Charting Histories

Philadelphia’s Arabic map project forges cultural connections and understanding

Last month, Nora Elmarzouky and Yaroub Al-Obaidi, co-founders of the Philadelphia-based Arabic newspaper Friends, Peace, Sanctuary Journal, launched a new project at the Museum of Art in Wood in Old City: crafting what they believe is the first-ever map of Philadelphia in Arabic. “Mapping Philadelphia in Arabic as Storytelling” seeks to provide new context on our personal and collective experience living in our historic, culturally diverse city.

This innovative map is set to feature not only street names and significant locations in Arabic, but also the rich stories of Philadelphia’s Arab culture — placing these together on the map with the stories and culture of non-Arabs. These diverse stories will reflect what home means and show how those different interpretations connect us all. “In the future, it will be something amazing to be proud of,” said Yaroub.

Initiated as a simple way to make newcomers feel more welcome and provide guidance in an unfamiliar city, the idea took off when Nora and Yaroub asked a simple question: “How do we make meaning out of this?” For Nora, the project will establish a deeper connection to Philadelphia for locals and immigrants alike. Indeed, one goal of the project is to center all of us — all cultures, all backgrounds — geographically on the same plane.

About 20 attendees at the workshop shared personal anecdotes and impressions, contributing the first narratives to the map as we took turns placing stars where we lived, and meaningful spots we connect with the city. For us in East Falls, the site of the original rapids felt particularly noteworthy. “Everyone’s always asking where the falls are in East Falls,” said Steve Fillmore, a longtime resident (and partner in grassroots media). “They were flooded out in the early 1800’s when the Waterworks dammed the Schuylkill.”

Another striking reflection came from a Syrian refugee who described how a particular Philadelphia street transported him back to Damascus due to its resemblance to his homeland’s scenery. “The buildings, the way the street winds — something just reminds me strongly of home,” he said. Stories like these will help orient the map in human experiences, showing in spatial relation how every place, every person, is somehow connected.

The map will also include narratives from communities of color in Philadelphia. One layer will depict the history of the Underground Railroad in the city. Another will feature the names and spaces of the Lenni Lenape, the Native Americans whose land Philadelphia currently occupies. TRUE STORY: one workshop attendee from South Philly related how Passyunk Avenue is named for a Native American term meaning “in the valley.”

Nora stressed that the goal is to honor these histories while connecting them with those of Philadelphia’s immigrant populations. To further engage community members, she and Yaroub plan to host workshops every other month over the next year, inviting all Philadelphians to participate and add their stories to the map. “We want to document the Arab journey in Philadelphia, and also Americans who engage with our community,” said Yaroub. “In the future, it will be something amazing to be proud of.”

For more information about this exciting project, please reach out via social media @fpsjournal (you can also email them at parabicnews@gmail.com).

Friends, Peace, Sanctuary Journal is the city’s first Arabic language newspaper in 120 years, which grew from Swarthmore College project to increase empathy for displaced individuals resettled to the area. fpsjournal.org

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