As Washington gears up for the inauguration of a new president who has called for a “total shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States, just across the Potomac River in Alexandria, Virginia, more than 1,000 people attended American Arabesque, a celebration of Arab arts and cultures.
“We wanted to showcase the rich diversity of Arab culture in a family-friendly environment, so visitors could experience the music, poetry, cuisine, art, handicrafts and children’s educational activities in an exuberant atmosphere,” said organiser Rosemarie Esber, an international development consultant who specialises in Arab history and culture.
Esber said the idea for the festival came to her last May and she approached Cheryl Anne Colton, regional programme director of Alexandria’s Office of the Arts.
Colton was enthusiastic. “Once people learn traditions, dances, music and art from another culture, appreciation and tolerance occur, rather than fear and hate,” she said, but she did have her doubts. “Like others, I had been following world affairs. I was concerned that tension would develop during the planning, the event and afterward,” Colton said.
Instead, she and others who attended saw intense joy, pride and cultural, not political, exchange during the December 3rd event. The cold quiet of the day gave way to warmth and high spirits in the exhibition hall. Inviting aromas from food stands greeted visitors in the lobby. Rooms were dedicated to performances, vendors, exhibitors, children, even prayer and meditation.
The programme opened with a recitation by Alexandria’s poet laureate, Wendi Kaplan, who ceded the stage to Samara Najia, a Palestinian-American poet who will soon publish her first book. “There were eight poems, total. All of them were in English with Arabic mixed in. They were perfect for the festival and reminded everyone of our common human connection,” said Patricia Lee, who drove from Maryland for the celebration.
A major part of the festival was an art exhibit and sale coordinated by Amr Mounib, a professional photographer originally from Egypt. “I wanted to promote mutual understanding through the arts to create a platform for future generations and understanding of how cultural diversity adds to the layers of American society,” he said.
Like for so many Arabs and Arab Americans, widespread misinformation about the Middle East concerned Mounib. He was delighted that “so many Americans of other origins were curious and came out to visit and show their support. Some even prepared a few Arabic greetings!” To the delight of onlookers, Lukman Ahmad, a Syrian Kurdish artist, painted Waiting for Spring, which he auctioned to raise money for the Syrian American Medical Society.
Throughout the day, traditional Arabic music infused conversations and purchases, demonstrations and learning experiences. Foty Fusion, the Huda Asfour Quartet, Ramy Adly, the Arab Jazz Collective and the Arabic Music Ensemble attracted capacity crowds and sold CDs to new and old fans. Surrounding them were vendors of Syrian painted glass, Palestinian ceramics and skin-care products, Moroccan jewellery, Yemeni coffee, Egyptian quilted textiles and Lebanese chocolates.
Next to young women trying on vibrantly coloured capes and tunics, two calligraphers worked calmly. A climate-change expert asked Joe Ayoub, who works at the US Department of Energy, to write “Antarctic ice” in Arabic. A volunteer patronised the henna artist nearby. His hand framed her design.
Lisa Jaradat and Haifa Amin travelled from New York to market their firm iMPACT’s embroidery created by Palestinian and Jordanian widows and low-income women. “It’s great to see the unity among Arab Americans and to educate the community about the art, history and, especially, the embroidery. What the media is portraying about the Arabs isn’t necessarily true,” said Jaradat. The artisans receive most of the non-profit organisation’s proceeds and train other women. “Being able to give back to those impacted by war and poverty is ultimately our goal,” she said.
Several embassies had booths. “We were all surprised that Ambassador Abdullah bin Faisal bin Turki Al Saud of Saudi Arabia not only attended the event but also spent time visiting the celebration and speaking with exhibitors,” Esber said. The Nakba Museum Project, a travelling exhibition that tells the Palestinian story through various art forms, also had a table.
Down the hall, children painted Omani incense burners and learned about frankincense from Amal Morsy, the librarian at the Middle East Institute. Others listened to tales in Arabic read by Tuqa Nusairat, one of the founders of Maktabatee, which sells Arabic storybooks. There were also percussion and crafting workshops by local artists.
Esber said she would like to have the festival again next year and involve more Arab countries. “Everyone working on planning and organising the event did so as a labour of love. Their commitment and dedication to realising an outstanding cultural experience with minimal resources was inspiring,” she said.
“The essence of community spirit on Saturday was quite apparent, with people smiling, talking, laughing, singing and engaging in conversation,” said Colton.
Mary Sebold is a Washington-based contributor to The Arab Weekly.
Copyright ©2016 The Arab Weekly