Who’s Afraid Of Linda Sarsour?
In a divided nation, Linda Sarsour is a walking controversy. She intends on using that power.
The Arab American Association of New York is located in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, in a shabby storefront opposite a Halal market and around the corner from an Islamic clothing store that sells hijabs and abayas. Inside, there’s a linoleum “wood” floor, mismatched furniture, and little natural light; the space used to house a gynecologist’s office, and it still smells soapy clean.
This is where the activist Linda Sarsour got her start as an organizer, and where this month she’s wrapping up her tenure as the center’s executive director. In the time she’s been in charge, the office has grown to employ 16 full-time staffers, but it still has all the homey trappings of any ordinary community center — job postings, training programs, flyers for days. There’s also a buzzer and conspicuous security cameras, which were installed late last year when threatening letters and phone calls started coming in.
Since co-chairing the Women’s March on Washington in January, Sarsour has become a national figure, with a prolific online presence and the trolls to match. At home in Bay Ridge, though, friends say she’s still the neighborhood’s unofficial mayor — a role that Sarsour, a textbook extrovert, visibly draws great pleasure from.
On a windy morning in late February, she strides into the office in an artsy black tunic, black ankle boots with cowboy detailing, and a two-tone black and yellow hijab. Her handshake is firm and her manner is brisk: there’s no time to waste. She leads me down a narrow hallway into her office, where a wood desk stands cluttered with, among other things, a container of instant espresso, a small American flag, and a bottle of Dove body mist crammed into an empty ice-cream pint. On the wall, an old protest poster reads “Spying on Muslims produced ZERO leads!! Stop unwarranted surveillance!” Nearby droops a wilting bouquet sent to her by the Auburn Seminary, where Linda is a senior fellow alongside Jewish, Christian, and Sikh leaders. “This was after the Women’s March,” Linda tells me, about the flowers. “After I was getting attacked.”
She sits down and places her cell phone on the table. Over the next few hours, it vibrates so relentlessly that occasional moments of silence seem more alarming than the hum. She gets right into conversation, skipping small talk entirely and worrying aloud about Donald Trump’s updated “Muslim ban,” which is due to be released later in the week.
In person and on camera, Linda’s presence commands much more space than her slight 5’2” frame can physically occupy. And though she barely sleeps — she’s also a mom to three teenagers — she seems to carry a surplus tank of pure focus with her at all times. If she happens to direct her full attention at you, she makes you feel like she’s really listening, that what you’re dealing with matters. That’s what lends her bracing demeanor warmth, and what softens her untrammelled ambition into something more sincere. Her colleagues seem to recognize this. Over the course of our conversation, they drop by continuously, demanding hugs. “Hi habibi!” Sarsour purrs, to one. “Hi sweetie!”
At one point, she actually answers the ringing phone, thinking it’s a friend. No dice; it’s The New York Times. She hangs up and surveys the remaining damage: 894 unread texts and 74 missed calls. Sarsour’s phone is her lifeline — she loves to talk, and would pick up every call if she could. On its protective casing is a picture of Sarsour and two other organizers at the Women’s March raising their fists in solidarity. The protest, which drew more than a million people of all faiths, backgrounds, and genders, serves as a constant reminder of her biggest achievement as a community organizer to date — and of what’s possible for the future of the resistance.
Sarsour was born in Sunset Park, Brooklyn in 1980, a few years after her Palestinian parents emigrated to the U.S. Her uncle had married an American woman, then sponsored Sarsour’s dad to join him. These days, the process could take decades, but back then the immigration system had fewer backlogs, particularly when reuniting families.
Once they arrived in the States, the Sarsours were welcomed by a growing, lively Arab-American community. As the eldest of four girls and three boys, Sarsour recalls, “I was basically my mom’s assistant.” Her parents didn’t speak great English, which meant that Linda was “the translator — for doctors, schools, reading papers for my mom that came in the mail. I could tell my mom felt bad about it, but what was she supposed to do?”
It turned out she was good at playing the connector. According to Murad Awawdeh, the New York Immigration Coalition’s Director of Political Engagement who grew up a few blocks away, that experience “set her up to want to help people. She was super smart in school. We really looked up to her.” But she was also, Sarsour says, just a regular, sociable teen, who wore fashionable clothes and got into ’90s hip-hop and R&B, which she still listens to today: “My Pandora station is Boyz II Men.” Even as a kid, she carried herself with her characteristic swagger. “I was Linda,” she tells me, “so I never got bullied. I never was discriminated against in my school.”
Sarsour blended in, but there were some tensions between Bay Ridge’s Arab-Muslim community and their neighbors in the 1990s. Awawdeh recalls complications around the construction of the Beit Al Maqdis mosque, on 6th Avenue, that would play out in countless American neighborhoods over the next few decades. “The [non-Muslim] community didn’t want the mosque because they said it would change the landscape of the block,” he said. “But [the block] was super industrial. We had our local assemblyman help us out and fight for the community board to come onboard, with the mosque being built.”
Those were rougher days in Brooklyn. Sunset Park was known as “Gunset Park,” and Sarsour’s high school in nearby Park Slope “was really infested by gangs in the 1990s,” she says. “Latin Kings, Bloods, and Crips. When you walked into school every morning, you had to put your backpack through a metal detector.” It was so different from her peaceful life at home that she thought it couldn’t possibly be like that anywhere else for her black classmates. “I never really understood what it felt like to be them and live in their communities,” she says. “I thought, maybe this just happens to them in school.”
After watching Michelle Pfeiffer’s character in Dangerous Minds, Sarsour decided to become a high school teacher, “inspiring young people of color like me, to show them their potential.” She graduated a year early, gave birth to her eldest son, and enrolled in community college.
Then 9/11 happened — and suddenly, the oppression, violence, and discrimination she saw her black classmates experiencing felt much more personal. “People were like, ‘Linda, this apparatus, this racial profiling that you’re speaking of is impacting immigrant communities, black communities,’” she recalls. “I finally realized that my community was just an additional community that was being targeted.”
That was when Sarsour says she began to think about race more critically. In the U.S. Census, Middle-Easterners are categorized as “white,” but for Sarsour, being identified as a person of color “is important in the political climate that we are in,” she says, “because it allows for us to understand where we fit in in the larger political landscape. We fit in with marginalized groups, who oftentimes are other people of color.”
Sarsour also understood that her fair complexion and “easy” name — inspired by a hit pop song released in the late ’60s by the Arabic singer Samir el Tawil — led people to assume she was Puerto Rican, Russian, Greek, or “basically everything I’m not.” (She also sounds a little like the actress Rosie Perez, which doesn’t help clear up the ambiguity.)
What’s more, while Sarsour’s parents were culturally traditional — she had an arranged marriage at 17, which is still going strong — they were not religiously strict, so Sarsour did not wear the hijab until the age of 20, on her own accord. “[The hijab] gives me a visible identity,” she says. “When people ask, ‘What are you?’ at least there’s one thing I don’t have to explain. And it’s a journey towards a spiritual identity that I’m proud of.”
“When people ask, ‘What are you?’ at least there’s one thing I don’t have to explain. And it’s a journey towards a spiritual identity that I’m proud of.”
After 9/11 was also when Sarsour started working at the Arab American Association of New York, as a volunteer. She came to lead it in 2005 under tragic circumstances: Sarsour and Basemah Atweh, the organization’s then-director and Linda’s mentor, were driving back from an event in Dearborn, Michigan, with two colleagues when a truck rammed into their car, killing Atour and injuring two of their colleagues. Sarsour, who was driving, was virtually unscathed. “There was a piece of glass stuck in my hand and all I did was pull it out,” she says. Two days later, she coped with the trauma by showing up at work.
From her perch at the AAANY, Sarsour began to broaden her scope. Flip back to any major civil rights incident of the past decade, and it’s likely you’ll find a photo, video, or at least a Twitter mention attesting to Linda Sarsour’s presence there: at Zuccotti Park for Occupy Wall Street, in Ferguson during the chaotic days after Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in 2014, in Chapel Hill following the killing of three students in an apparent hate crime, at Standing Rock to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline last year. Since Donald Trump took office, she’s fought Islamophobia by taking up residence at airports and courthouses and public squares across the country.
Her strategy seems to be to show up everywhere, always — not a complicated game plan, but it works. In 2011, she was recognized by the Obama White House for her efforts as a “Champion of Change,” and by 2015 she was speaking at rallies on behalf of then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Her look has become iconic: a New York Times profile memorably called her a “homegirl in a hijab,” and though she was not his model, she channels the spirit of Shepard Fairey’s now-classic protest print of a Muslim woman veiled in Old Glory (her friends assumed it was based on her). She’s schmoozed with Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons, who describes her as “a highly elevated spirit who inspires other people to be like her.”
Imam Khalid Latif, a chaplain and the head of the Islamic Center at New York University, says he sees Sarsour’s impact on people of all backgrounds. “I work in NYU and l live in a college dorm,” he tells me. “A student who’s not Muslim, who’s the RA for our floor, made a whole board dedicated to Linda Sarsour. Last week, I was in Abu Dhabi speaking to a woman who’s born in Egypt, and over the course of our conversation Linda came up and she said, ‘She’s my hero.’”
Or as Ayisha Irfan, a 28-year-old lawyer from nearby Marine Park who interned with Sarsour after graduating from Brooklyn College, puts it: “She’s a great role model.” For many young women, Irfan says, Sarsour represents Muslims at the forefront of broader discussions about gender, race, and class. “She’s been doing this work for 17 years, day in, day out.”
But Sarsour isn’t without her critics, even on the local scene. Among New York activists, she has a reputation for putting her career and public image first, sometimes at the expense of other organizers. “She’s smart, she’s energetic, and she knows how to use the media,” says Omar Mohammedi, an attorney and New York City’s former Muslim and Arab New York City Commissioner on Human Rights. “However, she takes credit for a lot of work that does not belong to her.”
When it comes to some of Sarsour’s trademark causes — successfully lobbying for public school students to get time off on Muslim holidays, for instance, or a civil rights lawsuit against police surveillance — Mohammedi accuses her of parachuting in at the last minute and elbowing her way into becoming the public face of the cause, an accusation that others have leveled too. “She’s good at many things,” he says, “but she’s not a uniter in the community.”
After the 2016 presidential election, as chatter about the idea of a post-inauguration protest spread through her social networks, Sarsour commented on a thread in her Facebook timeline, noting her desire for Muslim women to be represented, too. A generation ago, her interjection might have been ignored or dismissed as marginal, but today, intersectionality — the idea that racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination overlap and should be understood not as discrete problems but as part of a bigger system of oppression — has emerged as a powerful moral force and a key organizing principle on the left.
Vanessa Wruble, an organizer of the march and the founder of Okayafrica.com, was already working to diversify the planning committee. “I was very keenly aware of the sharp racial differences and the tensions between white women and different marginalized communities,” Wruble says. “You need to bring in different women of color to make sure this is an inclusive movement.”
First, Wruble called on Tamika Mallory, a prominent civil rights activist, and Carmen Perez, a criminal justice reform advocate with Harry Belafonte’s Gathering for Justice, to invite them to join in. Mallory and Perez had worked with Sarsour before; when they saw her Facebook post, they invited her to join, too. “Tamika and I don’t do anything without one another and Linda,” Perez says. “She’s more than a colleague. She’s a sister.”
Weary of being seen as merely a symbolic addition to the committee, Sarsour also took on some fundraising responsibilities. “Look, yes, I’m a Muslim woman and I want to bring my community to the table, but I also want to make sure that I’m not being tokenized,” she explains. “I’d like to ensure that I have a role to play that is going to be an important role.” The group was especially conscious of where their funding was coming from, and, inspired by Bernie Sanders, whom Sarsour jokes is “literally the love of my life,” they opted not to accept corporate donations, turning instead to organizations like Planned Parenthood. (According to a spokesperson, Senator Sanders is a “big fan” of Sarsour.)
In the run-up to the march, Sarsour didn’t participate in all of the regularly scheduled meetings and phone calls, two organizers told me — she was too busy with her many other commitments — but she did find a memorable pet cause. Charlie Brotman, the man who’s announced every inauguration day parade since the Eisenhower administration, had been dumped by Trump’s transition team, and Sarsour wanted him to introduce speakers to their stage. “Oh my God, I have a picture of him on my phone that is like, when I’m feeling down in the world, I just want to look at this man,” Sarsour says, pulling up a picture of a beaming elderly Brotman. “The joy — if I got anything out of the Women’s March on Washington, it was this guy.”
It was a kind gesture, and an implicit fuck-you to Trump. Sarsour confesses that she can’t always resist responding to her detractors — particularly on Twitter — with a little attitude. “I’m not going to lie to you,” she says. “I try to ignore them, but every once in awhile I drop in with a snarky remark because I want them to know I’m not afraid. People will be like, ‘Linda please don’t respond to these people,’ and I’m just like, ‘Look, I can’t help myself. You know what? I have to.’”
Like any large-scale organizing operation, the Women’s March had its share of internal drama. Tensions between Clinton and Sanders supporters lingered, and it was, and remains, ambiguous as to whether the march was “anti-Trump” or “pro-women.” The anti-abortion crowd complained about being excluded, and some white women resented being told to “check their privilege.”
“Is feminism about you, or is feminism a larger quest for liberation and freedom and rights for all women around the world?”
“One woman said something like, ‘I’m feeling like a second-class citizen, I’m feeling marginalized,’” Linda says, recalling the sometimes tense discussions that took place between white women and women of color in the organizing committee. “And I’m just looking at her, like… Really? You have to understand when you’re organizing with women of color, you can’t use words like ‘marginalized’ and ‘second-class citizen’ loosely. You’re organizing with people who have had family members killed at the hands of police. There’s a way for you to say, ‘Look, I’m feeling hurt in this room, I feel disrespected,’ but to use terminology like ‘second-class citizen’ and ‘marginalized’ is not OK.”
“It takes courage to talk about race,” says Carmen Perez. “And some people asked, ‘Won’t this stop people from coming out?’ But the people who came were committed to these issues.”
The march itself was epic — between 500,000 and 1.2 million people showed up in D.C., by far outnumbering the crowds that gathered for Donald Trump’s inauguration, and another 4 million showed up to locally organized marches around the world, in places as disparate as Nairobi, Paris, Belgrade, and Antarctica. But for Sarsour, a vicious backlash that had been brewing for years brought her back to reality fast.
For as long as she’s been a public figure, Linda has had a committed group of detractors. Many take issue with her advocacy on behalf of Palestinians, but their criticisms also veer into less political territory. Among them is Daniel Pipes, president of the conservative Middle East Forum think tank, who maintains a seven-year-old blog post that he regularly updates with criticism of her tweets, her public appearances, her interviews, and even her outfits.
For him and others, Sarsour’s unvarnished and admittedly undiplomatic tweets have, over the years, confirmed in their mind all suspicion that she is a radical Islamist who hates women, Jews, and freedom. Or, at the very least, that her advocacy can be contradictory.
In 2014, Sarsour tweeted, “10 weeks of PAID maternity leave in Saudi Arabia. Yes PAID. And ur worrying about women driving. Puts us to shame.” This was in reference to Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving; that, and other oppressive laws requiring all women to have male guardians and forbidding them to travel, marry, or undergo medical procedures without their permission, led Saudi Arabia to be ranked 134 out of 145 countries on The World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Gender Gap Report. In our conversation, Sarsour acknowledges that Saudi Arabia “engages in violation of human rights,” adding “of course they do” — but the damage of her original statement has already been done. While Sarsour’s tweet has only been retweeted just over 100 times, the most popular reply has received 1,700 retweets. Written by a contributor to the conservative news site The Daily Wire, it says, “Self proclaimed ‘women’s rights leader’: ‘SO WHAT IF WOMEN ARE SECOND CLASS CITIZENS. FREE GOVERNMENT $$$.’”
In another tweet, from 2011, Linda equated Brigitte Gabriel — a conservative journalist and founder of the non-profit ACT for America, which lobbies the U.S. government to “combat radical Islam” — with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a feminist author of books critical of Islam who was subjected to genital female mutilation as a child and later sought political asylum to avoid an arranged marriage. “Brigitte Gabriel = Ayaan Hirsi Ali,” Sarsour tweeted. “She’s asking 4 an a$$ whippin’. I wish I could take their vaginas away - they don’t deserve to be women.” Now, she says she doesn’t remember writing it: “It was a long time ago.” This year, Ali told an audience at the Women in the World Summit in New York that Sarsour is a “fake feminist,” saying that she “is not interested in universal human rights, she’s a defender of Sharia law. There’s no principle that demeans, degrades and dehumanizes women more than the principal of Sharia law.”
Sharia law is understood in radically different ways by Sarsour and those who criticize her statements. In May 2015, Sarsour praised Sharia’s position on usurious interest rates, tweeting, “You'll know when you're living under Sharia Law if suddenly all your loans & credit cards become interest free. Sound nice, doesn't it?” Today, she insists that she doesn’t regret sending it. “What the issue here is that we are basing Sharia on the definition of Islamophobes. These people are obsessed with making Islam be seen as a cult versus an actual religion of 1.7 billion people across the world. I’m not going to let them define for me what my religion is and what our religion tells me to do.”
Hearing Sarsour talk about it, she sounds eager to enlighten, but also a little tired of repeating what to her is an obvious point. “Sharia is, for me, a personal basic set of guidelines that Muslims follow. It’s about being respectful to elders. It’s about praying five times a day. It’s about etiquette that I have with members of my family. It’s about inheritance and it’s about how we get married. Just the kind of basic things that anyone engages in in life,” she says.
Twitter isn’t the best medium for theological nuance, though, so the posts came back to haunt her when conservative media outlets like the Daily Caller and the Gateway Pundit seized on them to “prove” that a Women’s March organizer actually hated women and supported terrorist groups. Their headlines were retweeted widely, and quickly morphed into a full-on harassment campaign, both online and off, instigated by anonymous accounts and prolific bloggers alike. Some merely challenged her political views; others attacked her appearance, sent racist comments, and made violent threats against her and her family. The onslaught was so intense that three of Sarsour’s four sisters took charge of her Twitter account, working regular shifts to block trolls. Linda’s now running it herself again, but she lives with a little more fear than she used to. She avoids public transportation, takes Uber everywhere, and is more conscious of her online privacy.
This spring, though, a counter-protest also took off, with Bernie Sanders, author Naomi Klein, and leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement posting encouraging messages with the hashtag #IMarchWithLinda. Amid the controversy, religious and faith groups stood in her defense even though they didn’t necessarily share her views on Israel (she believes in a one-state solution) or her support of Boycott, Divest, Sanction tactics, which seek to move international money away from Israel and Israeli companies. Jenn Pollan, a spokesperson for the liberal Jewish group IfNotNow, considers Linda an ally, citing how she helped raise over $125,000 for repairs after Jewish cemeteries were vandalized in February. “I think that’s pretty amazing considering how Jewish institutions have treated BDS activists and Muslim women,” Pollan says. “I think she really shows she cares about showing solidarity.”
Rabbi Justus Baird, the dean of the Auburn Theological Seminary who invited Linda to be a fellow, echoes Pollan’s observations and stresses the importance of activists taking a broader moral view around social justice. “The left has litmus tests on intersectionality; Jews have litmus tests on Israel/Palestine,” he said. “But most political coalitions require broader alliances than litmus tests allow.”
After the success of the Women’s March, Linda takes to the streets again on March 8 for the “Day Without a Woman,” a march organized alongside a strike and a media campaign aimed to show the importance of women in local and global economies.
The day before the strike, however, a writer named Emily Shire publishes an op-ed in The New York Times complaining that, as a self-described Zionist, she does not feel welcome in a women’s movement where “the decolonization of Palestine” is a part of the strike’s official policy platform (Palestine is not mentioned on the “Unity Principles” of the January Women’s March). “My prime concern is not that people hold this view of Israel,” Shire writes. “Rather, I find it troubling that embracing such a view is considered an essential part of an event that is supposed to unite feminists. I am happy to debate Middle East politics or listen to critiques of Israeli policies. But why should criticism of Israel be key to feminism in 2017?”
A blog post by the actress Mayim Bialik, an Orthodox Jew, is also widely shared. “Zionism is the belief in the right of the Jewish people to have an autonomous state in Israel,” Bialik writes. ”As a feminist Zionist, I can’t believe I am being asked to choose or even defend my religious, historical, and cultural identity. The ‘left’ needs to reexamine the microscope they use to look at Israel, and we all need to take a step back and remember we are stronger together: women, men, lovers of peace, and lovers of freedom and justice.”
Sarsour enters the conversation with an interview with The Nation, headlined “Can you be a Zionist Feminist? Linda Sarsour says no.” In part because of that headline, her statements are misunderstood as saying feminism and Zionism are inherently, irredeemably at odds. On a recent phone call, Sarsour, who once tweeted that “Nothing is creepier than Zionism,” clarifies her message. She says that a Zionism that fights for the rights of Palestinian women could, in her view, be compatible with feminism: “If you say, ‘Yes, I am a critic of the state of Israel and their treatment of Palestinians and Palestinian women,’ then you can come and be at the table.”
As for the question of “Why Israel?” she says, “Israel gets the majority of our military aid budget. Israel is occupying Palestinian land, brutalizing Palestinians using our taxpayer dollars that we should be demanding go back into our communities, into poor communities, into healthcare, into education. That’s my taxpayer dollars, and I’d rather give it to a Chicago public school.” American security spending is complex and opaque — a 2016 report by The Washington Post found that Afghanistan actually receives the most assistance from the U.S. government, with Israel in second place. Regardless, a major point of contention for Sarsour’s critics is the fact that on the U.N.’s Gender Inequality Index, which measures “reproductive health, empowerment, and economic activity,” Israel ranks 19 out of 188 countries, while Afghanistan ranks 169.
The irony is that Sarsour says she has already asked herself many questions about how her faith squares with feminism. “As Muslim women, we’d only heard of this idea of feminism going into the Middle East and ‘saving the Muslim women,’” she says, recalling the Bush administration’s rhetoric surrounding the invasion of Iraq in 2003. “Then we watched the kind of more radical part of the feminist movement that goes topless at Muslim events in Europe,” she adds, referring to the shock-protest group FEMEN, which is headquartered in Paris. “You know what I mean? That’s the way that feminism has looked.”
For much of her life, mainstream feminism seemed condescending and exclusionary to Sarsour; it wasn’t a stretch to assume there was no room for her at that table. Only after meeting women of color who identified as feminists did she feel embraced. “They saw me as a Muslim women in hijab,” she says. “They didn’t question my modesty or the choices that I made. I was welcomed to their movement.”
For her now, the push for women’s rights represents the rights of all women. Trans women, black women, Latina women, white women, and yes, Palestinian women. “Is feminism about you, or is feminism a larger quest for liberation and freedom and rights for all women around the world?” she says. “That’s the question that these women who are so outraged need to ask themselves.”
Sarsour knows that uniting a motivated-but-frustrated front that’s still processing generations’ worth of racial, religious, and political tensions is messy work, but she’s hopeful that the resistance against Trump, and a renewed awareness of the vast inequalities that divide American society, will help build new alliances. “This is about a collective movement for social justice in these United States of America,” she says. “If you believe that black lives matter, if you believe [in] immigration reform and immigrant rights, if you believe in economic justice, if you believe that we need to stand together and fight this administration — then come to the table.”
Sarsour believes the reason she is a magnet for outrage is that she’s, in her own words, “a Palestinian Muslim American woman who wears a hijab, who has the audacity to be part of the organizing of the largest protest in U.S. history, taking the stage to 1.2 million people in Washington D.C. [with] women from all backgrounds rooting her on.” She is threatening to the America that voted for Donald Trump and even some Americans who voted for Hillary Clinton because she’s not afraid to point out that the U.S. has failed people like her, both at home and abroad. Crucially, she’s not afraid to demand better — for herself, her community, and all the other groups who’ve been marginalized by people in power.
“If you believe that black lives matter, if you believe [in] immigration reform and immigrant rights, if you believe in economic justice, if you believe that we need to stand together and fight this administration — then come to the table.”
This spring, Sarsour announced she’d be stepping down from the Arab American Association of New York. She’d like to write a book — The Autobiography of Malcolm X, she says, changed her life — and have more time to organize national campaigns like the Women’s March. Now that she doesn’t have a job that receives city funding, she’s also freer to participate in local politics. There’s an open city council seat in her district, but she says several times that she’s not interested in dealing with day-to-day local politics involving things like potholes and trash pickups. Instead, she’s blunt about feeling like she’s destined for bigger things, and not ruling out running for national office someday.
For now, instead of running locally herself, she’s advising the City Council campaign of Khader El-Yateem, a Palestinian Lutheran pastor. One afternoon, we embark on a mini-tour of Brooklyn to meet local political operatives, joined by Sarsour’s deputy and mentee, an NYU grad from Ohio named Kayla Santosuosso.
They make a sweet trio: hijabi Sarsour, speed-walking past Don’t Walk signs and chattering nonstop about politics to anyone who will listen; blonde, studious Santosuosso doing her best to keep up in a pantsuit and heels; and El-Yateem, a tall, stately man with a clergy collar, all of them communicating in a mix of Arabic and English and cracking jokes about being followed.
Their first appointment is with the progressive Working Families party in downtown Brooklyn, a five-mile drive away. In El-Yateem’s gray Honda — with a license plate that reads “ABOUNA,” for “our father” — we drive past Arabic storefronts in Bay Ridge, through a developing industrial zone in Sunset Park, and over the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. A sign hangs on the street at the exit: “Kindness makes a better Brooklyn. Do a Mitzvah.” “I love that,” Sarsour remarks, unbelted in the back seat. “It must be new.”
The conversation turns to the pastor’s bid for office. Would they be marching in the St. Patrick’s Day parade? Of course they would, and with a big banner of the candidate. “Father Khader, you have an interesting name,” Sarsour says. “It works in your favor. You just gotta show up for everything: board meetings, libraries. Everything.”
Sarsour sees El-Yateem as someone capable of straddling the larger Arab community and its neighbors. Not only is he a well-liked figure, but he worked as an administrator at a local Jewish hospital that’s struggling to bring seven medical residents over from countries affected by Trump’s Muslim ban. The pastor recalls once serving as an interpreter at an interfaith event: “A Palestinian in a mosque translating Hebrew to a Jewish guy,” he laughs. “Take that to the bank!”
After the meeting, which runs late and earns them a $35 parking ticket, the team piles into the car again and heads to Park Slope to speak with two young political field consultants about strategy, flyers, and voter turnout. In typical fashion, Sarsour does most of the talking; she seems to be schooling the young men, not vice versa. But she comes away encouraged and heartened by the enthusiasm and energy that the consultants, whom she thenceforth refers to as the “white guys,” had brought to the table. “They came prepared!” she says later. “I love meeting new people. Now I have two new guys to call!”
It’s past 5 p.m. and Sarsour has been on the go since 6 in the morning, consuming only multiple cups of coffee and a banana. I ask Santosuosso when her boss eats, and she gives me an exhausted look: “She doesn’t.”
Sarsour says her friends have crowdfunded a vacation for her that she plans to take in May; she’s able to juggle her family life and work commitments largely thanks to a lot of support, particularly at home. Her husband, she says, “is a super amazing, fabulous dad. He does a lot of the things that I feel bad that I can’t do. Picking [the kids] up from grandma’s house, you know, listen to their funny stories about their friends when maybe I’m just not there.” Sarsour’s parents are retired, so they pitch in with childcare, too. “You know when they say it takes a village to raise a child? This is really how it is in our community.”
We return to the AAANY with Sarsour talking nonstop on her cell-phone, which she tucks into her hijab to free her hands while she heads to the bathroom. Before long, she hails another car for downtown Manhattan to attend a networking dinner organized by some powerful New York businesswomen. She comes bearing two bunches of bodega peonies, skips the champagne, and admits, quietly, to feeling a little out of her element.
The dinner is the first time all day that Sarsour has seemed uncomfortable. She has little common ground on which to make small-talk, and she’s the only woman of color there. As she shares stories about the Women’s March and her experiences with post-Trump Islamophobia, I sense that she easily prefers being in the thick of the action to commenting on it from afar.
Moments after dessert is over, she excuses herself: it’s late, and her kids are texting. Sarsour pulls on her black coat, promises to stay in touch, and gets into a black car. It’s been a long day, and it’s not over. Her family in Brooklyn is waiting.