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Volume 26, Number 2March/April 1975

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Arabs in America

A Festival in Detroit

Written and photographed by Katrina Thomas

In Detroit last fall the Middle West became the Middle East. The occasion was the Arab World Festival, an annual event that brings together close to 250,000 American Arabs for a weekend-long display of Arab dancing, Arab food, Arab fashion and—a recent phenomenon—Arab unity.

Until recently the Arabs in America provided a true reflection of the Arabs in the Middle East: a complex mosaic of sharply differing cultures brought together by common language, but held apart by the echoes of past differences.

But this is changing. Today the Arabs of America are gradually beginning to close ranks and the three-year-old Arab Festival is at least part of the reason. There, for the last three years, Muslims, Christians, Druzes from such countries as Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have joined forces in a sparkling re-creation of the Arab East as they remember it.

What they seem to remember best is Arab food and in the rows of decorated booths set up by Detroit's 28 Arab clubs, Arab women showed why. These women, representing such groups as Detroit's Sunni Muslims, the Women's Society of Dearborn's Islamic Center and the Sands Club, comprised of immigrants from Horns in Syria, offered to the surging crowds a variety of regional specialties: shish kebab, hot and spicy from a smoking fire and served in pockets of Syrian bread; khubz, round, thin sheets of bread flipped onto a domed griddle; zabeh, a kind of doughnut baked and packaged beforehand, spinach pies, stuffed grape leaves, kibbeh, falafel, tabbouleh and, for dessert, baklawa and katayef.

Music and dancing, however, were nearly as popular. From the opening Friday night to the closing Sunday night, the festival throbbed with beating drums and clapping hands as lines of dancers linked arms with spectators to stamp out the familiar patterns of the dabkeh and young students in gossamer skirts tried the ancient oriental dances. Performers included agile 76-year old Alex Acie in an Arab sword dance, singer Badrah Awad of Yemen and Chris Shaheen, a 24-year old student of nursing at the University of Michigan, whose belly dancing brought cries of enthusiasm from spectators. Young girls representing the Palestinian Red Crescent sold out a supply of records titled "Let's Belly Dance," and folk-dance troupes from northern Iraq, Jordan and Palestine packed the halls.

The event that best illustrated the diversity of Arab culture in America was a fashion show of traditional costumes assembled by Mrs. Jamilia Okab of the Arab Women's Union. Included were a hand-woven gown of black silk from Petra modeled by Maha Fakhouri of Jordan; a red chiffon dress from northern Yemen, hand-embroidered in gold thread and modeled by black-eyed Zena Abbas; and—the hit of the show—a hundred-year-old bridal gown mixing linen, silk, satin, velvet, moire and brocade. This gown, modeled by Helen Salmy who came to the United States from Ramallah, near Jerusalem, in 1941, was last worn by Helen's mother at her wedding 40 years ago.

For most of the Arab-Americans the festival is essentially good fun. But for some it is proof that the Arabs in America still have close ties to the lands of their fathers and that they can unite in more serious understandings too. As Paul Salamy, festival president since its inception, said: "Although our numbers are small we can be a force in America. That is what we are learning: that although we are from many different cultural, religious and national backgrounds we have more in common than our native language and America."

This article appeared on pages 24-25 of the March/April 1975 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1975 images.