Daily Podcast #02 Sophia Azeb /// Palestinian Futurities



Sophia Azeb is a Provost’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago.  Her current book project, Another Country: Constellations of Blackness in Afro-Arab Cultural Expression, theorizes how blackness is articulated and mobilized by African American, African, and Afro-Arab writers, artists, and political figures in North Africa and Europe during the post-war twentieth century. She is a regular contributor to The Funambulist. Learn more on her contributor page.


As many of us are currently confined at home in many places of the world, and while we keep in our minds and in our hearts those who have no choice but to be at risk from the ongoing worldwide pandemic, because they’re doctors, nurses, cashiers, workers, homeless, incarcerated, or in any other precarious situation, we wanted to provide you with a daily podcast to use this time to reflect and organizing without talking about the pandemic itself — there might be already enough about it.

The concept is very simple. Every day, we ask one person the same question: “what is for you a moment of true decolonization?” The answer can be a historial moment or something they witnessed; something heroic and grandiose, or rather discreet and mundane; a durable blow to the structures of colonialism or a short instant of liberation.

We thank you for listening and wish you and your loved ones the very best wherever you are.

(music by hooksounds originals)


Léopold Lambert: Hello, everyone. Today’s guest for the daily Funambulist podcast series is Sophia Azeb was a recurring contributor to the various media that the Funambulist have been have been using throughout the years for many years now. She is Provost, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago. And she’s currently working on a book project so far called Another Country: Constellation of Blackness in Afro-Arab Cultural Expression that theorizes how blackness is articulated and mobilized by African American, African and Afro Arab writers, artists and political figures in North Africa and Europe, during the post war 20th century. Hello, Sophia.

Sophia Azeb: Hi, how are you?

LL: Good. How are you doing?

SA: Doing well, considering—all things considered.

LL: Well, so it’s a podcast series that requires very little work of me. So pretty much the only work I have to do is to ask you, what is the decolonial moment that you thought about?

SA: So when you first asked me this question, I started with really big picture things that we have spoken about before, mostly related to Palestinian futures and the potential for a Palestinian futurity that isn’t dependent on something like a nation state. And so I guess, you know, without rehashing all of the things that we’ve discussed, and that I’ve been so happy to publish in the Funambulist before, it just sort of got me to thinking about my Palestinian past in particular the moments in which I’ve tried to speak to my grandmother, who’s lived in the United States since the mid 1950s and who grew up in a little village called Bir Nabala, which is in the West Bank of Palestine, quite near Qalandia checkpoint today. And whenever I think about Palestinian futurity, it really is based on what I know about our family’s history in Bir Nabala, which is not much.

So I think the last piece I contributed to the Funambulist was on who we will be when we are free, and it was really focused on what makes us Palestinian, beyond our bases in a shared catastrophe, which is the Nakba and the forced displacement of Palestinians all over the world. And I’m obviously a diaspora Palestinian, you can hear my lovely American accent. I’m born and raised in the US because in part of this huge migration story of both sides of my family, and I remember after my grandfather died, my mother’s father—and my mother’s family is the Palestinian side. I was really curious. I was 13 years old, and I had been raised knowing about Palestine. I’ve been raised in a very political household. But I really didn’t know where my family fit into this broader story of Palestinian migration and the efforts that they made towards our liberation as a Palestinian People, I knew that we were a large family, I knew that we still had family and Palestine. I’d never met them because I’ve never been able to go with my family, those who were still able to access their village back home. And so I started to ask my grandmother questions about our family, how she grew up, the moment that she was in before, during and after the Nakba. And I sort of quickly realize that she was quite reticent to talk about her departure from Palestine. But she was so animated when she was telling me about our family during the British Mandate period and before 1947.

And I think everything that I have kind of based my politics and writings on Palestine today on has been in part because of these conversations I had with my grandmother when I was 13 and 14 years old. And that, to me, kind of signifies this broader link of how those of us who do decolonial work, think through our own positions, in the broader global decolonization movements throughout the 20th century, but also the kind of attachments that really necessitate the politics that we end up kind of coming towards as you know, I don’t want to say adults, because it’s not really generational. Obviously, I started this when I was a teenager. But how we come to these politics is so deeply intertwined with our interpersonal knowledge and relationships to these political moments and these decolonial potentials. So I suppose when I asked, Who would we be, who will we be when we are free, I was thinking about my Filāḥa grandmother, who did not learn how to read or write in Arabic or English, until she began to teach herself after arriving in the US. She had, she raised 10 children, seven of which she bore herself with my grandfather, three of whom were her stepchildren. And she produced this, literally, right, this huge, black family black, and we live all over the place now. And all of us are kind of, I think, solely united in our ideas on Palestinian liberation and futurity through my grandmother’s ability to recollect and transmit these kinds of, these histories to us, these family, this family lore that we really were not able to access on our own. So I suppose I would have to say what I think about decolonization and like particular decolonial moments for me, something like historical memory that we carry through without necessarily having the full picture is something that is super important for me, personally. And if you hear little jingles, that’s my cat who is sitting in my lap right now. So sorry about that, everybody.

SA: So I think that’s kind of where I really where my mind kept going after you asked me that question initially. Yeah, that was a monologue. Sorry.

LL: It is meant to be a monologue. And perhaps I can, I can just ask one more question, which is just, perhaps, can you tell us a little bit more about the Who will we be when we’re free? text that you’ve wrote beautifully for us? Because maybe some, I’m sort of guessing more people have access to the podcasts and the magazine itself. So it would be great for you to to tell us a little bit more about this Palestinian futurity?

SA: Definitely. Who will we be where we are free. The sort of impetus for writing that were, was a dissatisfaction I had with the presumption that Palestinians are a ‘people’ in any coherent sense of the concept beyond our sort of proximity to the Nakba, the proximity to displacement. And what I really mean by that is not that I am against the idea that we are all a people and that we share a common goal, but that we should never presume all Palestinians share a common goal. And this is really I think, just very simply, I think at its base is not even in a grander political scheme. Although we do know this very well that many Palestinians are happily sort of willing to contribute to the Israeli occupation for small benefits. This is not unique to Palestine or Palestinians; this is the condition of coloniality. Those of us who may reproduce the conditions under which we’ve been oppressed, this is something that is this is as old as you know, the fight against colonization is itself.

But I also was concerned with the fact that many Palestinians who are kind of really present in these national and international conversations around the world, particularly Palestinians in the diaspora, tend to be from families that had wealth before the Nakba, that had land before the Nakba. We point to this Palestinian peasant, as kind of a rallying cry, let’s protect our you know, our land, let’s cultivate our land and come together as a people who have been displaced from this land, without recognizing that of course, all Palestinians did not have access to land to cultivating the land, even before massive displacement occurred in 1947. We don’t—we tend to want to obfuscate racial differences amongst Palestinians in the diaspora, but also in Palestine itself. For instance, the very large community of Afro Palestinians that are descended from the long legacy of the trans-Saharan and trans-Mediterranean slave trade. These are structures that that Palestinians like most other peoples in the world have participated in, and that I believe, we must recognize in order to give ourselves the strength to name the differences within our community, as a method for moving forward as a people right come more cognizant of the distinctions amongst ourselves in order to come together under this larger scope in the quest towards Palestinian Liberation. And for me, of course, my idea of Palestinian Liberation is again, quite specific to my family’s own history, as peasants, as people who worked the land, who still have access to our historic lands, which again, is a unique and privileged position within the larger Palestinian diaspora. Certainly Palestinians who languish in refugee camps do not enjoy this privilege. And so by recognizing these distinctions and these differences amongst us and naming them for what they are, it doesn’t mean that we tear down the concept of a Palestinian people. But we are able to embolden ourselves to come together and acknowledge these distinctions as a method for building our future as Palestinians, towards whatever our idea of a Palestinian Liberation may look like.

SA: I think that was really the impetus for that piece that I wrote in the Futurisms issue of the Funambulist, and I was so glad to have the opportunity to do so because I had been reading Mahmoud Darwish “In the Presence of Absence,” and these sorts of notions of his lack of proximity to home while in exile really struck me as really similar to the way that my grandmother would avoid talking about the Nakba and after and really wanted to tell us about her family before. Right so what it meant to be in Palestine and know oneself as Palestinian, rather than being forced out of Palestine and having to raise a family that will never be able to have that access in that proximity to home that she did.

LL: Great well Sophia thank you so much for yet another collaboration with the Funambulist, I forget how many it’s been but quite many and even some readers might not be able to know about them, but they’re also happening in behind the scenes. So thank you for being the second one of this series and best of luck with was everything.

SA: Yes. good luck during the plague everybody stay safe.

LL: That’s all for today. Find us tomorrow again for a new episode as part of this daily podcast series. And if you’re a subscriber to the Funambulist, remember that you have access to every single article we published in the past in their online version on our website. Thank you very much and take care