Festival to Bring Cultural Distinctions of Arab Life to Light: Community Seeks to Counter Negative Images

By Duin, Julia | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Festival to Bring Cultural Distinctions of Arab Life to Light: Community Seeks to Counter Negative Images


Duin, Julia, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Few cultures are as foreign to the Western mindset as that of the Arab, a factor that will be addressed this week at a colorful festival in downtown Washington.

Starting Thursday and ending Sunday, the Ana Alarabi Festival will flood the atrium of the Ronald Reagan building with exhibits, speakers, dancers, paintings and information booths on what some say is America's most misunderstood ethnicity.

Tensions between ethnic Arabs and Hollywood rose to a flash point recently with the release of the movie "The Siege," which depicts Arab terrorists trying to blow up New York.

Thanks to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, which was masterminded by Islamic terrorists, filmmakers viewed the plot as quite viable. Arab groups cried foul.

"I've lived in this country since 1963 and I've never seen [the atmosphere] so bad," says Georgetown University professor Yvonne Haddad. "Kids come into my classes with heavy layers of prejudice, parts of which are being perpetrated by the American school system.

"Someone asked me which branch of Islam is more prone to terrorism - the Sunnis or the Shi'ites. I asked her what in Christianity leads more to violence - the Protestants or the Catholics. Plenty of settlers on the West Bank like to shoot, but no one calls Judaism a terrorist religion. The best known Hebrew word in American culture is `shalom,' meaning `peace.' The best known Arabic word is `jihad,' " which means war.

"We're not saying there aren't Arab terrorists," she added. "There are. But a whole community gets demonized."

Estimated at 4.5 million people in the United States and growing at an annual average of 5 percent, Arabs have emigrated from Lebanon, Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and North Africa for about a century. But their impact on U.S. culture has been minimal compared with other groups.

"Their commonalities are language, history, memories, music, folk culture, dress, embroidery, cuisine and religion," says Michael Hudson, who holds a chair in Arabic studies at Georgetown University. "Some say religion is part of that, but in this country, there's a large and significant proportion of Arabic Christians. They were the first wave of Arabic immigrants to this country in the early part of this century."

"In the American mind, Arab and Muslim are the same thing," says Hala Salaam Maksoud, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "Most Muslims are non-Arabs and many Arabs are non-Muslims. The largest Muslim community is Indonesian. Out of 1 billion Muslims, only 200 million are Arabs."

One unifying factor among Arab-Americans, who are concentrated in such cities as Brooklyn, N.Y., Dearborn, Mich., Boston and Houston as well as Northern Virginia, is the sense of being beleaguered

"Arab-Americans have very little clout," says Abdulaleem El-Abyad, the press officer for the Egyptian Embassy. "They are the most recent ethnic community to be stereotyped. It's a shame. Part of the blame lies with the Arab-American community itself. They have neglected to organize themselves, but they are learning."

The Ana Alarabi festival is part of a public relations effort to show a kinder and gentler Arabic face to Americans. Situated in that most American of edifices, the lobby of the Ronald Reagan building, the festival will feature poetry readings Thursday night and a fashion show, art exhibit and exhibits Friday through Sunday to attract interest in Arab heritage. …

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