The A-Word Reclaimed

How performance art can change the way Americans identify with the Arab world.

The word “Arab” is used way too liberally in the American vernacular. Since 9/11 and the advent of our six-year war, the term has become a mutilated mainstay in public debate—a common appropriation, the de facto cultural label for all things Islamic, terrorist-related or alien.

During the last presidential election John McCain supporters used the A-word as an epithet against Barack Obama. And recently, Busta Rhymes put stereotypes to song—and dance—with his shameful single, “Arab Money.”

Thankfully, a culture coup is underway.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington has provided an opportunity to correct some misconceptions of Arab identity, providing a platform for more than 800 Arab artists to reclaim the right to self-definition. Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World is in the final leg of its three-week run at the Kennedy Center, celebrating the richness and diversity of arts and culture of more than 22 Arab countries. The festival, which includes music, dance, theater and an array of ongoing art and cultural exhibitions, is the biggest showcase of Arab art in the U.S.

But the magnitude of Arabesque is matched only by its potential impact, the opportunity for the Arab Diaspora to share their truth with a new and uninitiated audience. No Western lens; no otherworldly exoticism; just unfiltered voices with a story to tell.

The limited perception of Arab cultures may indeed be an American phenomenon, but Somali rapper K’Naan has hope for expansion. The self-proclaimed “Dusty Foot Philosopher” conquers cultural ignorance by teaching his audience about the harsh realities of his native land.

I’m from the most risky zone – oh

No place is more shifty global

More pistols, Russian revolvers

We shootin’ all that is normal


As he took the Millennium Stage, K’Naan borrowed from his personal narrative and pain-filled childhood in war-torn Mogadishu. His performance put a human face to the cold news reports of the combat abroad—that of his murdered girlfriend, Fatima.

Damn you shooter, damn you the building

Whose walls hid the blood she was spilling

Damn you Country so good at killing

Damn you feeling, for persevering


His free show during Arabesque’s opening weekend brought in droves of listeners—many of whom shared K’Naan’s East African roots. They stood in line for nearly an hour to hear K’Naan’s raspy recollections of his old home. And while there was no pretty bow tied around his past, the Dusty Foot Philosopher was insistent on attaching a silver lining: “We’re not mourning; We’re celebrating.” It is a festival, after all.