I’m Black and Palestinian, you scared ?

Azmera Hammouri-Davis

Mondoweiss  /  May 20, 2023

I did not learn much about my Palestinian heritage growing up, but a trip to Palestine as an adult exposed me to the beauty of Palestinian culture and the racist realities of life under Israeli occupation.

Growing up in Hawaii, even though one of my last names was Palestinian, I never meaningfully learned about or connected with this part of my heritage. Mom’s father, Grandpa Marwan, was someone I mainly learned about in her lyrics and songs. His early death when she was fourteen years old exacerbated this cultural chasm, leaving many pieces of the Palestine puzzle to be woven together. Eventually, remnants of his culture would etch their rightful place into my halcyon memories, but never without the painful awareness of how clueless I was about the context. Like many, Arab stigma post-9/11 dissuaded me from learning about the political realities in the region. When the opportunity to learn about Palestine presented itself in graduate school, I couldn’t let it pass me by. As a first-generation low-income college student of Black-Palestinian American descent, I saw how education opens portals of possibility my ancestors could only dream of. Getting to travel there and learn about Palestine first-hand was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

In 2019, after spending the first three weeks of January in Palestine as part of my Master of Theological Studies program, it became clear that I needed to learn more about my maternal side of the family and interrogate my own cultural and religious assumptions. That summer, I returned for two months to learn and teach alongside students and staff at the Ramallah Friends School in the West Bank. I enjoyed teaching English literacy to 4th graders and promoting cultural identity through the Afro-Brazilian martial art of Capoeira. Seeing the young women move their bodies freely and express their voices reminded me of the freedom Capoeira gave me as a young girl. 

I revisited Aida refugee camp, saw my grandfather’s land for the first time, camped in Jericho, spoke with Afro-Palestinians, listened to stories, and met some incredibly resilient, beautiful, warm, and loving people. They were going about their everyday lives, in all its complexity, seeking the same peace and liberty that I saw quotidian folk pursue at home—the exact antithesis of what U.S. news predominantly portrays about the “Arab trope” in the States. I met Palestinian Christians and Muslims, and even learned about Palestinian Jews from the same town my family is from — Al Khalil, known today as Hebron. All I had heard in the media growing up was narratives propagating skepticism about how Arabs, especially Palestinians, are perpetual foreigners or terrorists. Whether it was hearing slurs like “desert n**g*” or watching Aladdin, these stereotypes promoted self-hatred, and xenophobia, and were couched in harmful Orientalist portrayals to say the least.

In high school, my favorite teacher was a white Jewish male. He taught AP English at James Campbell High School, and I loved the structure, autonomy, and ethic of humor he espoused in his class. On the first day of class introductions, I’ll never forget how impressed he was when he learned I practiced Capoeira. I was amazed that he knew what it was and had also tried it before! I appreciated that he seemed to expect more from us. Though his tough love approach and strange tactics rubbed some folks the wrong way, it somehow motivated me to apply myself to the material. I wanted to prove him wrong, and I wanted to learn more from him. So much so that I became his teaching assistant during my senior year. I’ll never forget when he signed my yearbook and wrote, “I’m so glad I’ll no longer have to live in fear every day that you’ll bomb the buildings.” I had no idea what he was talking about. Why would he say that? It caught me so off guard, and I just laughed it off. This was one of the first times I realized that having Palestinian heritage in America was deemed dangerous. Given that I had little context then, I minimized my discomfort and chalked it up to his facetious personality. When my mom got mad, I told her she was overreacting. He didn’t mean any harm by it; I contested her on his behalf. So quick to protect his intentions and overlook my own feelings. It wasn’t until coming to grad school that I realized how much I internalized that “joke.” Will other people automatically assume I’m some terrorist or that I’m colluding with some “ominous radical group” if I speak out on the injustice I witnessed in Palestine? 

Or worse, the usual and all too recycled gaslighting tactic, will they deem me “antisemitic”?

It didn’t dawn on me until I was being arrested at Ben-Gurion airport seven years later while leaving the country how gravely insensitive my teacher’s “joke” really was. I was detained for an hour (most Palestinians are held for even longer), strip-searched, patted down, and interrogated prior to boarding my flight. My crime? Having a Palestinian grandfather. 

When I realized that this blatant racism is a common practice designed to discourage those in the diaspora from returning, I was devastated. Not unlike most Palestinians, I was classified as a “security threat” to justify such blasphemy. While being held inside of an airport is different from being targeted by police on the streets, I couldn’t help but think about how similar this discrimination was to that of Black people who are racially profiled in the States. I was traveling with three other Harvard colleagues; one was a white American Jewish woman, another a Black Guinean woman, and a Latinx male. Of our group, I was the only one stopped, frisked, and detained. When I asked the airport officer why I was being mistreated, I received a glaring stare followed by the cold statement, “This is Israel, what do you think?” Excuse me for even asking, I thought to myself. I was made to feel delusional for expecting anything different. How naive of me.

My white American Jewish colleague witnessed the entire escapade. I could sense she was anxious about the ridiculous circumstances but must not have had language for naming any of her discomfort because outside of the remedial “Are you okay?” immediately after, she never said anything to acknowledge this structural and direct injustice. I’ve come to expect feigned concern now, but at the time, I was baffled. Rather than follow up afterwards to at least see how I was faring, she chose to remain silent. So many people do, and can I honestly say I’m surprised? Those who benefit from hegemony have little incentive to denounce it.

If we had to rely upon people with privilege to speak out against injustice, would any people of color be here today? I know I wouldn’t. Martin Luther King reminds us that progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. Coretta jumps in and says freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation. Oppressors don’t want the oppressed to speak up, and so we do.

Truth is, whether I speak or choose to remain silent, people still may or may not pigeonhole me into all those categories; false depictions that rip apart the spirit rather than honor our collective humanity. Audre Lorde reminds me that my silence will not protect me. It never protects any of us. I’m so glad that my ancestors did not remain silent so that I can be here today. 

I don’t claim to know what it’s like to grow up under military occupation, have one’s house demolished, or the struggle of having one’s water and electricity intentionally cut off by the government at random hours of the day. I don’t speak Arabic skillfully (yet) and can only hope to learn how to make some of that delicious food. I acknowledge there are certain privileges tied to owning an American passport, but those immunities render themselves insufficient when it comes to race. I also know I have a responsibility to speak my truth. Suffering in silence helps no one, and it also prevents us from having the necessary, albeit difficult, conversations with people in our own lives that can yield possibilities for creating change. 

Sadly, my teacher passed away during the pandemic, so I never got to tell him how his joke really made me feel. May this writing serve to quail any future silences that dare lurk. 

Azmera Hammouri-Davis, MTS is a Black-Palestinian American award-winning poet, speaker and Capoeira/HipHop educator with a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard University; she is a co-founding member of the Black Christians For Palestine Network, a Fulbright Creative & Performing Artists, and alumna of the University of Southern California who works to uplift wisdom across faith-traditions and generations