The existence of people in some parts of the Middle East to the north of the Arabian Peninsula (i.e. to the north of Saudi Arabia) who are ethnically black but Arab in culture and language has been documented in wider media to a certain extent. For example, in the southern Iraqi port city of Basra, a considerable population of such black people can be found, thought to be descended from slaves brought to the area from Africa during past centuries. Known by the Arabic terms zanji or ‘abd (plurals zanj and ‘abid respectively- the latter considered more derogatory with the connotations of slavery), black Iraqis have suffered problems of discrimination at the hands of their lighter-skinned compatriots.
Besides black Iraqis, there are also black Palestinians, whose presence in Gaza was the subject of an al-Monitor article in late 2013. Multiple origin accounts are given for these black Palestinians, some noting the slave trade (as is the case with the Iraqis), and others pointing out migrations from Sudan and Egypt to serve in the Ottoman Empire’s army. These black Palestinians, like the black Iraqis, have also experienced at least some racism and discrimination from the wider population.
Much more obscure though- indeed, practically undocumented as far as I can tell- is the existence of a population of black Syrians. I first came across the matter in photos put out by the Islamic State-affiliated Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed based in the Yarmouk Basin (Arabic: Hawdh al-Yarmouk) in southwest Deraa on the border with the Golan Heights and Jordan. Observe the two photos below. A black man can clearly be identified in the crowd of spectators in each case.
The first photo is part of a photo series on the beheading of an alleged sorcerer. The second photo is part of the most recent photo series put out by Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed on 17 January, featuring the execution of a mufsid (sower of corruption). This execution apparently took place in the village of Jamla, with accusations that the mufsid was involved in selling drugs.
On first impression, it might be tempting to think that the black man is a foreigner sent to the area from the north of Syria by the Islamic State. In fact, he is a local to the Yarmouk Basin, part of a population of black Syrians resident in the area. A friend and ex-Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed fighter who lives in Jamla told me, “We have many of them [the blacks].” In the Yarmouk Basin, the most usual convention is to define clans and extended families by the Arabic term bayt (literally, ‘house’). Thus, in the Yarmouk Basin village of Abidin, perhaps the two largest clans are Bayt al-Masri and Bayt al-Ghabaiti. The bayt that encompasses most of the black population of the Yarmouk Basin is known as Bayt al-Sudi. Indeed, the name of al-Sudi (Arabic spelling: السودي)- likely derived from their black complexion- is also defined as a village/area in which they live.
Qasim al-Ghabaiti, the Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed member with the striking ginger beard who read out the statement to execute the sorcerer and can be observed in the background of the first photo, explained to me as follows: “This [Bayt al-Sudi] is a clan of black appearance that has long been settled in an area and the area is called by their name al-Sudi…al-Sudi is an area within the Yarmouk Basin. They are Arabs.” Qasim al-Ghabaiti declined to define the exact location of this area, and the name of al-Sudi does not seem to turn up anywhere in the open source realm in relation to the Yarmouk Basin. My friend from Jamla gave more specifics: “They [Bayt al-Sudi] are from a small village whose name is al-Sudi…Wherever you go in the Basin you will encounter people from them whose skin is black.” He defined the location of al-Sudi as in the vicinity of two more well-known locations in the Yarmouk Basin: Ain Dhikr and al-Shabraq in the northern part of the Yarmouk Basin. As he put it, “al-Sudi, Ain Dhikr, al-Shabraq and Abu Hajr, these are near each other. [al-Sudi] is small, composed of some houses. There are many areas here whose name you will not know.” Neither my friend nor Qasim al-Ghabaiti knows the exact origin of these black people, though my friend corroborated the point that they are not recent arrivals: “I don’t know [their origin] but they have been here a long time, meaning their ancestors were here.”
Outside of Bayt al-Sudi, there are some other family names associated with the black complexion, thus my friend pointed out that in Jamla, there are Bayt Abu Samir and Bayt Abu Marah, while the village of al-Shajra also has a bayt of black people, though he does not recall its name. Another source from the Yarmouk Basin, Abu Kinana al-Yarmouki, pointed to the locality of Jalin to the east of Yarmouk Basin (and currently outside of Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed control) as having a notable population of inhabitants of black complexion, besides noting Bayt al-Sudi’s existence.
Unfortunately, I have not been able to establish connections so far with people from these black populations in the Yarmouk Basin, but their existence provides an interesting and largely unexplored window into Syria’s diverse population at the micro-level. In the north of Syria, so far as I can tell, the phenomenon of black Syrians is virtually non-existent and their presence does not seem to be widely known.
It is unlikely that black Syrians have not experienced at least some racism and discrimination. That said, the ideology of Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed, like that of the Islamic State to which it is affiliated, may provide some appeal in that it is colour-blind and does not advocate ethnic nationalism and discrimination on basis of skin colour and ethnicity: rather the distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims is what matters. Elsewhere, the Islamic State’s colour-blind approach has likely helped it garner recruits, the most notable case coming to mind being Libya. As documentary records show, the Islamic State in Libya has had large numbers of foreign black Africans in its ranks, and a potent explanation for this phenomenon is the fact that black Africans brought to Libya for work purposes by Muammar al-Qadhdhafi faced reprisal attacks and marginalisation at the hands of the Libyan rebels during and after the regime’s downfall.
(Update 20 January 2017): For some reason, the chat app I was using to communicate with my sources here kept showing a final ya as alif maqsura (i.e. السودى when it should have been السودي). So, to be clear, the clan name for most of the black population is al-Sudi and not al-Suda as appeared in an earlier version of this post, so I have corrected this minor error accordingly. This name notably appears elsewhere in the Arab world (e.g. Yemen) but does not quite pinpoint a precise origin.
A friend from Nawa (another town in Deraa outside Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed control) points out that Bayt al-Sudi also has a presence in al-Sheikh Sa’ad (just south of Nawa) and that some of them moved to Nawa. In addition, this friend notes the presence of blacks in Tasil, and that stories circulated regarding origins point to their ancestral homeland as Sudan.