Black-Arab Solidarity: what could it mean?

(This article, written by MXGM member Lis Derias, originally appears at )

I am a daughter of two Coptic parents from Egypt. We moved to this country when I was less than a year old. My family first lived in Los Angeles, moved to Philadelphia, and finally settled in a town right outside of Philadelphia. I’ve grown up around all sorts of Egyptian people (immigrants and 1st generation residents) and Black people (descendants of enslaved Africans, Caribbeans, and African immigrants). I identify as both Coptic/Egyptian and African/Black.

Inside my home I had the Arab immigrant experience: hearing the back and forth Arabic and English in the same sentence so much so that that I only speak Arabic that way; perfecting my interpretation skills to my parents who struggled to understand American slang; eating falafel and baklaawa and kushari and fuul; dismissing the repeated warnings from elders to not cause ‘too much trouble’; and listening to the never ending stories that started with “In my country….”

Outside of my home I had the little Black girl experience: feeling alienated by white people especially when I didn’t speak “proper” English; eating cornbread and sweet potato pie and fried chicken; getting down with the “oh-uh-uh” street politics of other little Black girls; attending annual Caribbean and Odunde festivals; dismissing the repeated warnings from elders to not cause ‘too much trouble’; and listening to the never ending stories that started with, “Back in my day…”.

Generally for me, the similarities outweighed the differences. The differences (which on my own, I only subconsciously paid attention to) were brought to light for me by others–for instance, when Black people having found out that I was Egyptian, told me I looked like Neferetiti, or when Arabs to whom I openly identified as African/Black sighed with disapproval, giving me the “…we are not THOSE people” look.

Solidarity between these communities has meant interesting, and often vague, things to me over the course of the years. In June 2006 I attended the 1st Arab Women’s Movement Arising for Justice (AMWAJ) conference in Chicago. There I participated in a Black-Arab solidarity workshop where another Egyptian sister, who also identified as Arab and African, said, “…that’s a weird concept-am I trying to build solidarity with myself?”

Although a simple and funny question, I realize now it’s a bit more complicated and serious.

I became an organizing member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Oakland chapter (MXGM) in 2004. The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement is a mass based organization that works to uphold the self-determination of all Afrikan people in the Diaspora, with a particular focus on Black/New Afrikans here in the u.s. My organizing experience is primarily with MXGM, primarily with New Afrikans, and primarily rooted in lessons from the Black Liberation Movement in the u.s. Growing up, I don’t recall ever seeing or being involved with a legitimate, politically focused Arab organization engaged in community organizing or youth leadership development. Sorry ya’ll, those all-day Sunday School sessions don’t count. That is, till I came in contact with some radical Arabs who are part of the Arab Organizing and Resource Center (AROC) in San Francisco, CA. These Arabs are taking the lead in putting out important historical and current day analyses of the state of Arab leadership and organizing both in our home lands and in the u.s. They are serving Arabs with legal issues, are building links with various Immigrants rights forces in the Bay Area, and are helping to build a viable Arab/Arab American movement.

As I begin to work more intricately in the movement-building activities of both organizations, I’m beginning to think more critically about political solidarity.

Kali Akuno, also of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, wrote the following on solidarity between New Afrikan and Arab, primarily Palestinian, peoples: “For revolutionary New Afrikans our understanding of solidarity starts with the position best stated by Mozambican revolutionary Samora Machel; ‘solidarity is not charity, but mutual aid in the pursuit of shared objectives’ “. Kali continued,

“As a people also confronting containment through mass incarceration, ethnic cleansing, and genocide we share a number of mutual enemies and objectives with the Palestinian people. White supremacy and European settler colonialism and imperialism, in its US and Zionist variants, is an enemy of both our peoples. We are both fighting for the recognition of our humanity, we are both fighting for self-determination, we are both fighting for economic and human development, and we are both in pitched battles for the right to return. So, to us solidarity consists of struggling together to defeat the reactionary forces of imperialism and fulfill the demands and aspirations of our people. But, let’s be clear and honest, this is not an easy task, as our enemies comprise some of the most dominant and destructive forces to ever exist in human history. We should have no illusions about the protracted nature of our struggles. Nor should we elude ourselves into believing that time is necessarily on our side given the genocidal inclinations of our enemies. We have to act and we have to act in the here and now with all we have to push back the forces of reaction.”

Historically, there are several examples of solidarity between both peoples, which include written solidarity statements from the African Liberation Movement to the Palestinian resistance in 1967, and the recognition and active support of Arab nationalist forces of the struggles against Apartheid in South Africa. Kristy Feghali of the AROC wrote the following in an email to New Afrikan and Arab comrades preparing to go to the united states Social Forum.

“These expressions of solidarity demonstrate the deep recognition of politically aligned struggle between the New Afrikan and Arab communities throughout the years, but do not attest to the practical working relationships necessary to strategically implement the movements we are working to achieve. In order to build solidarity in the here and now, it’s going to take a lot of work and relationship building.”

At the ussf, anti-imperialist, anti-sexist, anti-racist (and therefore anti-Zionist) New Afrikan and Arab forces met with the intention of creating and strengthening such practical working relationships. The objectives of the discussion included:

  • Analyzing the historic and current conditions in our communities;
  • Providing an overview of the historical intersections and alliances between both communities;
  • Discussing the state of both liberation movements;
  • Understanding the legacies and manifestations of colonialism, imperialism, and Diaspora in both communities; and
  • Creating next steps towards building solidarity.

From this gathering we realized there’s more work to do within and between both communities!

So what is it going to take? A re-framing of “Black/Brown unity” politics to include the plight of Arab countries, especially pushing left and progressive forces to take clearer more anti-imperialist stances on the occupation and genocide in Palestine as one of the most important national struggles of our times; a focus on relationship building with an eye on challenging the prejudice in each community towards one another; sustained training in organizing skills; joint political studies; an acknowledgement of differences and a focus on true solidarity which allows for each community take up the lead for their own community; and a commitment to see the liberation of both communities, and of all oppressed people.

In Unity and Struggle!

Liz Derias is the Educational Alternatives Program Coordinator for the School of Unity and Liberation in Oakland, CA.

2 thoughts on “Black-Arab Solidarity: what could it mean?

  1. Ahmina Alenthia James says:

    I love this some and can fully relate to it, Instead I’m not Arab I’m Black and my experience can nearly mirror yours. i am hella feeling this article so much.


  2. Anwar says:

    Can I say some things? Forgive me if I am brash and if the following is complicated. First let me say that African does not equal black. This is a fallacy of the pro-black/pan-Africanist movement. In essence you can create a new nomeclature like Afrikan, but that’s still problematic. You don’t have to be African to be black, nor black to be African. Many Africans are not black and some are of visible European ancestry as the purely Dutch Afrikaners and the many North African Arabs and Berbers who are thoroughly mixed with Vandals or the millions of European slaves brought to the region.

    As an Egyptian you are an African by fact of geography and also having history in there due to the Greco-Khemetic Coptic connection. The real question is not if you are African but if you are you black? That is determined from a purely Eurocentric point of view of course, one that many blacks in the Americas also share, but it is important to accept this view of who is black and who isn’t in a consistent manner because it is a thresh-hold for the level of oppression and discrimination that you will experience by the Europeans and their diaspora and anyone who thinks or wants to be like them. There is sort of unspoken back of the bus or slavery test that we blacks in the US use. However, essentially it is any phenotype that visibly shows some degree of influence of a purer black ancestor. That actually makes most fair skinned Arabs and Berbers of N. Africa technically black as well. Most Indians of the subcontinent are also technically black. But they are not considered (or want to be considered) black for ethno-political and racial political purposes (read Euro-centric manipulation and cultural projection through the world).

    The stronger the visible influence in ones phenotype the more clearly or purely black one is. But visibly mixed blacks are still black nonetheless. There is a also a thresh-hold where a person is undeniably black. Before that one is black only if one openly identifies, but one can pass for European and white (Italian, Greek, etc) if one associates with the whites who are known to be mixed. This is how most fair skinned Arabs are actually classified (the Greater Mediterranean type) because of their ability to pass for darker skinned Europeans as long as they don’t self identify as black.

    Then there is the level where you cannot pass at all. It is begins with many phenotypes that are typical in the black mulatto community. It is light black and is not a pure black look at all, but it is still considered undeniably black. From this level to being as black as the Dinka or the Serer one is undeniably black. Passing is not possible at this level.

    I say all that to say despite popular opinion your Africanness is not identical to your blackness. And many fair skinned Arab types from N. Africa try to play the fence, thinking that because they are technically African they can claim to be black when its convenient and deny and denigrate blackness when being black it is not convenient.

    There are many undeniably black Arabs along with passable black Arabs. There are also many white Arabs who have very little black ancestry if any because of the facts of European presence (Greco-Roman and Vandal) and European slaves brought to the region. So I ask you to really think, do you think you are black just because you are from Africa, or are you really black? And also please stop falling into the trap of drawing false African:Arab and black:Arab dichotomies. Many Arabs are African by virtue of being from Africa (their ancestors having lived their for centuries, just as Euro-Americans are considered Americans even if their original ancestors weren’t). Also many Arabs are black and in fact the great majority of the original Arabs from the time of the prophet Muhammad (saas) and before were very black. Lisanul-Arab under its entries for black (aswad), green (akhdar), brown/gray (asmar) and red (a7mar) make it clear that blackness and kinky hair were signs of being a pure Arab.


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