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Rethinking Arab American Heritage Month

posted on: Apr 24, 2024

By: Stephanie Abraham / Arab America Contributing Writer

Like most cultural months, Arab American Heritage Month is intended to celebrate and recognize Arab Americans, a diverse group that comes from the 22 Arabic-speaking countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as well as sub-Saharan Africa. Arabs have been immigrating to the U.S. since the late 19th century, when most came from what was then called “Greater Syria,” which was part of the Ottoman Empire that includes present-day Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel. The United States Census has not had a MENA category, although it has just been announced that the 2030 Census will have one. As a result, it’s hard to pinpoint the population of Arabs in the U.S., but the Arab American Institute estimates it at 3.7 million. Since 2010, most have immigrated from Iraq, Egypt, Somalia, Yemen, and Syria.

The month has been gaining steam thanks to an initiative launched in 2017 by the Arab America Foundation. Each April, the foundation has gathered hundreds of acknowledgments from officials such as governors, mayors, and school boards. Last year was the first time a U.S. president wrote a proclamation recognizing it. 

While this was a big step forward, I admit that I’ve tended to dismiss celebratory months as problematic, especially because people live their identities every day of the year. I’m not Arab American only in April, nor am I a woman only in March during Women’s Herstory Month. 

There’s also a potential for what journalist S. Mitra Kalita calls “cosmetic, performative, and perfunctory” actions by corporations and organizations who use such months as self-serving marketing opportunities even if they don’t support marginalized communities. Postcolonial studies scholar R. Benedito Ferrão also points out that “indigeneity is invisibilized when immigrant groups seek to center themselves in the U.S. narrative,” a fact that doesn’t go away even if November is Native American Heritage Month. Additionally, Ferrão warns that cultural months can become assimilationist. They sometimes highlight how underrepresented communities align with the U.S. mainstream narratives in order to vie for a piece of the pie rather than questioning the pie—“the pie” being what Black feminist scholar bell hooks aptly called “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”—and highlighting individuals who have overcome personal obstacles rather than those who have challenged the status quo. 

Despite these contradictions, perhaps cultural months can offer the opportunity for programming and representation that may not otherwise be possible. I’ve had to challenge myself to look at this year’s Arab American Heritage Month with fresh eyes, especially given the current conditions in which the U.S. is actively funding Israel’s genocide of Palestinians and has recently carried out airstrikesin Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. School administrators across the country have suppressed pro-Palestinian activism, particularly on high schooland college campuses. Given this climate, I’ve been wondering whether this April might offer a unique opportunity for education and advocacy, particularly about Palestine.

Warren David, co-founder of the Arab American Foundation, which has been the driving force behind Arab American Heritage Month, says, “Arab Americans have been part of the mosaic of this country for nearly 150 years, but the discourse is the opposite. It paints Arabs, Arab Americans, and Muslims as terrorists and enemies of the state. Unfortunately, there are so many issues that Arab Americans have to deal with—being constantly demonized by the media and U.S. foreign policy, for example.” 

To him, Arab American Heritage Month is important “because people need to hear something good about us—that we are human beings.” 

Perhaps the real reason I’ve been so quick to dismiss the month is that it’s hard to face that anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia are still so bad today that there’s a need to remind the rest of the nation that Arabs are human. Indeed, so much of the messaging coming from and on behalf of the Palestinians in Gaza has been for people to acknowledge the humanity of those being massacred, which as of this writing is more than 32,000—13,000 of whom are children

What if we viewed Arab American Heritage Month as a jumping off point, an opportunity to lean into thoughtful representation, education, and advocacy for the entire year, rather than treating it as a one and done? And what if this April we used our collective power to demand justice for Palestinians? 

Rana Sharif, a coordinating member of the Palestinian Feminist Collective (PFC) and faculty member in gender and women’s studies at California State University, Northridge, recognizes the value of identity politics, including cultural months, in mobilizing communities to think about bigger questions of belonging. She asks, “How do we create a culture of care and compassion as opposed to overemphasizing competition, and neoliberal and capitalist economies?” Sharif sees “people power” as the starting point of such cultural change. “How do we go into spaces and teach people that 1) they have power, and 2) that collectively they are powerful?” she asks. 

“We are oversaturated by harmful images of Arabs, Arab Americans, Muslims, Muslim Americans, and Palestinians and Palestinian Americans,” states Sharif. She recommends conscientiously making choices to seek out, learn, and read about these communities from voices within them, honoring their legacies, traditions, and histories, and doing the work to unlearn assumptions in order to create a space for something new. Sharif also hopes that Arab American Heritage Month can become more meaningful by “centering the affirmative and generative works of Arab American scholars, creatives, artists, and poets, for example.

Make It About Justice for Palestinians

Wherever you are, with all of your networks, it ought to be possible to celebrate Arab American Heritage Month while not looking away from the violence in Gaza. Given the rise in anti-Palestinian hate, we have an opportunity to make the month about standing in solidarity with Palestinians.

Sharif emphasizes that the war on Gaza did not start on Oct. 7, 2023, but did intensify then. “We’re in the midst of an active genocide, so any of the work we do has to begin with that acknowledgement,” she says. “The first objective is an immediate and permanent cease-fire,” which as of this writing has still not been achieved.

So, make your calls and send your emails to your elected officials—and don’t do it alone. Organize a letter writing or postcards for Palestine party, where you encourage people of all ages to ask their members of Congress for a cease-fire. Show up and speak up at their offices. Interrupt business as usual.

To get involved with and support the Palestinian Feminist Collective, Sharif recommends following her organization on social media and using “All Out for Palestine,” a digital action toolkit that PFC published last October. 

David suggests that collective activism can have a ripple effect in the long term. He believes people can use the month “to empower and build accurate and powerful images of Arabs and Arab Americans.” Even though people may not be in a celebratory mood because of the genocide, the Arab America Foundation plans to host an in-person tribute in Washington, D.C., celebrating Palestinian people, culture, and heritage. 

Consider financial activism. Find out where your money is and move it if it’s with a bank or in accounts funding Israel’s genocide in line with demands from the the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. The “No Thanks” app is a new phone application designed by Gazan Ahmed Bashbash that helps you scan barcodes to see whether products should be boycotted. 

In the spirit of educating ourselves and others, how about organizing a teach-in for your neighborhood, workplace, or place of worship? And for your book club, how about suggesting a Palestine-related book? Consider these reading lists as a good place to start: Decolonize PalestinePalestinian Feminist Reading List, and “11 Essential Books to Help You Understand Palestine.” 

Much of the misinformation about Arabs (and Palestinians in particular) comes from the media, wherein men are portrayed as terrorists and women as oppressed and voiceless. To push back against this, media literacy is key, particularly with young people. The Arab American National Museum has in-depth lesson plans to use in classrooms or with the young people in your life, which include resources on how to talk about depictions of heroes and villains, and using Disney’s Aladdin as a jumping off place. 

Eid al-Fitr, which marks the culmination of Ramadan, the holiest month of the year for Muslims, took place on the eve of April 9. While not all Arabs are Muslim, most Gazans are. Fasting this year during what the United Nations has called Israel’s “campaign of starvation” was complicated for many. I recommend reading Zaina Arafat’s new essay, “Fasting for Ramadan While Gaza Goes Hungry.” Also Reckon’s “These Queer Palestinians Are Finding New Meaning in Ramadan” sheds light on how LGBTQ Palestinians are finding unique ways to honor family, faith, and the fight for justice.

Uplift and experience the art and cultural expressions of Palestinians. Host a film screening with the Arab Film and Media Institute or a film festival of Palestinian filmsWatch on repeat the dabke dances by Shadi and his team in Gaza, and the amazing youth who savor dancing it. Dance helps us remember that it’s good to be alive even in dire circumstances. But if your intention is to be an ally, be careful about cultural appropriation. For example, don’t take up belly dancing. And if you don’t understand why from Randa Jarrar’s original essay on the topic, then read her second one as well. (Although a decade old, they’re timeless.) 

Through all of this, lean into your grief. Remember that it’s OK to shed tears while thinking and talking about Gaza. Grief is an essential part of healing. It makes room for sharper thinking, more collaborative strategizing, and the ability to think bigger. Offer to listen to others without interruption. Bring tissues and try not to talk them out of their feelings. This in itself will be a radical act. 

In this climate of intense suppression, even attending online meetings with a virtual background honoring Arab American Heritage Month could be a powerful symbol of solidarity. I recommend this virtual background created by St. Jude’s Research Hospital not only because it quotes the Lebanese American author Khalil Gibran but also because my great-aunt Sophie, who emigrated to the U.S. from Greater Syria as a girl, had embroidered and hung this quote on her wall where it hung until her final breath: “He who denies his heritage, has no heritage.”

About the author: Stephanie Abraham is a nonfiction writer, media critic, and public relations practitioner. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, and she was part of the editorial collective that founded the feminist magazine make/shift and the founding editor of the feminist magazine LOUDmouth. She is the senior marketing communications specialist at Cal Poly Pomona. Please find more information and contact her via her website.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America.

Article courtesy of Yes Solutions Journalism

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