Two States: Two Solutions

By William Denselow, Palestinian Beat Reporter-

“Little Ramallah” in Paterson

There are two distinct Palestinian neighborhoods in the New York area. While both cling fiercely to their shared Middle Eastern heritage, their approaches are fundamentally different.

In Paterson, N.J., cultural pride seems to revolve around what goes into ones mouth. In Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, it is more about what comes out.

“Paterson is more of a culinary culture. It’s the food, the hookah bars,” said Tahani Salah, 25, a Palestinian-American poet born and raised in Brooklyn.

If Paterson is the stomach of the Palestinian community, then Bay Ridge is certainly the mouthpiece. It is no coincidence that groups such as the Arab-American Association of New York are based in Brooklyn. Advocacy groups such as these may serve pizza and soda instead of Middle Eastern meze at their meetings but that does not make them any less connected with their roots. Salah agrees that Bay Ridge is the Arab-American capital of New York. “Bay Ridge is a base of Arab Communities.”

Location plays a large role as to why there is such a different feel to each community. Paterson, which is often referred as “Little Ramallah,” is an isolated society. It lies roughly 30 miles from Brooklyn and isn’t even in the center of Paterson. It is about a mile down the road from the main part of town and is largely introverted. As a result it has a distinctly Middle Eastern vibe that Bay Ridge simply doesn’t share.  Business is conducted in the various coffee shops and hookah lounges over a cup of chai or ahwe (tea or coffee). The pace of life is slower and the hummus tastes better.

No one speaks of “gentrification” in Paterson, although it is part of the lifeblood of Bay Ridge. It is, after all, part of New York City. Yellow cabs frequently trundle down Fifth Avenue (New York’s other Fifth Avenue) and Times Square is just a subway ride away on the R train.

Salah has witnessed the impact of gentrification on the Arab community in Brooklyn first hand. “Atlantic Avenue was full of Arab-Americans. Now there is a Barney’s and Trader Joe’s.”

Widad Hassan, 23, from Sunset Park, describes Bay Ridge as a culture clash. It is not just a clash between the various Arab communities or the other ethnic groups that live in the area. There is a generational clash too. “You see a mom in traditional dress and daughter in jeans,” Hassan said. “Paterson is more isolated, it sticks more to the culture.”

It seems that the terms Arab-American or American-Arab can be interchanged more readily in Bay Ridge. There is a far greater degree of assimilation and at face value it does seem that some of the culture is lost. Although, as Hassan says, Bay Ridge is about pizza and saying “wazzup,” that does not mean the Arab heritage is gone. You just have to dig a little deeper.

The fact that Muslims in Brooklyn flock to Nablus Sweets in Paterson on religious holidays doesn’t mean they are any less devout. It simply means that Paterson does better Baklava.

Both communities were hit hard by the terrorist attacks in 2001. The war on terror and “Islamophobia” shook Arab-Americans regardless of whether they were from Bay Ridge, Paterson or anywhere else for that matter.

What is interesting is how both groups responded. As non-Arabs stopped going to Paterson to eat their hummus (and it really is good hummus) the community became withdrawn, relying on fellow Arab-Americans to keep businesses afloat.

Partly due to extenuating circumstances such as gentrification, the Arab community in Bay Ridge has responded to 9/11 differently. It appears more of a concerted effort was made to integrate into American life.

The cultural pride of Arabs living in Bay Ridge is no less strong than for those living in Paterson, though; it is simply hidden. In fact, because much of the hate that has been directed at Muslims manifested itself in Brooklyn — NYPD spying for example — the Arab-American community there has proven itself to be incredibly resilient.

It seems that the phrase “you are what you eat,” does not always apply.  For them, it might be, “you are what you say and think.”

One Response to “Two States: Two Solutions”

  1. If anyone would ask me, I’d be interested in trying out culturally-influenced food branches and restaurants. It would be a worthwhile offer to find out what they can provide for our taste buds.

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