New York Arab Festival makes Arab heritage American culture

New York Arab Film Festival
4 min read
Washington, D.C.
02 May, 2023

New York Arab Festival has come back for a second year, following last year's debut that brought together Arab artists from all over the world to the Big Apple and to digital screens, as much of the world was still cautiously coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This year, the festival features Arab artists from the Middle East and North Africa and the diaspora, showcasing different venues in New York's various multidisciplinary and experimental arts and cultures. 

Adham Hafez, NYAF founder, says he wants to give more exposure to Arab art and artists, which can mean showcasing their work outside of conventional venues, such as cafes, nightclubs and outdoors. He also wants to show that the performances and exhibitions are open to all. 

"It's really important to show experimental work and to support projects that don't tend to be very traditional. It's important for the conversation to be contemporary and future looking"

This year's festival, which is running from 17 April to 7 May, has coincided with Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr, an opportunity to show the region's cultural and religious traditions. Like last year, it has also been planned in recognition of Arab American Heritage Month

"There is a diverse array of interests," Hafez, tells The New Arab, referring to the different artistic expressions at the festival. "Some are about change, hope, and despair. Some works are sorrowful about the revolution. Some are about being a migrant in the US and facing anti-Arab discrimination."

Having the festival in four of New York's five boroughs -- Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island -- has highlighted the reach of Arab culture in the city, something that is not always evident in conventional knowledge of the city. 

Egyptian artist Manar Abdelmaaboud [Courtesy of NYAF]
Egyptian artist Manar Abdelmaaboud [Courtesy of NYAF]

It is where Khalil Gibran (whose old house is located in Brooklyn) and other Arab writers found a home at the beginning of the last century. It is the home of the once-bustling neighbourhood of Little Syria, where some of the country's first Arab immigrants settled in large numbers. These days, it is where Yemenis dominate the bodegas, the city's neighbourhood convenience stores. 

"There's a lot sprinkled in the city that you might not know, where Arab Americans have lived or contributed to New York culture," Cindy Sibilsky, a producer for the festival, tells The New Arab, adding that they wanted the festival to be New York AF. 

"They influence every neighbourhood, with how invisibly visible they are. They all contribute to the cultural fabric," she says. "We want to fight erasure and bring out visibility to show that Arabs are a fluid part of the city."

For Leyya Mona Tawil, an artist, composer and choreographer, the festival is her opportunity to show her original dance composition.

Born into a Syrian and Palestinian family and raised in Detroit, she has the experience of an Arab in the diaspora, which she brings to her work.

For the festival, she performs an original dance in which she portrays a character from the future from a homeland that doesn't exist yet, a metaphor for the diaspora experience. 

"It's a way of stating a post-state future," Tawil tells TNA. "I'm using a lot of elements of dabke and ballet. She says, "I think it's really important to show experimental work and to support projects that don't tend to be very traditional. It's important for the conversation to be contemporary and future looking."

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Possibly signalling growing mainstream interest in the festival, the second edition of the New York Arab Festival has seen their arts and performances at prestigious venues, such as Tribeca and the City University of New York. And grants have come from the Brooklyn Arts Council through the Howard Gilman Foundation and from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.

"There's a lot to celebrate," says Sibilsky. "We want to keep growing and extending this so that it becomes something people know and look forward to. We want it to be for everyone, not just for the artists and the Arab community."

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's Washington, DC correspondent. She did her BA in Geography of the Middle East at the University of London, SOAS, where she wrote a dissertation on water policy in Syria and Turkey. She spent five years in Damascus, where she studied Arabic and worked as a journalist and eight years in Beirut, where she mainly worked as a journalist. She has won awards for writing about police brutality in the US and Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews