Meet Amuna: Founder of Black Arabs Collective

Hi everyone! My name is Ariana (she/her) and I had the honor of interviewing the most recent addition to our SWANA Womxn series: Amuna Ali!

A sports event professional by day and the founder of the Black Arabs Collective by night, Amuna is the super heroine we never knew we needed (until now)! My conversation with Amuna demonstrated a singular, powerful theme: intersectionality. From Amuna’s identity as a Somali and Yemeni woman, to her experiences as a citizen in Dubai, to the essence of the Black Arabs Collective itself, this interview instigated the necessary conversations that anyone and everyone should be engaging in.

While I myself, a SWANA woman, have had my fair share of experiences inherently rooted in my SWANA identity, listening to Amuna’s own experiences as not only a SWANA woman, but as a Black woman, a queer woman, and simply a woman is where the importance of intersectionality comes in. We are all advocating for change, but we cannot advocate for the change that would benefit our own selves alone; true change comes from addressing each and every issue which routinely harms all people other than and different from ourselves. This meeting of systemic disadvantages with each facet of our identities is intersectionality. So, without further ado, here is my conversation with Amuna, which unpacks everything that this theme entails.

Part I: Ethnic Background

Ariana: I’ve broken up this interview into parts, but this is super casual. There’s nothing we’re checking off a list -- we’re just having a conversation. So, to get us started, in terms of your SWANA heritage, what’s your ethnic background?

Amuna: Yeah, I was born in the UAE, Dubai, to a Somali father and a Yemeni mom. I’m Arab on both sides, but one is Middle Eastern, one is East African. So I’m SWANA all the way! *laughs*

Ariana: You’ve definitely all the diversity in the region. And in terms of gender, how do you identify?

Amuna: I identify as a cis woman, and my chosen pronouns are she/her.

Ariana: And since you were born in the UAE, did you also grow up there?

Amuna: Yes, I did. I lived in the UAE pretty much all my life.

Ariana: Very cool. Well, I don’t know much - like, I’ve studied the SWANA region in school and stuff, but I don't know much about events that have taken place in the UAE and Dubai. I know about neighboring cities and areas and stuff. But are there any events that took place in the UAE and/or Dubai that impacted your upbringing?

Amuna: Oh, absolutely. I grew up very close with the Emirati community, so I grew up pretty local, but not quite - because I wasn’t. The UAE doesn’t have birthright citizenship by law, so if you’re born in the country, you take whatever your parents’ citizenship is or nationality. So, I was born in Dubai, but I wasn’t Dubian or a UAE child. Also, I was very much engulfed in the culture. I went to a school that was 99% Emirati, and I was the only black student. So it very, very much affected my upbringing, and it also affected my mentality and my mindset and how I saw society. Because we’re all a product of our environment, you know? So it very much affected me and affected the way I thought, it affected the way I viewed the world, the way I viewed myself. Yeah!

Ariana: So then this rule I guess of non-birthright citizenship, is this something that your fellow Emirati classmates also had or were you kinda the only one? Is this common in Dubai?

Amuna: Again, in the UAE, regardless of who you are, if you are not born to Emirati parents, you will not be an Emirati. So it’s very, very common. If you were born in the UAE Emirati, then you are by default considered what they call a “third culture kid.” So I am the quintessential third culture kid because both my parents are from two different countries that I still don’t feel like I belong to, and I don’t belong to the country in which I was born either. So that’s the idea, and no, a lot of my classmates didn’t have to deal with that, and that’s coincidental because I went to government schools that were majority Emirati students. Private schooling was more for the expats, and I just so happen to go to government schools which were mostly Emirati students.

Ariana: Okay, so you were basically the outlier in that mix.

Amuna: Yeah, yeah.

Ariana: Something I’ve heard through other friends--which may be biased coming from them so definitely correct me if I’m wrong -- is that the culture in Dubai lacks one, singular, central ethnic culture.

Amuna: Yeah - so the actual, pure Emirati population who have the Emirati passport are a very small population in the UAE; that is true. It’s a very diverse place. Maybe 20%-30% is Emirati and the rest is from people all over the world. So it is kind of a small cultural melting pot - it’s very cosmopolitan.

Ariana: So with that small percentage of people who have the UAE birthright and full Emirati status, does it bring with it any sense of entitlement; is there any superiority about it?

Amuna: Oh, absolutely. That is basic psychology, right? When you create a select minority to be above everybody else, the way society runs will reflect that. That’s just the way it is. And that’s just the way it works in the UAE.

Ariana: Definitely. And then, what have been your encounters with that type of culture?

Amuna: So, like I said, I had an interesting position growing because again, I grew up within that select minority. I was kind of “in with them” -- I spoke Arabic like them, when I dressed up in an Abaya and Shayla, I passed for one of them, and that kind of thing. I have that interesting position of being able to connect with them, but also being on the other side of it because I’m still an immigrant, I’m still a Black kid, I’m still a non-Emirati. I’m as much an expat as any other expat, but I’m also just as much as an Emirati as any other Emirati, except for my blood. So I’ve been able to maneuver through society pretty successfully. Again, I will always have the obstacles of my gender and my skin color and things like that. But I’ve been here long enough to understand the social nuances to be on either side of the conversation.

Part II: Professional Background

Ariana: So moving on from that part of the conversation, what do you do professionally?

Amuna: I work in events. I have an events company.

Ariana: So did you go to school for that or did you just pick it up?

Amuna: Well, I went to school for it, but I started working when I was 19 for the Dubai Sports Council, and I was with them for 5 years. And I kind of fell in love with sports and sports events. I have a Masters in Sports Management. So I was thinking of doing that, but now I’ve moved away from doing just sports events to all kinds of events -- like corporate, music, and all sorts of events.

Ariana: That’s so cool! Sports in the UAE and the SWANA region in general are pretty exciting. Moving on to the part of you that definitely draws in a lot of people: the Black Arabs Collective. I think this is so cool. Just looking at some of your content, and it’s awesome. I think you're pushing the uncomfortable, very necessary conversations that people need to have. So can you speak a little bit to that: what your motivations were, when it started, how that started?

Amuna: Well, thank you for supporting the Black Arabs Collective. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if it wasn’t for the support of the community. So the Black Arabs Collective came about last year around June when the Black Lives Matter protests were happening all over the world. And for the first time in my life -- and again, I’m a 30 year old -- I was able to see a conversation about race happen in the place where I was born and grew up. But it wasn’t being had between two family members of mine, or two Black friends of mine. It was being had by society at large, you know, there were conversations about it online; it was on the news. It’s kind of trickled down, and it was so incredible to witness. So I needed a space or a platform to commemorate this conversation even happening, and then whatever flies out of these conversations, whatever teachable moments these conversations that are happening all around of us have, I wanted to be able to capture it and archive it, almost. I also wanted to be able to provide a platform that gives power and voice, educates, and creates change.The short answer is that it sort of all kind of happened around the time of the Black Lives Matter protest. *laughs*

Ariana: That’s amazing. I think with everything that happened last year, it was just a culmination of things that have been taking place over centuries. In this day and age, within younger generations, it’s becoming much more common to be more upfront about it rather than sweeping it under the rug as older generations, I might say, did.

Amuna: I love it. I’m so proud of the younger generation - oh my god, I feel like such a grandma. But it’s true! When I see these kids, they’re so aware! They’re so aware -- and I hate this word -- but they’re so “woke!” Because they just get it. They’re so connected, they’re so conscious, they’re so ethical. Oh, I love the younger generation. It makes me so excited for the future. And you know they always tell you- they always say that every few generations there’s that one decade or generation that is so inclined towards social reform, towards social revolution. It’s exciting to witness. Right now is the right time.

Ariana: I would consider myself a pessimist, but younger generations definitely give me that hope that I didn’t think I would have. So the Black Arabs Collective has definitely taken off and found its place in the SWANA community. What are your long term goals for this project?

Amuna: I get that question all the time. I don’t know, I want to do so much with it! Honestly! I want to turn it into an NGO where I’m able to help different members of the community. You know, I hear a lot of stories about incredible Black Arab creatives in countries where being Black is a minority - like Lebanon, Palestine, or Jordan. We’re talking musicians, twitch streamers, artists, and actors. They’re so cool and so interesting and so smart. I would love to be able to help them. So one side of it is creating that space like an NGO or some sort of grant. But the other side of it, I want to dedicate to creatives, I want to empower art and music and cinema and photography and whatever else. I want it to be community-centered and community-focused… And yeah, I want to do so much with it - so, so much with it.

Ariana: Yeah, that was definitely a loaded question, like long-term goals, what don’t you want to do with it. *laughs* So a lot of the ideas you listed for the future segue really well into my next question. How do you think the concept of intersectionality fits in with this project?

Amuna: Oh, it really does. Because again, I founded this, and usually what you create is a reflection of who you are, and I am so many different things. And I believe in supporting every kind of art form and every kind of identity and ideas there is, that is worth supporting. So I consider myself a feminist, but I’m also a woman, a minority, I’m a queer woman, I’m a Black woman. And I want to make space for all those things and more. So intersectionality is the beating heart of the Black Arabs Collective. We love women. We love all types of minorities within our community and outside our community.

Ariana: That’s amazing; I love hearing that. So, just to go a bit deeper into your motivation for creating Black Arabs Collective - and this kind of ties into what you were saying before about having your feet in two camps - with living in Dubai, being born there and being brought up in Emirati culture, but not having the privileges that come with birthright. Having had that experience, how has being Black played a role in that experience?

Amuna: It’s unfortunate that our societies are inherently racist. They’ve been racist from pre- colonial to postcolonial times, it’s just the way they were constructed. I was in the second or third grade when I started getting bullied for being Black. And when you live in a society that is inherently racist -- and every time I say that, people assume I’m talking about people shooting us in the streets, but that’s not what I’m saying. But what I’m saying is that these children who were in school with me had never seen anyone that looked like me on T.V., that looked like they deserved kindness, that they deserved to be befriended. And because of that lack of representation, and because there was no conversation at home, and because of the lack of education at school, I was always looked at as “less than.” And so, when at a very young age you start to be told that you’re not good, that you’re ugly, that you’re bad, just because you’re Black, you start internalizing that. So at a very young age, you start to see young Black kids develop this inferiority complex that kind of affects the way they view themselves, and that’s just the way it affected me personally. It affected the way I saw myself personally, but also the way I looked at the world around me. I sort of evaluated things and people, and believed in this racial hierarchy that should have never been a thing.

Ariana: I am so sorry that that’s been your experience. It’s definitely reflective of the fact that people tend to buy into this false narrative that imperialism and colonialism are antiquated concepts - and that everything that motivated colonial movements, and the things that were accomplished in service of them - are outdated. They think, “that’s the past” or “that doesn’t happen anymore,” when the reality is, colonialism is very much present and vibrant today. It’s just been reconfigured to do the same things, and I think that’s where the gaps in awareness and knowledge lies.

Amuna: I absolutely agree.

Part III: Family/Culture

Ariana: Okay so going back a little to your upbringing and your family, you mentioned you went to government schools. So how did you get started and what has your path been like?

Amuna: Yeah, well because my father worked for the ministry of education it was just easier for us all to go to public-government schools instead of going to private schools. So it was just that! I went to government schools my whole life. It was a very strange little society that very much represented the society outside. I think it’s well known that schools represent society. You know, there’s these different groups and there’s this hierarchy of where you set in the totem pole sort of thing--it was always very much that way. And it was always sort of clear that Emiratis had it kind of differently, they experienced everything we all experienced completely differently, and that was just it. It teaches you very early that life is not fair and the world was not built with equality. And yeah, that was my experience and it wasn’t particularly negative. But I was very badly bullied when I was little for being Black and then I grew out of it, and that was it.

Ariana: Okay well my next question is a little redundant, but why did you choose what you did professionally?

Amuna: The reason I started the black arabs collective is because I’m stubborn as hell, and I’m disruptive, and I’m rule breaker, and I love to make people uncomfortable - only because it’s outside of their comfort zone that they’ll be able to shift the way they see the world. I love to engage awkward uncomfortable conversations, calling them out on their internal biases and things like and so it’s interesting. So that’s why I created it, because it was time. The time was right now and I wanted to break the cycle. The cycle of children thinking they’re ugly, bad, until they have to reinforce it back into themselves that they aren’t. And it’s too much. And it’s too much trauma. And it takes too much away from these people. And I don’t want that to happen. I want us to be the last generation that experiences this.

Ariana: Well those are all very valid reasons to make people uncomfortable, as you should. So in terms of your cultural background as a Somali and Yemeni Arab, do you also claim Emirati culture as part of your culture?

Amuna: I don’t consider myself Emirati but I consider myself Emirati cultured. Emirati culture is always going to be part of who I am, but I don’t consider myself Emirati.

Ariana: So then with that being said, what role have your actual cultural backgrounds played in your professional pursuits in both sports management/events and the Black Arabs Collective?

Amuna: It mostly affected me in my activism. I was very much “take it as it comes” when it comes to my education and my work. I wasn’t really ever really passionate about anything I really studied. I did my undergrad in business and quality management, and, you know, I liked it, but it was okay. I did my first Master’s in Innovation and Change Management because it was just available to me. I loved sport events, and I only did my masters a year and a half ago--I started it a year and a half ago, and I’m graduating now. But it was never inspired by anything outside of things happening, coming my way. Working for the Dubai Sports Council happened accidentally, and that’s what made me fall in love with sport events and things like that. But when it comes to the Black Arabs Collective, everything--all of the cultures that were around me and within me--inspired me to do something like this. Because I’ve lived and kind of experienced life from the Emirati POV, the Somali POV, and from the Yemeni POV. And I saw how society looked at me when they thought I was one thing and when they thought I was the second thing and when they thought I was the third thing. And that’s what made me understand that we are not a utopia, is what I realized very quickly. And when I saw the opportunity, you know, everything inside of me screamed that this was the right time and something had to be done. And if nobody did it, then I should be the one to do it. And that’s the reason I started the Black Arabs Collective, because very very early on I knew that this is necessary and this is needed, and because I didn’t have it and I needed it.

Ariana: I love hearing that. You didn’t have something, you needed it, so you just did it yourself.

Amuna: Exactly.

Ariana: So then with all that you’ve accomplished professionally and with the Black Arabs Collective, does your family support this?

Amuna: You know with every Arab family, they’re like “Oh, what are you’re getting too much attention...people are talking...this is not good for family name...what are you doing,” very, you know, similar to every other Arab family ever. Mom is like “what are you doing,” you know, “you’re garnering too much never don’t want to get in trouble for these know why don’t you just behave like a good Muslim girl instead and stop getting too much attention,” and I’m like “okay Mom.” And that’s just what is expected from the Middle Eastern/Arab kind of family. But I’m a big girl.