'Palestinians have been forgotten by world leaders so we have to be their voice': Laila Rouass on the responsibility of speaking up against genocide
As Arabs across the world watch the Israeli army’s indiscriminate attacks on Palestinian civilians in Gaza in horror, they are also keeping tabs on which Arab celebrities are speaking publicly about the atrocities in the besieged enclave and showing their solidarity.
Some Arab celebrities have been extremely vocal, such as Palestinian American music artist Saint Levant and Palestinian Chilean music artist Elyanna who both cancelled their upcoming tours as a mark of respect and mourning.
Yet there has been deathly silence from others, such as Palestinian American hip-hop artist DJ Khaled, who has been under intense scrutiny by Arab fans for not using his large platform to raise awareness about what is currently happening in Gaza.
"Palestinians have been forgotten. They've been quietly ethnically cleansed for the last 75 years. And here we are today. It's in your face. It's black and white. You don't have to be a Palestinian. You don't have to be a Muslim. You don't have to be anyone of any religion to see it for what it is. It's a genocide. And how can you not stand up and say this is wrong?"
Dismayed fans feel that there is a certain level of hypocrisy when it comes to Arab celebrities who use their Middle Eastern heritage when it profits them economically and in terms of stardom and reach but are silent when it comes to the topic of Palestine.
Among celebrities of Arab heritage who are taking a very public and vocal stance is British Moroccan actress, Laila Rouass, famed for roles such as cardiologist Sahira Shah in BBC’s Holby City, Tania in the BBC’s adaptation of Meera Syal’s novel Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee, and more recently, she co-starred in 2023 TV film The Effects of Lying alongside Ace Bhatti, who she worked with previously in Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee.
The family drama centres on doting and dutiful husband and father Naveen (Ace Bhatti), who has always done what is expected of him, until his life falls apart one day when decades of secrets and lies unravel before him.
Laila plays Naveen’s partner Sangeeta, a dissatisfied wife who as a young woman caved into the pressure of doing things traditionally, suffering the brunt of shame culture when she fell pregnant outside of wedlock and losing out on her dreams. It is a thoughtful and nuanced portrayal of a modern South Asian family in Britain.
Since the Israeli army began its carpet bombing of Gaza following Hamas’ attacks on South Israel on October 7, Laila has used her social media to speak about what is currently happening in the besieged strip, where more than 11,000 people have been killed, while over 2.2 million Palestinians have been cut off from fuel, electricity, water, goods and medicine, as well as facing regular communication blackouts.
Laila tells The New Arab that while she did feel a sense of responsibility as an Arab actress to speak up about the ethnic cleansing and displacement of Palestinians, it is also the human thing to do.
“It's a responsibility, but also, I want to do it. I feel that I have to do it. Especially as an Arab,” she says.
“We have people from Palestine that are [reporting] from the Gaza Strip; the first thing I do in the morning is check my Instagram to see if they're still with us to make sure they're still alive," she tells The New Arab.
"I mean, that's what we've got to do. Just as we all stood together in the Black Lives Matter movement and Me-Too movement, it's for the greater good. This is just basic human rights. Palestinians have been forgotten. They've been quietly ethnically cleansed for the last 75 years. And here we are today. It's in your face. It's black and white," the actress continues.
"You don't have to be a Palestinian. You don't have to be a Muslim. You don't have to be anyone of any religion to see it for what it is. It's a genocide. And how can you not stand up and say this is wrong? It's heartbreaking because Palestinians have been forgotten by world leaders, so we have to be their voice. As little as you think your voice is, it can be loud and it can join the millions of people around the world that are using their voices,” she adds.
“The most important thing for me is after a ceasefire, after getting aid to the people of Palestine, is to know that they're not alone, is to know that we've been fighting. We've been using our voices, we hear them and our hearts bleed for them. We weep with every child, mother, father, daughter and son that dies. We're in mourning. I want the Palestinian people to know that.”
"When you come from an immigrant family, when you've been abused purely for the colour of your skin or the religion that you practice or that you’re born in, you recognise it in other people and so you know the struggle the Palestinians have always been part of"
Like many children of North African and Middle Eastern immigrants to Britain, Laila was brought up hearing and talking about the history of Palestine, the Nakba in 1948 and the ensuing 75 years of occupation and displacement of the Palestinian people within her own family.
“I think most Arab families have been aware. That's why we were so opposed to the apartheid in South Africa,” explains Laila. “You always go for the underdog because you understand what that means. You understand growing up with racism in your own country, what being the underdog means. So, your empathy goes out to people that you know don't have their rights.
"When you come from an immigrant family, when you've been abused purely for the colour of your skin or the religion that you practice or that you’re born in, you recognise it in other people and so you know the struggle the Palestinians have always been part of," Laila says.
“It's always been a conversation in my home. We've been brought up with it and it's always been about the occupation. It's never been about Jewish people. It's never been about religion. It's never been about Christian people or Muslim people. It's been purely about the occupation.”
Just like many other people who have called for a ceasefire and have publicly said that what is happening is genocide, Laila says she has received warnings from friends to be careful, and messages from social media users accusing her of antisemitism.
The very serious brandishing of the term antisemitism has been used against anyone critical of the Israeli government’s policies and actions to deter people from speaking about Palestine.
“I've even had people reach out to me and say, ‘Oh, don't say too much because people are watching.’ I'm for human rights. I'm for equality. I'm for a world of justice so, if you don't want to get too deep into it, you just call for a ceasefire; every voice helps. It doesn't matter how big or small your following is. We're seeing people from Mexico taking a stance and our people are not and I find that quite shocking and sad," says Laila.
“I've had DMs calling me antisemitic and I've got Jewish family, so I know where I stand on that. I think it's a really weak argument now. It's exposed itself for what it is. It's gaslighting,” she adds.
“There is an issue when we stand up for Palestine, you're called antisemitic. I haven't spoken to one Arab that has said anything that's antisemitic and that is the truth. I've not spoken to anyone that's pro-Palestinian or pro-humanity that has said anything that's antisemitic.
“I come from Morocco. We have a very old Jewish community that we love, that we protect. I just feel like why would me saying or anyone saying, ‘give Palestinians their human rights,’ be anything other than that?”
Like countless public figures of Middle Eastern heritage, Laila has been at the receiving end of Western mainstream media’s currently most-asked question, “Do you condemn Hamas?”
"When they ask, ‘Do you condemn Hamas?’ you're already on the back foot, I am already starting this conversation in a weaker position than you because I'm having to justify the fact that I'm saying stop the murder, stop the torture, stop the genocide"
“I've had a few channels ask me that and as soon as I get asked that I just want to put the phone down because I know where this is going. I know what kind of interview it’s going to be,” the actress reveals.
“I haven't got time for it. It's racist. It's offensive. And so, for me, it's like to sit here and ask me about Hamas, and out of context as well. The minute you ask that, it takes all legitimacy out of that conversation for me.
“When they ask, ‘Do you condemn Hamas?’ you're already on the back foot, I am already starting this conversation in a weaker position than you because I'm having to justify the fact that I'm saying stop the murder, stop the torture, stop the genocide,” Laila adds.
“Every minute and every second that we sit here debating and talking, another person is dying. We don't have the privilege of time at the moment. The only thing that we should be talking about is a ceasefire. For me, that's the only conversation we should be having right now.”
Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author who is based in Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, published by Hashtag Press
Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA