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In honour of Black History Month: the Black-Arab paradigm

October 29, 2016 at 11:09 am

“I am Palestinian. My blood is Palestine and Fatah walks through my veins,” said the first woman to organise a paramilitary operation in Israel at the start of her final media interview. Fatima Bernawi spoke passionately about how Palestinian nationalism had been in her blood since infancy and took pride in how, as a 9 year-old, she smuggled herself back to live with her father in Jerusalem after her mother and siblings escaped to Jordan during the 1948 Nakba.

Her parents decided that she could stay in Jerusalem and she started to work as a teenager. At the age of 17, she moved to Saudi Arabia to become a nurse at ARAMCO (the government-owned oil company) to help support her family. However, she was not allowed to give injections to patients for the simple reason that she was black.

She eventually managed to return to Palestine when she got a job in Qalqiliya in the West Bank. “The previous nurse was very beautiful,” she recalled, “but because of her beauty, boys used to skip school to look at her, so they decided that she was too much of a distraction and hired me instead.”

Despite the fact that she experienced the Nakba, as she got older Bernawi faced discrimination in Arab circles because of her colour. Nevertheless, she became the first female Palestinian guerrilla fighter and was the first woman to join the armed struggle against Israel.

Sadly, Fatima Bernawi died in Amman earlier this month.

As this year’s Black History Month comes to a close, there have been many debates on what constitutes “Black”. Britain’s National Union of Students has adopted “political Blackness” to define what being Black means. The NUS believes that anyone from an ethnic minority who has faced discrimination can identify as Black politically, with the intention to create solidarity among ethnic minorities on British campuses. However, many feel that this is doing more harm than good.

The woman in the middle in the top row of the poster is Leila Khaled, another Palestinian guerrilla and much more famous than Bernawi in Western pro-Palestine circles; she is the more common symbol of the Palestinian female fighter. This NUS poster featured Leila Khaled, instead of an actual Black Palestinian, simply because she is deemed to be “politically Black”.

The debate can also be reversed. Last year, Ahmed Mohamed, a Muslim Texan schoolboy of Sudanese origin, built a clock. He took it to school to show it to his teacher, who reported him for “making a bomb”. His story went viral and Ahmed received a significant amount of support from the online community, who called out his teacher and his school for Islamophobic discrimination.

In addition to standing with Ahmed, there was also a debate about Ahmed’s race. He openly identified himself with the “Arab world” and used the phrase “my people” to describe the global Arab community. However, many felt that Arabs and Muslims were erasing his Black identity by only showing solidarity to him as an “Arab and Muslim” victim of racism, rather than an Arab, Muslim and Black victim of racism.

Blogger Leena Habiballa, also of Sudanese origin, touched upon Ahmed’s experience and related it to herself. In her blog post “Too Black to be Arab, too Arab to be Black”, she wrote: “The Sudanese body is a rich and complicated constellation of meaning, a mosaic of identity that is often compromised in its translation into Western racial constructs. The majority of us carry different combinations of African, Arab and Muslim identities, rendering us incoherent to Western racial paradigms.”

According to Mohamed Elawad, his Arab and African identities “were never separate”. The Sudanese-American considers “Sudan to be a crossroads between Arab and African cultures.” He told me that he is “just accepted as an Arab on the merit of being Sudanese and speaking Arabic.”

This is not to say that he hasn’t experienced racism. “What I have found to be strange is, because I’m light skinned, some Arabs tell me I’m not African.” Different experiences have also played a role in shaping his identity. “I perhaps feel more African due to having received more racism for being Black than anything else when I lived in the UK… I’ve had people tell me that their families would not accept me for marriage because of my skin colour.”

Amira (not her real name) is of Somali origin; she refuses to identify as Arab. “Somalia is politically Arab [it’s a member of the Arab League], but I never believed that, nor will I,” she insisted. This exemplifies the strong case for society to stop accepting pre-conceived notions about identity and allow people to identify themselves as they see fit.

While Fatima Bernawi’s father was originally Nigerian, she associated herself with her Palestinian roots on her mother’s side. It is important to note that identity is a fluid concept and many cultures have interchangeable factors. Generally speaking, individual identity is influenced heavily by how people identify themselves from a racial standpoint; allowing others to interfere with this self-identification is highly problematic. Using ideologies to talk over people when they are identifying themselves is racist.

Furthermore, the idea that someone is more or less Arab because of their skin-tone is very much an orientalist discourse; this explains why, in the Western world, Leila Khaled is more commonly associated to be a poster-woman for the Palestinian guerrilla movement than Fatima Bernawi. At the same time, forcing the Arab identity on someone who refuses to associate with it is racist in itself. It must be understood that identity is a strictly personal issue and no one has the right to force anyone else into a specific racial or other kind of identity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.