This story was taken for Arthur Neslen’s book In Your Eyes a Sandstorm: Ways of Being Palestinian a collection of interviews about Palestinian identity. Sadly, for space reasons, it could not be published there. But Souciant is happy to give it a home. In Your Eyes a Sandstorm will be released next week.
Reem Mohamed Amer
Postal worker, Kfar Qassem
Inside a circle
Minorities can easily be overlooked in the heat of national struggle. No-one knows exactly how many Palestinians of African descent exist in Palestine. But they have lived on the land since the days of the slave trade, at least. They may not be singled out for particularly discriminatory treatment by Israel. However, within their own society, the picture is sometimes less clear. Reem Mohamed Amer was a founding member of perhaps the only support group for Palestinians of African descent in Israel/Palestine. She exuded a warm and unguarded bonhomie, often beaming with a sunny smile or cracking up with a rich infectious laugh. Reem sat in an office tea room, chewing gum and swiveling her chair slowly from left to right, changing direction every time her toes touched the floor.
Reem’s day job was behind the counter at a post office in Kfar Qassem, where her family had lived since her grandfather moved there from Ramle after the First World War. His wife – Reem’s grandmother – was shot dead by Israeli troops in the 1956 massacre, which claimed the lives of 49 other Palestinian civilians, for nominally breaking an unpublicised village curfew.
‘My father and uncle were survivors,’ Reem said shyly. ‘I don’t know the exact story because my father never wanted to talk about it but my uncle was in the group that cycled to the village. When they arrived, he saw shooting and hid behind a cactus. My father got in to Kfar Kassem in the last car that was let through. He saw his mother killed there. Later he developed alcohol problems. October was always a difficult time for him. ‘ The massacre took place on 29 October, 1956.
According to principles of sumud (steadfastness), villagers should rally together in the face of an enemy intent on ethnic cleansing. But Reem looked downcast when I asked if this had happened in her case. ‘No,’ she said sadly. ‘My father and his friends were politically active against the military administration so people here didn’t support them. They even collaborated and talked against them.’ But ‘the massacre made him more politically involved,’ she stressed. He was jailed twice in the years that followed.
While Reem’s mother was a ‘home-mum’ who made dresses in her spare time, her father, a construction worker, was one of the founders of the town’s Communist Party. Reem remembered him reading Russian literature from the Soviet Union, and the newspaper Il Iftishad (the struggle) which was later closed by Israel’s authorities. ‘My dad taught me a lot,’ she reflected. ‘I was always against Arab leaders, but he said that I should try to look for the positive in them, and not curse them. I also learned to be independent because I saw that no-one would support me, just as no-one supported him.’
In those days, left parties did well in the ‘triangle’ of Arab villages bordering the West Bank. But the Islamic Movement had become the strongest party ‘because it started here,’ Reem qualified. ‘All their leaders come from this town. We faced a very hard economic period and they supported people financially. This is a very conservative town and religion is closer to its prejudiced family traditions – against women’s rights to education and work – than the Communist Party. They didn’t bring people to Islam against the traditions. They flowed with the tradition and mixed it with religion.’
Asked about her own identity, she smiled. ‘I am an Arab Palestinian, nothing more,’ she said gingerly. Despite feeling isolated from her community, Reem had a happy childhood and still kept ‘the child in myself,’ she said. ‘I wasn’t really involved in the town’s social activities. I watched things happen around me. Early marriages were a tradition – and a social problem. Most of my schoolmates were married by [the time they were] 18 years-old. But my neighbourhood was different because girls got married when they finished their studies and worked afterwards. I felt like I was living in a bubble.’
Reem never felt that she belonged in Israel but she never liked the lyrics of artists like Oum Khaltoum either. ‘They made it sound like the Arab world was dreaming and refusing to wake up,’ she said. ‘I grew up during the first Intifada and our generation was politically aware. We felt that we belonged more to the Palestinians who were fighting. I got to know some Jews through political activities, but their lives were very western. They don’t have our tradition of close oriental family relations.’
Interestingly though, Reem believed that Israelis treated Black Palestinians ‘more appreciatively,’ than other Arabs, ‘like something exotic. They don’t know that there are black Arabs. They think I’m a freak African or an Ethiopian Jew. Ethiopians sometimes talk to me in Amharic, their language,’ she let out a howl of mirth, as she said this.
Although she was studying for a History degree in the Open University, Reem’s workplace was perhaps the most dangerous in town. ‘The post office is more like a bank now. We’ve even had a few robberies – and each time I was working!’ she hooted again. ‘I’m not a fearful person. I practiced karate for ten years. But last time the robbers were armed, so I was more careful.’
‘I was about to close up when the first robber came in and shot at the ceiling. Another one jumped out from behind the door and came to the counter and a third guy started threatening two customers who were here. I bent over and the guy who shot first thought that I was going to press the security button or something so he shot a bullet through the glass. Then he pushed it so that the shattered glass fell all over me. I wasn’t hurt. They only took the money that was in the drawer. It wasn’t much, about 3000 shekels.’
‘I wasn’t scared,’ she emphasized and then leaned her head back to let a deep laugh exit. ‘I always treat these things calmly. Even the police were surprised that I talked about it like nothing special had happened. It made me sad, because people who use the post office are usually old people who are really in need.’ The worst thing for Reem was that the robbers were from Kfar Qassem. ‘I always helped people here and because they attacked my office, it felt like they attacked me personally,’ she said and her smile finally faded. Bullet-proof glass had since been installed at the counter. It made her feel safe but also distanced from the customers.
Reem first became aware that villagers thought she was ‘different’ as a child. ‘We had to split into black and white teams even when we were playing hide and seek,’ she said. ‘Then, when I was beginning to make relationships, one guy wouldn’t kiss me seriously. We felt different from the majority because of our skin colour so me and my cousins formed a gang of 10 or 15 kids to make ourselves strong and support each other. Like, if anyone said a word against one of us, we’d tell them what would happen.’ More generally, she said, ‘people treated me as though I were invisible’. The black team always won at hide and seek.
But they could not evade racist comments. ‘The white Arabs always called us “slaves” because for them a Black person is a slave,’ Reem said. ‘That’s what they saw in the movies. I used to think that because the Jews looked at them as inferior, they looked for others who they could treat as inferior. But our “inferiority” has been around since before Israel’s existence. For the whites, we were bought and brought here as slaves so they adapt this idea unconsciously from their fathers.’ Many Afro-Palestinians arrived as slaves in the Ottoman period but some also fled Sudan in the Islamic period. Reem thinks her family might have been among these.
Their numbers may be small, but Black Palestinians make up significant minorities in towns such as Jenin, Tulkarem and Jericho. In Kfar Qassem, Reem was involved in the first Palestinian Black consciousness group – for women only, at that time. She had even begun calling herself an Afro-Palestinian – ‘but only for a joke,’ she hedged. All Palestinians faced common problems of racism but Black Palestinians could easily feel like second-class citizens in their own society. ‘I don’t want to call it a disability but a Black member in the local council would be kind of inappropriate,’ was how Reem put it. Her nine-member group, initiated by her sister, had just started admitting white partners.
‘Many of us couldn’t marry people from the town,’ Reem said. ‘They thought our skin colour made us too different. You can only marry a black man or someone from the same family. If a woman can’t find a suitable person, she has two options: to marry the first black man who asks her or, like me, to not get married.’ But you’re very attractive I said, surely you’ve had suitors? ‘My criteria are not just about liking guys,’ Reem replied, ‘but about him being able to stand all the problems that I face. I have many admirers but it’s about finding someone suitable.’ Black men also felt inferior, she added, and often tried to pair off with whites. But her brother consciously decided to marry someone black.
Her most affecting experience in the group came during an art therapy session. ‘One young girl drew herself inside a circle,’ she said ‘and another group of girls outside it. She wanted to join this group but they were refusing to let her in. I know racism’s not going to change any time soon, but we’re trying to bring it to public attention. Reem lowered her voice several notches when I asked whether she felt an affinity with African culture. ‘I feel this a lot,’ she said. ‘There’s something in the way we react to music that I think I inherited in my genes.’ She said she wanted to visit South Africa, which had been an inspiration, ever since her father hung a photo of Nelson Mandela on the wall. No family member ever earned such an accolade. But then, invisibility can be a spur to great achievement.