“To be a Black woman today is to be one person but also a whole community.”
Those were the words of Amna Ali, a Somali-Yemeni activist and entrepreneur from the UAE.
In a time fraught with racial tension and a spotlight shining on the injustices faced by Black people, women like Amna are using their platforms, voices and experiences to challenge narratives and provide a space for Black Arabs to be highlighted.
“For a very long time, Afro Arab experiences were not shared and were hidden from the mainstream topics of discussion,” she says over Zoom.
Amna was born in the UAE to Somali and Yemini parents but was also raised in Savannah, Georgia and lived in Michigan for two years before moving back to the UAE.
“I grew up very Arab, very Muslim and very conservative – many things which I didn’t enjoy or agree with,” shares Amna.
“I was around many Emiratis, but the Emirati culture can be very conservative and racist so I almost didn’t feel like I was Emirati.”
Social segregation is something that many Black Arabs face in the Middle East and North Africa, alongside the anti-blackness which is global.
These things resulted in an inner-battle for Amna around her cultural identity, as she longed to feel included and a part of a community.
“I have a tattoo that says ‘longing for belonging’ because I feel so misplaced in this world,” she says. “I was born in the UAE, I grew up like an Emirati but I don’t hold Emirati citizenship.
“I also spent many years in America but I don’t hold American citizenship. My parents are from Yemen and Somalia, I’ve visited both countries and I love them both but I’ve never really lived there, so I can’t fully relate to the experiences of the Somali people or the Yemeni people.”
This led to many identity issues for Amna as she grew up trying to discover who she was in this world.
“I went through so many different phases and friendship groups trying to fit in. I’ve always felt like an outsider,” she recalls.
While this desire to fit in remained over the years, something in Amna eventually changed as she decided to fully embrace who she is and the things – good and bad – that shaped her.
“3-4 years ago, I found myself at a point in my life where I had to be independent and make my own decisions and I thought ‘you know what, I’m gonna take everything that came my way and experienced and look at it positively.”
“Being of these different cultures made me confident, empathetic, friendly and it gave me all these benefits and qualities that would help me as an adult in forming friendships and relationships” she says.
This has benefited all aspects of Amna’s life, and given her a sense of pride in who she is while retaining aspects of the culture she grew up in that makes her happy.
“The parts of the culture I was most used to were the parts I decided to let go of like the over religiousness,” she admits.
“I hold the UAE near and dear to my heart because it has most of my memories but I don’t carry a lot of the values with me going forward in my life.”
“I can take from my cultures what I see brings me joy and leave everything that leaves me unhappy behind and I’ve been much happier ever since.”
As a Black Arab queer woman living in the UAE, there is much injustice that Amna bears witness to and experiences – something which partially inspired her to launch the online platform Black Arabs Collective.
“With the unfortunate murder of George Floyd, for the first time there has been a global conversation about race that didn’t just cover a few states in America or few countries here and there, but a conversation being had all over the world,” states Amna.
“For the first time in my life, I was seeing the conversation happening in this part of the world and it was so fascinating and mindblowing for me to hear Arab people acknowledge the existence of racism within Arab society.”
To see these conversations play out was encouraging for Amna – but it also sparked a desire to ensure the conversations kept going.
“I saw people were holding each other accountable but when I looked around, there was no one to take the conversations being had and shine a light on it.”
In 2020, Amna launched Black Arabs Collective in a bid to amplify Black Arab voices and to educate others about the experiences Black people face in the Arab world.
“There are so many taboos and things people don’t know in the Arab world and they are too embarrassed, too worried or in denial of their prejudice to ask,” she continues.
“I wanted to create a place for all these things.”
The launch of Black Arabs Collective comes at a key time where discussions around Blackness are at an all-time high and allows for Black people across the diaspora to share their stories – something which Amna says is much needed in a world where the voices amplified are usually from the West.
“The experiences of Black women in the West are completely different.” says the activist.
“I understand for the longest time they had the loudest voices and the attention but now that we’re focusing on diversity and equality, we should include other women of Black origin from different countries and backgrounds.”
This is Amna’s hope for Black Arabs Collective – for the platform to become a big enough voice to incite change.
“I want to give as much light and platform to other Black Arabs. I want to get people hired, I want to get people to give it attention, I want to teach people to stop being prejudice and racist and really reflect on their own internalised racism and just for it to create real tangible change.”
To find out more follow @BlackArabsCollective on Instagram