An Arab's guide to Washington DC

Pennsylvania Avenue
5 min read
18 August, 2023

Beyond the Greco-Roman columns and presidential monuments, America’s capital is home to an Arab cultural scene that offers both a corrective to old prejudices and an opportunity for Arabs, locals, and visitors, to connect with our heritage. 

For years, Washington’s food scene was notorious for serving little more than streak frites and Ethiopian cuisine. Obama’s presidency made the city hip and appealing to a new generation of chefs who deviated from the norm and reimagined DC’s gastronomy. Arab chefs have been part of this change.

"One of DC’s newest cultural destinations is the Museum of the Palestinian People (which started off as a pop-up art gallery) and features permanent and special exhibitions dedicated to telling the Palestinian story"

At the Michelin-starred Albi, Michael Rafidi’s contemporary take on Palestinian cooking has become one of the hardest tables to book in the city. Mixing local ingredients with recipes inspired partly by his grandmother, Rafidi’s dishes, such as his mushroom hummus served with a perfectly inflated pita, have been praised as one of Washington's best dining experiences. His sister YELLOW cafe serves tahini soft serve (creamy ice cream) and Viennssoirs with Middle Eastern twists such as za'atar.

Another Michelin-rated spot, and the trendsetter for elevated Arab cuisine, is Maydan. This inventive spot — swordfish belly and oyster mushrooms kebabs, and harissa lemon marinade on prawns are just some of the options on the menu — offers a “Tawle” (meaning table in Arabic), which is mandatory for parties larger than four.

The menu reflects the Arab custom of shared plates and hospitality. President Obama stopped by while he served in the White House. The New York City establishment ilili (“tell me” in Arabic) recently opened up on DC’s new waterfront district The Wharf in a stunning Arab-style courtyard laid with blue tiles, citrus trees, and a fountain centre stage. A garden inspired by Beirut’s landscape, it may be the District’s most beautiful dining room. The Lebanese menu features one of the best Knafeh desserts you’ll ever taste. 

Those looking for something excellent but in a more traditional presentation should head to Mama Ayesha's, a longtime local favourite serving mezza, makloobah, jaj bil toma, and other Arab plates. And don’t sleep on muncheez, a great spot for daytime or late-night shawarmas (it’s a go-to spot after the bars close). 

Washington is a global art destination with the national Smithsonian boasting the world’s largest collection across its 14 extraordinary museums, and with so much to see, there are always permanent and temporary collections dedicated to art from the Arab world.

Not all of this art is Arab or Islamic — one of the newest exhibitions is dedicated to New Kingdom Egyptian glass vessels — but in there lies the layered beauty of the Arab world, the site of so many civilizations.

A Palestinian mainstay, the cauliflower at Maydan
A Palestinian mainstay, the cauliflower at Maydan

What makes DC’s museums special is the outside-the-box thinking. Recently, the Freer Gallery showcased a collection of paintings and objects from ancient Egypt to China on the ancient art of falconry, which as the exhibit noted is still “practised in many societies today, especially in the Arab world.”

The new permanent exhibition “Ancient Yemen: Incense, Art, and Trade” examines Yemen’s ancient incense trade whose wealth supported the mesmerizing alabaster statues and metalworks on display. Arab and Islamic art are intertwined and the Freer is home to a world-class collection of Islamic ceramics, Quran manuscripts, and much more.

The collection seeks to input, in its words, the “classical and Arab philosophy [that] the five outer senses—sound, sight, taste, touch, and smell—are directly connected to the inner senses that define us as human beings: understanding, imagination, and memory.”

Striding lion with Eros child at the Yemen exhibition
Striding Lion with Eros child at the Yemen exhibition

One of DC’s newest cultural destinations is the Museum of the Palestinian People (which started off as a pop-up art gallery) which features permanent and special exhibitions dedicated to telling the Palestinian story.

It recently debuted artwork from the Banksy-curated Walled-Off hotel and gallery space in Bethlehem. DC is a city of think tanks (the Journal of Palestine Studies is published in the DC office of the Beirut-based Institute for Palestine Studies) but even here you can find contemporary Arab art at the Jerusalem Fund (across from the Watergate complex) and the Middle East Institute

Cultural events also mark the calendar. The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee hosts an annual Turaath night featuring Arab American standup comedians and musicians. In a region with a large Arab community, Arabic-themed parties are common at local bars and clubs, such as the upcoming Summer "Hafla" dance party.

Art from the Walled-Off hotel at the Palestinian People Museum
Art from the Walled-Off Hotel at the Palestinian People Museum

No nightlife establishment is more popular for Arabs than The Green Zone. Originally started as a pop-up bar by an Iraqi immigrant, it now resides in the hip Adams Morgan (AdMo) neighbourhood.

Its menu features well-prepared Arab staples but cocktails are where it shines. Its bartenders skillfully mix cocktails ordered off an Arabic-English bilingual menu that features ingredients common in Arab sweets such as cardamom, mastic, dates, and rose. The bar is fully stocked with Arak from Lebanon and Palestine and several Palestinian beers.

Live Story

The menu is playful and unapologetically Arab with drinks named Wandering Arab and Desert Falcon. Underneath the A Few of My Favorite Things cocktail, the drink description reads “Arabs’ Favorite, That is” and the liquor of choice is Ramallah Arak. Greenzone spins Arabic and Middle Eastern music every weekend (and some weekdays) as revellers drink and dabke.

The decor is Arabic kitsch featuring old Fairuz album covers and long ago travel posters of the region. No proper Arab visit to DC is complete without a night at the Green Zone (the name is an ironic nod to the walled Baghdad compound built by the US after the 2003 invasion). 

As a final destination, check out the Islamic Center on Washington’s famed Embassy Row. Constructed in the Egyptian Mamluk style, it was inaugurated by President Eisenhower in the 1950s and is the city’s first major mosque. Alongside the Moorish Almas Shriners temple (a Masonic members club), it is the finest example of Arab architecture in the city.

Khelil Bouarrouj is a Washington, DC-based writer and civil rights advocate. His work can be found in the Washington Blade, Palestine Square, and other publications