April is recognized nationally as Arab American Heritage Month. Celebratory events and proclamations are held in several cities and states where Arab Americans congregate. New Jersey is no exception. These public events constitute one of the mandates the New Jersey Arab American heritage Commission (NJAAHC) engages in, and since its founding in 2008 has sought, to bridge the divide the separates Americans from appreciating the diversity and indeed, the richness of the history and contributions of American of Arab descent.
New Jersey is home to over than 250, 000 Arab-Americans. Many are second, third, and fourth generation immigrants or decedents of the first wave of immigrants who began to arrive in New York-New Jersey area in the second half of the nineteenth century. Paterson and Northern New Jersey became known as the silk capital of the world because of its huge silk factories that employed highly desired Arab American who brought with them silk, embroidery and tapestry skills. However, “By the 1920s there were at least 25 silk factories in Paterson and West Hoboken, NJ, owned by Syrians and 80% of Syrian immigrants in those cities worked as silk weavers.”
While Paterson has lost its silky luster and its many Arab families began to move out to other parts of the state, it remains the Arab American capital of New Jersey. This is due largely to the significant Arab population that calls Paterson home. More importantly, Paterson is the commercial and some will add a social gateway for affluent Arab Americans from the tri-state area. A stroll down the three-mile South Main Street in Paterson into Clifton reveals hundred of small shops, restaurants, professional and medical offices and of course, the now infamous hookah lounges so eagerly desired by college students. In 2007, Milton Viorst wrote an excellent expose of Paterson’s Arab history but it was incomplete and I took him to task.
This, being the first ‘street festival’, is the culmination of the hard work by of three organizations. One is the newly formed, youth-led, United Arab American Coalition (UAAC) and of course, the NJ Arab American Heritage Commission, and the third one is The Paterson Small Business Committee. Fahim Abedrabbo, chair of UAAC, stated that the idea behind this festival “is to celebrate our Arab American heritage, and bring awareness to the residents of New Jersey that the month of April is Arab American Heritage Month.” Dr. Eman Hamad, Acting Chair of the NJAAHC, echoed the same sentiment by saying, “Everyone is invited to partake in this event. We expect 20 vendors offering distinctly Arab-American foods, souvenirs in addition to health screenings, calligraphy, and traditional dances.” She further added that she “hopes to make this festival an annual event and to grow every year with more vendors and more activities and attract people from all over the tri-state area.”
Paula Abdallah, a henna artist from Mt. Arlington, is thrilled to participate in the festival and be able to show her henna hand painting skills.“Henna painting is an ancient art Arab woman, young and old use to decorate their hands, legs, and faces. Little children get an immediate satisfaction and many wide smiles.”
The NJAAHC was enacted into law by an Executive Order signed in October 2008 by then-Governor Jon Corzine and is housed in the Department of State. The Executive Order 123 (1-1), created, for the first time ever, on either a State level or Federal level, an Arab-American Heritage Commission. The historic nature of the commission is recognized in the Executive Order creating it.
Invitations were sent out to several public and elected officials to join the celebrations. Careful not to turn the event into a campaign battleground, the organizers will not allow any distribution of any literature by any of the candidates running for office. The Mayor of Paterson, Jeffery Jones, and members of the City Council are expected to appear. Congressman Bill Pascrell who hails from Paterson will make a special appearance to present a Proclamation, which he read into the Congressional Record, to the family of the late Hani Awadallah, for his lifelong contributions to the residents of the Paterson. Mr. Awadallah, who passed away in January, was a distinguishable voice echoing Arab American concerns.
Asked if Congressman Steve Rothman was invited to the festival, organizers said that all are invited. Steve Rothman is battling longtime friend Bill Pascrell over the redrawn District 9. Arab and Muslims American vote will be decisive in the June 5 Primary elections.
As a founding member of the Commission and someone who since 2004 fervently worked for its creation, I am partial to its mission and objectives. The Commission is about to embark on its most significant mandate: to ensure the history and culture of Arabs and Arab Americans is most accurately represented in social studies textbooks in New Jersey schools. The culmination of this multi-year endeavor promises to render Arabs and their contributions to the world’s civilizations, a tangible human accomplishment. American history of the world appears to relegate Arab and Muslim advances to the margin of textbooks cementing the ‘otherness’ of Arab Americans. For over seven centuries, Arabs and Muslims were the caretakers of the worlds’ most advanced civilization as exemplified by their innovations in the sciences, literature, and philosophy-whilst Christian Europe was languishing under the Dark Ages.
When people of different ethnic backgrounds meet, especially over a Halal shish kebab sandwich, they quickly forgo that which divides them. A one-day celebration may not overcome the century-old negative stereotyping of Arab Americans. But it is a start-a hopeful one.
Aref Assaf, president of American Arab Forum, a Paterson based think-tank specializing in Arab and Muslim American affairs.