Welcome to the Arab Festival of the Washington DC Area brought to you by the heirs of the former Turkish Empire. It is ironic that as soon as I walked through the gates into the festival grounds I see the main sponsor's logo all over: Turkish Airlines. It seems that the irony is lost on the organizers and the sponsors. Arabs and Arab Americans short term memory loss is problematic as they have lost the lesson of how brutal was the Ottoman Caliphate occupation of Arab lands.
With great anticipation I visited the one day festival, Saturday the 27th of September 2014, checking out vendor tents void of any allure for only the handcrafted pottery vendor. I quickly became suspicious of the origin of the art work. “This style doesn’t look Arabic” I thought to myself when the gentleman manning the table started with his pitch. I quickly asked “where was this one made?” he paused for a second and said “Persia.” A smart attempt to avoid saying “Iran” identifying himself and the artwork in a less politically charged affiliation. the score so far: festival 0 for 2. I followed my nose up the hill. I’ve planned my day so to eat my major meal at the festival imagining the numerous variety of traditional tasty Arabic cuisine in an afternoon of culinary bliss. My hopes were dashed realizing that none of the vendors were giving out samples of any long missed tasty Arabic foods.
The longest line was the one forming under the shade of some trees. I wanted to stand in line just to escape the glaring midday sun, but I was curious to check out the half dozen food stands, looking for the most intriguing menu items. Kabob on the grills of a couple of vendors with smoke dancing to a delicious beat of hunger and growling stomach. The first one was a Pakistani restaurant, the second was an Afghani and the last was Indian. Only the first vendor was making Arabic cuisine. Was there anything Arabic about this “Arab Fest”? Sure there was, there was the music echoing from the bottom of the hill, it was unequivocally Arabic. I approached the stage to get a glimpse of the band. It was a Palestinian one made up of five family members of which a little 8 years old girl played the guitar and sang; very endearing. Although, singing Marcel Khalifa’s “Tifl we Teyara” was the antithesis of the festive vibe the gathering was anticipating.
I must respect the Palestinians’ persistence to remind us and the world of their plight. Unfortunately it is not resonating. There is a major disconnect between the Palestinian people and the land of Palestine. The Palestinians over the last few decades have been coming across in an unflattering way. The divide between Hamas and Fath, the rift between the people of Gaza and the West Bank is a major conundrum. Less the Palestinian find a way to unify and become again one people it will remain a challenge for them to gain any real international public support including that of the Arab world. Arabs are unified in their animosity toward Israel, but are by no means pro Palestinians.
Back at the festival my patience was running thin, I was ready to leave. The entry fee was exaggerated, historic enemies were sponsoring the festival, the festival was lacking in festivity, Arab kids were undisciplined and hijab was overcasting an aura of Islamic tint over the afternoon. There is nothing wrong with Hijab or Islam per se, but equating Arab culture with the Islamic faith is troubling. Setting the bar, no pun intended, to adhere to a conservative religious interpretation for the purpose of appeasing the minority is tantamount to catering to the outlier minority among the group. The lowest common denominator approach is the same one that gave us Al-Qaeda and ISIS/ISIL/IS. The outward appearance of the festival wasn’t visually religious, but the festival lacked essential festive and celebrated Arabic signature items such as the Lute and Qanoon, Arab dresses and jewelry, Arab architectural achievement and arts, Arabic inventions and history, and Arabic language, poetry and literature.
The Arab Festival did not materialize in the way it did in a vacuum. It is a reflection of the Arab world; especially that more immigrants are flooding the U.S. bringing with them ingrained fears and desperation as well as memories of destruction and atrocities. But they also bring with them a more recent Arab experience, dreams and hopes. I believe this is a good time to reflect on Arabhood and on our Arab-Americanism to examine what makes us Arabs. Muslim Americans are mostly non Arabs while being classified as White is a false classification leading successive generations to lose their Arabism, which leaves us in a peculiar place. The only factor that brings Arab-Americans together as it were is our shared grievances. And even that external negative unifier is now being lost seeing how dominant the Turkish and Iranian presence was at this festival. This would have been a different kind of article; one that praises coexistence, forgiveness and tolerance if the festival was in fact a celebration of Arab culture and not just a facade.
Nevertheless, in typical Arab fashion we avoid abundant sunshine by seeking the reprieve of any shade. Although the historic Turkish clouds are dissipating, the Iranian skies are ominously darkening. Nevertheless, Arab Americans have found darker clouds for us to gather under; the NSA, FBI and CIA along with many local law enforcement agencies are resorting to failed profiling tactics. Without their biases and prejudice we would have lost our Arab-American identity.
* A shorter version of this article was first published on Al-Arabiya http://goo.gl/UlSczG (Oct 5, 2014), but it was edited to be shorter depriving the reader for some essential elements. I hope you find this complete version to be satisfactory