Crossing the Border: Afrabia and Alternative Cosmopolitanisms

Libya’s “African Mercenaries” from Baraza Video on Vimeo.

Coverage of the conflict that brought the end of Gaddafi’s 42-year regime over Libya exposed some of the weakest points in the ways we conceive of geographical categories. Rebel forces accused Gaddafi of using “African mercenaries,” painting a racial tint to the civil conflict. In many respects, the conflict showed the limits of Libya’s Africanness — which Gaddafi emphasized in his later years — while aggravating the very real historical tensions between Arabs and other ethnic groups in Africa. Nevertheless, the positioning of Libya as an African nation has resonated with many Africans on the continent and throughout its diaspora.

How can we account for Libya’s occupation of both Arab and African fields of identity?

Any analysis of the Libya conflict that ignores its Arabness could hardly explain how the country was swept into the series of revolutions in the Arab world in 2011. Similarly, any investigation into the development of the conflict and its aftermath that ignores Libya’s role in African affairs cannot comprehensively understand all of the regional dynamics at play.

What unit of analysis could help better understand the interplay of Libya’s Arab and African qualities?

Geography–much like other disciplinary ways of knowing–necessarily draws lines and packages knowledge that purposefully include and exclude. Those borders, however, are not ultimate, universal or unchanging. They are products of a geographical imagination that change according to the vantage point of the one imagining the geography.

In other words, how a person sees the map is determined by the way he or she holds it.

Geographical imaginaries are largely discursive formations. How else does a small peninsula of Asia become Europe? Valentin Mudimbe has famously argued that particular western libraries have invented the idea of Africa and that Africa as such does not exist. He points to Herodotus, who gives a description of the lands west of ancient “Libya”:

“westward of that land of the husbandmen is very hilly, and abounds with forests and wild beasts. For this is the tract in which the huge serpents are found, and the lions, the elephants, the bears, the aspics, and the horned asses. Here too are the dog-faced creatures, and the creatures without heads, whom the Libyans declare to have their eyes in their breasts; and also the wild men, and wild women, and many other far less fabulous beasts.”–Herodotus: The Histories, c. 430 B.C., Book IV. 168-198

For the Ancient Romans, “Libya” became “Africa,” a name that likely comes from a Berber language. Later, Umayyad Muslim rulers used the name “Ifriqiyya.” All of these names, however, referred to specific areas on the continent. That the names have been projected to signify the entirety of the world’s second largest land mass reflects a textual construction.

We can trace these formations in medieval travelogues, early modern accounts produced by European trade expeditions, and in the reports of colonial administrators and various academic ethnographies and histories. The knowledge they produced about the continent eventually came to fill colonial libraries committed to the service of empire. These libraries were racist at worst and racialist at best. It is no wonder that within Africa the classification of Black Africa in contradistinction to North Africa developed and contributed to theories of white supremacy.

Today, the field of area studies is very much haunted by the racially-based categories of geography associated with the colonial library. Even though couched in more politically correct language, the study of a “sub-saharan” Africa cannot sufficiently contain the cultural and intellectual currents flowing in in and out. This division assumes that the desert has been an insurmountable obstacle to cultural continuity.

Historically, however, the Sahara has not been so much a barrier; it has been much more of a bridge.

Perusing through a different type of library may reveal a different and perhaps opposing configuration. Ousmane Kane’s critique of Mudimbe is just that — if one were to look at the African Islamic library, one would find a different geopolitical space of meaning. The African Islamic library abounds in testimonies written in Arabic, a cosmopolitan linguistic resource. These works include medieval Arabic texts, classical works on Islamic knowledge written by both Arab and African authors, and modern works that engage in a moral geography that cannot fit within racial, national, or even regional paradigms. In his brief but influential work, Non-europhone Intellectuals Kane suggests that we pay particular attention to scholars who work out of a composite of the African Islamic and colonial libraries.

Now that we are looking at an alternative bookshelf, the task of pulling a work that offers the most helpful analytical tools for our task may be easier. Ali Mazrui offers the concept of Afrabia–a product of what he has called the “triple heritage” of Africa–as a unit of analysis beyond a purely racial geographical categorization. In his work Euro-Jews and Afro-Arabs, Mazrui argues that over the long durée there has been a divergence of Semitic peoples, leaving Jews to identify with and affiliate more readily with Europe and Europeans, while Arabs are likely to converge with Africa and Africans. After all, the majority of the “Arab world” (in population and in land mass) is on the continent of Africa.

Mazrui lists three categories of Afrabians:

  1. Genealogical Afrabians: They are people whose family histories blend African and Arab genealogies. Mazrui, a descendent of Arab traders and Islamic scholars who established communities along the East African Swahili coast, is an Afrabian.
  2. Cultural Afrabians: They are the product of the related Arabization/Islamization of Africa. Their culture combines African traditions with a Muslim worldview and mobilizes Arabic linguistic and textual resources. Muslim communities in the Sahel and along the Swahili coast represent this group of Afrabians.
  3. Ideological Afrabians: They believe in a unity of the African and Arab worlds that is based in a non-ethnic affinity based on historical interaction and shared opposition colonial forces. Ideological Afrabians have included Pan-African figures such as Kwame Nkrumah, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and most recently Muammar Gaddafi.
  4. Demographic Afrabians: This includes Arab and Berber groups in continental Africa.

For much of the modern era, international relations has meant race relations, and vice versa. W.E.B. Du Bois’ statement“the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line” does not simply represent the self-consciousness of a minority, but instead describes the developing structure of the international community. Anglo-American exceptionalism and racialized nationalism determined the ways the world would be modeled after the First and Second World Wars. As Woodrow Wilson stated during the 1919 Paris conference: “We, Anglo-Saxons, have our peculiar contribution to make towards the good of humanity in accordance with our special talents. The League of Nations will, I confidently hope, be dominated by us Anglo-Saxons; it will be for the unquestionable benefit of the world.”

A study of Afrabian worldviews eschews purely racial definitions of identity and asserts affinities beyond the nation-state. In Nasser’s Philosophy of the Revolution, Egypt is in the center of three spheres: at once Arab, Muslim, and African. This multi-layered, Afrabian sense of political belonging further explains the sentiments Nasser accesses when he declares “We cannot in any way stand aside…from the sanguinary and dreadful struggle now raging in the heart of the continent between five million whites and two hundred million Africans. We cannot do so for one principal and clear reason–we ourselves are in Africa.”

Although Nasser’s project was a nationalist one intended to enhance Egypt’s international importance, we see in his political and cultural intervention an attempt to challenge the categorization colonial governments and scholarship had imposed.

This perspective emphasizes flows of people and ideas around and across the major corridors of Afrabia: the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Nile Valley, and the West African Sahara. Furthermore, it develops moral geographies of political belonging that refuse a paradigm privileging race and the nation-state. It is in this type of theoretical space that an alternative cosmopolitanism–one which connects a wide range of scholarly, cultural and commercial communities–can and do emerge.

Wendell H. Marsh is a graduate student in African Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He is interested in the political economy of cultures in Africa, the Middle East and their diasporas. He has written for Reuters, AllAfrica.comViewpoint, and The Harvard Journal of African American Policy. Follow him on twitter@theafrabian.  

Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah is a PhD Candidate in Arabic and Comparative Literature  and a Literature Humanities Preceptor of the Core Curriculum at Columbia University. She is currently completing her dissertation on the continuities and transformation of the amatory prelude in the post-classical Prophetic Encomia. 

About Sahar Ullah

Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah is a PhD Candidate of Arabic and Comparative Literature and a Literature Humanities Preceptor of the Core Curriculum at Columbia University. She is currently completing her dissertation on the continuities and transformation of the amatory prelude in thepost-classical Prophetic Encomia.