Former President Jimmy Carter once said, “We have become not a melting pot, but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.”
One small piece of that mosaic was evident early May in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where the city’s Multicultural Affairs Committee, along with the Arab American community of Montgomery County, Maryland, hosted an Arab American heritage cultural festival.
Previously, city officials declared April 2009 as Arab American Heritage Month in the city. The proclamation recognizes the Arab American community, celebrates its achievements and acknowledges that Arab Americans continue to make substantial contributions to life in Montgomery County.
Government officials, such as Representative Chris Van Hollen (Democrat from Maryland) and Gaithersburg Mayor Sidney Katz, participated in the festivities.
The festival (May 3) featured a poetry reading by Arab American poet Mai Mashini, a choir performance by students of the Abjadiyah Arabic Language School and an address by Katz, who focused on Arab American achievements and the importance of commemorating the rich and diverse heritage of Arab Americans.
Many Arab Americans were born in the United States. Many have been in the United States for generations and may not speak Arabic or dress in clothing common in Arab countries. The majority of Arab Americans are descendants of the first wave of immigration, which began around 1875 and lasted until about 1920. A second wave of Arab immigrants arrived in the United States after 1940.
Although the term “Arab Americans” may include a highly diverse group of people, differing in ancestral origins, religious backgrounds and historic identities, Arab Americans share a heritage through a common language and cultural and political traditions, and these factors bind this community.
A new Zogby International poll found that there are 3.5 million Americans who identify themselves as Arab Americans or Americans who originally belonged to one of the 23 U.N. member countries of the Arab world.
Arab Americans have contributed to America in many different fields. One early example was the late James Jabara, a Korean War hero and U.S. Air Force colonel in World War II. Army officers like Major General Fred Safay fought alongside General George Patton and Brigadier General Elias Stevens served on the staff of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Other prominent Arab Americans are veteran Congressmen Nick Joe Rahall II (West Virginia), Charles Boustany (Louisiana) and Darrell Issa (California), former Senator John E. Sununu (New Hampshire), and Ahmed Zewail, who received the Nobel Prize for chemistry (1999) and who was selected by President Obama to serve on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
Samira Hussein and Habib Ghanim, the festival organizers, told Africa News Report that the festival first began in 1997 when Hussein asked then-County Executive Douglas Duncan to designate a day to celebrate Arab American heritage. Duncan welcomed the idea, which was also supported by county council members at that time.
They also told Africa News Report that the Arab American Heritage Cultural Festival of Montgomery County, Maryland, will take place annually, and feature poetry readings, arts and crafts, performances of dance and music, Middle Eastern food, traditional clothing, henna, calligraphy, games and prizes.
Hussein has won awards for her community activism. As a result of her dedication and her negotiation skills, Montgomery County Public Schools now require all teachers to complete a 45-hour cultural sensitivity course. As a result of her work, Maryland also revised its testing policies to respect the religious observances of Muslim students.
Ghanim is the president of USA Halal Chamber of Commerce Inc., which certifies food as halal (meeting Islamic dietary standards), with the help of the Islamic Society of the Washington Area (ISWA). ISWA also provides social services such as family counseling, social events and activities, educational gatherings and financial aid, which are necessary for the well-being and prosperity of the community.
Jimmy Carter’s words capture the spirit of the festival: “We can have an America that encourages and takes pride in our ethnic diversity, our religious diversity, our cultural diversity — knowing that out of this pluralistic heritage has come the strength and the vitality and the creativity that has made us great and will keep us great.”