Identity – Religious, Ethnic, Linguistic?

This past Sunday, my husband Teo and I attended the 5th annual Atlanta Arab Festival. Sponsored by the Alif Institute and the Arab American Women’s Society of Georgia, the festival afforded attendees a wonderful mélange of Arabic food from Morocco, Syria, Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon as well as Arabic music, arts and crafts, shopping at a charming souk, and several exhibitions focusing on past and present Arab intellectual achievements and Arab history in the United States.

After having a fabulous lunch of Moroccan and Palestinian fare, Teo and I wondered around the festival talking to the many festival goers and organizers. We spent some time at the dessert booth relishing in the decadent array of Arabic sweets and talking to Helen and Widad-members of the Arab American Women’s Society of Georgia which was responsible for the fabulous assortment of popular Arabic sweets. I was particularly taken with the homemade basbousa, a semolina cake soaked in sweet syrup and kissed with a delicate essence of rose water.

You may be wondering why I am writing about this festival and what it has to do with religion? Well bear with me and let’s enjoy the rest of the tour before getting to the serious stuff. After dessert (I bought some basbousa to go), Teo and I went to see the exhibition located inside of the Alif Institute. Upon entering the exhibition, we immediately encountered wall posters listing prominent American-Arabs such as Salma Hayek, Ralph Nadar, Tony Shalhoub, George Mitchell, John Sununu, Spencer Abraham, Helen Thomas, Marlo Thomas, Bobby Rahal, Paul Anka, Paula Abdul, and Shakira. The exhibition also provided a historical tour of Arab achievements in science, math, and technology, along with examples of the fine Arabic artwork from various countries. Beautiful glassware from Iraq, Eastern Orthodox Christian Icons from Lebanon, and inlaid furniture from Syria were prominently on display. One of the most poignant exhibits honored the four generations of the Najjar family who had proudly served in the U.S. military. Aside from the exhibits, the Alif Institute provided a range of learning activities for children and adults.

During the tour of the exhibit, as I spoke to many of the attendees, it occurred to me that in celebrating Arab history and culture, this festival had managed to transcend the religious conflict that so often grasps our attention on the nightly news. I was surrounded by Muslim, Christian, and secular Arabs who had put aside their religious differences to celebrate their cultural/ethnic identity. Unfortunately, Americans are often unaware of the religious and ethnic diversity that exists in the Arab world but fortunately, the Alif Institute did an amazing job organizing and presenting this diversity to festival goers, Arab and non-Arab alike. According to the festival program, the Alif Institute determines Arab identity according to spoken language-not ethnicity.

“Arabs are diverse peoples who live in 22 nations: Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco,, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. The word “Arab” embraces more than 300 million multiethnic and multiracial Arabic-speaking peoples living in these countries. In addition to language, Arabs are unified by cultural and historical roots traceable to Abraham and Shem, the eldest of Noah’s three sons, as well as the great Semitic migrations originating from the Arabian Peninsula that led to the rise of the Assyrians, Arameans, and Canaanites.”

Of course, Arab identity is much more TheBusinessDaily complicated and cannot simply be defined by a common language. Arabs almost always hold multiple identities at once such as: Syrian, Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian, Lebanese, Muslim, Christian, Druze, Shia, Sunni, Catholic, Melkite Catholic, Coptic, Jewish, and secular Arab. Collective identity can be accessed not only through language but via religion, stories, history, tradition, politics, ideology, commemoration of events, or a simple celebration of one identifying factor which temporarily overrides religious, ideological, or political differences. The Atlanta Arab Festival drew Christian, Muslim, and secular Arabs together to celebrate the rich tapestry of Arab identity and achievements. I applaud their efforts and look forward to attending next year’s event.

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