We are here

As the slaughter continues unabated in Gaza, it is abundantly clear that both the present and history are often written by the victors.

Freedom Plaza, Washington, DC, Nov. 4, 2023. Image credit Diane Krauthamer via Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Deed.

As I am glued to the television, watching how world powers conspire to enable genocide against the people of Gaza, the images of protesters demanding a ceasefire—with raised hands painted red sitting behind US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken—evoke hope, and showcase the power of art in a historical context; its power as resistance and as a voice for the voiceless that transcends time.

These images also bring back a distant memory from the mid-1990s, during my teenage years, when I found myself rummaging through the dusty library of my family’s home in Khartoum. Among iconic National Geographic magazines spanning from the 1950s to the 1990s, I stumbled upon an illustration and article on Neanderthals, a discovery that was nothing short of a goldmine for a teenager with a strong affinity for comics. The article chronicled a momentous juncture in human history, dating back some 600,000 years. It marked the divergence of our species into two groups: one remained in Africa, evolving into Homo sapiens; the other embarked on a daring journey across Asia and Europe, ultimately becoming our sister species.

Despite being unfairly depicted as primitive, devoid of culture, artistic expression, and inclined toward violence, the Neanderthals displayed astonishing resilience, withstanding Homo sapiens’ expansion for nearly 100,000 years. It wasn’t until the development of advanced ranged weaponry—bows, spear-throwers, and clubs—that Homo sapiens managed to overcome their robust counterparts. This revelation utterly captivated me. It was mind-blowing. Of course, none of my friends in school regarded a Neanderthal versus Homo sapien epic as exciting, or even believed me; it was well known that I had a rich imagination. I remember a teacher once telling me that it was haram to think that there were people before us because God had created us in His form.

As the years passed, my fascination with Neanderthals waned only to be reignited a few years ago when I stumbled across a news story. The report unveiled a remarkable discovery: ancient cave art depicting outlined hands and red dots. These artworks were scattered across 23 cave sites in France and Spain dating back an astonishing 40,000 years. The oldest stencil was found in Spain’s Maltravieso Cave, dating back to 64,700 B.C. What thrilled me the most was the realization that this Paleolithic art was the work of Neanderthals, predating the arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe by 20,000 years. This revelation shattered the age-old misconception that only the modern human ancestors, Homo sapiens, possessed the capacity for art and symbolism. The belief in our exclusive artistic prowess had clouded our understanding of the richness of Neanderthal culture and communication. Moreover, contemporary research suggests that Neanderthal DNA still endures in many of us, often concealed by ignorance or embarrassment. Some may not even be aware of their Neanderthal heritage or may opt to overlook it, oblivious to the vibrant artistic legacy left behind by their forebears.

As an African, a Muslim, and an artist, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the prejudice endured by the friends I’d unearthed in that old copy of National Geographic, the Neanderthals, and the biases I’ve experienced myself. It’s curious how some people perceive us, and by extension our heritage, in a similar light; they see us as somehow lesser or different, erasing our culture in the process. This sentiment is far from new. Throughout history, Homo sapiens have exhibited a persistent tendency to assert their superiority, as they did in the times of the Roman Empire (an inspiration to Nazi Germany), or during the height of the British Empire, whose dominion was the largest in history and perpetuated exploitation and power imbalances that continue to reign over parts of the world.

Colonial powers have consistently rationalized their actions by dehumanizing the colonized, justifying atrocities ranging from the transatlantic slave trade to genocide. This colonization extended to their art, which was often denigrated as primitive, and their design, which was reduced to mere craft, and sometimes considered as nothing worthy of exhibition in colonial museums but remains of our African bodies.

Sudan, a name meaning “land of the blacks” in Arabic, epitomizes the impact of colonialism. The country’s modern borders were arbitrarily delineated by the British and the French after World War I, following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. As a consequence, the majority of Sudan’s heritage was erroneously classified as Egyptian. Valuable records were scattered between Egyptian and Sudanese archives, both of which often languished due to neglect and inadequate funding. This has left most of Sudan’s history and culture in a state of neglect, a situation exacerbated by the devastating war in Khartoum, which has been funded by international and regional powers. The 200 known pyramids and numerous excavation sites within Sudan’s borders now stand as the fading relics of a civilization to which we, the lesser Homo sapiens, lay claim. Tragically, even before this war, many Sudanese failed to explore their own heritage, often succumbing to feelings of shame or indifference.

I grew up during what is often referred to as the postcolonial era. Yet, I witnessed the struggles of my fellow “Blacks” in Apartheid South Africa, the unjust labeling of people such as Nelson Mandela as terrorists, and the international media’s resounding silence in the face of tragic events such as the death of nine-year-old Mohammed Aldora during the Second Intifada in Gaza. The media’s portrayal of entire regions and religions as backward, uncivilized, violent, and even barbaric has endured unchallenged for far too long. It often felt like they were gossiping about us right in front of our faces, oblivious to the fact that many of us are bilingual and can understand their derogatory narratives. One wonders if they were entirely unaware of the effect of their words, or if they simply didn’t care. I tend to believe the latter.

Later in life, my frustration with this systemic silencing led me to art, particularly during a time that seemed more democratic for artistic expression. The internet was open, and early social media provided a public square free from algorithms. However, this period of relative freedom was short-lived. The Arab Spring allowed millions to find their voices, and art was the first thing that exploded. Still, it was soon followed by a counter-revolution aimed not only at returning to the status quo but at erasing the memory of those uprisings. Iconic landmarks like the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain and the Rab’aa Mosque in Cairo were demolished, while street art in Sudan was simply graffitied over, leaving visible layers of silenced protest. As modern colonialism asserted itself online, new challenges emerged. YouTube began to delete thousands of videos, some of which contained vital evidence of war crimes, while political players manipulated Wikipedia to propagate their version of the truth. 

For Palestine, people devised ingenious ways to bypass algorithmic restrictions of shadowbanning, such as writing Arabic without diacritics or the markings that go around the letters which indicate elements of pronunciation. This practice has not been used in more than 1,500 years. Today we live in parallel, polarized realities where one side can openly call for the genocide of “children of the dark” while the other side tries to make the world see how the bombs dropped by “children of the light” have cut their children in half. Those who resemble the Neanderthals become easier to mute and erase because they are still considered uncivilized, barbaric, and sometimes even nonexistent.

I now understand that both the present and the past are often written by the victors, and those in power narrate and rewrite stories to their advantage. However, the recent image of ceasefire protesters sitting behind Blinken with painted red hands and “Gaza” etched on their arms evokes memories of the traced red Neanderthal hands. I’m also reassured that some of us Sapiens, those who are closer to power and visible, will not remain silent, as our ancestors did when they deemed the Neanderthals less and perpetuated similar injustices against others.

These days of mass protest are a resounding testament to the enduring spirit of resistance and the boundless power of expression—echoing a message as resounding as the Neanderthals’ in those ancient caves: “We are here.” Although our stories may momentarily go unwritten, they are never truly lost. Just as the Neanderthals persist, so shall we, resilient and indomitable, in the face of the challenges.

Further Reading

Apartheid of a special type

The Israel/Palestine system meets the definition of apartheid in international law, but presents different challenges for the campaign against it than was the case for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.