The desire to explore my Arab heritage has taken me to places many Americans would not dare to travel. I've wandered through ancient ruins in Syria, spoken with political leaders in Saudi Arabia, and lived with Bedouins in the deserts of Jordan. In college I traveled alone to eight different countries throughout the Middle East. Considering all of this, it was a surprise to me when one of the most engaging discussions I’ve had about Arab culture took place this summer in Omaha, Nebraska during the Millennial Trains Project, a cross-country journey for young millennials to pursue their passions.
In August, I documented the experiences of Arab Americans in seven cities throughout the United States. As a millennial whose coming of age coincided with 9/11, a war in Iraq, and an Arab Spring, I quickly realized that most Americans’ perceptions of Arab culture didn't include Steve Jobs or the Khalil Gibrans of the world. My contemporaries were defining Arab culture by the political turmoil of the Middle East rather than by the people who lived in it. On the train journey, I set out to meet Arab Americans in cities across the United States to contribute a new storyline in which the Arab community’s values, hopes and experiences could take center stage. These are the things I learned...
We must educate people about the Arab community.
In Denver, Colorado, one of the first stops on our trip, I met with Father Shawareb and his parishioner, Yazan Shaqara, at their solar-powered church. They belonged to the Arab branch of the Orthodox Church, Antiochian. Over a cup of coffee we discussed how many Americans now equated Arabs with Muslims.
Father Shawareb had said, "When you tell people ‘I’m an Orthodox,’ they ask, ‘Oh are you Russian or Greek?’ People don’t know who we are."
Shaqara said, "When people tell me they’re surprised that there are Arab Christians, I say, ‘Don’t you remember where Jesus is from?".
After further discussion with Father Shawareb, it’s evident that educating people about his community is not simply a matter of personal interest, but a matter of necessity.
"I heard something once that really affected me," he explained, "We brought in a speaker who said, ‘If your church burned down, or if a disaster happened, would that affect the community around you?’ That means, do they know you exist or not?"
Each year St. Elias has a church festival complete with a tabbouleh making competition, shisha and Arabic dance. Father Shawareb makes sure that the surrounding community is a part of the celebration. He showed me a stack of fliers, "Before the festival, I take lots of these fliers, I go to the neighbors, I knock on the door, I introduce myself. I want them to know who we are."
We don't have to defend our culture to anyone.
While the Arab Christians I met along my journey made a strong effort to show people that their community existed, the Muslims I spoke with tried to reverse the ubiquitous Islamophobia in the media. This is where Omaha came in.
During our stop in Nebraska I met with Dr. Naser Alsharif, a pharmacology professor at Creighton University. As a leader in the Muslim community, Alsharif is involved in the Tri-Faith Initiative, an alliance that built a church, mosque and synagogue next to one another in effort to form a coalition. He also works with the Islamic Speakers' Bureau, which goes to schools and workplaces in Nebraska and Iowa to speak about Islam. I asked him if he ever finds it difficult when put in the position to be a spokesperson for his culture.
"You touch on a very important point for all of us,” he said, “which is that we always feel like we have to defend our culture or our religion or that part of the world and the key thing I've learned [is that] I don't have to speak out because ‘I am a Muslim’ or ‘I am a Palestinian,’ it is because this is what I believe in, as an American first.”
We must embrace the diversity within ourselves.
As I made my way East toward our final destination in DC, I met with others who shared their stories and stepped out of their comfort zones to let me take their pictures. I learned what everyday life was like for Syrian immigrants, for Arab musicians, and for imams in the Midwest. I found parts of my experience reflected in each conversation, while still finding moments of surprise. Most of all, I found myself falling in love all over again with this culture that mystified me as a child and later taught me empathy as an adult.
I never predicted that a trip through the heart of the United States would bring me closer to my Arab roots, but here I was feeling the pull. I think of Father Shawareb when he smiled at me and said, “I'm Palestinian by birth, I'm Jordanian by roots, I’m Christian by faith and Arab by soul. What a blessed mix."
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