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Remembering Nabila Mango, Beloved Palestinian Community Organizer and Choir Founder

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A person with long hair looks down at a framed photo of a person beside two large yellow roses.
Bisan Shehadeh holds a photo of her mother, Nabila Mango, in her rose garden in Mango's home in San Mateo on Dec. 7, 2023. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Palestinian activist, therapist and leader among Bay Area Arab communities Nabila Mango died recently after a long battle with cancer. She passed away on Nov. 13 at the age of 80.

Throughout her life, Mango touched many people’s lives as a counselor, language instructor, nonprofit leader and culture keeper for the Bay Area’s Palestinian community, said friends and family who spoke to KQED.

Mango is survived by her daughter, Bisan Shehadeh, sisters Aida Mango, Khulud Morrar and Souad Mango, brother Fouad Mango and ex-husband, Saber Shehadeh.

“The level of action my mom has had on individuals and communities is epic,” Shehadeh, Mango’s daughter, told KQED. “My mom nurtured identities in individuals and built connections into communities that will live on past her.”

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When drag artist Mama Ganuush first moved to the Bay Area 14 years ago, they struggled to afford housing and scraped by without a steady roof over their head. But their life changed after meeting Mango, who was then working as a therapist at a Tenderloin health clinic in San Francisco.

The two bonded over their shared Arab culture, and Mango offered the newcomer a room at her home. There, Mama Ganuush, who uses they/them pronouns, was able to regain their footing after escaping anti-gay hate and violence in their native Cairo, Egypt.

“Nabila, she saved my life when I came here,” Mama Ganuush told KQED. “I got a job, I settled down, and I became an executive in tech almost 10 years later.”

Two people pose for a photo together smiling.
Mama Ganuush (left) and Nabila Mango in 2018. (Courtesy of Mama Ganuush)

In 2000, Mango founded Aswat Ensemble, a multi-ethnic choral ensemble focusing on contemporary and traditional Arabic music. As interest in the group grew, Mango expanded the effort and started a group called Zawaya to promote Arabic culture and connections through other art forms and social justice movements.

That has included shows like Aswat Ensemble’s Notes Against the Ban performance in 2017 when then-President Donald Trump was attempting to restrict travel from six Muslim-majority countries. The show highlighted music from several affected countries to promote cross-cultural understanding and healing.

Before becoming a pillar for Arab communities in the Bay Area, Mango was born in Jaffa and displaced during the Nakba, which translates to “catastrophe” in Arabic and refers to the mass dispossession and displacement of more than half the Palestinian population during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Mango dedicated her life to academics, the arts and activism. In 1965, she emigrated from the Palestinian territories to study library science and work at Harvard University’s Widener Library. She later brought her skills to the University of Chicago’s Rosengarten Library before moving to San Francisco and ultimately settling in San Mateo in 1982, where she continued her work as an Arabic teacher, therapist and leader of arts and cultural nonprofits.

In 2011, the Asian Law Caucus honored Mango with the Yuri Kochiyama Lifetime Achievement Award for Bravery and Activism.

“I have been to protests since before I could walk. Mama would carry me in a basket. This was a huge part of our lives, always working towards social justice,” Shehadeh said.

Two hands hold the photo of a young child being held by a person with glasses.
Bisan Shehadeh holds a photo of her and her mother, Nabila Mango, from 1983. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Mango earned a reputation as not only a sought-after Arabic language instructor but also a lifeline for countless people from all walks of life and backgrounds in need of support.

Duraid Musleh first met Mango while she was teaching Arabic in San Francisco. A mutual friend put them in touch, and Mango invited him to her house for a night of food and music with her students, hoping to enrich their language learning with more hands-on cultural exposure.

Over the years, Mango served as an informal sounding board to countless people during challenging periods.

“She was a counselor for me personally and others when these difficult times happened. It’s very difficult for us Palestinians,” Musleh told KQED. “We share our plight over the decades and feel what’s happening over there very deeply. She was always someone I could go and share with.”

A large group of people poses for a photo around a table in an indoor setting.
An early gathering for Aswat members, including Nabila Mango (middle row, far right) and Amina Goodyear (second row, left of Nabila) in 2001. (Courtesy of Amina Goodyear)

Through music and art, she befriended people like Amina Goodyear, one of the first members of the Aswat Ensemble.

“Nabila was one of the most passionate people about building community that I ever knew. Her work in the community brought her to a lot of people who weren’t only Arabs, but other cultures and religions, and they all had personal relationships with Nabila that were just as profound,” said Goodyear, who was born in the Philippines.

“She passed before our last concert, and everyone could feel her presence in the room. We still feel Nabila, and we always will.”

Friends and family are currently raising $50,000 for an endowed scholarship in Mango’s name.

Separately, information on donating to Zawaya can be found on the organization’s website.

A celebration of Mango’s life will take place on Sunday, Dec. 10, from 3–5 p.m. at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California (1433 Madison St., Oakland). It will also be livestreamed via the Aswat Ensemble’s YouTube account.

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