On the Inside
Hasan Haj Yahia
Upon reading Kevin Young, I found that in my mind and soul I relate with Black people. This notion has not strayed from my mind since the moment I first read their works. The terms that we learned were a mash of related memories. W.E.B. Du Bois taught me the significance of double-consciousness, and now Kevin Young has given me the means to overcome it.
To be sure, these concepts are not exclusively restricted to Black people. Under different circumstances, they might well apply to Jews. In both cases, the words are used as indications of particular conditions and, at the same time, archetypes of all the subjugated peoples to crawl upon the earth. As Du Bois writes in Dusk of Dawn (1940): “Similar phenomena may be noticed always among undeveloped or suppressed peoples or groups undergoing extraordinary experience. None have more pitilessly castigated the Jews than the Jewish prophets, ancient and modern.” The majority of mankind has struggled through this inner spiritual slavery, as he called it. Some benefit from it, yet the majority tends to suffer under its tight grip.
For many years, I struggled with my identity. As I grew up, I was slowly but surely becoming more radical than one should be—despite the fact that I matured in a time of peace, if one might call it so. My generation did not experience first-hand the Nakbah, nor the many massacres that followed. And many of us were offered only a brief window of time to discuss it with those who did—our grandparents. Thus, we found ourselves doubly removed from the most formative experiences of our people. Yet the tension was ever-present for every generation to come. The feelings of otherness, strangeness, constraint—and, most destructive, insecurity. Insecurity not only from the outer world but also from the inner self, myself. The land of your dwelling is your origin—but your origin, you are told, belongs to another people, and so it is not your origin or is your origin only in legend.
The Arabs of the Inside, as they tend to be called, are displaced in their place, all the more confused without recourse to a transport narrative, a flight narrative, an expulsion narrative. We might say: “You took our land.” But they might respond: “What land—the one you are still dwelling upon?” We shall reply: “Yes, this land, exactly as it is, but under another name.” And here we encounter a problem. We Arabs of the interior are made to feel like those who sense ghosts, point them out with a finger, only to have them disappear the moment our observer swivels to catch them: delusional.
Journeying to seek the truth was a hardship. One typically seeks out wisdom from his elders, but mine were either shot dead or put behind bars, and so missed out on the struggles of my own generation. My sources then became those from other oppressed peoples, like Frederick Douglass and Du Bois. However, before I start learning how to deal with the outer world, I must first understand what lies within me.
As a child, I recall having teachers pose this question to the classroom: Who are we? We all knew the answer and would scream it enthusiastically into the air: “We are Palestinians!” But the teachers would have none of it, flash a subtle look of disapproval, and coax the students into watering it down: 1948 Arabs, Arabs of the Inside, Israeli-Arabs, and whatever other names seemed vaguely applicable. One student shouted, “Israeli!” only to be struck with a pencil case by his classmate. The teacher didn’t give us the answer on that day and instead insisted that we return home and write it up as an assignment—the pencil case must have jolted her. The question then became clear to me: How did we forget who we are? You can never be two things at once. As one Arabic saying has it: “There is no dust upon it.” In other words, it should not be vague but rather clear, legible, self-evident. But ours was and still is nothing of the sort. Thinking about this made me understand the necessity of returning to my roots and investigating where it all began and how exactly we were lulled into forgetting.
The Quran has a name for us. We are the people of Jerusalem, or more literally, “House of the Holy.” I certainly belong to them, no one can deny that. However, the government saw fit to classify me as inferior to the other races of this land. This classification determined that I must remain detached from society as a whole. Neglecting my existence, in turn, made me more aware of my identity and the things that made me different. The laws governing my country insist that it is a Jewish state, meant to protect the Jewish people, and thereby (implicitly and explicitly) render all the rest—Christians, Bedouins, Druze, and of course Muslims— non-entities, white noise best ignored but, if possible, and at our convenience, used.
Du Bois writes: “The fact of racial distinction based on color was the greatest thing in my life and absolutely determined it, because this surrounding group, in alliance and agreement with the white European world, was settled and determined upon the fact that I was and must be ‘a thing apart.’” Just like the Blacks, we Palestinians of various stripes have been given a narrative. One that states outright that this land is meant to be ruled by Jews, and shot through by a fear of even one Arab, however, compromised he may be, climbing the political ladder and attaining sway. Half of my people are living in poverty behind a slithering concrete slab, while the other half lives out a confused existence between paper and practice: insurance, education, healthcare, and a right to vote, but given a choice between varying degrees of discrimination. This is similar to the fate of the Black people, who were degraded and kept in chains (much like those on the other side), and then given a less visible pair of chains upon emancipation.
What makes one Jewish? Jews come from different places: they can be black, white, red, yellow, and can speak any one of the numerous languages used around the world. Jews are an ethnic group; what unites them is their religion. For me, that meant that I could be a Jew if I wanted to. The space of being a Jew did not require me to dye my skin, to make my nose smaller, or gain a few centimeters, nor did it require me to speak a different language. Many Jews do not speak Hebrew and are still defined as Jewish. This led me to understand that my race couldn’t be a problem, that the racial demarcations were based on invisible marks. I became a problem because of my ideas. “I” became a problem; to this oppressor, my existence is a problem, my ideology, and my tradition all a problem. “Being a problem is a strange experience, — peculiar even for one who has never been anything else” (Du Bois). Black people hated their skin color and the way their nose was shaped, all the visual markers that denied them entrance to the superior space. My markers were hiding deep within my soul—was I supposed to hate myself?
In Black Imagination, Natasha Marin writes: “I read only the words of black women and savored the sticky stain left by minds like N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, and Tomi Adeyemi. For me, the joyful escape into this Black Imagination was both profound and liberating.” In order for Natasha Marin to make reparations to herself, for the hate she received and the insecurity that developed within her, she had to create her own “fetish”—a term that Kevin Young, invoking Frederick Douglass, uses to mean “a physical, visual, even private totem that provides power to its carrier.” My totem became the flag that I was never allowed to take outside to wave and salute, the national anthem that I could never sing aloud. Or my grandfather’s white-and-black keffiyeh that I was made to fear donning. For a moment I was Douglass, hiding in the woods, and Young was Sandy, handing me a salvaged totem before the breakthrough. I was determined to empower myself and to seek enlightenment for my soul. Becoming radical was not an option; however, denying myself the truth was even worse.
I later tied the flag to a metal pipe extending from the rooftop. Given that our house is the highest in a town already set upon a sizable mountain, the flag could likely be glimpsed from the most distant horizon, perhaps even the sea itself. Some time later, after a long day at work, my father welcomed me into the house with furrowed eyebrows, a cross mustache, and arms crossed stiffly over his chest: I had little doubt as to what was the matter—the flag, of course. “Is it a crime?” I asked, genuinely perplexed by his unwillingness—or perhaps shame?—to display the flag of our ancestors, when he had spoken so fondly, so proudly of it since the earliest hours of my youth. My aunt, also present at the time, chimed in, in her antiquated speech: “They can see it from the helicopters!”
My father sought to have me understand why it would be preferable—even beneficial!—to have it hang on the interior, as a source of private joy for our family unit. I took his words with a hint of skepticism, and from that point onward understood the crux of my identity to exist on the interior, and that whenever it should spring outward, in the form of a word or phrase or an ornament I want to place on a visible surface, the thing to do is to take a palm to its head and push it downward, underneath, inside, wherever it be most concealed. A logic can be easily devised: our tradition is precious, our history sensitive, our identities tender as the head of a newborn, and so long as it is kept on the interior, covered by our flesh and warmed by our blood, not even a bullet can penetrate it. I am keeping the soul of my past alive on the inside, protecting it from the bitter exterior. Is that so? Or have I been coaxed into forgetfulness? If it is kept on the inside, and I become convinced that it will remain put, what is stopping me from forgetting it? Will I not begin to take it for granted? Will it not suffocate without air? Today I am no less confused than I was then; perhaps that says enough.
This, to me, is relatable to the hidden tradition of the Black people. Du Bois writes: “The white world often existed primarily, so far as I was concerned, to see with sleepless vigilance that I was kept within bounds.” For Black people the answer lay in the imagination, offering up the possibility of a world kept within bounds of your choosing, that welcomed you and praised your culture and religion, a world that celebrated your origins and accepted them as they are. We became of two minds, one for the oppressor to see and one for our people.
The question is then begged: what has resulted from this concealment? If my grandfather were to one day rise from his grave, he would have a difficult time understanding the speech of his descendants, despite the fact that we are only a single generation removed. A large portion of my Arabic is now infused with Hebrew, and some of our youth even prefer Hebrew to Arabic, as it serves as a display of status, enlightenment, modernity, a subtle mark of distinction from our lowly brethren limping on the other side. If you asked an average Arab-Israeli if he wishes for the return of those who fled, he might tell you he does—but this might be only for fear of being judged. We are comfortable in our lives. We are confused, but comfortable, and an abandonment of clean streets and orderly power bills is not worth a rounder identity. For who says ditching the Israelis will make it any cleaner? Were they to leave, we’d be all the more confused. But is that really so? Is suffering not worth the attainment of justice for my scattered brothers? No one can answer this question. And, until we do, we will remain half-hidden and half-ashamed. My grandfather witnessed the massacres of the early Zionist onslaught, and my grandson might well marry a Jew.
Some years ago, my father took me to see my grandfather’s house—the one from which he was expelled. A white flag with a blue star hung from the ceiling and the triangular roof he had built was painted blue, set upon a white foundation. (The colors should speak for themselves.) It was built on a cliff hugging the sea. There used to be a madrasa across the way, but it was torn down, or laden with dynamite after enough quiet settled upon the land. The town went by the name of Sidna ‘Ali (Our Grandfather ‘Ali), for the grave of a notable sheikh who governed over it. The name might sound strange, so I will call it by its second name: Herzliya. In place of fields and donkeys there are now long rows of luxurious estates used by diplomats and ambassadors, determining the Palestinian fate with their bare feet settled on cool marble floors, and billionaire businessmen who care just as little for the fate of Israel as they do for that of Palestine: Were everything to vanish, they’d have three passports handy. Sidna ‘Ali was forty minutes away from our home. All this land belonged to my little town once. Zora Neale Hurston wrote that “the game of keeping what one has is never so exciting as the game of getting.” That goes for two things: your land and your identity, neither one independent of the other.
- E. B. Du Bois. Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept (1940).
- Zora Neale Hurston. “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” (1928).
- Natasha Marin. Black Imagination: Black Voices on Black Futures (McSweeney’s Publishing, 2020).
- Kevin Young. The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (Graywolf Press, 2012).
Hasan Haj Yahia was born in 1994 in Taibe, the largest Arab city in central Israel. He is the only brother to three older sisters and one younger sister. He grew up in Taibe’s Old City and enjoyed the life a simple Arab was meant to live, graduating college with an engineering degree. He started to enjoy books in his free time and decided to leave Taibe while he had the chance to get to know his cousins. After moving to Tel Aviv to study, he realized the need to write down his own story of his old neighborhood.