What do you know about Mauritanian slavery? What about American slavery?
In a recent article for the New Yorker, Alexis Okeowo writes about the fight for slavery abolition in Mauritania. The act has been outlawed since 1981 but no provisions had been made to enforce the prohibition until 2007. Out of 3.8 million people, one hundred and forty-thousand are reported to still be enslaved. Slave owners face little punishment.
Mauritania itself was once part of the Almovarid dynasty; an 11th century Islamic empire which hugged the shoreline of Western Africa and absorbed large parts of Southern Spain. Though the empire was short lived, it controlled 3,000 kilometres of land from North to South. The country is now one of the poorest on Earth, igniting little interest from much of the world. Okeowo describes it as nothing more than “a vast, empty landscape of sand dunes that swirl down to iron-ore pits in the Sahara.”
Okeowo’s subject country then, is a geo-political snooze. Given its distance from America as a political entity and given her target audience, she could be forgiven for lapsing into comparisons with America’s own slave-owning past.
From a human perspective though, it is a fascinating story. And Okeowo treats it with the respect it deserves. The country is a hodge-podge of ethnicities: Berbers and Arabs who have mingled to become known as Beydanes and risen to elite status contrasted starkly against the African Haratin people. There are so many factors at play here: religion, ethnicity, tradition and they all set amidst the simple fact of real and experienced human suffering.
The article revolves around the efforts of Biram Dar Abeid, the founder of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement. Abeid is a Haratin man with “hooded, intense eyes and a warm demeanour” and the Okeowo follows him as he attempts to free those like him who are still subject to slavery. America is mentioned once; and only by a Beydane.
What gives the article a more general interest is the way Okeowo avoids what can be called the ‘danger of analogies.’ The American journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, having called the article the best he had read all year, complimented it for “letting a people and their history and their politics speak for themselves shows a respect for them and the reader”. Okeowo had avoided the trap of writing nothing more than “it’s just like America!”. She avoids, as Edward Said put it, “coming to terms with [Mauritania] based…on European Western experience.
There is an interesting paradox in journalism today – especially in writing on international affairs. Though the world is smaller than ever before, we seem just as unable to grasp and understand it as before. Mauritania is just hours away by plane but the language used to describe it is distant and the subject, at best, is treated as just a reflection of our own experiences.
This summer saw an explosion of international news: Ukraine, Gaza, ISIS, Boko Harem; the list goes on. How we write about the world around us, about different cultures and different peoples is more important than ever.
And yet we still restrict ourselves to mindless, lazy, analogies. We can’t escape what Chimamanda Adichie calls “the danger of a single story”. If that single story becomes a shadow of our own, we lose the ability to consider, appreciate and digest the countless other stories that inhabit and effect our world. For Adichie “power is the ability to make [a story]the definitive story of that person”. Journalists today are imbued with that power. Where else can we form our opinion of Mauritanian slavery?
And so it is why writers must avoid too often leaning on analogies to explain a situation halfway across the globe. A space needs to be opened up where we can look more closely at how and when we use analogies. Otherwise, we are guilty of seeing everything as our own reflection. We see Mauritanian slavery as nothing but a mimic of our (Western) experience of slavery; devoid of its own rich history. The Mauritanian story of slavery starts with “secondly”; the fastest way to dispossess a people: removing from them any sense of narrative autonomy.
We need to understand peoples and movements, ISIS and Occupy Central with Love and Peace, in more complex, nuanced and deliberative ways than what they happen to resemble. Analogies can be a good starting point but they shouldn’t be the point. And that is an important distinction.
There is another potential problem with analogies. They become the weapon of fearmongerers. When Putin invaded the Ukraine and people rushed to say his actions were “like Hitler”, it incites fear. When you compare present events with moments in history, you don’t just link the comparable events. The present becomes unnecessarily shackled with the same historical coherency and progression as the past. Suddenly, Putin’s Ukraine becomes not just Hitler invading the Sedatenland’s but the unbearable war that would follow. In many ways, such comparisons are lazy. And while there may be comparisons to be made, the analogy becomes a loud, shouting thought at the centre of the piece. Nuance is lost to the winds.
Learning from history is still important. There should be a greater emphasis on the individuality of each case. The 14th century Arab scholar Ibn Khaldoun foresaw such a problem. Writing in his seminal work, The Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldoun warns of the “abyss of error” that awaits those who applies their knowledge of history directly, through analogies, to the present.
This is not to say that we should avoid analogies altogether. Analogies by definition compare apples and oranges. A good, well thought out analogy is a powerful tool. But it is when such lessons are applied lazily, as tools to create fear or in concert with silencing a people that they become a danger.
Featured Image by Joshua Spackman.