Wafa Al Ali on activism: “I find it liberating to be more empathetic in conversations.”

In this interview series I speak to people from all kinds of backgrounds who work in a range of different specialties. There’s many individuals fighting for causes they believe in. Going against the system, or rebelling against the status quo in their community. I consider them activists, but do they? In this series, I want to go into the depths of ‘activism’, what it involves, and what it defines. In this first instalment, I talk to Wafa Al Ali (30) – journalist, commentator, human. To me, Wafa is the example of someone who shares her viewpoints and vision unapologetically, online and offline. She owns an Instagram account in which she comments on newspaper articles, @kranttekeningen.

First of all, I would like to know whether you call yourself an activist.

I don’t, actually. No, I’ve had this term in my Instagram bio for a while, but I got rid of it. I’m not really someone you can find storming the barricades anyway. I speak up in my personal life and with family and friends. I mention that I want to discuss things, but then my Insta is private, so how activist is that?

I do understand that the things I express can be called activism, but it does get less, I notice. [As a journalist] I don’t think that activism and journalism are mutually exclusive, but I don’t know yet how I want these two to fit together for myself. Of course, you want to be taken seriously as a journalist. In that sense, I’m afraid to be called ‘that activist you shouldn’t take seriously’ online.

Recently I wrote a piece for the Volkskrant on a ruling by the Amsterdam court on how the IND should deal with Palestinian asylum seekers from Gaza. It boils down to the fact that the IND can no longer simply invoke a ground for exclusion under the Refugee Convention because there is a humanitarian emergency and the UN organisation there is no longer able to provide basic needs and protection at all.

Thierry Baudet shared this article on Twitter, so of course, there was a lot of hatred from that side. Because of my Arabic name above that article, I expected people to blame ME, when all I did was bring the news. I’m afraid people expect that I want those reactions. That I write articles to provoke something.
Journalism is a new phase in my life. I don’t let myself be influenced by other people’s thoughts in choosing subjects or sources, but because it’s a new phase you want to start off smoothly. I haven’t had people think anything of my background yet. I have not yet had any Twitter back-and-forths. I am very aware of the way people respond on Twitter, so I try to respond with neutral questions in that sense.

What type of online discussion fits you, personally?

I first had an Instagram account called multimensch, about the way I saw the world in a bi-cultural perspective. I only responded to the negative things I saw around me.

Then there was an article in the newspaper in which they interviewed Kaouthar Darmoni and her responses ticked something off in me. It was the way in which she generalized Arabic upbringing, like some sort of mythical tale. I understood that people without an Arabic background might just go along with this narrative and assume the things she said were all truths.

In this light, I started @kranttekeningen. On this account, I respond to articles and underline the sentences I find problematic. Or profound, really. Whatever strikes me, positive or negative. Someone responded that she enjoyed experiencing how someone else experiences reading the news. You take someone on that journey of looking at texts and articles more critically. I hope to teach others to read critically, and not accept everything you see. Pieces about the Middle East and Lebanon are quite conspicuous, I notice them the most. It’s because I know so much about those topics myself, of course.

Responding to the way you didn’t enjoy the multimensch account anymore, do you feel the term ‘activism’ is linked to looking at the world in a negative light?

No I don’t. Commenting on what could be better is not necessarily negative. I find that naive. You’re living in a dream world if you think that way. Where does change come from then, out of nowhere? This is how the status quo is maintained.

I do think that activism could be presented in a different, more connecting way. I used to be a person who thought in black & white, only ever arguing from one side. People were afraid to talk to me, because I was going to fight them on it anyway. I find it liberating to be more empathetic in conversations. It’s not about winning the conversation. Many people think they’re empathetic, but those people are only empathetic within their own tribe. Around people with similar backgrounds. That’s not empathy.

I’m still not great at listening either, I’m much concerned what I want to say for myself, ha. I think activism.. for me it’s really about making a connection. Starting to understand the other person and having an exchange of experiences. To show the other person who you are, and who you are in a group. And then hopefully people will understand each other and find some form of connection or common ground in that shared need.

In the beginning my partner and I had big arguments about this. He would have read Hannah Arendt and he would have empathized with why people ran after Hitler and chose for alt-right. Afterwards, we’d discuss our differences. That was a good exercise in understanding each other. I want to be less angry in life. Less black and white. I used to make everything very personal.

Do you think we should focus more on the overall system and less on personal attacks? Is what our 70-year-old racist uncle says noise, or are we going to talk to him anyway?

Regarding personal attacks, I can choose not to be addressed, not personally, because I am successfully integrated. But it does become personal because I think – this is about my parents.

I find it difficult to look at systems because I am not in politics, not making decisions on policy. That’s why I do think it’s important to make these microaggressions discussable.

It makes me happy that I work for a newspaper. I want to work with these kinds of subjects more often, and I now have a place to do that. Only 19 years ago 9/11 happened – and it had such a huge impact on my life. People said that I was the ‘daughter of Bin Laden’, making me ashamed to come from an Islamic family. When I was a teen, I created a different identity for myself for years, so that people wouldn’t think I ‘would be married off soon’ etcetera.

In that moment, politics –left-wing politicians too – didn’t do nearly enough. I see it as the role of the media to tell The Truth, to also show the ordinary Muslim. I don’t understand that after 19 years people still don’t know that Islam has so many tastes and smells.

I want to tell a different story. I want to prevent those types of situations for other people – having to live in shame or identity crisis. I don’t want people to be reduced to ‘primitives’, even people who aren’t very good at writing, or who aren’t so articulate, or older. I want to show that people are just people.

I now speak to a lot of people with a Moroccan background and in doing so, I’m also confronted with my own prejudices. That surprises me. That I find things like eloquence etc. ‘special’, while that’s not the case at all.
At the same time, I don’t want to become a stereotypical multi-cultural journalist.

Can you elaborate on that?

That is no longer inclusion. I also just want to write about everyday things, for example the garbage problem in Rotterdam. At a certain point it made me uncomfortable, I can also write about other things. I’m in a database and now media constantly call me if there is a disaster in Lebanon. Anything to do with Lebanon or Hezbollah. Especially after the explosion in Beirut, I am glad that I can be a voice for the people there and explain the politics there. I’m glad that I get that stage to make these problems more recognizable.

Rather I than a Dutch person who has lived in Lebanon for two years and thinks he understands everything. I’ve been working on this since I was 15 so I like it, but it can also be a bit painful. I don’t want to reduce myself to that person who only writes about her country of origin.

In journalism, everyone still insists on reporting ‘objectively’ – never using the ‘I’ form. Because when you show your personal feelings, the story will be taken less seriously. It is a very Western way of life. As if emotion by definition is not serious, and as a journalist you are not allowed to show emotions. Showing emotions is human, and a way of bonding.

I also hid those emotions about Lebanon on tv, while I’m there as a human being. I think that showing emotions can be a strength, making the tragedy becomes more visible. Instead of just telling some fixed story about a news report.

Do you have role models yourself, who do you think are important voices to follow now?

It sounds very cliché, but I think AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) is really… the way she chooses her words is fantastic. I just think… yes! The way she talks about beauty, about how you deal with despair, when I read that I think: jeez, can there be more people like her.

I will always follow her. AOC is the only refreshing voice for me, totally non-polarizing. Role models can also carry a lot of weight if you start comparing yourself to them. AOC reminds me that it’s incredibly good and helpful to express yourself and to not be afraid of people who are against you.

In the Netherlands I focus on Islamic influencers. It’s interesting to see what others think ‘being Muslim’ is, and how these influencers deal with it. I find that activist and human at the same time. The responses to Islamic women who have a relationship with a black man are intense. These influencers break a lot of taboos within their own community, shitting on those narrow-minded ideas. I recognize those prejudices and convictions only too well. It’s cool to see them break out of that narrow-mindedness.

I’m talking about Selma Omari. I also find @Naadxx interesting because she chose to wear a headscarf a year ago, left her liberal and western life behind and removed all ‘evidence’ of it. I sometimes follow Selma Omari because of the hate responses she gets. What I find ‘fascinating’ about these reactions is the idea of the Islamic woman as a monolith. ‘She’ should dress and behave in a certain way. I don’t think Selma cares about the reactions, but I can’t imagine that it really doesn’t affect a person.

You said that you don't necessarily see yourself as an activist, but you do like to offer a 'different' voice, especially since you know that there will also be young "free" people from Arab backgrounds who you can protect from a similar identity crisis. Knowing this, what do you then mean by activism?

Uncovering urgent but undervalued stories, sides, and perspectives. I want to do that with more empathy, because it is amazingly easy to go along with the polarization. And as soon as those stories, sides and perspectives have been brought to light I hope that people will frown their eyebrows, feel uncomfortable and then discuss these topics in their own circles.
Words by Imme Visser Visual artwork by Charlotte Brand @rainbovvvalley Follow Wafa Al Ali @kranttekeningen @alaliafaw

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