Cultural program fosters pride for Arab Americans

The charter bus was about 30 minutes out of Coldwater. The daylong visit to Detroit and Dearborn, part of the Tibbits Opera House series of events exploring Arab-American culture, was on its return leg and winter weather had stretched the trip into nearly four hours.

The teens at the back of the bus, previously viewed as shy and reserved, were gradually turning up the volume on their phones. Then they asked permission to take the mic.

Five of them went to the front of the bus, started fielding requests from the older, non-Yemeni riders sitting up front and proceeded to lead the bus in renditions of Motown classics, accompanied by their telephones.

"The whole bus was singing and clapping," says Tammy Apmann, director of audience outreach for Tibbits. "Everyone loved it. It was hilarious."

Earlier in the trip people had been moving from seat to seat, getting to know one another during the long ride. The group was evenly split, 50 percent Yemeni-Americans and 50 percent non-Arabs, traveling together to the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn and the Detroit Institute of Arts, to see its newly renovated Ancient Middle East gallery.

The teens' impromptu singalong was one of the highlights in a week full of them. It was also a week of low points as community members took to Facebook to take Tibbits to task for offering the program exploring Arab American history and culture.

Though various parts of the program occurred throughout the year, the majority of it, including presentations to students from Coldwater schools and to leaders in four different service groups, occurred the week of Nov. 16--three days after terror attacks in Paris.

During following the week, nearly 2,000 students and 400 community leaders and citizens heard a cultural and historical presentation developed in collaboration with the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn and cooperation of the Coldwater Arab American Society.

The program, more than a year in the making, included a series of presentations, workshops, and exhibits aimed at fostering conversations about the roots of the local Arab-American community. Depending upon their age group, students learned about the three waves of Arab immigrants in the 1800s, 1950s, and today; about famous Arab Americans; food traditions and some basic words.

"I had a whole class of third graders say goodbye to me in Arabic when they left," Apmann says. Some students learned traditional dance that had them circling the entire theater. Others found out that the traditional headscarf, or hijab, is in most cases worn by choice and that women wear headscarves many religions. "You can't assume that just because someone is wearing a headscarf that they are Muslim," Apmann says.

Earlier in the year, there were educational programs for children including support for the Arabic language school, an award-winning photography program, National History Day projects, and a calligraphy workshop series.

Tibbits Executive Director Christine Delaney says the program was "aimed at understanding what it means to be Arab American. With the diverse community in Coldwater it is important to understand our neighbors; it is through understanding that we dispel our fears. Communication and education are the answers."

Muslim Arab Americans with roots in Yemen are the City of Coldwater's largest minority group. Their arrival in the community can be traced to one man who was on his way to South Bend, Ind. to find work. On a rest stop in Coldwater, he learned there was work there and he never got back on the bus. He stayed and invited family members to join him. The majority trace their roots to Juban, a rural area of Yemen that encompasses a number of smaller villages.

Many years later, these Yemeni Americans have been in the community long enough that their children have been born in Coldwater. Many of the men of the Arab-American community work at the Japanese-owned foundry, Asama Manufacturing.

"I appreciate that whole immigrant story that is so true to so many of us and our own families," Delaney says. "We can see it happening right here. They come in and they are trying to hold on to their culture while their children are in school and facing peer pressure to leave their culture. That's the struggle they are having and it mirrors other immigrant experiences. Some families want their kids to do all the things they can to understand the American experience and others are holding on desperately to everything they are and they become more restrictive. That's the balance they face in their community."

Some mix in the community and others stay to themselves. Their acceptance in the community was more widespread before the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. Delaney says she has talked to officials in Coldwater who remember that on Sept. 10, 2001 "everything was fine, everyone got along great, there was acceptance. The next day there was suspicion of people who had been here for years."

Today that suspicion is fueled not only by the news media but by television and movies that routinely portray Arabs as terrorists, making no distinction between extremists and those who have no connections with terror organizations.

There were no angry protesters outside Tibbits Opera House as students and community members attended various programs throughout the week, but behind the anonymity of social media, commenters bashed the timing and the content of the program. Not all commenters were negative, however. Some defended the program, saying world events proved such programs were necessary.

Some commenters apparently mistakenly believed teachings on Islam were part of the presentation. Others wondered why Tibbits was even doing such a program and why students would be taken out of school to attend it.

In the face of such commentary, Tibbits did not know if there would be an audience for its Wednesday night program--an evening that would include  traditional food, presentations by AANM staff and an exhibition of photographs from Tibbits’ photography camp.

The evening event was to culminate with a performance by Tara Entertainment, a band from metro Detroit that performs Yemeni music. The musicians hoped to "remind older generation of Yemeni of some music they grew up with, introduce younger generations to an important aspect of their cultural heritage, and bridge the gap with the rest of society since music knows no language," as TIbbits says on its website.

The evening program drew about 200, and for Tibbits staff one of the stand-out moments of the evening was the enjoyment women from the Yemeni-American community got out of event. At their request, they were allowed to sit in the balcony where they could be separate from the rest of the audience for their comfort.

"They had a fabulous time," Delaney says. "They were absolutely beaming."

One of the women could not contain her pride when she saw the artwork of her son on the walls of the opera house. "That was what the event was supposed to be about," Delaney says. "To allow non-Arabs to see them in a situation they have not seen them before and to share that with them."

Presentations to service groups also received positive responses. "It gave me a new definition of the 'Arab American' and also helped me see the difficulty they have when people stereotype them--or expect them to give an account for actions of radical groups across the globe," said one participant.

And a young Yemeni-American student thanked Tibbits for the event saying that it encouraged people to "try and fix" their minds so they don't judge people based on what they are wearing but on what is in their hearts. "I get it that you can't tell how their hearts are, so take a step, and always ask. I am willing to talk to anyone about any question. I would love to."

•••••

The series of presentations, workshops, and exhibits, including the residency by the Arab American National Museum, was funded through a $25,000 grant from the Michigan Humanities Council. Heritage Grants support projects that bring the authentic voices of cultural identity groups to the foreground. The program strives to help the people of Michigan understand cultural differences by sharing local stories about race and cultural history. The Heritage Grant program is supported by a $1.7 million grant to MHC from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for development and implementation of this new initiative, “Exploring the History of All Michigan’s People."

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Second Wave Media. She is a freelance writer and editor.

Support for this story about race and cultural identity is provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
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