان، وأحببنا أصحابه. لكنّنا لم نحفظ اسمه، ولا اسم أحد من العائلة التي تملكه. كنّا نغادر المنزل كلّما ادّخرنا بعض الفلوس، وإن سُئلنا: «إلى أين؟»، أجبنا: «عند العبدة». وحين نعود إلى المنزل بـ«حرتوقة» صغيرة، ونُسأل من أين اشتريناها، كنّا نقول: «من عند العبدة».
وكانت «العبدة» تحبّنا أيضاً. تنظر إلينا، نحن الذين لم نبلغ العاشرة بعد، وتقول: «هيدول زبوناتي». لم أشعر وقتها بأنّ ثمّة ما هو خاطئ في تسميتي لصاحبة الدكان. كنت أدعوها «العبدة» بحبّ واحترام كاملين. لكن، حين أتذكّر ذلك الآن، أشعر بخجل عميق.
The owner of the shop was most probably a Sudanese woman, with dark skin – as were her sons. Her husband was a Lebanese from Tripoli. In fact, it's not only her shop that attracted us, but also her entire family, who were beautiful and nice. We loved the shop and its owners, but we never remembered its name, nor the name of anyone from the family that owned it. We used to go there whenever we had enough money from our allowance as children, and every time somebody asked us, “Where are you going?”, we'd just answer, “To the slave”. And on our way back carrying a big box filled with things, we'd also tell people, “This is from the slave”. She used to love us, and even though we were almost 10 years old, she used to call us “her customers”. At that time I never felt anything wrong in calling her “the slave”, as I used to call her so in a very respected and loving way. But now, I get ashamed every time I recall how we used to call her.

It's hard to limit the issue of discrimination to skin colour only in the Arab world. It's normal for almost every region here to make fun of a part of it's own people. In Egypt, people make fun of those coming from upper Egypt, “Se'ed”. In Lebanon and Syria, the joke is on those coming from “Homs”. And here is a Moroccan cleric who preached against the celebration of the Yennayer/Amazigh New Year. The cleric didn't just stop at the new year's celebrations, but he also preached against the use of the Berbet/Tamazight language and called the Berber people as traitors working for the advancement of Israel and Zionism [Ar]. Finally, sometime the joking is international, like the case here where a couple of Egyptian movies poke fun at Yemeni or Filipino people. [Ar]


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  • joan mckniff

    The lack of knowledge or denial of Arab history, “I know that the word “slave” by no means has the same implications in Arabic as it does in English. Yet, I can’t be less amused by the name of the marshmallow chocolate “Ras ilabed”, literally meaning “the head of the slave”.

    is so sad. Arab traders were very active in the slave trade of African slaves, making a lot of money from that practice. Racism is never “cute” it is ugly and offensive and reflects very badly on the people that practice it. Not sure of your history, here’s a test: would you want it said or drawn etc about YOU?

  • moulana saleem ebrahim

    Historically many Arabs were slave drivers , however this does not imply that Islam encourages this.Many Arabs are also rascist , and it was for this reason the Quran admonishes this .According to Prophet Muhammads teachings and especially His Last Sermon stresses against rascism and encourages equality. Currently Arabs from Saudi are not allowed to marry non Arab or non Saudi . This is totally against Islam .Could someone from Saudi correct me .

  • Jay Kactuz

    Not from SA but I will correct you. There is nothing in Mohammad’s last sermon against racism or slavery – it is about Muslims and non-Muslims. Note also that it is not about equality. The texts clearly say that Muslims (“the best of peoples”) are superior to non-Muslims and that infidels are evil doers and are to be expelled from Arabia.

    You are right that there is nothing in Islam about Saudis and other Arabs not marrying. Even so, if you don’t think the Arab / Muslims world doesn’t have a racism problem, you are sadly mistaken.

    Note also that Mohammad not only had slaves but took them in raids on villages and caravans. In case you don’t know, this explains why slavery in Saudi Arabia was not abolished until the 1960’s. It was defended by the clerics and monarchy as an integral part of Islam.

  • moulana saleem ebrahim

    Hello , In reply to somebody who is trying to correct me, I would humbly ask that you read the sermon. Did Muhammad not say that Arab and Ajam are equal ?? Did not say that the lives and the property of all human being are sacred just as the Holy House in Mecca sacred ? Do you know the story of Bilal? , It will be extremely helpful for your understanding about slavery in Islam . The text that you quote is from the Koran but unfortunately you failed in giving us the full ” text” , which states that God had chosen the Muslims to be the best of peoples who must forbid people to commit evil and invite people towards right and and then invite the to Islam. The reference that you make of best of people has nothing to do with racial superiority but rather it has everything to do with human beings conduct and belief in God. In my initial response to the article I do admit that Muslims do have some racial issues but do accept that Muhammad enslaved people.I have not read any authentic verses or “text ” that proves Islam encouraged slavery. Many Arabs practiced slavery during and after Muhammad, this does not mean they were good Muslims. In conclusion , ” in case if you don’t know ” , the word slave comes from the word Slav. Many wealthy Italian merchants regarded the Slavs people as inferior people and began selling them to the travelling ship merchants.In case if you did not know many African Chiefs also sold their strong men to the European slave raiders. Do you about the Trans-Atlantic slaver trade , do you not know why African is poor ? Who created the third world ? It will be extremely helpful and mind changing if we fully understand history and if we read without any bias , predijice and intolerance . I come from South Africa and know all racism . Thank you

  • Rick Stewart

    I am from Iowa. People in Minnesota, when they are making jokes about dumb people, always use Iowans as the dumb people.

    In Iowa, we tell the same jokes, but the dumb people are from Missouri.

    In Missouri, the dumb people are from Arkansas.

    In Arkansas, the dumb people are from Louisiana.

    I do not know what happens in Louisiana when people want to make jokes about dumb people.

    In the worst of all possible worlds, people would stop making jokes about dumb people, because they would be afraid someone would point a finger at them and accuse them of being ‘dumbist,’ or some such nonsense.

  • My apology ,I would like to correct a sentence in the above reply and will draw your attention to line 10 that should have read that ” do NOT accept that Muhammad enslaved people” . thank you

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