Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Slaves, Arabs, and Educated Fools

Hi, fans. I've been keeping this one on the back burner for awhile, but I think it's time I posted it. It's time for another juicy controversy, anyway!


--Leslie Fish

It’s easy to lie with history if your listeners are lazy scholars who won’t bother to check out your story. It’s easier still if they’re gullible and trusting, and believe you without question. It’s easiest of all if they believe unquestioningly because you tell them lies they want to hear and want to believe.

That’s the only explanation I can think of for the belief, common among Black Americans, that Elizabethan-age White men created the African slave-trade but the Arabs have always been the Black man’s friend.

Anyone who bothers to look through the actual evidence can find that the first slaves in America were White, and the African slave-trade was invented by Arabs – more than 3000 years ago.

The records are still preserved in museums, detailing ships’ passengers of the 16th and 17th centuries, showing how many settlers in early America were “indentured servants” from Britain. An indentured servant was a poor man or woman who found someone to pay his/her passage across the Atlantic, and then was obliged to repay that shipping-ticket with anything from five to ten years of unpaid labor and absolute obedience. An indentured servant was a slave, pure and simple, but with a limited sentence. At the end of his or her five-to-ten years’ service, he or she was dismissed with the clothes on his or her back, plus whatever he or she had managed to accumulate from gifts, bonuses, or picking through Master’s trash. The women usually became servants in someone else’s house, or shop, only paid wages now. The men quite often traded their few belongings for a good axe and struck off into the wilderness to become trappers – Mountain Men – whose adventures became great tales of exploration in later histories.

African slaves weren’t so lucky, even from the very beginning. There are carvings and wall-paintings from ancient Egypt which show huge idealized Pharaohs defeating and enslaving dwarfish caricatured Africans. Surviving Egyptian records speak of various conquests, and slaves subsequently taken, in Nubia – present-day Ethiopia and Sudan. Egyptian slaves had little or no hope of ever being freed.

Interestingly enough, the ancient civilizations in Europe had no use for slaves from Africa. The ancient Greeks and Romans made slaves of prisoners taken in battle, but those battles were usually fought among themselves. They also used slavery as part of their judicial system, as punishment for serious crimes, the way we use prisons today. A Greek or Roman slave was also expected to work for him/herself in his/her spare time, so as to earn money and buy his/her freedom. There’s a speech by the great Roman lawyer, Cicero, in which he says: “We have endured Caesar’s tyranny for six years, which is longer than slaves taken in battle are expected to endure a master.” This makes it clear that a large percentage of Roman slaves stayed enslaved for no more than five years. The Greeks and Romans also had sufficient respect for their goddesses of fertility that they did not make a habit of gelding their male slaves.

Another Roman custom held that a slave freed by his master, on becoming a citizen, was honor-bound to vote his former master’s way forever afterward. This meant that anyone with political ambitions and a bit of money could get a quick voting-bloc for himself by buying up, and then freeing, a lot of slaves. Rome also had a large working class – the Plebians – always available for labor, and the practical Romans knew well that it was cheaper to hire a Plebian and pay him only for the hours he worked than it was to buy a slave and pay for his food, clothing, shelter and doctoring, day and night, year after year, whether s/he was working or not. With this system in place, neither the ancient Greeks nor Romans had any pressing need to go sailing off to Africa to get slaves. As Europe slid into the Middle Ages, the feudal system guaranteed enough cheap labor that, again, there was no need to hunt for more in Africa.

It was not so in the Arab world, where surviving art and written records note an abundance of African slaves. For over 2000 years, an Arab “gentleman” proved that he was better than the dirt-poor peasants by owning at least one slave, and that slave was usually Black – if only so that the neighbors could tell at a glance who was the Master and who was the slave. If male, that slave was usually gelded. If female, she was a bed-slave until the ravages of age dismissed her to the kitchen and the laundry. The children of such women became slaves in their turn, with no hope of reprieve.

The conquests of Mohammed and his descendants in the 7th century swept North Africa under Arab rule and opened all of Africa to the Arab slave-trade. One consequence of this was the curious rule, under Sharia – Moslem religious law – that the soul of a gelded man could not be admitted to paradise. Given the Arab custom of gelding male slaves, this meant that it wasn’t worthwhile to convert slaves. That, in turn, meant that the religious rules for proper treatment of one’s fellow Moslems did not apply to the slaves – nor to anyone whom an Arab slave-dealer might intend to enslave, and geld. To this day, Arab religious law claims that any non-Moslem is “kufar”, and may be captured and sold as a slave.

Meanwhile, back in Europe, there was no great demand for slave labor until after the discovery of the New World. Spain claimed all of South America and most of North America, and hurried to establish settlements for mining gold, silver and salt, raising cattle and crops, growing sugar-cane and rendering it down to rum and molasses. All these enterprises required a lot of cheap labor, and the natives were notoriously bad at providing it; in fact, they tended to die quickly in captivity. It was Spain that started importing African slaves, making the African slave-trade a booming business. Various European countries – including England, France and Holland – tried their hands at providing slaves for the Spanish-American market, but it was the Arabs who captured Africans from the interior and brought them to the coast for sale to the Europeans.

As late as the mid-1800s, the most famous slave-dealer in the western world was a clever Arab named Tippu Tib. He would take caravans into the interior of Africa, posing as a harmless merchant, and while he sold goods at enticingly cheap prices to the African tribesmen, he would quietly count their able-bodied young men and women, note their defenses and map the approaches to their villages. Later, he and his henchmen would return in the dead of night to attack the villages, overpower the defenders and capture the inhabitants. He was considered “merciful” – or practical – in that he would often leave the children alive, with a few elders to raise them, in hopes of returning for another crop in ten or fifteen years. Exact figures are impossible to find, but it’s estimated that Tippu Tib alone was responsible for the capture and sale of over 100,000 Africans in his lifetime.

After 1865 there was no longer a market for slaves in North America or Europe, and the market in Central and South America rapidly dwindled, but the market in Arab countries lingered on. As late as 1950, there were an estimated 450,000 slaves in Saudi Arabia. Pressure from the United Nations and the industrial countries drove the trade underground in the last half of the 20th century, but the practice lingers on. As recently as 2003 Sheikh Saleh Al-Fawzan – a member of the Senior Council of Clerics, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body – claimed before the Saudi Information Agency that: “Slavery is a part of jihad, and jihad will remain as long as there is Islam.”

In view of all this, it’s hard to see why modern Black Americans still believe that only Whites caused their historical miseries, that embracing Islam will somehow set them free, and that the Arabs are their best friends.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Report from DragonCon

Hello all! I'm back from DragonCon (over Labor Day weekend, in Atlanta) with sore feet, a lot of contact addresses for other filkers, and a lot of convention stories.

First off, I rode two days on a bus (and you don't realize just how big this country is until you've crossed it on a Greyhound bus) to get there. On the way, I ran into another conventioneer, named Jennifer C., and we happily struck up a deal that she'd help as my roadie. This turned out to be helpful when we finally arrived (two hours late) at the Atlanta bus station and found no ride waiting. Jennifer helped haul my gear (three bags and my guitar) while I phoned contact number after contact number, and finally got a ride -- which served for both of us. Jennifer likewise helped with my gear on the return trip, which was just as long.

Second, the con was *huge*. It spread across five hotels, three of which (the Hyatt, the Marriott and the Hilton) were fortunately linked by sky-ways. The official number of members -- as the con-com had claimed to the Atlanta Fire Marshall, anyway -- was 40,000, but the actual number was closer to 70,000. There were no less than 30 separate programming tracks, all very well attended. The dealers' room, the one time I managed to get there, was jam-packed. So were the hotel corridors, to all hours. It's quite an experience to ride down a crowded escalator with fans dressed in jeans and T-shirts and multiple buttons, as dragons, werewolves, Klingons and Anime characters -- and a bit of a problem when they're wearing large wings. I ran into another three fans there who also volunteered to be my roadies, so nobody got burdened with the job full-time.

Third, the hotel complex's architecture was weird enough to inspire songs about Hotel by Escher; even with a map and guide, I got lost more than once. Matt Leger, who I ran into at one of the filksings, claimed that the "LunaCon Hotel" -- which he wrote a song about -- was still worse, but I'd have to see it to believe it.

Fourth, the convention participants' Green Room served excellent free food and free beer to all hours (which was lucky for me, since I didn't receive any per diem payment for food and the Hyatt's food prices were incredible: $40 for two tuna-salad sandwiches, if ya please). I heard, though I didn't get there to confirm it, that the Hospitality Suite was much the same -- minus the free beer. Most of the convention members ate at the hotels' joint Food Court, which I likewise didn't get to see, since I spent almost all my time inside the Hyatt.

Fifth, despite the enormous size of the convention (the con-staff boasted that only ComiCon and World Fantasy Con are bigger), the number of filkers was dismayingly small. Perhaps 100 fans showed up for the concerts, not enough showed up at the filksings to carry a single all-night filk, and only a very few brought any kind of instruments. I later learned (from Mike Leibmann, founder of GAfilk and the sffilk website) that this was because DragonCon had gone through some severe changes since the last time I attended, 7 years ago. Back then, the con-chair was very filk-friendly -- but he'd gone to prison for taking indecent liberties with a 16-year-old, and the subsequent con-com had tried to distance themselves from him by reversing nearly all of his policies. This meant that DragonCon was quite filk-unfriendly until 2009, when Robby Hilliard took over the filk-track and started repairing the damage. Alas, he hadn't yet managed to spread the word of the changed policy very far; at the con's end he asked me if I could think of any way to encourage more filkers to attend, and all I could think of was to suggest he discuss it with Mike Leibmann.

I wish I'd also thought to suggest that DragonCon increase the number of dealers' rooms to three, and lower the price of the tables. Depending on when one signed up, a single space in the dealers' room could cost anywhere from $200 to $1500, which put them way out of the finances of most filkmusic dealers. Even Tales of the White Hart didn't show up there. Nobody was selling any of my albums at the con, so what I did was hand out cards for the sffilk website at every concert. I hope they did some good. Aside from the fun of the con itself, most of the profit that I got from it was contact numbers and e-dresses of assorted fans.

Altogether, I'd say that despite its various problems -- mostly related to its sheer size -- DragonCon is something that no fan should miss. Go there at least once in a lifetime; it's the SF-fandom equivalent of Burning Man.

--Leslie <;)))>< )O(