Interview with Moctar Teyeb: "Slavery Is a State of Mind"
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
Middle East Quarterly: Please tell us about yourself and your family.
Moctar Teyeb: I was born a slave; members of my family are still slaves. I was raised as a slave for almost nineteen years. That my family are slaves is acceptable in Mauritania because they were born as slaves. The master taught them to accept their lot.
MEQ: Did you, like everyone else, accept your lot as a slave?
Teyeb: No. First as a child of four or five, I questioned my family's and my own situation as slaves. I already then started to reject the system. I believed that there was a place where the sun shines but of course I didn't know where. I just could not understand why we were slaves. From an early age, I was unlike others of my status because of the deep feeling in me that the system was wrong; I was the exception. At that time it was very difficult to reject the system. I thought it was not right but I didn't have the knowledge to defend what I thought. As I grew, I constantly looked for information to confirm what I instinctively felt.
MEQ: Did you find it?
Teyeb: I did. To find freedom I needed three things: First, I had to know that there are black people who are free. In Mauritania, we blacks are led to believe that to be black means to be enslaved. It was liberating for me to learn that this is a falsehood.
Second, I needed to find out what is going on in the world. I never had access to news in Mauritania because to do so meant being able to read and live in the city. I figured, me being a slave, no one would let me have access to information.
Third, I had to educate myself. When I had the chance, I got near to people my own age who studied in school. Hearing Bedyane [whites in Arabic, referring to Arabs in Mauritania] kids doing their homework, which they always read aloud, I listened carefully. When a Bedyane child my age asked me to play with him, I'd say, "Sure, and you teach me what you are learning in school." As a result, although I was unable either to read or write my name on leaving Mauritania, I did know the alphabet.
MEQ: Was your path a dangerous one?
Teyeb: Of course. I was asking about this and that. At a certain point, I could not repeat my questions. Accepting slavery and not asking questions of the master translates into security and safety. In rejecting the system, I forfeited my safety net. Doing what I did opens you to being beaten or even killed. Even to show that you want something above your station or above your class is bad. Slaves are murdered when they show desire or ambition, even if they don't know anything. A slave who aspires to be like his master, wanting to own a camel, for instance, is trouble.
MEQ: How so, trouble?
Teyeb: My questions gave them the idea that I was trying to rebel against the system.
MEQ: Did you disobey your master?
Teyeb: I had many fights with him. I was still in the village with my family and my master, but I began to refuse to do more work.
MEQ: Was there a decisive moment that caused you to make the break with slavery?
Teyeb: Not really. For fourteen of the nineteen years that I lived in Mauritania, I harbored the desire to leave. By the time I left in 1978, I was an adult and I disapproved of 90 percent of everything related to slavery.
MEQ: How did you escape slavery?
Teyeb: There were no chains on my neck or my arms when I escaped because my people believe that slavery is acceptable. Mine was therefore a mental escape, not a physical one. We were taught that to escape is literally to go against the commands of God, for the Bedyane teach us that slavery is one of God's sacred principles. "The way to paradise is under your master's feet," they said.
MEQ: Where did you go when you left?
Teyeb To Senegal. I learned that I could get my freedom and could leave to study in a short time, just five months, so I left as quickly as I could. When I left, I prepared myself in every way I could—but I didn't have any money. Well, I did have a little money to use within the country, but by the time I got to the border, I didn't have any left. And so I left Mauritania without money, identification, or passport. No one would help me. I wanted to go to Paris but I didn't have any way to get there. I went to the taxi driver, and I told him, I'm going to another city. If he gave me a ride in his taxi, I would pay him back later. The taxi driver accepted this, knowing how poor the people are.
MEQ: Was your escape dangerous?
Teyeb: Indeed, it was. In some areas of Mauritania, when slaves like me are caught trying to escape, they are beaten or killed. In 1978, I had just joined El Hor. That was the year El Hor began to work against slavery.
MEQ: You left your village and got to the border with a little bit of money and no papers. You were running? You were hiding?
Teyeb: Yes. I was not afraid of my master specifically, but he and his brothers work with the government, which is run by the Bedyane who believe deeply in slavery and which helps slave masters.
MEQ: What have you done since your escape?
Teyeb: For the eight months after I left Mauritania, I had my first chance to be in the city instead of a village. It was a much better situation than I had ever had before. I have had two goals since then: to help my relatives and my people; and get a chance to study. I needed the basics of an education; I was illiterate and ignorant like a child of six or seven. It's sometimes difficult for people like us to read or write because we did not learn do so as children.
MEQ: You studied in Senegal?
Teyeb: No, Morocco, then Libya. I traveled to many countries in Africa.
MEQ: Did your studies go well?
Teyeb: I received a B.A. degree in 1992 from Garyous University in Libya.
MEQ: You were given fellowships or you worked to make money?
Teyeb: I received partial scholarships.
MEQ: Were you involved in political activities?
Teyeb: Oh, yes. I joined the resistance and helped with clandestine efforts to reach out to the slaves in Mauritania. Because so few of them can read, communication with them is primarily by audio tape. We are succeeding; every year the number increases, so now we have thousands of new members.
MEQ: How do your materials get to
Teyeb: It depends on the place where you are working from. When I was in Africa, it was difficult to smuggle in materials. But from Europe, it's much easier to reach the slaves through the postal system. But we could only send some things; the authorities would open a tape recorder. We could send printed materials.
MEQ: What is your goal?
Teyeb: My ultimate goals are to gain freedom for my people and make them human beings. My near-term goals are more practical; using certain ways that enable them to become independent or reject the system of slavery.
MEQ: Is slavery in Mauritania similar to what Westerners understand by the term?
Teyeb: No, it is not. Slavery practiced by Bedyane in Mauritania differs from the slavery that once existed among Europeans in that the Bedyane enslave only children and women. The children are then raised as slaves and know no better than to accept the system. Our mentality leads us to believe we cannot get our freedom. Also, in Mauritania, the masters use religion as a sanction to make slavery legal and acceptable.
MEQ: What happens to the men?
Teyeb: In the earlier times, the Bedyane killed them, attacking the villages late at night, killing the men and capturing the women and children.
MEQ: And what happens when a slave disobeys his master?
Teyeb: Twenty years ago, the master could kill or beat his slave; now the situation has slightly improved. Today, he has the right to use force on the slave. If that does not suffice, he can bring the government in to help punish the slave, who can go to prison or worse. That's one of our problems with the government.
MEQ: Are any slaves skilled or literate?
Teyeb: No, if somebody is learned, he won't have the slave mentality. When I lived in Mauritania, I knew nothing about the world. For that, I had to leave the country. I can help free my people because I now know the Bedyane claims are not valid. That's why slaves must remain ignorant and are not allowed to go to school.
MEQ: Is there a commercial market for slaves in Mauritania?
Teyeb: Yes, but not much. There are some sales but mostly now, if you have slaves they are inherited by your children. Or, a master will give slaves to the poor Bedyane.
MEQ: Can you say anything good about slavery in Mauritania?
Teyeb: No, not at all. We slaves don't have any rights. Some people, who don't know the reality in Mauritania, think the system is not that bad there, that it has elements of kindness. Not true; it is an evil system.
Religion and Ethnicity
MEQ: Does religion play a role in this situation?
Teyeb: Yes, the system in my home country is very strong and religion is used wrongly to reinforce it. In fact, we slaves were told that to be against the slave system was tantamount to being against Islam. Even today, Islamic scholars in Mauritania declare that slavery is acceptable to Islam. Slavery is seen as part of the world as created by God. They taught us that we would lose our portion in paradise if we did not obey our masters.
MEQ: Are they wrong?
Teyeb: Of course they are. Islam, as I learned only after leaving Mauritania, does not recognize slavery. Islam calls for the ending of slavery. Islam came to free the slaves. Unfortunately, Muslims through the centuries have lost sight of the Islamic intent to end slavery and instead have permitted themselves to own slaves. In other words, Islam is basically antislavery but Muslims have not lived up to Islamic standards. I regret to say this message got lost—and nowhere more so than in Mauritania, where we slaves learned that Islam endorses slavery in perpetuity.
MEQ: What is the role of Islam or the Arabic language or skin color in the distinction between the free and the slave?
Teyeb: It's a complex matter. Bedyane are said to be descended from Arab origins while Haratine speak only Hasaniya (a dialect of Arabic).
MEQ: You are a native Arabic-speaker; that does not make you an Arab?
Teyeb: No, I am a Haratine, one of the names used for a slave. It comes from harrath [farmer in Arabic]. This name derives from an incident at the end of the nineteenth century, when a group of slaves fought their masters and went to the south of Mauritania where they tried to start farms. But they didn't have skills related to agriculture, so when the masters came to them, they agreed not to return, but to leave them cultivated land [hiratha], now in a better status with more rights. They should give only a portion of their income to their master. They were called the Haratine, a synonym of 'abd [slave in Arabic].
In our antislavery organization, we have decided to use the word Haratine to identify ourselves as those who are racially African and with Bedyane (or Arab) culture. We use the word Haratine as a symbol of our looking for freedom.
MEQ: Do you know how many Haratine there are?
Teyeb: We are a million strong in Mauritania, plus a half million taken by their masters to Senegal, Niger, and Mali. The last census in 1994 showed that Haratine make up 49 percent of Mauritania's population.
MEQ: The census in Mauritania has a category for Haratine?
Teyeb: Yes, it does. But it only happened then under pressure from an international
MEQ: So Bedyane and Haratine are official government designations, official categories?
Teyeb: Yes, they are, as of 1994.
MEQ: Who are the masters and who are the slaves in Mauritania?
Teyeb: The masters in Mauritania are those people descended from Arabs or a combination of Arab and Berber. (Anyone who is light-skinned is called Bedyane, meaning an Arab, or Arabian.) The slaves are those descended from Africans or Negroes, whose ancestors were enslaved when the Arabs came to Mauritania hundreds of years ago.
MEQ: You describe yourself as "still legally a slave";1 what do you mean by that, seeing that you now live in the United States and enjoy full constitutional rights here?
Teyeb: True, I've been effectively free from the day I rejected the slave system—but not legally. According to the Islamic Shari'a laws of Mauritania, which have been repeatedly upheld, a slave such as myself remains the property of his master if he does not have papers to prove his freedom.
MEQ: The government of Mauritania sees you as still a slave?
Teyeb: Officially, no. I'm free now according to the Mauritanian constitution but not by the Shari'a as understood in Mauritania. An attempt formally to free slaves in 1981 failed when the religious authorities nixed it. Much more recently, a master sued successfully to inherit the property of his slave.
MEQ: The title of the leading book on this subject in English, Silent Terror,2 emphasizes the invisibility of slavery in Mauritania. If a tourist or business traveler arrives in Mauritania, he doesn't see it. Tell us how that
Teyeb: That's not quite accurate. I can't say the system is invisible but some writers look at slavery through the example of American and European slavery. In Mauritania, the system is very different.
Talking only about visitors who see the city—and that's 90 percent of the people who come to Mauritania for the desert has no good roads —they see three ethnic groups: the master, the slave, and the black who's born free and who has never been enslaved. Slaves cannot be seen easily in the market but they are visible in houses. If the visitor looks at the workers at the house of his Bedyane host, he will note the food servers, servants, and others are all black. They do pretty much all the work in the household; the light skins who are in the minority can't do anything in the house. I think a visitor can see this very clearly. This is true from the palace to modest houses. When I read what foreigners write about Mauritania, I sometimes think, what were they doing, did they not look around? Didn't they ask what exactly was the relationship between the servant and the householder? Were they really in the capital city?
MEQ: But how is the visitor to know they are not paid servants?
Teyeb: He won't unless he knows the situation. If he asks a Bedyane, "Who is that person," the reply will be, "he's a free man." If he asks a slave—the slave will worry about his master hearing the reply and will say, "No I'm not a slave."
MEQ: So, the system truly is invisible to an outsider?
Teyeb: Yes, I suppose it is. You won't find an open slave market or see a master hold a gun to the head of a slave in the field, but slavery is there still. You will find out about the slave relationship, that the worker is not working willingly, only if you get to know the person. If you only look at him, he seems to be a normal worker.
Comparison with Sudan
MEQ: Some analysts argue that what exists in Sudan—the taking of prisoners of war as booty—is true slavery but that the plight of the Haratine in Mauritania resembles indentured servitude more than slavery. What do you say in response?
Teyeb: That's just not true. First, about Sudan: slavery is a much more superficial phenomenon there because the ideology of slavery does not exist. The institution of slavery virtually ended and no one there has grown up thinking of himself as a slave. It's a condition that happens due to circumstances of war. The Sudanese who have been enslaved since 1989 don't see themselves as slaves, but as caught in a terrible—but exceptional—situation. In Mauritania, as I explained, people are born slaves and live their whole lives as slaves, never questioning the system.
Second, note the relationship between master and slave to see the difference. In Sudan, there is a raw, violent quality. Slavers buy or abduct people, perhaps killing the men to take their women and children. The masters force them to work, rape the women. Mauritania is long beyond such crude and brutal ways. The Bedyane descended from Arabs have for seven hundred years owned slaves.
Third, the question of legality: in Mauritania the master legally owns and controls his slave, to the point that he can give the slave as a gift (until 1994) or kill him with impunity. In Sudan, slavery is not a fully legal institution, at least not yet.
Fourth, there is a system to give slaves every year as charity to poor Bedyane as zakat [Islamic charitable tax] or as a personal gift. Alternatively, they can be lent or hired out. Nothing like that exists in Sudan.
MEQ: How does the gifting of slaves work?
Teyeb: Each year, the rich Bedyane in Mauritania transfer slaves to the poor Bedyane, as part of their zakat payments. This leads to the extraordinary situation in Mauritania where the poor sometimes have more slaves than do the rich—though still the rich and educated all have slaves in their house. Even most of Mauritanian diplomats have slaves—even ones serving in the United States.
This means that in Mauritania there is no need to buy slaves. Any Bedyane whose families have lived in Mauritania for fifty-five years (since the slave trade was legally abolished by the French authorities in 1944) has access to plenty of slaves.
Here's something else that may be unique in the world—traditionally, after one year, when a Bedyane daughter marries, she moves from her parents' house to her husband's house, and takes her slave women with her. That's why many slave families are separated.
MEQ: How about numbers of slaves in the two countries?
Teyeb: Another difference. In Sudan, the percentage of slaves is much smaller. They are relatively rare in Sudan—perhaps a couple of hundred thousand—but completely commonplace in Mauritania, where nearly every Bedyane has slaves as property. You can't compare one Sudanese trader who collects a hundred slaves to this embedded system.
MEQ: What about the fact that Sudan has slave markets, Mauritania does not?
Teyeb: Some people are overly impressed that in Sudan slave traders deal openly in the market, thinking this is the requirement for "real" slavery. Slavery in Sudan is better because people who are slaves appear on television. More profoundly, they benefit from the fact that their children have hopes that they will one day leave slavery behind and go back to their homes. In Mauritania, such hopes have been crushed in the course of centuries. The masters want everything and don't even realize this is wrong.
MEQ: In short, slavery is a more profound institution in Mauritania than in Sudan?
Teyeb: Yes, and more than that, slavery in Mauritania is worse. In Sudan, owners use slaves to help them with specific work—with the cattle or in the fields. In Mauritania, the master has had no relationship with land until recently, so he depends on slaves for this work. Bedyane in Mauritania consider anything in the least physical, such as getting food, preparing food, bringing wood, to be the exclusive concern of slaves. They find it shameful even to wash their hands by themselves.
MEQ: So there's a culture of slavery on both sides, the slave and the master?
Teyeb: Right. Slavery in Mauritania is true slavery because it means doing everything without whining, whether you can do it or not. Don't do it and you'll be punished—whether by God or by humans.
The Outside World
MEQ: You have criticized international organizations for not doing enough for slaves. "There are so many international organizations and government agencies. They fight famine, natural disasters, child abuse, domestic violence, political detentions and more. Why have all these organizations been silent" on slavery?3
Teyeb: My organization works against slavery and gets no support from all these organizations. They send a delegation to research and nothing comes of it.
MEQ: Why not?
Teyeb: That's my question, too. The simple fact is, there is no help from the outside world.
MEQ: You have no explanation for this?
Teyeb: It could be that some organizations work with the government.
MEQ: Why? The Mauritanian government is weak and poor, with little to offer anyone.
Teyeb: I don't mean our government. They work with another one.
MEQ: Which government are they working with?
Teyeb: Several. The result is a severe undercounting of slaves. One organization says there are at most 90,000 slaves and 400,000 half-slaves in the country. Where do they get this information? Human Rights Watch, Amnesty, and the others—they don't know about the people who have suffered in Mauritania at the hands of the system. The State Department in 1994-95 said there are 90,000 slaves; in 1997, it said there are no more slaves in Mauritania. I will tell them there are in Mauritania over one million slaves. Not only slaves of the ordinary masters but also slaves of the government that puts us in prison and kills us.
MEQ: How would you characterize the outside world's response to the plight of the Haratine?
Teyeb: My people in Africa have been a great disappointment, as have my brothers and sisters in Islam, my neighbors, and my brothers in the Arab world. Everyone has failed us except the children in the United States. Starting in the early months of 1999, they have been working on our behalf. They are now our main hope for effecting change.
MEQ: Out of the whole world, why American children?
Teyeb: Because the United States is the most free country in the world. I had heard this said but now know it's a reality. Everybody, even if he's crazy, has the right to do what he wants. Not only that, but the congressmen listen even to the crazy person.
MEQ: Have you spoken to congressmen?
Teyeb: I hope to do so soon. I hear that many who represent causes have a chance to talk with congressmen. Unfortunately, we who are slaves still await our turn. Congress is now concerned about human rights; I hope it will get involved in our problem.
MEQ: Have the efforts of former congressman Mervyn Dymally and others been successful in hushing up the story of Mauritanian
Teyeb: Perhaps. In 1994-95, the State Department acknowledged that there were 90,000 slaves in Mauritania. But in 1997-98, it changed its opinion and found none. I don't know why this happened, but it could have resulted from the efforts of people like Mr. Dymally. This is certainly a problem, but it does not prevent the antislavery organizations and the media from knowing that slavery exists in Mauritania.
MEQ: What about the Nation of Islam's stance on this issue, its denial of slavery in Africa?
Teyeb: When I came to the United States I was very disappointed to learn that the Nation of Islam's leader said that Mauritania doesn't have slavery. I asked myself, "Who told him that?" I hope Farrakhan goes to Mauritania or sends a mission there or meets with my organization. We will bring him slaves to meet and thousands of documents if necessary.
MEQ: Why are most Muslim institutions covering up this situation?
Teyeb: Very few Muslims know that slavery still exists in Mauritania but all the Muslim governments are perfectly aware of this phenomenon. They keep silent, and even become accomplices to it, because they say Muslims should be united. So long as the one and a half million Muslim slaves don't have a voice, it is better to ignore them.
MEQ: Your role is to supply that voice?
Teyeb: Yes. The Muslim states have many organizations (such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference) and they do not discuss anything except what governments raise. In this context, who will rile the atmosphere and talk about this unpleasant issue?
MEQ: Is there anyone else like you, an educated activist, of slave background?
Teyeb: Not in the United States. We have several hundred, but they don't have the skills to represent our cause.
MEQ: Are there other educated activists in Europe?
Teyeb: Just a few; it's not easy for us to escape. We don't have money to do the things we would like to achieve. It is very hard for us.
MEQ: So you have a lot of responsibility?
Teyeb: A lot.
MEQ: Do you expect to see the Haratine liberated within your lifetime?
Teyeb: Yes, I believe so because as long as the children in the United States raise pennies to free the modern slaves in Sudan, and most of the children who are nine or ten years are asking, What we can do for the Haratine?
MEQ: How do you answer them?
Teyeb: I tell them they can do everything. Write your congressman, join an organization to support freeing slaves. Don't do this just for us in Mauritania but because you could one day also be a slave. It could happen. Beyond the children, there are good people in the United States who are seriously working to free slaves in twenty-eight countries. They include members of Congress, activists, and antislavery groups.
MEQ: So your hope is in the United States, not in Europe or the Muslim world?
Teyeb: I cannot wait for the Muslim world to right this wrong because it is simply not doing it. They would fight me before they would ever free me. Most of them don't even want to see me free. I see that the United States is a moral force that fights for many issues around the world. Also, I have rights here as nowhere else. This inspires me and convinces me I can achieve something.
1 The Boston Globe, Mar. 18, 1999.
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