'No turning back': After Biden administration recognition, Arab-American Heritage Month thrives, officially

'No turning back': After Biden administration recognition, Arab-American Heritage Month thrives, officially
Proclaimed in at least 20 states and 100 cities, Arab American Heritage Month celebrates and raises awareness of Arab culture in America, including literature, food and music.
3 min read
15 April, 2021
The US State Department has recognised April as Arab American Heritage month [Getty]

Washington DC, The New Arab - For Arab Americans, the growing official recognition of April this year and from now on as their Heritage Month is a major victory, although much remainds to be done.

Arab-Americans advocacy groups have for years lobbied states and the federal government to take this step, but it took an administration seen as relatively friendly to the Arab-American community to make it happen, at least at State Department level if not yet in Congress.

"It wasn't easy to get going," Warren David, president of Arab America, a national media organization, told The New Arab, four years after he and other advocates began making initial headway on giving the month an official designation.

"In the beginning, there were obstacles. Saying nice things about Arabs, even if it's cultural is still political. Humanising Arabs is still political.”

What had begun as a general idea decades ago, is now for the first time recognised by the State Department, with matching proclamations in at least 20 states and 100 cities, in addition to libraries and schools across the country. The month has even appeared in 2021 calendars at bookstores.

At the start of the month, the US State Department designated April as Arab-American Heritage Month, as a way to celebrate the contributions of Arab-Americans to the US, which State Department spokesman Ned Price said "are as old as America itself" during the announcement.

In Congress, the efforts have stalled. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib introduced a bill last year to recognise April as Arab American Heritage Month, but it is still pending.

Read also: US State Department designates April as 'Arab-American Heritage Month'

The aim of Arab American Heritage Month is to celebrate and raise awareness of Arab culture in America, including literature, art, food and music.

"We're bringing together Arab Americans. The common denominators are language, music and food," says David, noting that these are often sources of division in the Middle East. Moreover, he is proud of the unity of his organisation’s leadership, which includes all religious sects in the Arab world.

He credits Lebanese expatriate poet Khalil Gibran, who at the beginning of the 20th century worked to bring together artists from different sects and backgrounds.

In Detroit, Sirene Abou-Chakra, chief development officer for the city, has worked to help bring about an official proclamation of the month, which the mayor did in a moving video about the community's contributions to the city.

"I think Detroit is much more diverse than people think it is," says Abou-Chakra. "There is a large number of refugees and immigrants settling into Detroit."

Anaheim in southern California is getting a proclamation for Arab American Heritage Month for the first time this year.

"It's important to get our stories out," says Rashad Al-Dabbagh, executive director of the Arab American Civic Council, who has been working to get an official designation of Little Arabia in the city, an area where there is a gathering of Arab restaurants, as well as a mosque and a grocery store.

Two weeks ago, it was designated by the Anaheim city council. He’s now pushing for a street sign pointing to 'Little Arabia', which which he believes could lift up local businesses as the Covid-19 pandemic comes to an end.

For James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, seeing this year's designations of the month has been after years of hard work and exclusion.

"It's reached a level of designation where there’s no turning back," he said. "We can't be cancelled or written out of history."

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington D.C., covering US and international politics, business and culture.

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