In the past week, New York has been rocked by reports of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab harassment and violence, and by the death, in police custody, of Eric Garner on Staten Island. We sat down with Linda Sarsour, dyed-in-the-wool Brooklynite, community organizer, and executive director of the Arab American Association of New York to talk about these recent events, where they fit into the bigger picture of religious intolerance and policing policies in the borough, and what she’s seen in thirteen years of organizing.
So you’re a lifelong Brooklynite?
Born and raised, Brooklyn. Can’t you tell from my beautiful accent? I was born in Sunset Park. Born and raised there, went to school in Sunset Park. My family’s still in Sunset Park.
And now you live in Bay Ridge?
And what got you into activism?
So my family are Palestinians — Palestinian immigrants that came here in the 1970s, to Brooklyn. My dad is a business owner in Crown Heights, and my family always had some activism. My parents were obviously Palestinian, so we did a lot of Palestinian right to work here in the U.S. My parents stayed very connected to our family so I grew up understanding that, like, “Yeah, I’m born in Brooklyn, but my family is from a place in this world where there’s oppression, and I need to be cognizant of that.” So I had a lot of political awareness on issues of Palestine.
My parents were both born in the West Bank of Palestine. Both lived under military occupation. My dad’s brother got married to a woman who was American, so she brought my dad’s brother here, and my dad’s brother brought my dad, and then my dad went back to Palestine and married my mom, who was from the same village. And my dad was like, “We’re not living in Palestine. We’re living in New York City.” My dad didn’t want to raise his family in those conditions.
But when I got really involved on the domestic level, and felt like I could do something here, was at a very unfortunate time, which was around 9/11. On 9/11, I was 21 years old, and I was a college student at the time. This community, as you can see, is a very large Muslim and Arab community, and, actually, when I was walking home from school, from Kingsborough Community College, I walked all the way here because there was no buses or subways running on that day. And then I got here on Fifth Avenue, every store was closed on that day. The mosque was closed. No Muslim-owned business was open. And I looked around, like, “What the hell?” It didn’t dawn on me at that moment why, and then I walked from here to my mom’s house, which is in Sunset Park. Literally, I’m walking into my mother’s house and my mom’s running out of the house; she’s not wearing her scarf. And I’m like, “Where are you going?” And she said, “I’m going to go get your brother from school.” My brother went to M.S. 51, which is in Park Slope. And I’m like, “You forgot to wear your hijab.” And my mom said, “We can’t wear it right now.” And I’m like, “What the hell?”
I go inside to my mom’s house and sit down; at that time, my son was 2 years old, and he’s like, “Look, mom, fire on TV!” You know, they kept showing the same images. And there it was on the tagline on the TV station. And it all kind of clicked. And I was like, “Wow, that’s why our community is afraid of retaliation. The people that did this were Muslim, Arabs.” It all came together.
At that same time, around 9/11, this organization — the Arab American Association of New York — was basically a concept and an idea that people had before 9/11. People were like, “We want to open an organization for Arab-Americans in Bay Ridge. There’s a lot of Arabs and immigrants coming and no one’s helping them. We need to have an institution to support new immigrants coming.” They didn’t think they’d have to open immediately — because there was a lot of retaliation. The FBI and NYPD intelligence swarmed the community literally immediately after; they were going to a lot of people’s houses “with name sharing.” Really? Everyone in our community’s name is Mohamed. Mohamed Atta obviously was one of them; there was a Jarrah. There was a couple of families that have no relationship with any of these heretics — and, actually, different countries of origin — some people were visited, some people were taken away. Then, all of a sudden, people started coming to the mosque saying, “They took my husband three days ago. We don’t know where our husband is. How do we find him?”
This is when the organization kind of opened its doors, not knowing exactly what we were going to do. One of the founders of the organization reached out to me, a family relative, saying like, “Linda, you speak English, you speak Arabic, you’re from this country, you were born here, you know people in this community, people know your family, people are going to trust to tell you things. Come and volunteer.” I was trying to be a high school English teacher; that’s what I was trying to do. And that’s it — I came.
And that was your first job in this field?
That was my first opportunity to do real, hardcore civic activism. I came as a Brooklynite, Sunset Park-er, who went to public school and thought the world was wonderful. My parents sheltered us. My parents own a house in Sunset Park, my dad is a business owner. I was like, “Oh, the world’s great. Nobody hates me.” But then I felt like the minute I started working here, and getting to see these clients, and hearing these stories, I was like, “Why would they take her husband and not tell her where he is for four days?” Like, “What did your husband do?” “No, my husband didn’t do anything. He’s a street cart vendor.” Or, “No, my husband is a taxicab driver.” Normal people, and then they come with their kids, and their kids are like, “Where’s my dad?”
It really connected the dots for me — something’s not right around here. Thirteen years later, I’m still here. I stuck to it. I stayed because I got to see firsthand the need, not only with this organization, but for voices of people who can connect to this society. Obviously I’m a fluent English speaker. I was born and raised here. I can relate to people in a way that some other people in our community can’t, and I saw the power that people in our generation can have to make change, practice freedom of speech. Because we’re American, we were born here, we’re not afraid to be deported. We have a lot of privileges that unfortunately a lot of people in our communities don’t have. I felt like this was a way to use my privilege.
With local tensions over what’s happening in Gaza and Israel rising in the past weeks, there have been reports of harassment, chauvinist graffiti, even attacks on Arabs and Muslims in Brooklyn. After all that you’ve seen, does this all feel familiar or is it something new?
What’s really interesting about this whole situation is that there was obviously a spike of hate crimes after 9/11. Reports of kids beaten, many across the country, and killings of people, unfortunately many of them Sikhs, non-Muslims, or whatever. But what’s really interesting is one thing that didn’t happen after 9/11: we didn’t have those mosque oppositions. I never remember in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, protesting when we were about to build a mosque. We just used to build a mosque, everything was normal. For me, personally, I think it was the Obama presidency that was a big turning point for this country. The right wing was over there, but they came out literally from every rock they were under, and I think this new wave of Islamophobia came out. And it came out in a much more uglier form than it did right after 9/11. It came in the form of mosque opposition, in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. We’re not talking about Alabama. We’re talking about Midland Beach, Staten Island; Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn; obviously Ground Zero.
Places that are supposed to be more culturally liberal…
Yeah, I wouldn’t call Staten Island that. [Laughs.] But yeah, like, Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn — New York City, in general, you wouldn’t think this would happen. Old Bridge, New Jersey. You name it, just in this little vicinity, out on Long Island, we had a congressman say there were too many mosques in America. Radicalization, all people coming from our very liberal state. You start thinking, “If this is happening in New York City, in the five boroughs, God only knows what happens in places like Texas, or the South, or the Bible Belt.” It happened recently, and it’s still happening now. Just today, we left a press conference: two hate crimes during the month of Ramadan, here in Brooklyn. That goes to show that we’re moving farther away from where we should be, especially thirteen years after 9/11. We’re coming up to the anniversary in a month and a half.
So what happened at the presser today?
The presser had a very specific tone. I think we wanted to be really intentional about that because emotions are high about what’s happening in the Middle East right now. These hate crimes are happening at a time when people are emotional, especially this community, very heavily Palestinian, Muslim, trying to be at a mosque to pray at 4 o’clock in the morning. You’re praying for your family members and people, you’re watching dead bodies scattered around the street — on top of all of that, you don’t need people trying to antagonize you while you’re praying at the mosque. It hurt more this time than if it was just a random time in the year, when someone just felt like doing something stupid. People were more offended, people were more outraged than they would’ve ever been if it would’ve been at another time. They would’ve still been outraged, but not probably as outraged as they were. They knew exactly what mosque, they knew exactly what community to target in this way. Very intentionally done — the time that they came, when there was no police patrol. Like, someone was watching this whole thing go down.
It just reminds people once again that — look, we still have elected officials having press conferences in the city, saying, “New York stands with Israel.” This whole community, whose family members, cousins, grandmothers, scattered on the sidewalk, and you have your elected officials saying, “We stand with Israel. Israel has a right to defend itself.” And it’s like, what message do you send to other New Yorkers who have different opinions and different experiences and different connections? So yeah, it’s been really unfortunate.
I heard, when you were going over the list of people in attendance today, there was a rabbi…
Actually yesterday, we had three rabbis: Rabbi Jack Meyer; Rabbi Meyer Weill; this guy, Yeruchim Silber, from the Boro Park Jewish Community Council, which is actually an organization similar to this — a little bit older and much larger than ours — who actually came all the way from Borough Park to be like, “Look, this is not what our community condones. We really apologize — we talked to these kids’ parents, they’re appalled.“ For this community, they needed to hear that; it didn’t calm them down 100 percent, but it had people thinking, “All right, all right — someone’s taking some ownership. Someone thinks this is wrong,” which I thought was helpful. It was a helpful message to be sent. And then today, we had from the Kane Street synagogue, Douglas Jablon, whose profession is actually that he is a VP of Maimonides Medical Center, and he’s very well-respected in the Jewish community, a very conservative Jew himself, and I think that’s an important voice to bring. Look, we don’t have to agree on foreign policy, and we’re not going to agree, and I’m not going to try to convince the other side to agree with me. But let’s agree that you cannot allow anyone in your community to harass people in our community, in front of our religious institutions. I think, in general, 99.99 percent of people do agree…
They’re anti-hate crime…
Yeah, anti-hate crime. And especially that particular community, they themselves have experienced hate crimes so if anyone’s going to be understanding, it’s going to be them. We wouldn’t be the first community to be like, “Yo, that’s not right. That can’t be happening on a synagogue.” So, there’s a good message in it that I think I’m comfortable with.
Do you normally devote a lot of energy to these kinds of interfaith initiatives, or is it mainly during crises?
We do a lot of interfaith work. For example, police reform is a big issue for us, specifically looking at ending NYPD surveillance and targeting Muslims. We’ve been very fortunate to have Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs — you name it — they’ve all been like, “Stop spying on Muslims.” So our interfaith work has been really around the issues that we work on. Immigration reform, which is another campaign we work on.
Interestingly enough, and I’ll be honest with you, we have really good relationships in the Jewish community, most often liberal, American Jews. Like the ones that believe we should be ending military occupation in Palestine — many of whom are pro-Israel, and more two-state-solution type Jews. But we really don’t have a relationship — not a good one, not a bad one — with the Orthodox Jewish community. We don’t really have a formalized relationship where we break fast together, or have, every year or every two years or every three months, a meeting. That’s just not something that happens. Not because we don’t want it to happen — it just hasn’t existed, at least during my experience here.
But on a city-wide level, the Park Slope, Cobble Hill synagogues — some of them are progressive, I guess you can call it. Some of the ones with the women rabbis. Those we have had a lot of success with interfaith “dialogue,” potlucks, doing teach-ins. Like, one day, we do something about Islam, another day we do something about Christianity. Dr. Ahmad Jaber, who’s the president of my organization, is the president of the Brooklyn Heights Clergy Association, which is a group of congregations. Which I think also shows some of the work we’ve done. But they don’t have Orthodox synagogues that are part of it; it’s like, the State Street synagogue. It’s not a relationship that’s really there, to be honest with you. For me, when these guys showed up, I was kind of like, “Oh, OK, that’s really great.”
So it wasn’t planned at all?
We knew they were going to come because, when they heard about the incident, they contacted the police department and said, “We heard about this incident.” They have a Jewish guy from their community who’s a liaison with the police. They find out who the kids are, they find out what synagogue they go to, they find out who their parents were. So the rabbis talked to the parents. One of the sets of parents was away actually and they had no idea. They were like, “Oh my god, this is what our son does when we’re not home?” So they came to relay that information to the community, and basically be like, “I hope you don’t think we’re sitting in our synagogue, like, ‘Please, kids, go out and attack mosques.’” We didn’t really think that, anyways, but I’m glad that you’re reiterating what we already thought, that this isn’t a reflection of the whole community.
In terms of the NYPD, has there been a reset in the past six months with the new administration?
So there’s two resets. One that hasn’t reset, and is the same. The reset is public relations. That’s the reset. For the Muslim community, we had a very hostile relationship with the last administration. The only time we spoke to the commissioner or to his deputies was through the media. We shoot back at them; they shoot back at us. Through the media and press releases. That was the kind of relationship we had, which we loved. You know what? We’ll keep you accountable. Talk to the public and tell them you spied on Muslims and you’re proud of it, which he did unapologetically.
With this new administration, it’s a reset on PR. Just a different aura: you walk in and the commissioner’s putting you in a very luxurious conference room, and he brings you all top brass. I remember when we went to a meeting, it was like Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism John Miller, and we had the deputy commissioner of operations and planning; the deputy commissioner of collaborative policing, which, as you know, is a new position that never existed in the police department; the deputy commissioner of community affairs; obviously the commissioner himself. Before, with Commissioner Kelly, it was like, you met with Kelly and his one sidekick, which was, at the time, Paul Browne. And that’s what you got. That was like six years ago.
There’s a lot of response. If I call the police department right now, someone in a second calls me back from 1 Police Plaza. But that doesn’t mean things are translating into the policies and what they’re actually doing. The only one thing that people have said is victorious is that they closed the Demographics Unit, or the Zone Assessment Unit, which was one of our demands. It was one of six things we wanted the police department to do. But it’s also a program that already did its work. You already mapped us; you already have that information. So there was really nothing more for that program to do. But symbolically, it was a message that the police department was like, “OK, we knew that was ineffective; it was a terrible idea, we don’t know who decided that was a good idea, so we’re going to shut it down.”
But there were other concerning things that came out. We read in the New York Times recently that the “citywide debriefing team,” you go into jails and central booking, find people with Muslim-looking names, and you start asking them about becoming an informant, and asking them questions that aren’t even related to the crime they committed to get in there. That, for us, is not acceptable. You wouldn’t do that when an Italian guy gets arrested for a parking ticket and arguing with an officer. You’re properly not going to start asking him about the Mafia. But, of course, with the Muslim community, they think they can do that. That’s a concern.
Then the whole terrorism enterprise investigations. When you take an organization like ours, and put us on the list for terrorism enterprise investigations, under what circumstance? And knowing that when you do that — actually, our mosque is also on the terrorism enterprise investigation list — you subject every single worshipper that goes into that mosque to that investigation. That’s the problem. It’s not even the staff and the board. It’s like, you can go into the mosque and, now, since you’re on those premises, you’re subject to investigation. So, how? Why? What’s the threshold? What do you need to know about that? That mosque, we found out they had an investigation for six years, and the police went back and they got a renewal of the investigation. If you didn’t find anything in six years, what do you think you’re going to find in the next one?
The answer to the question is, yes, we’re sitting with the commissioner. We’re talking to the NYPD face-to-face versus the way we were doing it with the previous administration, but there hasn’t really been much reset on policies, both on the stop-and-frisk, police brutality front. Even though they say, “Look how low stop-and-frisk is, everybody.” But let’s still look at those numbers, which are still relatively high in comparison to other cities, and you still see, “Who are you targeting exactly?” And I bet you they’re still the same ratio; it’s still going to be close to 90 percent color, and mostly in these certain neighborhoods. So, the conversations are moving…
The recent incident with Eric Garner, his death in police hands on Staten Island….
I’m going to the funeral tomorrow. I’m heartbroken.
Can you talk more about that? Where does it fit into the broader conversation about policing policies?
I will say this: if you remember during the last administration, there were many cases of police brutality and killings of unarmed men. Ramarley Graham, you name it. Notice the different response from the administration. I don’t want to say that Bill de Blasio is sitting at home, or on vacation, being like, “Yeah, way to go! Kill more unarmed black men!” I don’t agree with him on a 100 percent of things, but immediately, there was a statement.
And the trip to Italy?
If I was Mayor de Blasio, I would’ve delayed my trip, to be honest with you. I don’t know if Bloomberg would have done it, too, so I don’t want to compare them. But you can tell from this administration that these things are not tolerated. I think the difference is, in the past six years specifically, is Copwatch. The fact that people now feel empowered to pull out their phones on the spot and be like, “All right, you want to choke the guy to death on camera?” It’s clear that that NYPD officer was violating the patrol guide. You’re not supposed to be choke-holding people, from the get-go.
In the past, that has happened, but there probably wasn’t a camera. So this is the administration’s chance to say, “It’s on camera. This guy’s not walking away from this.” And that’s the problem in the past. The past administration, on many cases including Ramarley Graham and others, they would literally go to trial, and you had police supporters and unions on one side, supporters of the family on the other side, and you literally see a cop with a smile walking out of court vindicated, like he’s cool. He killed a black kid. The last time there was any good case was maybe around Anthony Baez, where there was some sort of conviction that really punished a police officer. But I can’t really remember the last time a police officer has been behind bars for killing a black kid in the city.
This administration has a chance. I think Eric Garner’s case is going to be that chance. If they mess up this chance, I don’t think it would set the best tone...
How often do you meet with the commissioner?
I think we’ve met with the commissioner four times. We went three times in the meeting, intimate type situation, and then one time, they do this thing every year called the “Welcome Ramadan Breakfast,” or something like that, where they invite Muslim leaders to 1 Police Plaza and they do a breakfast and talk about all the things they’re going to do during Ramadan to make sure everything’s good. I boycotted for the past six years, so this was my first time in the past six years.
I boycotted once in like, 2006 or 2007. I literally walked into Police Plaza under Commissioner Kelly. I walk in, I’m trying to be cute and a little leader, even though I was the youngest in the whole room. I sat down in the fourth row, and they wanted to show a presentation. I’m not even lying: they close the lights, the screen comes down in this very luxurious auditorium, and then it’s like a red screen and then it was like, “The Terror Watch List,” or something. And I’m like, “Okay… let’s see where this is going.” And the first picture they blast on the screen is Wafa Idris. She was the first Palestinian-American suicide bomber. So I’m sitting there thinking to myself, “Palestinian, suicide bomber, in Palestine … what does she have to do with us? What does she have to do with the United States? And what does she have to do with this event? You’re welcoming Ramadan by showing us the terrorists on this list?”
So then I was like, “Maybe there’s a point. Maybe we’re going to be onto something.” So I sat down and literally it was like, Saddam’s on there, Osama bin Laden and some of his groupies. And I’m like… they look like the people that are in the room. Like, imagining seeing people that look like you. Obviously they’re terrorists; we get it. So then I just got up and was like, “This is ridiculous.” It was still dark and you hear footsteps. Lights open, and you see out of the 400 people, at least half of them got up and walked out. They were appalled. So then we wrote a letter and they said they amended the Powerpoint. I was like, “You did not know who your audience was.” It was pretty insane.
And Kelly was there?
Of course! It was under his invitation!
So you do a lot of youth empowerment work. How do the younger people you’ve worked with react to all of this?
So there’s some stuff I could show you where you can see some of the sentiment. Like, some of these posters are drawn by our kids. When we go to a rally, we tell kids, “Put some posters together and make them yours.” For them, that’s how they see the NYPD: they see NYPD spying on them, and that’s their message. Kids want to understand, especially if you’re an American kid born in Brooklyn. You don’t see yourself different from the Puerto Rican kid, or the white Italian kid in your school. This question of, “What is it about me?” Trying to understand that piece of their identity that is the “problem” and then we have to explain to them that nothing about your identity is a problem; that you are not the problem — those that are targeting us in our community are the problem.
It’s a hard conversation to have with young people, and having them be able to express themselves in ways that make sense to them. We’re not an organization that does foreign policy. We’re a domestic organization. But we have to have these conversations. We have people in this community who are Syrians and they’re watching their families being massacred in the hundreds. Obviously all eyes on Gaza right now, and I’m Palestinian so I have a bias towards my own “people.” But there are kids in this community who have entire parts of their families gone, tortured by the Assad regime. And how to give kids that outlet to talk to people about how they’re feeling. Nobody in their school is talking about Syria, right?
So our kids start thinking, “Do we not matter? Are we not important?” I’m kinda glad these things happen in summer and when they’re not in school, because I would just imagine how our kids would feel if they were in school right now, knowing that their family members in places like Gaza are being massacred, and their schools are either not trying to talk about it, or trying to find other ways that don’t make sense to these kids to talk about it. Especially in places like Bay Ridge and at Fort Hamilton High School. About 20 percent of that school population is kids of Arab descent. We’re talking about a school with 6,000 students. That’s a lot of students in that school who at least have some sort of relationship to the Arab-American community.
A lot of it is getting kids to join with other communities. For example, with the stop-and-frisk stuff, it’s not necessarily an issue that impacts us as much as the African-American, Latino communities. It impacts some of our young men who do look Latino, sometimes in places like Sunset Park. Having them come to the Floyd trial and sitting in courtrooms. For example, on the Friday before Mother’s Day, we took them to a rally with mothers who lost their kids at the hands of the NYPD. And having these young kids be there and be like, “Look, we’re not the only community that have been targeted historically in this country.” There have been communities and look what they do: they’re empowering, they come out, and they stand up.
We do a lot of art projects. Outside of this office, there are some portraits that people have drawn. You can see their identity in them; some of them are Palestinian, so Palestine is kinda always part of how they identify themselves, from a cause perspective. Most of them are American-born, born in Brooklyn. They have an affinity, they think they are Brooklyn. They don’t think anyone should think anything else of them.
But we also have kids who are immigrants. We have one girl who’s Bedu from Jordan, so she’s black. It literally looks like she’s African-American. She’s a fluent Arabic speaker; her family is from Jordan. She just came here a year and a half ago, and goes to an international school. So this poor girl gets bullied for being black, for wearing hijab, for having a very foreign accent. This girl is coming to a country, thinking she’s coming to the United States of America, coming to New York City. She’s like, “I always dreamed as a kid of coming to New York City.” And now she’s in a city where when she’s in school, she feels safe. But the minute she walks out of her school, she says, “I don’t feel safe.”
So you hear these stories and giving kids the platform to talk about those things here and share with others. And then have youth workers who understand and deal with them versus their parents, who are also struggling with trying to figure out what their role is and where they’re supposed to be in the community.
It’s really hard and it hurts my feelings when, like, it was 2010, and there was a cab driver who got stabbed. So anyway, we were having summer camp graduation and we had it at a church, and their parents came and we’re giving certificates out. So these kids were having a conversation and this one kid comes up to me and is like, “Do I tell them that I’m Muslim?” And I’m like, what is this kid talking about? He was in fifth grade, going into sixth grade, so going into junior high in a new school. So I asked, “What do you mean?” And he said, “I’m going to a new school, so do I tell them I’m a Muslim?” So you know me, I have no idea what the context of the question is, so I’m like, “Yeah! Of course you should tell them that you’re Muslim! Be proud!” This is a 11- or 12-year-old kid. And he’s like, “But what if I tell them and they hurt me?” I said, “Excuse me? Nobody’s going to hurt you.” He’s like, “Didn’t that guy tell that guy he was Muslim and then he stabbed him?” Then you have this group that’s with him be like, “Yeah!”
How do you tell a kid after he’s responding in that way? And they’re seeing this: it’s around them. I was like, ‘No, there’s security in your school, and the teachers will protect you. You don’t have to worry.” Later on, when I was reflecting on the conversation, I was like, “Wow, this is what our kids worry about.” This kid should be nervous about going into junior high school and being uncool and being afraid of being a freshman. He shouldn’t be worried that he’s going to get to school and someone’s going to know he’s Muslim and attack him in any way. Adults can deal with it their own way, but when you get kids…
My kids, for example, when our organization was in the Associated Press because we were targeted by the NYPD — they were trying to get an informant on my board or some stupidness. It wasn’t even like, we’re trying to get people to listen to your conversations. It was like we’re going to put someone on your board who has decision-making powers. It’s like, really, NYPD?
Stepping back a bit, can you talk about what growing up in Brooklyn has meant to you, how it’s affected your outlook?
I grew up in Sunset Park. I went to John Jay High School. I grew up in New York City; in Brooklyn, specifically, and thinking that this was the best place on Earth. I met people from all over. My neighbors were Dominican, Puerto Rican. I met people from everywhere and I grew up thinking I live in the best place in the whole world. And I still think that. Me, personally, you can send me to any part of the world and when people ask me where I’m from, I’m from Brooklyn. I don’t say from the United States or from New York City or New York —I say Brooklyn. And what’s beautiful is that when I go out of state, people know I’m from Brooklyn just by the way I speak. So, for me personally, I feel like I live and breathe Brooklyn. I went to schools that were diverse. I went to places where I feel like people wanted to learn more about who I was and who my family was. There are a lot of unfortunate things that happened post-9/11 but I feel like nothing would outweigh what Brooklyn means. I don’t know — I just love Brooklyn. I get into these things when people will say something about Manhattan, like, “We’re going out to dinner,” I’m always like, “Why do you need to go to Manhattan? What kind of food do you want? I can find any food you’d want.” And people are like, “Shopping?” “I’ll tell you where to shop here.” You don’t need to leave Brooklyn anymore to do anything, to meet anyone. So I have a big affinity to Brooklyn, and if I could walk around with a Brooklyn tee every day, I would do it. But I have my accent. In Palestine, even when people recognize accents from the United States, I think we’re the only group of people where people outside of the country recognize our accent and know we’re from Brooklyn.
I feel cool when I get to say I live in Brooklyn. My two sisters moved out of the state, they got married to two guys who had to leave for work and got transferred. And my sisters are like, “You’re crazy. You should leave New York.” Because they bought beautiful houses and drive fancy cars because they can afford to in places like North Carolina and Louisiana. But I’m like, “Look, I’ll live in a nice, tiny apartment in Brooklyn for the rest of my life, and I’d be quite content with that.” I don’t think I could ever leave Brooklyn. I wouldn’t even be able to live in Queens.
A lot of times when people talk to me about being a social justice advocate, they’re like, “But where does that come from? It comes from somewhere.” I tell people it comes from Brooklyn and it comes from being Palestinian. My spice comes from my Brooklyn-ness — everything I do has that in there. I think Brooklyn people are in your face, they’re unafraid, they’re unbought. We’re not shy about our opinions about anything, and I think it goes hand in hand with what it means to be a social justice advocate. Just like, speak truth to power and not give a crap about what anybody thinks. And I think that’s really what Brooklyn is.
This interview has been condensed and edited.