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Black Gaza artists fight racism with music

Black Palestinians in the Gaza Strip still suffer racism, but the artistic community has a musical response.
Ahmed Saleh and Al-Badia band performing the Palestinian dabkeh and daha during a show held by the Tarabin Bedouin tribe, al-Maghazi area in the central Gaza Strip, April 2021.

Black Palestinian artists in the Gaza Strip still encounter racism and discrimination. They face harsh mockery for the color of their skin and curly hair, and many Palestinians refuse to marry them. 

Some Black artists in Gaza have been experiencing racism since their childhood. Even as adults, when they stand on stage to perform the traditional Bedouin songs known as “dahiya,” they receive negative comments and insults in regard to the color of their skin.  

Dahiya is originally a Bedouin heritage and Black Palestinians who have Bedouin origins practice it with great skill as a profession. 

Singer and musician Hamza Abu Qinas, 33, from Gaza City, does not hide that he and his family face bullying and racism because of their skin color and curly hair. In a video report published by the BBC Dec. 5, he said that he faces discrimination due to his dark skin, even though this has also allowed him to distinguish himself as "the Black artist." He declined an interview with Al-Monitor about racism for personal reasons.

There are no official statistics available that could shed light on the community or provide further insight. However, a report published by Raseef22 on Oct. 17, 2019, states, “According to a study by the Palestinian Vision Organization, Black people arrived in Palestine with the start of the Islamic conquest of the region, integrating and eventually becoming a part of Palestinian society. Their proportion fluctuated between different areas and cities: in Tulkarm for instance, dark-skinned people form 70% of the population — while they form a considerable number also in southern Hebron. As for those living in Jerusalem, it is likely that they arrived in the area with the end of the 19th century from four countries: namely Chad, Nigeria, Sudan and Senegal — specifically from the tribes of the Salamat, Borno, Takruri, Firawi, Husi, Borjo, Colombo and Falata.”

It continues, “According to the study, the arrival of these tribes to Palestine was based in their belief that the Day of Judgement would take place in Jerusalem, with many arriving from the Hijaz to Jerusalem after finishing the Muslim pilgrimage in Mecca (Hajj) — while another group amongst them arriving on the outbreak of the Palestinian-Israeli war of 1948."

Ahmed Saleh, 35, from Gaza City, is a dahiya singer. He often experiences racism because of the color of his skin. “I am deeply offended by society's racist view. Racism is highly manifested when I sing at concerts. I get referred to by discriminatory terms such as ‘chocolate,’ ‘slave’ and others, which are hurtful insults,” he told Al-Monitor. “This, however, gives me strength and self-confidence to continue singing and confront this bullying.”

He said that he also faces bullying while walking on the streets or running daily errands. “White people try not to walk next to me. These practices are widespread in society, and they are unjustified and ridiculous,” he added.

Saleh hopes these harassment and racist behaviors in the Gaza Strip will end and give way to tolerance. “I wish the stereotyped image of Black people will change. Many of us integrate into society by obtaining jobs along with white peers, but racism continues to be manifested,” he said.

Dahiya, according to Saleh, is performed by a singer who stands among several men lining up in one or two rows facing each other. The singer would sing a verse of a poem and the men would repeat it after him alternately ("radada").

Sidqi Al-Manea, 23, from Mashroue Amer neighborhood in the northern Gaza Strip, who is a keyboard player, said that Black Palestinians are still ostracized and bullied in Gaza, whether on the streets or during public events

He told Al-Monitor, “I experienced racism when I wanted to marry a white girl. We were in a relationship for three years, but her parents did not allow us to get married because of my skin color.”

Manea hopes society will change its negative perception of Black people, in light of his relentless quest to keep his skin color from hampering his efforts to have a job and lead a normal life. “When these stereotyping and racist practices are eliminated, society as a whole will become more coherent and strong,” he said.

Louay al-Sawarka, 28, from Nuseirat, in central Gaza, told Al-Monitor he would be called by his peers various names based on skin color, such as “shatawi,” which is a popular Palestinian sweet, or “ras al-abed,” a dark marshmallow chocolate literally meaning “head of the slave.” 

Sawarka, who works with the Badiya group for traditional arts, said, “I love my appearance and my black skin, and I take pride in my Bedouin family. I do not feel embarrassed and try to integrate with different members of society in Gaza. Given my job as a folk singer, I can prove to the Palestinian society that I share with them the same beautiful soul, regardless of my skin color and physical appearance.”

He noted, “Our unity as a society is more important than all the racist bullying that I endured. The Israeli occupation targets everyone with no distinction between black and white. Black people have a kind heart and a beautiful soul, but there is a part of society that still sees us as different.”

Mahmoud Hajjo, a psychologist, told Al-Monitor, "Education plays a fundamental and pivotal role in addressing issues of bullying and racism, not only against Black people but against all kinds of racism that an individual may be exposed to.”

He said, "Racism is a dangerous social disease as it works to create more societal and even tribal conflicts. Civil and national institutions must carry out more activities and workshops that renounce racism and bullying, and affirm that everyone of all races enjoys all rights without exception."