Nisreen Salem is an Afro-Palestinian from Egypt who has been mocked due to her skin colour and hair for most of her young life. The 25 year old is one of at least 400 Afro-Palestinians from Nigeria, Egypt, Chad, Senegal and Sudan who live within the walls of occupied Jerusalem’s Old City, adjacent to Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
“The hardest part was when I started hating everything about myself because I was being pointed at and attacked verbally by both Palestinians and Jews everywhere I went,” she told me. “We face double the harassment and double the racism for being Palestinian and for being black.”
Israeli soldiers are “always cursing” the black Palestinians and interrogating them whenever they pass by. “This is how most people in my community grow up.”
Working as a photojournalist, on 18 October last year Salem set out to film the violent raids carried out by Israeli forces at the Damascus Gate into the Old City that serves as a popular gathering spot for many Palestinians. The day sticks out in her memory, not for the raid itself, nor for the tear gas and sound bomb attacks that followed, but for what happened to her afterwards.
She was alone covering events as they unfolded when she was approached by several Israeli soldiers at a military checkpoint. They assaulted her following a brief interrogation.
“I was taking some videos for my work and the Israel soldiers know every journalist in Damascus Gate and Jerusalem so they are quick to identify us during clashes. They know us all very well, even our names, which is why I believe that they had decided in advance that they were going to arrest me.”
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During her arrest, the soldiers shouted racist abuse including “slave”, and kicked and beat her until she was numb with fright and pain. Still visibly traumatised, she explained how they kicked her. “Many of the soldiers were standing over me and I was shocked. I froze because I didn’t know what to do. During the investigation, they accused me of kicking the soldiers even though that didn’t happen. Then they wanted to know who I was working for and accused me again of sending photos and playing political games.”
Salem was detained for 13 hours following her interrogation. “The biggest problem when you’re in an Israeli jail is that you don’t know what’s happening outside, you don’t know if it’s morning or evening. It felt like time had stopped. The food which they gave me was unclean and even though I was on my period, they banned me from the bathroom. It was the hardest 13 hours of my life.”
She is convinced that the purpose of the attack and interrogation was to deter her from documenting Israel’s abuses against Palestinians. Among Palestinian journalists, she is far from alone in being attacked in this way.
Journalism is a pillar of democracy that should be able to hold those in power to account. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Israel takes extreme measures to block any accurate reporting of the rights violations and crimes committed by its security forces in the occupied Palestinian territories.
“I knew the risks involved as a journalist. It is dangerous here and Palestinian society is also judgemental about women becoming journalists. Females, we are told, should prioritise getting married and having children. However, women can balance both a career and a family.”
She came across the community’s attitude towards women journalists after graduating from Birzeit University, north of Ramallah. Her mother, she said, is both scared for and proud of her ambitions and achievements. “I’m used to society making everything a problem for me but I’ve learnt to be confident in my decisions and in myself.”
Growing up as a member of a racial minority, feelings of isolation and exclusion are all too common. Such feelings are shared by other black Palestinians.
Some of her earliest memories included racism from both Palestinians and Israelis. Playing outside as a child, she said, children would point at her and ask why her skin is so dark. “She’s black because of the sun,” her mother would explain. Or, “She’s black because God put her in a very hot place.”
This had a very negative impact on her self-confidence. It wasn’t until I started reading books and learning about the history of Afro-Palestinians that I started to gain in confidence and learnt to love myself and my culture.”
Over the years, though, she has noticed a change of attitude towards Afro-Palestinians; there is more tolerance and less racism. “Things are changing slowly. In the past, many Palestinian people didn’t like to marry from our community just because we are black. They have this image stuck in their head that black people are slaves. Even our braids mean slavery to them and so our people used to try to change their hair.”
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The current generation of Afro-Palestinians is different, she believes, because of the internet. “We can browse and connect with others who look like us and appreciate our unique features. The internet helped me to love and accept myself and others who are very different from the majority. And I am able to share everything I learn with my friends and peers who are not familiar with the black experience and history in Palestine.”
Her pursuit of journalism was inspired in part by this drive. “Mainstream and social media news about Palestinians is filled with pictures of people with light skin and brown — even blonde and red — hair, so when I posted on social media about myself, people were shocked.”
As a result, she concluded, she intends to be the journalist who reports on and shows the diversity among Palestinians. “This will include the Afro-Palestinians until everyone knows about my community near Al-Aqsa Mosque.”