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Queens Arabs hail from many nations

posted on: Jun 24, 2016

The Queens Arab population of course has as one of its defining characteristics the culture’s dominant religion of Islam.

Individuals interviewed by the Queens Chronicle say they feel more in common culturally with their national cohort, those who were either born in the same country in the Arab world or descend from Americans of the same ancestral homeland.

But as with people in general, a common language, Arabic, and shared customs around food seem to help form connections among peoples from a wide variety of nations and backgrounds here in the world’s most diverse borough.

During this month of Ramadan, which began on Sunday, June 5 and ends on Tuesday, July 5, many Queens residents who identify as Arab will be eating a predawn breakfast before observing a daytime fast, then breaking that fast at 8:30 p.m. with the cuisine of their former or ancestral homeland.

According to a few Arab and Egyptian Queens residents found at Leli’s Bakery in Astoria on 30th Avenue this week, for Egyptians, that means an evening fast-breaking meal heavy on sweets, including basbousa. The sweet cake is made with semolina or farina and soaked in simple syrup, then topped with walnuts.

For Moroccans, the fast might be broken each evening with harira, a soup made with vegetables, pureed lentils and chicken. A man who identifies as Moroccan American explained that breaking the fast with soup gives the body something lighter to digest after a full day of not eating.

Other Moroccan dishes likely to be found on Ramadan tables in Queens tonight include tajine, a slow-cooked vegetable and meat dish. Also, couscous — granulated North African semolina bearing a resemblance to rice which, given its general popularity in recent years, is likely to be found on Queens dinner tables of many cultures.

Hummus, the chickpea and sesame seed paste; shawarma, a shaved spit-cooked meat; and falafel, deep-fried fritters or balls of mashed peas. are staples of Arab and Middle Eastern foods, such as those from Syria and Lebanon.

The importance of the common language of Arabic shouldn’t be underestimated.

“I grew up listening to the Arabic Channel,” said one woman who grew up in America and identifies as culturally Egyptian because her parents were from Egypt.

Arabic language was her only source of reference, the woman said, and as she became older, she found it difficult to understand or relate to American popular music.

Despite the high cost of housing in New York City, multigenerational living isn’t the default plan for Arab families. Usually, young people get married and set up their own households.

The total Arab population in the United States as of 2013 was 1,517,664, up from about 1.2 million in 2000, according to the U.S. Census’ American Communities Survey. “Arab” is defined as people of Algerian, Bahraini, Egyptian, Emirati, Iraqi, Jordanian, Kuwaiti, Lebanese, Libyan, Moroccan, Omani, Palestinian, Qatari, Saudi Arabian, Syrian, Tunisian or Yemeni descent.

The Census Bureau’s Egyptians are a bit of a special case. Modern Arabs and Egyptians do share the Arabic language. But Arabs are defined as a heterogenous group of Semitic people from the Arabian peninsula, Middle East and North Africa who all share the same language, Arabic. Egyptians are defined as a non-Semitic people, and though they speak Arabic, neither group considers Egyptians to be Arabs.

In Queens, the 2010 Census showed 10,008 people aged 5 and older speaking Arabic at home as the primary language. That makes up a small percentage of the population, at 0.48 percent, but obviously doesn’t count those people who identify as Arab but speak a different primary language at home.

There has been some doubt that the Census Bureau accurately measures all Arab citizens and residents. In 2010, the American Mideast Leadership Network worked with a variety of institutions, including the Razi School in Woodside, to encourage the parents of its students to participate in the Census.

As with many groups that include a large number of recent immigrants, the organization believed that fear that interaction with the government might lead to information being used against the immigrant was leading many to shun participation in the Census.

A group that seeks to serve recent immigrants is the Arab-American Family Support Center, which identifies itself as the first and largest Arabic-speaking, trauma-informed social service organization in New York City, although its staff speaks a total of twelve languages. With offices in Long Island City and Brooklyn, it provides literacy, youth and legal services, as well as health and anti-violence programs, among others.

Specifically, the nonprofit offers individual and family counseling, crisis intervention and conflict resolution, as well as parenting skills, training and referrals for entitlements, benefits and services. The group also engages in advocacy.

Census figures have shown a large number of Arab Americans living in the neighborhood of Steinway Street in Astoria for the past few decades. Those include people who immigrated from or descended from the people of Lebanon, Morocco, Egypt and Syria.

Starting in 2011, Queens saw a sharp rise in the number of Egyptian immigrants because of the Jan. 25 Egyptian revolution. The increase was especially strong among Coptic Christians, who moved into Ridgewood.

Steinway Street has traditionally been considered to be a “Little Egypt” neighborhood, but Arab Americans have also settled in concentrations in Woodside, Corona and Ridgewood.

As many Queens neighborhoods exhibit broad diversity, Arab families can also be found throughout the borough, including in Jamaica, Flushing, Forest Hills and Jackson Heights.

The hookah bars where those of Middle Eastern descent have popularized the smoking of shisha, a syrupy mix of tobacco or herbs, are also found across Queens.

One popular restaurant with Middle Eastern food is Duzan Mediterranean Grill, a casual eatery on Steinway in Astoria with dishes featuring falafel, hummus and shawarma.

In worship as in food, Queens Muslims tend to congregate with people who share the same national background.

The Masjid el Iman on 25th Street in Astoria attracts Egyptian Muslims, while the Masjid Al-Hikmah on 31st Avenue serves the Indonesian Muslim community. Across the borough, the Jamaica Muslim Center, also known as the Masjid Al-Mamoor, provides worship and other services on 168th Street.

Islam is by far the dominant religion in the Arab world, though some Christians, Druze and others remain. In Queens, the most noticeable groups among Arabs are Muslims and Coptic Christians.

Queens Coptic Christians are served by several Ridgewood churches as well as St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Astoria, which held its first service in 1994. Ridgewood’s St. Mary & Antonios Coptic Orthodox Church was noted for welcoming a large number of Copts who left Egypt to escape religious persecution after the revolution.

One place where Arabs and Muslims from a variety of national backgrounds come into closer contact is at the Razi School. The nonprofit school includes grades from pre-K through 12th and says it educates students from 24 different nationalities. The school also joins in the wider community, with its website noting participation in the Catholic Schools Science Fair, the Non-Public Schools Mathematics League Contest and other competitions.