I, like millions of Palestinians, know precisely what racism is and what oppression feels like.
Last year, I wrote an article that made many readers unhappy. As soon as it was published, I began receiving messages of abuse and angry, threatening calls.
I hesitated about reporting the threats to the local police in Washington state and, in the end, I resolved to file the unpleasant experience under a burgeoning folder of ‘controversies’ caused by my writings. The title of the article was: “‘I Can’t Breathe’: Racism and War in America and Beyond.”
As a Palestinian columnist and a book author over the past 20 years, it has not been entirely easy working in the United States. Nor has it been possible to be embraced by the mainstream while raging against mainstream ideas, the constant appetite for war and unthinking support of Apartheid Israel.
George Orwell once wrote: “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act”. With time, and with no other alternative, I have decided to comfort myself with that sage realization.
Having been born in a refugee camp in Gaza, I am the descendant of a generation of refugees and peasants, who once dwelled in a Palestinian homeland before it was brutally vanquished in 1948 and ‘miraculously’ became Israel.
For the better part of a whole century, generations of Palestinians have experienced every form of oppression that the twisted human mind is able to conjure up: massacres, ethnic cleansing, destruction of property, rape, unremitting war, siege and all the psychological torment that often accompanies such devastation.
In fact, being survivors of a perpetual injustice has, at least for many of us, become the main frame of reference through which we can understand the world, and ourselves.
As a refugee, I have always remained absorbed and totally committed to expose the suffering of refugees, wherever they are. But I am just one of an ever-growing movement of Palestinian intellectuals, artists, academicians and justice activists the world over.
Our shared experience and unrelenting fight for freedom and justice has molded us into a unique breed, where solidarity with others have become so innate, an uncontrollable urge, a pathology even, although a welcome one. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the loudest international solidarity that accompanied the continued spate of the killing of Black Americans comes from Palestine; that books have already been written and published by Palestinians about the plight of their Black brethren. In fact, that solidarity is mutual.
Surprisingly, some of the anger that followed my writings on the subject of Palestinian-Black solidarity came from pro-Palestinian White readers. One even went as far as disowning the Palestinian cause altogether. “Let Black people free your country,” he wrote, along with a few profane phrases.
Honestly, good riddance. There must be no racism in the Palestine solidarity movement anyway, and any solidarity that is conditioned on isolating Palestinians from the fight for human rights anywhere in the world is unworthy and unwelcome.
The truth is I was not trying to score cheap political points by espousing justice for 12-year-old Tamir Rice, or Eric Garner or, more recently, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. These, among hundreds of other who are killed every year in the ongoing drama of police violence, come from the most economically and socially disadvantaged segments of American society. They hold little political influence and are rarely known for their powerful lobbies in Washington DC.
Yet, siding with them, however strategically useless such a move may appear to some, is the only moral path to be taken. I, like millions of Palestinians, know precisely what racism is, what oppression feels like, how being economically underprivileged and politically disadvantaged are often the inception of anger—and even counter-violence.
My people have been living that vicious cycle for a century and, for me, not to take a moral stance in solidarity with any oppressed group anywhere in the world is denying the very foundation of my being, the collective drive that keeps millions of Palestinians standing strong and moving forward.
There is an unmistakable sense of being permanently exiled that is shared by many Palestinians, regardless of their political backgrounds. That sense is both real and figurative to the extent that, with time, it has morphed into a culture, a mode of thinking and perspective.
Being ‘out of place’, the title of Edward Said’s powerful memoir is not unique to a single Palestinian individual, but to a whole nation. Even in our homeland, there is little sense of continuity; things can change so very quickly: by bombs, bulldozers or military orders.
To adapt, Palestinian culture—although rooted in a long history of uninterrupted existence that exceeds a millennia—has been quite fluid; culturally and geographically, as well. With the prolonged ‘exile’, our political identity surpassed time and place. Thus, identifying with Black or Native Americans, the refugees of Syria, the victims of South African Apartheid or the Rohingya of Burma is hardly an act of political expediency, but a natural moral inclination. A culture even.
Edward Said had convincingly articulated the concept of ‘global perspective’ that made the Palestinian struggle part and parcel of a global fight for social justice. For Palestinians, the lines have become truly blurred between their political identity, their own culture and that of a much greater fight with loftier goals.
“In the case of a political identity that’s being threatened, culture is a way of fighting against extinction and obliteration,” Said wrote.
“Culture is a form of memory against effacement.”
In a recently released poetry collection that I co-authored with two brilliant Palestinian poets, Samah Sabawi and Jehan Bseiso, what is Palestine merged into a much larger array of global struggles against injustice.
In the poem, written after the death of Herman Wallace—a Black man who was incarcerated in solitary confinement for 41 years on the basis of what many believe were trumped up charges—I attempted to include the old fighter’s struggle as part of my people’s own ‘memory against effacement.’
My fist will rise from the charred earth; in a painting by Naji Ali,
Through the thick walls of Louisiana State Penitentiary
In the streets of Hanoi,
Amid the rubble of a Gaza mosque.
Even on my dying bed.
I have many names.
But my face is always my face.
On my forehead stitched the memory of pain.
I smile still.
And teach my son to never hate
Because hate is not love
And love is freedom
I am a Palestinian
My name is Herman Wallace
And I will always die free.
Suddenly, being Palestinian and Black was the most natural feeling. It was not a calculated decision, but an innate feeling driven by the common struggle for justice and a shared history of pain.