As a group of people fighting for the liberation of black people locally and nationally, it is important that we understand the conditions of black people globally and how our liberation is tied to theirs. This thought brings to mind the quotes of two prophets for black liberation.
“No one is free until we are all free.” – Martin Luther King Jr., Southern Christian Leadership Council
“We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity.” – Fred Hampton, Black Panther Party
A Whole New World is a multi-part blog post serving as an exploration of the black identity in the Middle East.
“Africa is our center of gravity, our cultural and spiritual mother and father, our beating heart, no matter where we live on the face of this earth.”
– John Henrik Clarke
For centuries, Africans have traveled from the African continent, settling in various lands and acclimating themselves to new societies, spreading elements of their cultures to extensive distances beyond their places of origin. Much of African and African Diasporic Studies however tend to highlight the involuntary displacement of Africans, forcibly brought to the world’s western hemisphere through the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The focus of this attentive study explores the impact of this migration on the identities of future generations of African-descended peoples based in the Americas and the Caribbean. But what about other areas of the world?
Opposite the Atlantic Ocean to the east, include many countries that have also witnessed the contributing influence of the African diaspora. The purpose of this paper, thus, is to explore, examine, and, analyze the construction of black African identity as articulated in the Middle Eastern geographic region. What does it mean to be a black Arab? What does it mean to be black, in general, in this part of the world?
As the quote above by John Henrik Clarke illustrates, wherever Africans and African- descended people are present in the world, there is a diasporic connection to Africa as the ancestral homeland. Using different forms of media including online news reels, documentaries and short video clips, this paper intends to find out how African-descended people are represented in Middle Eastern and Arab societies as well as how those individuals navigate and embody this sense of “Africanness” that the quote by Clarke implies.
Initially, it is beneficial to have a clear concept of what is meant when employing the term diaspora, particularly as it relates to Africa and African-descended peoples. History professor and author, Colin A. Palmer provides this definition in his scholarly article, “Defining and Studying the Modern African Diaspora”:
The modern African diaspora, at its core, consists of the millions of peoples of African descent living in various societies who are united by a past based significantly but not exclusively upon “racial” oppression and the struggles against it and who, despite the cultural variations and political and other divisions among them, share an emotional bond with one another and with their ancestral continent and who also, regardless of their location face broadly similar problems in constructing and realizing themselves (30)
Therefore, the groups of people later described in the media representations examined, express their identity in different ways, for instance some adhere to labels that prove their national citizenry while still retaining their ancestral heritage such as Afro-Iranians, Afro-Iraqis, etc.; some are transplant members of their societies seeking refugee status or a new permanent home from another country, expressing their identities in more complex ways such as the African Hebrew Israelites, who are African Americans that have decided to settle in Israel and identify under a new name. However, each of these groups belong to the African diaspora, as they face common experiences of racial-ethnic discrimination in their host societies. Additionally, regardless of their physical proximity to the continent, whether recent immigrants or descendants, all of these groups regard Africa as an imaginative home, i.e. their place of origin.
The first insight into the construction of African identity in the Middle East comes in an online video short clip, where photographer Andrew Courtney provides a brief glimpse into the life of a particular individual, Ali Jiddah. Ali Jiddah is identified as an esteemed leader of the African Palestinian community. In the video, Courtney details how there are groups of African Palestinians that live in many communities of historic Palestine. They are descendants of pilgrims that migrated from Chad, Niger, Senegal, and the Sudan to Jerusalem and became guardians of a Muslim shrine known as the Dome of the Rock. As a leader of this community, Courtney asserts that Ali Jiddah’s “life story is a metaphor giving us a clear understanding of the conditions Palestinians live under today” (Courtney, “African Palestinian”).
When Ali Jiddah first appears on camera, he announces to Andrew Courtney “You are just now sitting in the African Quarter, which is not on the map, while in fact, this is the African Quarter; I’m talking about three generations…” (Courtney, “African Palestinian”). Then he recounts the brief synopsis that Courtney previously narrated in the video about how and from where Africans arrived in Palestine. It is important to take note of Jiddah’s declaration because it provides insight into his identity as an African Palestinian. Highlighting the longevity of the African Quarter’s presence demonstrates the significant role this particular community has. The niche carved out for these individuals allows a continuance of the African heritage brought by the earlier pilgrims to the Holy City. Additionally, despite its obscurity, as he points out its location is not present on a map, it remains a viable place for African Palestinians keeping their legacy intact by ensuring solidarity among their descendants. Yet, even as a small enclave it is also a part of the larger Arab community. Before interviewing Ali Jiddah, Andrew Courtney reveals the atmospheric surroundings of the African Quarter, showing its location “on an ancient market of a Muslim Quarter” (“African Palestinian”). Thus, the African Quarter does not exist in isolation but instead cohabits among the Muslim community as well.
Ali Jiddah’s biographical story about his personal involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict again demonstrates his particular construction of Afro-Arab identity. He explains how he spent 17 years in prison due to a bomb he executed resulting in the injuries of nine Israelis. While he regrets the violence he committed, he also felt it was necessary due to the powerlessness Palestinians experience in the face of Israeli occupation. He laments, “My whole life is in prison. I [was] born in prison, I went to prison, I am back in prison” referring to Palestine’s invalid status as a free state. Furthermore he continues, warning conservative Israelis “Don’t push my people to the corner. Don’t drive my people desperate because more desperation [means] more violence; more fanaticism (Courtney, “African Palestinian”). His impassioned support for his people, his fellow Palestinians, and their cause reveals how both elements – his African ancestry and his Arab ethnicity merge together to form a positive afro-diasporic identity. Thus, the binary attributes that form the term African Palestinian do not exist in opposition to one another.