As Turmoil Rages at Home, Pan-Arab Unity in NYC

Arab-Americans came together last week at the 10th annual Arab-American and North African cultural street festival. (Photo by Hadear Kandil)

Taking advantage of the final days before Ramadan, the month in which Muslims fast every day from dawn to sunset, Arab-American vendors lined up with iced lemonade and watermelon last Sunday, offering some relief from the 95-degree weather at the 10th annual Arab-American and North African cultural street festival in Greenwich Village.

Rania Zohny buys a tamarind beverage. (Photo by Hadear Kandil)

Even as political and military struggles and strife roil much of the Arab world, the festival, organized by the Network of Arab-American Professionals of NY, filled Great Jones Street between Broadway and Lafayette with traditional music, food and dance. Despite political, national and sectarian differences back home, organizers and attendees said that pan-Arab unity was the goal at the festival. Muslim and non-Muslim, traditional and westernized, Arab-Americans gathered to eat, shop and socialize.

Rania Zohny, a 20-year-old Egyptian-Palestinian student born and raised in the Upper East Side, watched singers from Tunisia, Yemen and Iraq share a stage, while the crowd held hands in dabke, a traditional dance popular in Palestine. A group of men and women smoked a hookah pipe and cheered them on.

“It breaks our hearts to see any Middle Eastern country in turmoil,” Zohny said. “I just want to see us get together more, and be organized. I want us to succeed as a community.”

That’s part of the point of the festival, said Sarab Al-Jijakli, a co-founder of NAAP-NY and a Syrian by way of England and New York.

Flags from 22 Arab nations hung at last week's festival. (Photo by Hadear Kandil)

“[We’re here] to celebrate our heritage and our contributions to this city,” he explained. “We have 22 countries represented in this festival, and we try our best to make sure that every corner of the Arab world is showcased here today.”

Indeed, from Morocco to Comoros, flags of the 22 Arab League member states were displayed in a banner overhead, motionless in the July heat wave. With various Arabic dialects audible in the background and the smoky aroma from kebab grills filling the air, Zohny said the diverse Arab crowd shares some characteristics.

“We all have so much passion and are so patriotic when it comes to our countries,” she said.

The festival attracted non-Arabs as well. Falafel, the chickpea fritters popular across the Arab world, found customers among both with those accustomed to eating them for breakfast and those trying for the first time.

Dalia Ghanem, a New Jersey print designer who has run a teeshirt stand at the fair for seven years, said she sees herself as something of a cultural ambassador.

“If someone says to me, ‘you’re the first Egyptian I’ve ever met’, I’ll say, ‘well, ask me anything,” she said. “So I try to educate them as much as I can. Like guess what? We’re not all terrorists. We’re your neighbors.”

Her quirky teeshirts promote Arab pride with slogans such as “Party Like Iraq Star” and “Stand Tall, Walk Like an Egyptian.”

Dalia Ghanem's quirky teeshirts have been a fixture at the festival for seven years. (Photo by Hadear Kandil)

“I’ve always felt a strong connection to my Egyptian roots, always,” she explained. “But I’ve never wanted to prove all the good stuff about our culture until after September 11. That’s why I started these teeshirts, because I was so sick and tired of seeing all this negative stuff. Everything was very serious and very political.”

Eliana Lezama, a Mexican-American student who came with Zohny, found plenty to like at the festival, and noted some similarities between Arab culture and her own.

“Minorities need their culture, their traditions,” she said. “They need to keep it alive. Mexicans are minorities as well in New York, we also have to unite and work together to achieve anything.”

Her only wish, she said, was for even more festival.

“I feel like it’s unfair that it’s just one block,” she said. “You have how many Arab nations, and you just get one block?”

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