Mahdi Blaine digs deep into the historical and present-day depictions of Moors, connecting their imagined identities to concepts of race and power.
Rabat – Mahdi Blaine, a Moroccan-Algerian candidate for a master’s degree in anthropology and Middle Eastern studies at New York University, is raising questions and shedding light on the perceived identities of Moors throughout history. His ideas surrounding the topic make considerable contributions to understanding histories of power and race.
Originally from Rabat, 25-year-old Blaine began garnering interest around the question, “who were the Moors?” a few years ago. The depths of his interest and inquisitions stemmed from the ambiguous and ambivalent depictions of people who never claimed Moorish as their own identity throughout history.
“If you Google ‘the Moors’ or look at modern representations of the Moors, they are all what we would agree as racially black,” Blaine told Morocco World News. However, there is clear evidence that this has not always been the case.
Over the years, Blaine contemplated the iconography associated with the word. He said, “I saw this incongruence and I wondered, why?”
As he continues to explore questions surrounding contradictions of Moors made throughout history, Blaine shares his ideas with the Afikra community. Afikra is a grassroots organization intended to cultivate curiosity around Arab history and culture through discussions led by a global community of people interested in sharing intellectual thought around such topics.
In a recent virtual presentation hosted by the organization, Blaine details the ways in which “the figure of the Moor” has been reformulated, reproduced, and used to advance agendas or legitimate positions of power.
“It is important to ask who were the Moors, but it is more important to ask ‘who were the Moors, according to which group of people?’”
While the word “Moor” itself derives from the Greek word “marvo,” which literally means black or charred, for years the term was associated with a geographical destination and not necessarily racial characteristics.
Until the Muslim conquest in the early 700s, people identified Moors as being people of the Maghreb and Iberian peninsula, including Amazigh (Berber) people.
Following the Muslim invasion, the region drew a clear distinction between Arabs and Moors. Moors had an African essence that Arabs did not. Over time, Europeans assigned racial adjectives to Moors in order to make their own clear distinctions.
Blaine again points to images that inform the changing etymology. In the 12th and 13th centuries, depictions of the Moors seem to better represent the cosmopolitan identities of the people claiming roots across a wide region. He said that in his opinion, the most accurate depictions are ones that did not limit the image of Moors to having “typical features.”
By the 19th century, Moors were almost unanimously depicted as black. Their casted identity masked their self proclaimed heritage or roots, simplifying them to a category of cultural otherness. Blaine stressed that nobody was calling themselves Moors. Rather, the term remained reserved for discourses that aimed to fix specific narratives and create a figure based upon race-related identifiers — ones steeped in racism and estimated by the imaginations of Europeans.
French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss uses the term “floating signifier” to mark words with no agreed-upon meaning. Blaine considers the term “Moor” to lack symbolic significance and instead finds people use the word to permit symbolic thoughts that may override inherent contradictions.
Leveraging power through ambiguity
Political activist and scholar Edward Said would describe the distinctions made as another example of Orientalism. Imperialist societies produced narratives of people from Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East in ways that inherently leveraged political power.
“The power of the word [Moors] is found in its ambiguity. It allowed for European discourses to legitimize relations of power and helped forge moral, cultural, and biological superiority of white Christianity,” said Blaine.
He cites examples of images of Moors who gave up Islam, and suddenly in new depictions of them, their skin whitens.
In addition to noting the ways in which people of color were whitewashed as they conformed to European standards, Blaine believes that the example of everchanging Moorish imagery supports the theory that identity is fluid.
Maintaining that the figure of Moors is one defined and upheld by Europeans to denote concepts of power, Blaine expands upon ways in which people have related to the term and why.
“Moors become very significant in this key moment where ‘we’ [people from the Maghreb region] were in power — the people who were eventually colonized by Europe,” said Blaine. In some cases then, the historical narrative of victory is therefore claimed by black Africans with pride.
Black Americans have a history of harnessing Moorish identity by claiming Moroccan roots to achieve freedom under racial laws in the United States. In 1790, the South Carolina House of Representatives passed the Sundry Moor Act, liberating free citizens of Morocco from laws oppressing Black people and slaves in the US.
“Their Moorish-ness got them legal rights and citizenship.”
Blaine suggests that Moorish qualities linked to being Muslim and African inform larger conceptions of how we think about race. His research on the topic ties directly into recent debates and scholarship concerning racism and socially constructed identities.
Competing narratives rooted in racism
The figure of the Moor was not originally linked to the particular racialized group of people. As many began attending to the racial and political identities of what it meant to be Moorish, suddenly so many people who were once excluded from the bounds of being Moorish, became that.
Through constantly turning over depictions of the Moors, we can better understand the ways in which projected identities are rooted in positions of power and ways of advancing nationalist narratives.
Blaine first presented his findings and ideas around Moorish depictions two years ago. He said that at the time, he sought to offer a coherent narrative of the Moors and the imagery associated with their perceived identities. After deepening his understanding of the anthropological concepts and theories tied into the construction of race and power, he realized that the definition of Moors is intentionally vague and arbitrary.
“That’s where racism gets its power — it’s not supposed to be logical, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a rationality.” Blaine identifies the rationale as privy to attempts to reconcile with “otherness” that inspires narratives used to uphold power.
Referencing his coursework and assigned readings for critical race and theory classes at NYU, Blaine echoed Barbara and Karen Fields’ book “Race Craft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life” and said, “We need to stop talking about race as something that exists, but rather something that comes from racism. Racism creates race.”