Mohammed is Palestinian. Why does 23andMe think he’s Egyptian? –

Posted By on September 22, 2021

When Mohammed Ahmad took a 23andMe genetic ancestry test in 2019 he wanted to understand what his DNA said about his family history. Ahmad, aged 23, had always been fascinated with the past and particularly the history of the Middle East, where his parents were born. What Ahmad wasnt looking for, however, was a cultural identity. He already knew who he was and how hed always identify: Palestinian.

Ahmad was born and raised in the US but knows his family history well. His parents migrated after they met in Asira al-Qibliya; a village of around 2,300 people outside the city of Nablus in the West Bank. This village was home to not only his father, but his grandfather and his grandfathers father. Because of his familys deep roots in the West Bank, Ahmad was not surprised when he opened the letter from 23andMe containing his results: 100 per cent North African and Arabian.

But not too long after taking the test, the story of Ahmads genetic ancestry started to rewrite itself. Email notifications in October 2019 and June 2021 told Ahmad that updates to 23andMes system of genetic categorisation had changed his results. In the most recent update, Ahmads DNA is broken down into the following percentages: 49.4 per cent Lebanese, 38.1 per cent Egyptian, 2.7 per cent Peninsular Arabian, 3.7 per cent Iranian, Caucasian and Mesopotamian, plus small percentages from other regions.

What stuck out to Ahmad was the glaring absence of Palestine in all of these updates. As a Palestinian, your identity is always questioned, he says, I feel like finding out about our DNA and finding out that, yes, we are from this land is a big thing.

While some customers may have been satisfied with the 23andMes more granular results, some Palestinians like Ahmad are unhappy with being labelled under other countries in the Levant region (which includes Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine) as well as states in the Arabian Peninsula (which include Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates). I found it interesting how they name every country surrounding Palestine but Palestine, Ahmad says, It was disheartening to find out that Palestine wasnt being mentioned.

Neither Palestine or Israel is listed as a possible country of ancestry in the companys test results. At the end of the day cities like Jerusalem, Jaffa, Acre, Jericho and Hebron have had inhabitants for thousands of years, says Amber Rose, another 23andMe customer. When Amber Rose first took the test in 2019, her two largest percentages were Peninsular Arab (25 per cent) and Levantine (15 per cent). But when she decided to check her updated reports earlier in this year, Amber Rose was categorised as 37 per cent Peninsular Arab and only 0.8 per cent Levantine. I see it as purposeful erasure, she says.

In 2020, an online petition was started on titled Recognise Palestinians 23andMe. The petition author argues that 23andMe has cast Palestinians as genetically stateless by excluding the region from its reports. It ends: We are Palestinians. We exist. We are still here and we will never go away or be erased from history. Over 2,400 people have signed the online petition.

Updates, such as the ones that have affected Ahmad and Amber Rose's results, came after 23andMe entered more results into its database, allowing the company to narrow down its customers ancestral ties. But the companys updates have failed to represent people like Ahmad who have Palestinian ancestry. Samantha Esselmann, a 23andMe product scientist, says that there are two main reasons for this: firstly, Palestinians did not form their own distinct genetic cluster, and secondly, even if they did, the changing borders of Palestine and Israel made accurate labelling of that cluster too difficult.


Mohammed is Palestinian. Why does 23andMe think he's Egyptian? -

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