Once Upon a Day in Tahrir

February 13, 2020

About this event

Centre for Comparative Muslim Studies Annual Lecture Series: Dr. Sherene Seikaly

"Productive Discomforts: Sa'da, Blackness, and Palestine"

SFU Harbour Centre | Room 1400 Segal Centre | 6:30 pm

In 2014, Israel unleashed another precedent setting assault on the Palestinian people. As one of the world’s most technologically advanced armies bombarded one of the world’s most overcrowded and enclosed spaces, a St. Louis police officer gunned down an unarmed teenager named Michael Brown. A bridge took shape across the miles separating these two places: the Gaza Strip and Ferguson. Drawing on the shared experience of captive communities becoming living laboratories, people shared tactics, strategies, and ideas. They nourished the resurgence of a longer trajectory and history of Black-Palestine solidarity. This solidarity, as both a possibility and a commitment, is an invitation to ask difficult questions and foster productive discomforts. Foremost among these is the history of Arab anti-blackness, which has been too easily dismissed as either an European import or an always-already essence of Arab social life. Eschewing both these approaches and embracing race as a critical lens, I trace the story of a woman named Sa’da to explore blackness, enslavement, and servitude in twentieth century Palestine.

Sa’da was an enslaved woman who my great grandparents were gifted when they married in 1910. My great grandparents manumitted Sa’da who lived and died with them as their domestic servant. Sa‘da was likely Ethiopian or possibly Eritrean. Her life was disrupted by slavery, consistent with well-documented markets for human trafficking in the Arab world. Since at least the ninth century, when a series of East African rebellions shook Basra in Iraq, and into the present, the Arabian slave trade has flourished, often drawing from markets in Sudan and Ethiopia to staff armies and households with unpaid labor. In nineteenth century Egypt, Arab, Nubian, and Turkish enslavers regarded Ethiopians (or habash) as superior to other East Africans. Of those who were sold and trafficked to Egypt, Ethiopian women were ranked aesthetically between white Circassian and East African women, which reflects the sexual vulnerability of women abducted into slavery during village raids. Histories of slavery in Arabia and the Eastern Mediterranean conventionally focus on Islam and its relationship to captivity and bondage. But here, Sa ‘da bears witness to Palestinian Christian slaveholding. Since I have begun trying to trace her trajectory, I have learned that she was by no means exceptional. This pattern of elite and middle class Palestinian Christians enslaving African women was common. What can Sa'da's story teach us about blackness and anti-blackness in Palestine? How can we mobilize her history to both understand and confront race and radicalization in Palestine?