By Khaled Diab
Africans in the Holy Land are challenging the whitewashing of their identities and are taking greater pride in their heritage.
Friday 30 March 2012
You wouldn’t guess it when introduced to her, but Madeha Alkmalat is a “Bedouin”. Turned out in casual evening wear, she is the picture of the young, educated, sophisticated urban woman. She is more at home in the 21st-century metropolis than in the still-prevalent Orientalist fantasies of the noble-yet-primitive nomad woven by the likes of “Lawrence of Arabia” or captured on film by Lehnert and Landrock.
“People expect Bedouins to be dressed in traditional Arab dress and the women to be covered up and invisible, so when they see a modern, uncovered woman, they are surprised,” says Alkmalat, who links her empowerment not only to her independent personality but also the support of her enlightened family.
Another thing which caught my eye about this Bedouin-Palestinian when I first met Alkmalat in a trendy Haifa restaurant in the shadow of the sublime beauty of the Baha’i gardens was that she also happens to have a dark African complexion.
On the other side of the bitter political chasm separating Palestinians from Israelis is Tali Ysia, also a young, educated, articulate woman who stands out because hers is the only Ethiopian or black African face in the cosy West Jerusalem patisserie where we met for hot drinks and conversation.
Alkmalat and Ysia, though they don’t know each other and their communities rarely interact, belong to a new, more assertive generation of African-Palestinians and Ethiopian-Israelis who are struggling with the complexities of their identities, taking greater pride in their heritage, and demanding to be regarded and treated as equals.
Identity is a complex minefield for both young women. “I used to be ashamed of my Ethiopian roots,” admits Ysia, who identifies herself, above all else, as an Israeli.
Alkamlat, whose tribe has for centuries lived in Rahat, in the al-Naqab (Negev) desert, which is today in southern Israel, feels a deep connection with her Palestinian identity, which is understandable given that her only connection with Africa is her skin tone.
However, on top of her Palestinian, Bedouin and African identities, she also holds Israeli citizenship, speaks fluent Hebrew and studied at an Israeli university. But defining yourself as both Israeli and Palestinian can be like walking on a tightrope through a political minefield – it truly puts the conflict into conflicting identities. As one Palestinian-Israeli memorably put it, “My state is at war with my nation.”
Not all African-Palestinians have their roots lost in the mists of time. Some, like the small Afro-Palestinian community in Jerusalem of some 300 to 400 people, trace their origins back to the late Ottoman era, when they were brought over by the sultan to guard the al-Aqsa complex, or by the British mandate as workers.
Despite their closer links to Africa, they define themselves primarily as Palestinians. “We are Palestinians of African origin,” describes Yasser Qous, who heads the African Community Society in Jerusalem. “We are like coconuts: we are dark on the outside but inside we are Palestinians to the core. We are immersed in the Palestinian reality, though we cannot forget our roots.”
Many of Quos’s community lives in two beautiful beautiful buildings just outside the magnificent architectural splendour of the Dome of the Rock. Built in the 13th century, these ribats (hostels) originally functioned as housing for Muslim pilgrims from across the world, including Africa. In fact, African pilgrims have been settling in the holy land for centuries and many stayed behind, though these have long melted into the population at large.
Like African-Palestinians, Ethiopian-Israelis find dealing with their different identities challenging. In fact, their African and Israeli identities may be in greater conflict because the vast majority of this 120,000-strong community has only been here since the famine and civil war in Ethiopia in the 1980s prompted Israel to smuggle the small Ethiopian Jewish minority out of the devastated country – even if a small Ethiopian community connected with the church has lived in Jerusalem since Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire.
Although the Israeli government has put in place numerous programmes aimed at helping Ethiopian Jews to fit in which apparently draw lessons from previous waves of immigration, the integration process has been far from smooth and, successes notwithstanding, poverty is three time higher and unemployment double among Ethiopian Jews compared with the Israeli mainstream.
In addition to the challenges posed by the sudden shift from an agrarian society to an advanced modern economy, as well as the absence of robust family and social networks, Israeli policy effectively concentrated most Ethiopians into self-contained ghettoes of poverty, deprivation and lack of opportunity.
This harsh reality has provided bigots with the excuses they need to justify their prejudices and has fuelled a certain amount of racism, which Ethiopians have recently been protesting against, with slogans like “our blood is only good for wars”.
“The stereotypes about Ethiopians in Israel are similar to those about African-Americans,” Tali Ysia tells me. These include that Ethiopians are criminals, violent, primitive and alcoholics. “These stereotypes are unfair but people
hold them because this is all they hear about Ethiopians in the media.”
However, negative stereotypes were not a problem in Ysia’s personal experience: “I never made my colour an issue. If you don’t make a big deal out of it, most others won’t either.”
Part of Ysia’s ease in navigating mainstream Israeli society derives from the considerable foresight exhibited by her mother, who is a living legend in their household. Her pregnant mother not only led a four-year-old Ysia and her older brother on a 10-week, nocturnal march from Gondar in Ethiopia to Sudan, where they were airlifted to Israel as part of the clandestine Operation Moses, she also insisted on settling her young family in the white coastal town of Herzliya, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, rather than in predominantly Ethiopian neighbourhoods. “My mother didn’t want us to live in a closed community. She decided that for us to be successful, we had to become fully Israeli.”
Ysia’s journey from the Ethiopian highlands was not only long and arduous physically, but also culturally and emotionally. From a traumatised child who could not stop playing with the magical light switch for her first few days in Israel and who was fascinated by the existence of white people, and especially white people who were also Jewish like her, she and her siblings have battled the odds to get a decent education and jobs.
But this success came at the price of the African identity, which her family felt compelled to leave behind in Ethiopia. Then, while studying in Jerusalem to become a teacher, Ysia attended an Ethiopian pride course which opened her eyes to her heritage, as did an African-American stranger she met in the States. “Now I am proud of who I am. I can succeed because of who I am. I don’t need to deny it,” she emphasises.
Though longer-established, and hence better-integrated, African-Palestinians also suffer from their unfair share of discrimination. “A lot of people around still call us ‘abeed’ (‘slaves’),” notes Madeha Alkmalat, though this is unheard of in the more urbane north.
Historically, some Africans in Palestine are the descendants of slaves – as personal servants, concubines, soldiers or even as manual labourers on the Ummayad sugar plantations – but many more arrived in the Holy Land as pilgrims or merchants.
Yasser Quos also insists that modern Palestinians’ grasp of the institution of slavery has been affected by the far better-known American context. “I’ve always said that Spartacus was not black, and he was the first rebel in the slaves’ revolt,” he notes.
In previous centuries, whites were perhaps as likely to wind up as slaves as were blacks, especially if they ended up on the losing side in a war. In addition, though slavery is an abhorrent institution, in the ancient world, many slaves held high status as teachers, doctors, ministers and elite warriors. For instance, Egypt was ruled for centuries, and enjoyed one of its golden ages, under the rule of an elite military caste of slaves known as the Mamalik.
Quos also holds that the discrimination faced by African-Palestinians is largely unrelated to race and is mostly isolated to the area of marriage. “The problem for African-Palestinians is more to do with class than colour,” he explains. “Palestinian society went from being feudal to become bourgeois. Marriage used to be brokered on the basis of the property the two families entering it owned. Even today, marriage is generally not between individuals but between families of the same class.”
But there is a significant, and rising, amount of inter-marriage, though it is still relatively rare among the Bedouins, as Quos himself demonstrates. His father moved to Jerusalem from Chad and married a local Palestinian woman. His wife is also of mixed Palestinian and African origin.
Although the narrowing of identities caused by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has caused both African-Palestinians and Ethiopian Jews to suppress their African side, discrimination, modern communications and their growing assertiveness has led the two communities to feel greater solidarity with Africans elsewhere.
“I feel solidarity with Africans around the world. We have similar histories, even if our religions are different,” says Tali Ysia.
“I don’t know about Africa, I have no connection with Africa and I’ve never been there,” asserts Madeha Alkmalat. “However, I do feel a certain belonging to my colour. This is perhaps because of discrimination and also because of how I was raised. I’m always happy when I see black people getting ahead. I was over the moon when Obama became president. His victory challenges the stereotype that black people are only good at sports and music.”
Even Obama’s openly pro-Israel stance has not diminished African-Palestinians’ sense of black pride. “When it comes to American foreign policy towards the Palestinians, we know that Obama is like a mannequin,” says Quos. “We knew that the talk of ‘change’ in his speeches had limits… but he may mark the beginning of change.”
Qous also believes that most Palestinians respect the African community and especially the significant role it has played in the Palestinian national struggle. One example is Fatima Bernawi, who became the first female Palestinian prisoner of conscience and has held a number of prominent positions in the Palestinian leadership.
For her part, Ysia says that most Israelis she encounters are reasonable and are open to having their prejudices challenged, and the situation will only get better as Ethiopians become more integrated .
And many African-Palestinians and Ethiopian-Israelis are determined to become more successful and let their success speak for itself to society at large and act as a role model for the forthcoming generation.
Ysia, who is the only Ethiopian teacher at one of Jerusalem’s top primary schools, dreams one day of opening up her own school which would not only provide excellent education but teach Jewish children from different backgrounds the value of coexistence.
Alkmalat also wants to give back to her community and society at large. She works for a civil society organisation in Be’er Sheva, where she now lives, which seeks to empower Bedouin women and enable them to carve out their own space in a largely traditional, male-dominated community.
Moreover, whether or not they find common cause in their struggle for full equality, African-Palestinians and Ethiopian-Israelis, by their very existence, challenge the rigid and simplistic “us” and “them” division that underpins the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and offer hope that one day identities will become more fluid and inclusive again.