Shining Through the Centuries

Celebrating Arab-American Heritage month with fun ways to experience this rich, diverse culture with ancient roots. 


“Arab” isn’t a race or a religion. Most Arabs are Muslim but many are Christian, Jewish, and other religions too. There’s no box for “Arab” on the US Census forms; instead, they’re instructed to identify as “white“. Confused? An Arab is simply someone with heritage from any of the 22 Arabic-speaking countries in the world, an extremely diverse region spanning not just the (so-called) Middle East but also much of North Africa and even Southwest Asia (the preferred name for the region is now “SWANA“).

For centuries, Arab trade routes connected the world’s continents, bringing goods & ideas back and forth from Europe to Asia and Africa. As a result, the Arab world became a literal hub for global knowledge. In the millennia since the first Arab civilizations were established, their inventions and influences have uplifted the human experience across the planet, paving the way for modern advancements like the clock, which introduced the game-changing idea of keeping time, and the crankshaft, which led to technologies like sewing machines, combustion engines, and the bicycle.

Other contributions include the combination lock and the fountain pen. Soap. Toothbrushes. Forceps. Coffee. Chess. Carpets. Algebra. Algorithms. Anesthetic. Social science. Architecture. Hospitals. Universities. Checking accounts. The camera. The phonetic alphabet. The suction pump. String instruments. Apricots. Alcohol. Arabic numerals. And a whole glossary of words – candy, for instance, comes from “qandi” an Arabic word for cane sugar.

While there’s a shared history and literature among the Arab nations, there are many different ethnic and religious origins, as well as a variety of unique art, food, music, customs, traditions and beliefs. Philadelphia’s Arab population reflects this diversity, with vibrant communities across the city – about 200,000 people, a number that’s been growing and breathing new life into old neighborhoods, particularly in the NE section of the City.

If you’re like most Americans, you probably have some blind spots regarding Arab culture. Our media tends to focus on oil wars and religious fanaticism – great topics for ratings but not so much for chatting up your new neighbors from Yemen. Worse yet, recent culture wars in the US have created a society that’s super squeamish about saying the wrong thing, and looking stupid or racist or out-of-touch.

But while staying in our comfort zones feels safe, it’s actually limiting us in harmful ways. Not only are we turning our back on some of the world’s finest food, art, fashion, stories and so forth but, more importantly, this sort of self-segregation creates challenges for small businesses, crime prevention, and resource distribution. It’s also fertile breeding ground for bias, distrust, misinformation, and fear.

The good news is, we’ve got you covered with this handy list of fun, easy options for cultural exploration.

Choose Your Own Adventure of sights, sounds, flavors, ideas and more! Click the links to begin… 

  1. READ:

The Prophet by Khalil Gibran –  short, beautiful book that touches briefly and wisely on life, love, and the human condition. You will likely recognize passages that are frequently quoted at weddings, funerals, graduations and other life events.

Out of Place by Edward Said –  extraordinary memoir of an Arab American author sharing intimate details of his life in Jerusalem, Cairo, Beirut and the US as if he were recording his last words – which he kind of was (he wrote this book upon getting a fatal medical diagnosis)

The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye – accessible, award-winning novel about a young man saying goodbye to everything he loves in Oman as his family prepares to emigrate to Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The Arsonists’ City by Hala Alyan – epic page-turner that follows a seemingly assimilated Syrian-Lebanese American family’s saga of secrets, betrayals, and twisted loyalties over continents and generations.

The Other Americans by Laila Lalani – acclaimed mystery begins with the suspicious death of a Moroccan immigrant, and unfolds brilliantly through many distinct and colorful voices: his daughter, his widow,  community members, and others with interconnected lives and backstories.

  1. WATCH:

Arab Indianapolis: A Hidden History” (2022, PBS) A look into the surprising diversity of central Indiana, where Arab-Americans have been a vital part of the community since WWII.

American Arab” (2013, TubiTV)  An American filmmaker shares his own complicated story of Arab identity in post-9/11 America.

Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (2006, Kanopy) Short film makes the case that unopposed slander and misrepresentation in American media have ingrained negative stereotypes for a new generation of filmmakers to counter.

Ramy (2020, Hulu)  First generation Egyptian-American on his own hilarious spiritual journey in politically-divided New Jersey neighborhood.

The Feeling of Being Watched (2019, Amazon) Real life conspiracy thriller about FBI monitoring a quiet Arab-American neighborhood outside Chicago.

  1. LISTEN:

Omar Offendum – LA-based Syrian-American rapper known for his unique blend of hip-hop & Arabic verse.

Felukah – Neo-soulful Egyptian-American hip-hop artist brings the Nile to NYC with her dreamy, luscious sound.

Thanks Joey – Trippy techno band with Arab riffs and beats that feel original and timeless.

French Montana – Moroccan-American rapper from South Bronx with major-label hits and big-name collaborations (Rick Ross, Diddy, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, Meek Mill, and others)

Paul Anka – Canadian-American singer is a first-generation Lebanese Christian with a long, illustrious career of hit pop songs, starting in 1958 with his single, Diana, plus a bunch of classics he wrote for famous singers like Frank Sinatra, Connie Francis, Buddy Holly etc. He’s still performing internationally at 81!

  1. LEARN:

Take a virtual tour of the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, MI – documenting & highlighting Arab contributions to the American story.

Visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s ongoing exhibit, Arts of the Islamic World, with many exquisite examples of art thru the centuries.

Sign up for The Barnes’s online lecture series  The Art of Mesopotamia: A Crossroads of Cultures & Myth, which delves into art of the ancient world where human civilization began. (Fridays in April)

Explore the National Library and Archives of the United Arab Emirates online, one of the oldest repositories in the Arabian Gulf, with millions of historical and cultural records.

Bear witness to 60 Iraqi academics assassinated between 2003 – 2012, memorialized with photos and personal narratives in “Shadow and Light”, a free public exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania’s Fisher Fine Arts Library (open weekdays thru April 14).

  1. EAT:

Kamal’s Middle Eastern Specialties, for 41 years they’ve been making their own delicious falafel, fruit smoothies and handmade phyllo pies. (Reading Terminal)

Al Zaytouna serves Eastern Mediterranean food. Chef Koubeil Ben Ayed’s famous for his branzino and other classics: kebabs, kofta, lentil soup, and Tunisian couscous. (Italian Market)

Hardramount features authentic Yemeni eats, specializing in homemade bread with deeply-seasoned stews and braises. (West Philly)

Bishos  this Palestinian café at the Roosevelt Mall serves traditional breakfasts of omelets, fresh-squeezed orange juice and Turkish coffee. Llunch & dinner menu, too, plus a bakery case of desserts. (Northeast)

Al-Sham Restaurant offers all the favorites like grape leaves, hummus, tabouli, falafel, tzatziki, baba ganoush plus kebab, shawarma, falafel, soups and more at budget-friendly prices.  (Various locations)

Finally, there’s another reason this April is an important month for Arabs: it’s the holy time of Ramadan, when Muslims everywhere affirm their faith by fasting daily from dawn to sunset.

Ramadan is the 9th month of the Islamic calendar, which is lunar, so the dates for Ramadan’s beginning and end fluctuate with the moon. This year, Ramadan began at sundown on March 22nd, and the last day will be Friday April 21st, which kicks off one of the two biggest Muslim holidays, Eid al-Fitr, a festive time of gift-giving, buying new clothes, and visiting relatives.

Wish your Muslim friends a Happy Ramadan, and be mindful that they’re likely going without eating (or even drinking water) all day. Learn more about Arabs in Philadelphia! Pick up a copy of the Friends, Peace and Sanctuary Journal — Philadelphia’s first Arabic newspaper in 120 years, or read it online here for great articles, recipes, and insights to enrich our lives.

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