BOOK REVIEW - Alex Lubins Geographies of Liberation: The Making of an Afro-Arab Political Imaginary

April 15, 2016

Nowadays the news media constantly bombard our television screens and radios with images and stories of various crises unfolding in the Middle East and none more so than the conflict in Palestine. Due to the sheer pace of our ever changing world it is easy for people to grow up confused about what is going on, let alone know how the leaders of our parents, or our grandparents generations dealt with the crises that affect us today, especially when it comes to the issue of Palestine. Within this mix, what is even more unknown is the relationship between the various afro-revolutionary groups and the question of Palestine during the era of post colonialism in the Middle East.


As the world is still dealing with the effects of the Arab Spring, Alex Lubin attempts to answer the question of Palestine and its relationship with those who led the various black freedom struggles in his excellent book “Geographies of Liberation: The Making of an Afro-Arab Political Imaginary”. What caught my attention from the beginning was the importance of this question and how the author himself was confronted with this issue when he was delivering a workshop on US Miscegenation laws in Ramallah, Palestine, where a questioner asked him how the Civil Rights movement could support the establishment of the state of Israel while being the victims of colonialism, slavery and racism themselves? Although Alex attempted to answer the question, it is this encounter that started a journey that would culminate in to this book.


The first few pages of the book deal with the significance of Palestine within the black liberation struggle. This part of the book examines the role various travel diaries would play in the formation of orientalism and how this assisted in former slaves to see the middle east through the veneer of orientalism, as a land that is backwards and needs to be civilised. However it was the Zionist movement that grabbed the attention of many people within the black freedom struggle, like W.E.B Du Bois, Marcus Garvey and others and got their support. Seeing how the jews reacted to antisemitism via Zionism helped many black revolutionary leaders develop their own theories of liberation, namely that of returning to their own homeland, Africa.


According to Lubin, this placed Palestine and especially Jerusalem in a specific place in terms of liberating the native population from a culture that was seen as backward in need of modernisation. It is in this phase of the book where we come to realise that orientalism, as further explored by Edward Said in his seminal work ‘Orientalism’, didn’t only affect Europeans but also people of the African diaspora who internalised a certain view of the middle east and the people of Palestine in particular. But this is more complex than it seems as it was during this era where the world saw the end of the British Empire where members of the former colonies were able to emigrate to Britian, which also included Arabs who tried to formulate a pan afro-arab political identity. This was exemplified in the example of Duse Mohammed Ali whose journal, the African and Oriental Review, would host articles from Arab and African intellectuals, including people like Marcus Garvey, and paint a diverse picture of the middle east which included information about events that were taking place at that time.


But it was geopolitical events that further changed the political spectrum of the various liberation struggles that were taking place and the affiliations that would go on to be formed. 1947 saw the creation of the state of Israel which gave birth to the Palestinian nakba( the catastrophe) which led to the expulsion of about 700,000 – 800,000 native Palestinians from their native homeland which was a situation that got worse as Israel further expanded especially in 1967 where it was made apparent to the Palestinians that the majority of their population was now stateless and part of the diaspora. It is this complex that strengthened a certain type of political identity.


The creation of Israel was seen as a successful project of liberation from many of the Afro-american leaders of the civil rights movement and this is well known but as the book highlights, it wasn’t so black and white as there were various, more radical revolutionary movements who saw the creation and the expansion of Israel as a colonialist project, and none more so than the Black Panthers. The Black Panther Party was one of the most influential, black radical movement that forged political ties with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and even allowed their leader, Yasser Arafat, to write two articles for the Black Panther Newspaper. The political alignment of these two communities came from the black panthers ideology of intercommunalism which saw those belonging to the diaspora as communities inter-connected within a global capitalist system and framework that was racist and colonialist in its nature.  And it is this ideology that attracted the leaders of the Palestinian liberation organisation to align themselves with the radical black liberation struggles as they were the newest victims of a modern colonialist project.


In this phase of the book, the author uncovers several aspects of Huey P Newtons visit to the middle east, including information about his visits to Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and other parts of the middle east. Although a vast range of history is covered in this book, the author renders a further service by mapping out how this afro-arab political imaginary has evolved. While it is true to say that politically, many leaders are working with Israel, in the 90’s the explosion of a cultural phenomenon helped steer the afro-arab political imaginary towards a new direction. The globalisation of hip hop in the early 90’s meant that young people of Arab descent were able to listen to messages of racism, colonialism and police brutality as experienced by those within the African communities of the west. These experiences were now, in various forms, could be described as shared experiences as many youngsters of Arab descent were going through similar experiences, especially those Arab youths who were living in Israel. The emergence of American hip hop paved the way for Arab hip hop and by the late 90’s, the world witnessed the emergence of the first Palestinian rap group DAM (Da Arabian MC’s) rapping about daily life in Israel/Palestine.


The War on Terror further accelerated this political imaginary to the point where in the UK, fans of hip hop would regularly see the British-Iraqi rapper Lowkey share the stage with Akala or Peoples Army founder Logic would share the stage with Palestinian hip hop rapper Shadia Mansour.


Geographies of Liberation: The Making of an Afro-Arab Political Imaginary provides an important contribution by mapping out the evolution of a rather complex relationship between those involved in the black revolutionary struggle and their Arab, mainly Palestinian counter parts. It is a book that uncovers unknown and long forgotten aspects of both the Arab and Black liberation struggles and assists in formulating an understanding of how it can further evolve.



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