Last weekend, I travelled to Dallas to speak at the Arab Texas Festival. It was a remarkable event that both filled me with pride at our progress and left me inspired.
As I stood on the stage looking out at the 10,000 who had gathered at the festival, my hope for the future of the Arab American community was renewed. The make-up of the crowd was stunningly diverse. There were young and old; women in traditional abayas and those in jeans and T-shirts; folks from over a dozen Arab countries (we knew this from the Master of Ceremony’s call for shout outs – “let me hear a shout from the Lebanese,” “from the Palestinians,” “from the Syrians,” “from the Egyptians,” “from the Tunisians,” and so on down the line).
Some were there to taste the offerings of the many local Arabic restaurants who participated in the day-long event. Some came to sing and dance debkah or just sit under a tent and smoke argila. Some came to buy or sell crafts from their countries of origin. But all were there to celebrate, with pride, their shared heritage. And (this is where Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib – the event’s other guest speaker – and I fit in), to talk about our shared political concerns, as Arab Americans, and how we can best address them.
The diversity of the crowd, and their enthusiasm and commitment, gave me flashbacks to almost 40 years ago when I travelled across the US, sometimes with former Senator James Abourezk, sometimes alone, organising Arab Americans. Those were heady days as we set about to build the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee – a non-sectarian umbrella organisation focused on unifying our community, lifting up with pride our Arab heritage, and fighting discrimination and defamation.
The response we received was overwhelming, as community members swarmed to our events and joined our organisation. They were tired of being beaten down and embarrassed by negative media stereotypes, angry at being excluded in political circles because they dared to speak out for justice for Palestinians. For them, it didn’t matter if someone was Syrian or Lebanese or Palestinian; if they were Christian or Muslim. They were Arab Americans, without differences, and they sought common ground to build a strong community.
Looking back, I think all Arab Americans can be proud of what our community has achieved and the progress we’ve made. When I’ve been asked what I thought were our greatest accomplishments during the past four decades, I’ve responded that the two things that give me the most pride are the fact that we helped to forge a community that was proud of its heritage and we were able to encourage and create opportunities for young Arab Americans to serve their community and become engaged in public service.
A few years ago, at our annual Kahlil Gibran “Spirit of Humanity” Dinner, we gave a public service award to Ted Kattouf, an Arab American former Ambassador who had been in the foreign service for decades. The award was named after Najib Halaby – one of the first Arab Americans to have served in the White House, serving under President John F Kennedy. The award was presented by Ray LaHood, then Secretary of Transportation. At dinner’s end, I reflected on what had transpired and told the audience, “Tonight we gave an award named after a Syrian American. It was presented by a Lebanese American, and it was given to a Palestinian American. This unity couldn’t happen in the Arab World – but we’ve made it commonplace, here in America.”
This is what we’ve done. But we can’t rest on our laurels, because we are living through a time when powerful centrifugal forces are at work threatening our hard-fought gains. The fragmentation of identity spawned by the Arab Spring and the politicising of religious identity are damaging to our unity.
It was against this backdrop that the Dallas festival was so important. The unity of so many diverse component groups that make up our community, the joy they demonstrated in celebrating our shared culture, and their commitment to giving voice to our political concerns – served as an important reminder that what brings us together can be so much more powerful than what threatens to separate us.
My message to the Arab American Community in Dallas: You give us pride and inspire us to forge ahead.