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Ramadan Reflections: Preserving History and Humanity for Palestine

By: Sabriyah Y. Hassan-Ismail
Director of Programs, Banneker-Douglass Museum

The Banneker-Douglass Museum and the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture present an essay written by Sabriyah Y. Hassan-Ismail, Director of Programs at BDM, whom we support in voicing her experience and opinion on the destruction of Palestinian heritage sites as a Muslim American and museum practitioner. We hope that this thought-provoking piece will shed light on another’s viewpoint and inspire constructive dialogue. We stand with Mrs. Hassan-Ismail and others who believe in the protection and value of museums and heritage sites to document humanity and preserve artifacts of the human experience.

“We need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience, and patience creates unity.”
Malcolm X

I stand proud in my identity as a Black American Muslim woman, for it is the culmination of diverse experiences and perspectives. As the holy month of Ramadan unfolds, I find myself grappling with the challenges that arise from these intersecting aspects of who I am. Amidst this deeply spiritual time, my heart remains heavy for the Palestinian and Sudanese people enduring unspeakable conditions during what should be their most sacred time of the year.

I remember as a fellow with the UC Berkeley-based National Writing Project1 I was advised by a mentor that, “you should write often and write a lot.” So today, I write from the lens of another essential part of my identity: that of a museum practitioner.

October 7th held special significance for me, as it marked the first birthday of my youngest child. Little did I know that the days, weeks, and months that followed would be filled with unimaginable pain. While I have always been aware of the plight of the Palestinian people, nothing could have prepared me for the atrocities I have witnessed in recent months. With the internet and social media providing the world with real time updates on what is unfolding in war zones all around the world, my phone screen has been inundated with images of death and dismay on a daily basis. The extent of the suffering endured by the Palestinian people has left me in a state of profound sadness. In such a short amount of time more than 30,000 lives have been tragically lost, with over 70,000 individuals injured and more than 1.7 million displaced and suffering. These are not merely statistics; they represent real people, with dreams and aspirations, whose lives have been shattered by unfathomable violence.

As a museum practitioner, I remain dedicated to promoting the importance of preserving history through the collection of artifacts and the development of educational programming. I strongly advocate for funds to preserve Black history throughout the state of Maryland and beyond. It is, therefore, with shock, disgust, and dismay that I learn of the destruction of cultural and historical sites, particularly in Palestine. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Culture as reported by The Guardian2, as of February 2024 more than 200 archaeological sites and buildings of immense cultural significance have been reduced to rubble or severely damaged. Reducing the region’s total cultural edifices to less than 120.  This mass destruction not only deprives the Palestinian people of their heritage but also erases a part of our collective human history. I’ll also be interested to learn the extent to which the valuable artifacts, once housed within these buildings, will eventually find their way onto the black market to be dispersed and displayed in museums around the world. As gut-wrenching as it may be, this idea is sadly not far-fetched. It brings to mind the powerful scene in Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther”3 movie, where Killmonger executed his audacious plan to reclaim stolen Wakandan artifacts from a European museum. Although fictional, this scene struck a chord with many viewers, as it depicted the painful reality of cultural theft and the longing for repatriation. It serves as a reminder that the illicit trade in stolen artifacts during times of war is a global issue that demands our attention. 

During South Africa’s widely watched court case at the UN International Court of Justice in January 2024, urgent action was rightfully called for to protect the rights, including the rich heritage, of the Palestinian people under the 1948 Geneva Convention. It is disheartening to witness how little has been done to preserve human life, let alone the history and culture of the Palestinian people. Even in times of war, there are established laws that should be adhered to. It is important to note that these principles are outlined in holy books such as the Bible, the Quran, and the Torah4, emphasizing the significance of respecting human life, land, and heritage. 

On March 11th, more than 150 staffers, volunteers, and fellows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art penned and delivered a letter to its director and chief executive, calling for the museum to stand in defense of the Palestinian people5. The museum has a history of speaking out against the destruction of cultural and heritage sites during times of emergencies, and the staff believes it is now time for them to do the same for the people of Gaza. As a Black museum practitioner, I believe it is crucial for Black-led museums and organizations across the country to take similar actions. As a people constantly grappling with the threat of erasure, it is only right that we follow in the footsteps of giants like Nelson Mandela and El Hajj Malik Shabazz (Malcolm X) and stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people. 

One powerful emotion that has surged within me during this time is anger. I cannot help but question why more people within my own networks are not actively discussing the destruction, devastation and death, being inflicted upon not just the people of Palestine, but also those in Sudan and the Congo. Is it because they are predominantly Black and Brown people? Is it because they are predominantly Muslims? These questions weigh heavily on my mind, and I find myself really struggling with the silence of my family, friends, and colleagues. It is disheartening to think that the term “genocide” may not resonate with them in the same way it does with me.. As a coping mechanism, I have found myself making excuses for their silence, allowing me to maintain composure in the face of overwhelming injustice. But deep down, I yearn for more voices to join the chorus of condemnation against these atrocities, and for action to be taken to address the profound injustices being committed.

As a Black American Muslim woman, my thirst for knowledge about my own identity and culture is insatiable. I am fortunate to have access to resources and tools that enable me to delve into the history of my family, my people, and my culture. I recognize the importance of exploring archives and other heritage sites to unravel the intricate history of my community. These invaluable resources should be accessible to all individuals, regardless of their background, and we must not allow acts of war to serve as a means to completely erase a people’s history. If such erasure can occur in Gaza in 2024, it begs the question: who will be the next target? We must be vigilant in safeguarding the heritage and identities of all communities, for the preservation of history is a fundamental civil and human right.

  1. National Writing Project, ↩︎
  2. Kaamil Ahmed,”Everything beautiful has been destroyed’: Palestinians mourn a city in tatters”, The Guardian, (February 2024), ↩︎
  3. “Black Panther: Killmonger’s Brazon Heist”, ↩︎
  4. Book of Deuteronomy 20, Surat Al-Baqarah [ 2:190–193], Philippians 4:6-7 ↩︎
  5. Carlie Porterfeld, “In open letter, Metropolitan Museum employees call on the institution to ‘stand in defence of Palestinians”,The Art NewsPaper, (March 2024), ↩︎