Somewhere between a raspy Somalian rapper, a Palestinian poet and a Debbie Allen-directed dance performance, the American idea of what it means to be Arab begins to grow.
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.
Still, a debate about Arab identity in America can be risky. You never know what scary—or stupid—comments will come out of people’s mouths. That’s where Suheir Hammad comes in, with a few choice words of her own.
The Palestinian-American poet and political activist refuses to be branded by the misperceptions of her culture. Certain things just won’t fly with her. And “exotic” is right there at the top of the list.
don’t seduce yourself with my otherness
my hair wasn’t put on top of my head to entice you into some mysterious black voodoo
the beat of my lashes against each other
ain’t some dark desert beat
it’s just a blink
get over it
—“Not Your Exotic, Not Your Erotic”
Hammad’s not one to mince words. Shortly after 9/11, she appeared on Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam and adamantly claimed her place in the American fabric.
—"First Writing Since"
She was just as fierce last Saturday night, serving up “An Evening of Breaking Poems.” The Millennium Stage that K’Naan used to transport his listeners to Somalia’s shores became Hammad’s platform for protest. Her spoken word paid tribute to a fractured existence—the dispossession and displacement from the Gaza Strip as her family fled to Jordan, where she was born. Each stanza she delivered was like a stamp of her personal brand, an uncompromising look at the distinct components of her identity. Palestinian-American. Palestinian and American. Be sure to get the story straight.
Reframing how Arab cultures are viewed in America means that the cultural revolution must continue long after the festivities end. The conversation needs to move off-stage, and it needs to include everyone, even children.
“OMAN…O Man” aims to do just that. The Debbie Allen-directed performance is one of the last to be featured on the festival’s lineup, and it targets kids 9 and older. Premiering March 12, “OMAN” will have a five-show run on the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Stage.
Rather than rehashing the existing culture clash between Arabs and Americans, “OMAN” explores the possibilities that can arise when we embrace our similarities and our differences.
The production is a collaborative effort, both on stage and off, featuring young dancers from Allen’s troupe in Los Angeles, Calif. and auditioned dancers from the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center of Oman.
With a concept of cultural fusion as its foundation, “OMAN” tells the story of two boys, one Omani and one American, who room together at a military academy. And though they come from two different worlds, their crossroads meet at dance.
At one point in the performance, there’s a call to prayer and a young boy stands humbly in preparation. There is no debate here. No holy jihad or propaganda, just a humming invocation from an unseen imam. Eyes closed, the boy tempts the non-believer with a simple gracefulness; head to mat and back again. Slowly, a desert scene backdrop transports the audience to a distant land—foreign perhaps but certainly not unknown.
This is what Arabesque is able to offer: the chance for Arab men and women to lose their “otherness” and embrace the everyday attributes of their identity. Somewhere between the raspy rap lesson, the protest poetry and fusion dance, the American idea of Arab begins to grow. And for once we’re able to stop talking long enough to listen.
Saaret E. Yoseph is editorial assistant for The Root.