Illinois Arabs to celebrate Arab Heritage month in April
By Ray Hanania
The affinity that citizens of Illinois and America once had for Arab culture began during the World Columbian Exposition that was held in Chicago in 1893. The World's Fair, as it was called, feature a massive exhibit called "Street in Cairo."
The "Street in Cairo" exhibit was huge and replicated a typical Arab village including a mosque, Arab food, Arab entertainment and a recreation of ancient Arab World heritage including the Luxor Temple, all sponsored by the Ottoman Sultan.
It was the most popular exhibit at the year-long fair that attracted nearly two and one half million American fair goers.
Yet, it didn't take long for Americans to turn their back on the affection that had been gained from the powerful cultural image that the Street in Cairo had evoked.
By the turn-of-the-century, America had imposed immigration restrictions, not just on five Arab countries as President Trump has down to button-down security concerns, but banned immigration from all of the Arab World. Arabs were called "Syrians" and then later categorized as "Asian" or "Yellow People," and included in restrictions to reduce the number of Chinese and other Asians from entering the United States.
Immigration from Arab countries opened wide during World War II as the Arab World and many Arab Americans fought alongside the "Allies" against Nazi Germany. My father George and uncle Moses both served during the war, enlisting in the weeks after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
Chicago's Arab population, which began with the settlement of many of the Arabs who were involved in the 1893 World's Fair, also expanded settling first at 18th and Michigan and later spreading out throughout the Chicagoland area. Records at Hull House included documentation about small groups of Arabs, mostly men who came here from Palestine to earn money in the city whose streets were "paved in gold."
Arabs have a long history of not only contributing to Chicago and Illinois' rich diversity, but also as proud immigrants who came to this country through legal means – they didn't come illegally and they followed all of the rules. In addition to thousands who served and became veterans, thousands more established businesses and entered many professions such as medicine, law and engineering.
Arab Americans paid their dues just like everyone else. We loved this country and we also loved our heritage. Most were from Palestine and today about 70 percent of the Arabs in Chicagoland are Palestinians, with a large population of Lebanese based in Peoria and also Jordanians and Egyptians.
In the 1960s, the former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley reached out to the Arabs of Chicagoland and allowed them to include their heritage in the ethnic folk festivals that were held at Navy Pier. There were large displays set up by Palestinians, including my mother who was from Bethlehem, and also displays set up by Egyptian Americans, too.
In 1976, Mayor Daley invited me to cover his meeting with the Washington Ambassador for the Arab nation of Morocco, the first Arab country to recognize the United States following the Revolutionary War. It was my first journalism assignment and I not only took many photographs of the event, I also documented the meeting at City Hall with a story in a small English-language newspaper that I published using benefits from my military service called The Middle Eastern Voice, the only Arab newspaper in Chicago for many years.
In the 1970s, as interest in Navy Pier faded, the ethnic folk fairs were disbanded. And it wasn't until 1983 under Mayor Harold Washington that Arabs were recognized for their contributions to America.
Eventually, Washington and his successor Mayor Richard M. Daley sponsored resolutions and proclamations recognizing Arab American contributions to American society and they declared November to be Arab American Heritage Month.
Sadly though, the divisions that separated the Arab community undermined the heritage efforts and different groups began fighting over who represents the community. Instead of being a beacon for Arab heritage, the Advisory Commission on Arab Affairs became a political entity that reflected the rivalries that many brought to America from the Arab World.
I would always write that Arabs in America were plagued by rivalries, noting that although the Arab immigrants were here physically, mentally our minds were still back home. We practiced in America the same problems that plagued our countries of origin.
The bottom fell out in 2011 following the election of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who clearly had an aversion to Arab Americans, especially the Palestinians. Emanuel's father, Benjamin, was a member of the Irgun terrorist organization that terrorized Palestinians in the 1940s and was responsible for many massacres including the killings at Deir Yassin.
Mayor Emanuel gutted Arab involvement at Chicago City Hall, withdrew his support for the Arabesque Festival that was set up by Mayor Daley and showcased Arab heritage during four annual festivals beginning in 2007. Worse is that Mayor Emanuel stopped the city's celebration of Arab American Heritage month, which was held each November.
Last Fall, after Mayor Emanuel announced he would not seek re-election in the face of mounting scandals, Arab Americans revived calls for the re-establishment of Arab Heritage month. As it turns out, Arabs in America were celebrating Heritage Months and Weeks at different times with April being the most frequent. In October, Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan announced that he would introduce a law – not a ceremonial resolution that lacked real legal authority – declaring April as Arab American Heritage Month.
The law was passed in the Illinois House and in the Illinois Senate in December 2018 and was signed by outgoing Governor Bruce Rauner on Dec. 14, 2018.
Today Illinois joins seven other states, along with the nation's capitol, recognize April as Arab American Heritage month: Arizona, California, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, Texas, Virginia and Washington D.C., thanks in a large part to the efforts of Warren and Amal David, who host the website Arab America.
We shouldn't take this achievement for granted. It represents the sacrifices that Arab Americans have made to strengthen their heritage. It is an opportunity for Arabs to educate Americans in a positive way.
The next step will be to try to get the U.S. Congress to declare April Arab Heritage month nationally and that just might be something Arab Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib might want to pursue.