Arab Americans finally got their month. The State Department designated the month of April as Arab American Heritage Month, recognizing Arab Americans’ contributions to the U.S.
“The United States is home to more than 3.5 million Arab Americans representing a diverse array of cultures and traditions,” said Ned Price, a State Department spokesman, in a video statement released on April 1. “Like their fellow citizens, Americans of Arab heritage are very much a part of the fabric of this nation.”
Honestly, I thought it was an April Fools’ Day prank.
Certainly this is a departure from the dark history of American hostility toward Arab Americans, especially after the 9/11 tragedy. Arabs have been stereotyped in American media, literature and Hollywood movies for a long time. People like the self-hating Arab scholar Fouad Ajami and the intellectual sellout author Salman Rushdie joined the late Orientalists Bernard Lewis and Raphael Patai to explain the Arab terrorist mind to the American people and the Department of Homeland (in)Security.
America adopted this old European Orientalist prejudice that believes Arabs are irrational and dangerous, untrustworthy, prone to violence and only understand power.
Edward Said, the most influential Palestinian American intellectual of the 20th century, explained in his groundbreaking book “Orientalism” how the West sees Arab culture as exotic, backward, uncivilized and dangerous, needing to be colonized to be civilized.
In an interview, Timothy Brennan, a professor of comparative literature, cultural studies and English at the University of Minnesota, talked about his new book, “Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said.”
“Orientalism,” he explained, “according to Edward Said is all about representation; it was a reaction to the proximity of the enlightened Arabs [Moors] in the south during the European dark age.” Europeans perceived Arabs/Moors as a threat and needed to be tamed.
In honor of Arab American Heritage Month, here is a public service from a good Arab American citizen, a crash course in “Arab Americans for Dummies” for those who don’t have the time to read Said or Brennan.
Arabs came to America in the late 18th century, mostly Christians from the Levant, which includes Syria, Palestine and Lebanon. Later they came from the rest of the Arab world, especially Egypt and North Africa.
Early Arab arrivals were not identified as “Arabs.” They generally are called Turks since the place was then under the Ottoman Empire. Arab immigrants were mostly illiterate. Some came to America to escape religious persecution but most came mainly for economic opportunity. They initially only came to stay for a short time, to make enough money and then go home to their families. However, the majority ended up settling in major cities all over the U.S.
Arab immigrants, like other immigrants, came to America with their hopes, religions, traditions and values that shape their lives in their new home. However, the factor that played a major role in Arabs living in America is their language, Arabic.
The great linguist Noam Chomsky has a theory of language learning, that our brains are wired with the universal ability to master languages. But while easy at an early age, learning a second language as an adult is hard. Arab immigrants rather readily learn the English language, with its structure built on their own native language.
The Arabic language is poetic, generous and tolerates excessive emotional fervors, turning exaggeration into a bit as an art form. I always tell my daughter to divide her Arab American friends’ compliments by four to get to the right decimal level.
For Arabs, everyone is habibi — Arabic for my love. The Arab language is full of superlatives given to anyone, deserved or not. Arab men have no problem showing affection in public; they kiss and hug each other. When they fight, the main objective is not necessarily winning the battle, but winning public sympathy.
The Arabic alphabet has 28 letters but doesn’t have the letter “P,” only “B.” This makes some words hard to pronounce for most Arabs. My Egyptian English teacher spent the whole school year trying to get us to pronounce “P” instead of “B.” He would put a few shredded pieces of paper on the palm of his hand and bring it close to his mouth to show the difference. When he said “P” the shreds flew; students missed the point.
Arab Americans avoid words like “Mississippi,” “people” or “pump.” Arab Americans prefer “Coke” over “Pepsi,” Big Macs over Whoppers. They make pizza at home but won’t order it out.
So when it comes to politics, and polls showing that there are more Arab Democrats than Arab Republicans, it might just be that for an Arab American talking to strangers, it’s easier to say “I’m a Democrat” than “I’m a Republican.” The “p/b” thing.
Ahmed Tharwat, host and producer of the local Arab American TV show “BelAhdan with Ahmed,” writes for local and international publications. He blogs at Notes From America: www.Ahmediatv.com. Follow him on Twitter: @ahmediaTV.