A Free Palestine Means a Borderless SWANA Region: Interview with Nancy Bartekian

Written by Araxie Cass

01 July 2021

When I first met Nancy Bartekian, the idea for her anti-colonial, transnational collective SWANA Chicago was in its infancy. In the wake of the 2020 Artsakh War, she had noticed a lack of solidarity between Armenians and other groups in the SWANA (SouthWest Asia and North Afrika) region. Building on her work as a Palestinian-Armenian activist and organizer, she decided to work on creating that solidarity.

After joining SWANA Chicago at an action against the attacks on Sheikh Jarrah, I sat down with Nancy to talk more about her organizing and her Armenian-Palestinian identity.

Azad Archives:Tell me a little bit about your connection to Palestinian land.

Nancy Bartekian: My grandfather on my mother’s side and my grandmother on my father’s side are both from Bethlehem. They both left during the Nakba, when my grandpa was four and my grandma was two. My grandpa went to the United Arab Emirates, and my grandma went to Jordan.

My connection to the land is very scarce. I’ve never been there. I would like to visit, but using the privilege of my American passport to travel to Tel Aviv just doesn’t seem right for me. I don’t like to police people, but that is not the way that I like to see it, so I haven’t been able to visit physically. 

My connections are through the stories I hear from my grandparents and other family members. I feel like the struggle is what really connects me. I had a really close friend who told me that Palestinians in diaspora have a right to liberation just as Palestinians on the ground do. Of course, there are privileges in diaspora, but we are all deserving of liberation.

AA: Did you grow up with that struggle or was it something that you came into later in your life?

NB: Honestly, coming to truly understand my identity as a Palestinian did not happen until around two years ago when I really understood my grandparents’ histories.

A lot of our identity was erased when they took refuge in Jordan and elsewhere. Growing up I was just always told that we were Jordanian. I think a lot of it has to do with not wanting to share that trauma.

Everyone processes trauma differently. Some people really pass down that resistance but not everyone does. Sometimes, the grandchildren of survivors have to find their way into their identities. That’s what I did. 

AA: How did you come into that identity?

NB: At first, I definitely didn’t feel welcome or included in the general Arab community. I was always told that I don’t look Arab or that my last name is weird because it’s Armenian. It was through community members and Palestinian organizers that I was able to finally come to terms with myself and with my community of like who I am. I definitely give all that credit to really close friends and peers who pushed me.

AA: Were you able to learn more about your identity through activism and organizing?

NB: Yes, the friends I made through organizing were with me along the way during my discovery and they prompted me to talk to my grandparents.

At first it was hard for me to want to do that because my grandpa and I just never got deep on that level. But when I started asking and just became more comfortable, I was able to learn more about our family history.

AA: How did those conversations go for you?

NB: I have been able to talk to my grandpa. His English is a little bit better than my other family members, and we talk over WhatsApp.

It’s hard to have those conversations because they’re only over text. But I started to ask him questions like, “Where are you from?” ”What languages do you remember learning?” or “What stories do you have to share?” that he’s able to translate back.

With my grandmother, it’s a little bit different. She always tells me, “I’m from Palestine and so are you.” It’s more on the surface with her, but with my grandpa, we do have those deeper conversations. I do try to encourage him because I feel like he’s coming from a more traumatized perspective. He often says, “I want to see Bethlehem again.” or “I wish we would all go together.”

AA: Would you actually visit, or would there need to be different circumstances for you to feel like you could?

NB: I would definitely visit, but I would like to drive with family members from Jordan or elsewhere. If my grandpa said, “Let’s go right now,” I don’t think I would pass up the opportunity.

AA: This conversation was prompted by the attacks on Gaza and other Palestinian communities recently. What did activism look like for you during this time?

NB: That’s a very interesting question because personally, I took a step back. I had to disengage for a little bit, at least on social media.

I wanted to shift my activism from social media to talking with people close to me about these issues that affect me. It’s really easy to just post your thoughts and feelings, and it can be great and very informative, but it’s another thing to talk to your friend and say, “Hey, this is going on in my life and it’s really upsetting.” A lot of white folks I’m friends with just truly don’t understand, so having those conversations with them is really important to me.

I did disengage on social media a lot and I will not feel bad or policed for it. When you’re talking about oppressed communities, it is not their duty to teach the world about their oppression.

Specifically for me, I had just come back from trying to recuperate after trying to get the world to care about the attacks on Artsakh. It really pissed me off being on social media so much and not feeling like anyone cared.

Yes, I do have a privilege as someone in the diaspora and a responsibility to uplift the voices of those on the ground, but I just needed two weeks to just disengage from social media. I feel like that is what my ancestors would want, for me to just feel joy for a few minutes.

AA: Definitely. There’s so much pressure with social media, but activism comes in so many different forms and it’s really important to recognize all of them.

Did you find that people you talked to were open to learning and educating themselves?

NB:trong> Yes and no. There were some Jewish people I knew who told me, “I’m really looking at the things you’re posting and I want to learn,” but then were silent when everything was happening.

Of course, you really don’t know what’s going on in the background. These people could be talking to their family members and trying to do that work; I don’t know.

People who know me personally and hang out with me do definitely ask me if I’m ok, and if there’s anything they can do. But it’s a fine line; on the one hand, it’s good that people want to learn, but on the other hand, it can be exhausting to feel like I have to explain everything again and again.

There are so many good resources online. Recently, especially people have been making good Linktrees. There’s also a site called decolonizing Palestine, which is a really great resource.

It’s so hard to navigate these things, especially while you’re going through this mental trauma. And especially while Azerbaijan is still carrying out attacks and atrocities in Armenia, I feel like I can’t catch a break.

AA: You’ve touched on it a bit already, but what has this time been like for you as a mixed Palestinian Armenian specifically?

NB: This is really pessimistic, but when I think about how many folks came out for Palestine, now that this issue is being put in the light, I think that same energy could have been put into Armenia. And maybe if it had, things would be different. I say “maybe” because we’re up against imperial regimes. They have so much power that they may not care, but I feel like certain things could have been different.

Right now, I’m seeing a lot of Armenians now in solidarity with Palestine, it’s really great and I love to see it. I just don’t feel like I see the reverse often.

I’m not saying that Palestine should be highlighted any less than it is; it should be getting so much momentum. But we don’t only have to highlight one issue.

AA: What do you see in the future as the next steps in your activism for both Palestine and Armenia?

NB: In both groups, I think there needs to be a lot of internal dialogue and understanding about these issues from a global context. During the recent uprisings for Palestine, there has been a lot of antisemitism, homophobia, misogyny, and issues that we need to address as a community. We need to work together and have our own solidarity.

We need to look at the internal process of decolonizing ourselves. When we ask for a free Palestine, we need to understand what that means.

A lot of these things are true in the Armenian community as well, including homophobia and racism that need to be addressed.

AA: What does a free Palestine look like for you?

NB: A free Palestine to me, honestly means not needing to cling to that identity of nationalism. It means going back to our roots of who we are as people and the things that we enjoy and love with one another cross-culturally.

Our region is so diverse, but at the same time, our cultures are so similar. These political nation-states have divided us so much, and have created tensions between us.

For me, a free Palestine means a free everything; a borderless SWANA region. No nation-states, and people making the decisions that they want to see in their communities.

For me personally, a free Palestine is also an internal liberation that I want to see for myself, where I don’t have to choose between being Armenian or Palestinian like my family members would like me to do, but where I can embrace both.

AA: Your answer speaks a lot to the pan-SWANA organizing you’ve been doing recently. Can you tell me a bit about why you decided to start SWANA Chicago and what that process of organizing has looked like?

NB: There’s a lot of solidarity for specific groups and causes, but I feel like there’s been a lack of our internal solidarity among SWANA groups. We need to embrace our differences and be able to live with one another.

A big part of SWANA Chicago we’re trying to work on now is internal relationship building. We’re building that internal solidarity with one another on an interpersonal level so that way on an intergroup level, we’re able to fight for one another.

There are so many movements and uprisings happening, that we can always be working together to uplift each other’s voices. We also want to address issues like the anti-blackness within our communities.

If we did talk about these things as a whole, together we could get shit done. Our resistance together can bring about fear and change with these imperial forces. We have the numbers, we can make it happen.

AA: Yes! Thank you so much for answering all these questions; is there anything else you’d like to say?

NB: I would say that although we are angry and we want to protest and fight and scream and shout, I still want to see the tenderness within our communities.

I really want us to be tender with each other and our feelings. We need internal decolonization as well, not just on the outside. The way that we think about ourselves and treat ourselves really matters.

I want healing to be re-emphasized in our community. I want it to be a central part of the work itself, not a last step or something we put off until later. Healing is a form of justice that should be part of our work.