American Arabesque celebrated in Virginia

Sunday 25/12/2016
Syrian silks as part of the handicraft exhibition American Arabesque – Washington DC. (Lynn Simarski)

Washington - 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.