How Randa Abd Al-Aziz, a Black Iraqi, Had a Sudden Career in TV News

BAGHDAD — Randa Abd Al-Aziz was relaxing in a Baghdad cafe, making friends laugh as he read aloud from a cosmetics brochure in classic A...


BAGHDAD — Randa Abd Al-Aziz was relaxing in a Baghdad cafe, making friends laugh as he read aloud from a cosmetics brochure in classic Arabic, the overly formal language of speeches, official decrees — and TV presenters.

Heard by a talent scout, Mrs. Abd Al-Aziz quickly received a totally unexpected and overwhelming offer: what would she think of reading the news on television?

Ms Abd Al-Aziz told the story of her discovery as she prepared for a recent broadcast. She tilted her face so a makeup artist could apply the armor-like layer of foundation and eye makeup that transforms what she describes as her ‘baby face’ into that of a sophisticated presenter , which not only presents the news, but also makes Iraq. the story.

Ms Abd Al-Aziz, 25, is the first black Iraqi to be employed on the airwaves of state television news and news channels at least since the United States toppled Saddam Hussein nearly 100 years ago. two decades. (Television executives said they believed there were no black state television anchors during the decades of Hussein’s rule either.)

“I thought it would only be for a few days and they would see it wouldn’t work and I would leave,” said Ms Abd al-Aziz, who had no television experience and only a passing curiosity for the media. She brought her mother to the first meeting with the network.

Ms. Abd al-Aziz’s journey from coffee shop to anchor chair has been a rocky road, with more than six months of 10-hour singing lessons and immersion in Iraqi and regional politics, subjects for which she previously had no interest.

“I worked on it. I worked on my voice, I took the time to follow the news,” she said, adding that she learned from every negative comment her tutors gave her. “That’s what made me progress.”

On a recent morning, she arrived at the studio early, grabbing her scripts for the main midday newscast and rereading them before slipping with obvious confidence into a chair in front of a teleprompter.

The ease she feels now is a far cry from her first live bulletin in September when she said she was frozen in fear.

“I didn’t make a single mistake, but when I walked off the air I burst into tears,” she said.

Her hiring last year came after a nationwide search by the state media chief, which added her to the network’s list of about 100 news anchors, correspondents and talk show hosts.

“We have in Iraq at least 1.5 million African-Iraqis,” said Nabil Jasim, 51, president of the Iraqi Media Network. “They need to see themselves reflected on TV.”

His hiring both shocked and upset a few network employees and viewers, Mr. Jasim said, a negative response that highlights deep-rooted racism in Iraq, a country of about 40 million people.

In the country’s tribal-dominated political system, Black Iraqis have virtually no political representation. The Iraqi Parliament does not have a single black legislator. There are almost no senior black officials in the ministries. As in other Arab countries, many Iraqis casually use racist slurs.

Most of Iraq’s black community are descendants of enslaved East Africans brought to the southern coast of Iraq beginning in the 9th century, a slave trade that lasted more than 1 000 years ago and which ended in some Arab countries just a few decades ago.

In Iraq, slave labor was concentrated in the south, where there was backbreaking labor in the salt fields and date plantations. Most of Iraq’s black population still lives in the south of the county in extreme poverty and with little formal education.

Ms. Abd Al-Aziz’s background is atypical for a black Iraqi: she grew up in a middle-class family in Baghdad, where her late father was a businessman and her mother now owns a stationery store. Ms. Abd Al-Aziz has a degree in agricultural economics and was working in an import distribution company when the network approached her.

Although she was hesitant, the recruiter convinced her to give it a try.

“He told me that there was an experiment, that they wanted to see all the colors on Iraqiya TV,” said Ms. Abd Al-Aziz, referring to the public television channel, which according to a poll by the University of Baghdad, is the most watched Iraqi channel. The network offers Turkmen, Kurdish and Syriac channels, in addition to its mainly Arabic-language programming.

Ms Abd Al-Aziz said she first had to persuade her mother to accept, then she accepted the offer, thinking it might last a week before the network realized she couldn’t. not do it.

“At first they said, ‘There’s no hope for her,'” Mr Jasim said, describing the reaction of the producers assigned to work with her. “I said, ‘Just put her on camera and leave the rest to us. “”

In a profession that relies heavily on physical appearance, he was sure Ms Abd Al-Aziz had the right look for television. And the network producers have agreed with their boss: the camera loves him.

When black Iraqis appear on television, it is usually as musicians, dancers or in comedic roles. Mr Jasim said he wanted to dispel such stereotypes and envisioned a political platform that Ms Abd al-Aziz could lead.

As the Black Lives Matter movement has spread over much of the worldIraq has only a nascent black rights movement.

There is no consensus among black Iraqis even on what to call themselves. Some dismiss the terms Black or African-Iraqi as divisive. Many opted for the Arabic term “asmar,” or dark skin.

When asked what she considered the best term, Ms. Abd Al-Aziz simply replied: “Iraqi”.

“Iraq is diversity. We have more than one origin. Your nationality is enough,” she said.

Ms. Abd Al-Aziz was the only black student in her class in high school, but she said she didn’t feel a lack of opportunities growing up. Asked about the discrimination faced by the wider black community in Iraq, she said she didn’t know enough yet to feel comfortable commenting.

“I like to talk only about what I myself witnessed,” she said. But, she added, she was determined to find out more.

“Before, I had no interest in political reality,” she said. Now she asks questions about race and power in Iraq.

She said some of her Arab friends use skin whitening creams and suggested she do that too.

“I always say love yourself. It’s me and it’s my color, and if you have any questions about it, ask God,” she said.

While Mrs. Abd Al-Aziz did not feel blocked by racism, she held back hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis.

Slavery was officially abolished in Iraq in 1924; in Saudi Arabia, it was 1962. In Oman, slavery was legal until 1970. In the Arab world, black people are still commonly referred to as “abeed”, which means slaves.

While the word also refers to servants of God and is part of many Muslim names, its use to describe a black person is offensive.

“Other Iraqis treat us as if we were still slaves,” said Abdul Hussein Abdul Razzak, a black journalist and co-founder of the Free Iraqis Movement, an association founded in 2017 to defend the rights of black Iraqis.

Despite years of writing for government newspapers as a freelancer, Mr Abdul Razzak, 64, said he had never been employed by any of them.

“I’m a good journalist but nobody ever gave me the chance to work,” he said.

Black rights advocates say many black students drop out of school because of bullying by students and teachers. A survey in 2011 reported illiteracy rates among black Iraqis at 80%, a figure more than twice the national average, and believed to have remained virtually unchanged since then.

“My aunt couldn’t read or write but she told me that our diplomas would be the weapons in our hands,” said Thawra Youssif, a black Iraqi who lives in Basra.

Ms Youssif, 62, who holds a doctorate in drama, said she was one of the few black Iraqi women in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, to have a postgraduate degree.

“If you ask them about Malcolm X, nobody will know him,” she said. “If you can’t read, you can’t search the internet for your roots. My people must be educated to overcome the legacy of slavery.

Having mastered television, Ms Abd Al-Aziz said she was now slowly growing into the idea of ​​being a role model who could inspire black Iraqis.

“I try to demonstrate that my example can be a hope for everyone,” she said. “That the color of our skin won’t stop us.”

Nermeen al-Mufti contributed reporting.

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