With the ugly aftermath of 9/11fading, local Arab Americans are increasingly putting their cultural pride on display — and forging closer ties with Jews.“Arab-Americans went into isolation for several years,” said Linda Sarsour, 27, a Palestinian-American who is acting director of the Arab-American Association of New York. “It was home to school or work, and back home again.”Sarsour was speaking last Sunday at the Third Annual Arab Heritage Park Festival in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, which attracted more than 500 Arab-American New Yorkers. They want their neighbors to know that their community includes Christians and secular people as well as Muslims.“We want to take away the image that Arabs are deeply religious people who can’t have a good time,” Sarsour said. “Hopefully people will accept our culture and who we are if they get to know us better.” Sarsour said her group is building ties locally with the Bay Ridge Jewish Center, and on a citywide basis taking part in coalition-building activities with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
Sheren Atfal, the 25-year-old director of the Yallah Youth of Arts Teen Dabke Dance Troupe, who emigrated to the U.S. from the Israeli town of Lod at the age of 3, remarked, “We have to let Americans know … that we are not terrorists and that we don’t want to kill Jews. They are our neighbors and we are engaged in outreach to them. I am one of many Arabs in Brooklyn who take part in the Dialogue Project.” She was referring to a Brooklyn-based organization that has held monthly dialogues between Jews and Arabs in Brooklyn and Manhattan since 2000. Atfal acknowledged that, “There is some radicalism among our youth, especially among kids who listen to their grandparents complain about the injustice done to Palestinians and Arabs. I’ve heard some kids say, ‘Screw all Israelis’ and I respond, ‘No, we can’t say that. Israelis have sisters and brothers too.” Marcia Kannry, the founder and director of the Dialogue Project, said Arab-American Heritage Week “is important for me as a Jewish person, because I believe that if they celebrate their culture, they will better be able to understand the pride I feel in my own.”
Middle East politics were not absent from the festival as several pro-Palestinian groups distributed anti-Israel literature among the vendors selling kebabs, humus and babaganoush from Lebanon and couscous dishes from Morocco; hora-like debke dances and a swirling dervish-like folk dance from southern Egypt; thick Arab coffee and apple-scented tobacco being smoked in hookahs, and an approximately equal number of women in hijabs (head scarves) and with uncovered heads, including some in blouses and jeans.Hanan Tabbara, an 18-year-old political science major at Hunter College, who emigrated from Lebanon in 2001, said non-Muslims often misunderstand why she chooses to don the hijab. “I do not wear it for religious reasons, since I am not religious at all, but rather as an identity thing,” Tabbara explained.“For me,” she continued, “it’s like the ‘Afro’ was for black women in the 1970’s, an assertion of pride in my heritage.”