Je suis un toubab?

Dakar, being the capital of Senegal and to some extent a regional West African capital (the Central Bank of the Community of West African States is here, as is the UN HQ) has a fair degree of internationalism. Though indigenous Senegalese comprise 99% of the country’s overall population, it is common to see non-blacks in downtown Dakar, not just as tourists but as residents as well. This is especially true for merchants of Lebanese extraction (mostly Shiites from South Lebanon) who occupy an enviable place as powerful businesspeople.

Most of these Arabs came to Senegal beginning in the 1930s, between the 2 World Wars when Greater Syria, as well as West Africa, were under French control. But even today, they are seen differently in the eyes of indigenous Africans, and not considered toubab (roughly translated: whitey).

So where does that leave me, as an American citizen of Arab extraction? They consensus seems to be mixed. Depending on how I am dressed, whether I am listening to my iPod, whether I am wearing sunglasses, and whether I am alone or in the company of others, I might be seen as a toubab or I might be seen as nar – the Wolof word for Arab (Wolof is the most prominent tribal language here).

Race is an issue here. Black Senegalese tell me, "oh, you don't have a thing to worry about if the police stop you in your car – they have a complex with white foreigners." On the other hand, a Lebanese friend who had some legal difficulties told me, "I could never get a fair judgment here, because of my skin color." No doubt, though, like many places in the world, discrimination in Senegal varies on a case-by-case basis.

Interestingly, the Senegalese President, the rather elderly Abdoulaye Wade, who strikes me as a very crafty diplomat, met his wife years ago while a student in France – she is a toubab of course. I found this interesting, and asked many Senegalese about whether it strikes them in any way that their head of state is married to a white foreigner. Former President Leopold Senghor was also married to a toubab. Does this indicate some kind of ethnic/racial identity crisis? The responses have been mixed. Someone forcefully made the point to me the other day when he suggested that it is because he married a white woman that Wade is President today. Some have supported the idea that it is an identity crisis and an inferiority complex that these African elites, who studied in France, felt the need to break away from their African roots in choosing mates.

But most seem to think this is a non-issue. I asked, what would happen in next year's hotly anticipated Presidential election if Wade's former right hand and Prime Minister, Idy Seck (who is married to a black Senegalese woman) decided to challenge his erstwhile colleague? Most seem to think that race would never become a campaign issue. I look forward to watching. And to figuring out if I'm ultimately a toubab or not.