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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.”

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Arab Heritage: Dancing around the Subject

By William Denselow, Palestinian Beat Reporter-  Arm in arm, the five boys rhythmically move around their teacher, stomping in perfect unison every few steps. Most the time anyway. They’ve been practicing dubke, an Arab folk dance, all morning and they are getting tired.

With the big show just a few weeks away, they’ve worked out most of the glitches and feel increasingly confident.

Annas Khalaifeh, the 11-year-old captain of the group has been dancing dubke at the Arabic Saturday School at School 9 in Paterson, N.J., for five years.  The son of Palestinian parents but who has lived his whole life in the U.S., Annas believes this year will be the most impressive performance yet.

“We’re going to pump it up,” he said.

The event on Dec. 15 will be a showcase of all the work that the approximately 150 students have done throughout the semester. Alongside the dubke, traditional Arabic embroidery, pottery and calligraphy will also be on display. There is no age limit at the school but the vast majority of kids are between six and 13 years old.

As the dubke continues on stage, Ekhlas Nadi, 40, teaches a pottery class from the back of the dining hall. She is one of eight teachers at the school and has been working at the Arabic Saturday School for 9 years.

She has the cool hand of someone who has been teaching this class for a while. Earlier while spray-painting the pots for the children, she wasn’t so careful. Ripples of gold paint now glisten off her trousers. “I paint my pants too, I’m going to paint them gold,” Nadi said jokingly to the class.

The Saturday School has been running for 14 years and is supported by the Arab-American Civic Organization and Paterson’s Board of Education. The program runs for three hours every Saturday during the term and aims to provide students with a grounding in Arabic reading and writing as well as giving them an insight into Arabic culture and tradition. The class is decidedly about Arab culture and not about religion. In fact, several kids of non-Arab descent also attend the Saturday School. The classes are open to all who wish to learn about Arab culture and language.

Mahmoud Attallah, 51, who is an advisor to the School believes that these types of initiatives are vital in changing how many Arabs are perceived in America. “We want to change this stereotype of Arabs,” Attallah said. “Come see what their culture is all about.”

The school program, which does not charge students fees, relies on the annual $30,000 budget provided by the Paterson Board of Education, according to Attallah.

Hatim Elassal, 12, watches Annas and the dubke dancers from a distance. He didn’t make the team this year but he isn’t too concerned. His passions lie in numbers rather than in dance.

“I want to have my own laboratory with a chalkboard full of equations. Really hard ones,” Hatim said. “It’s like a big puzzle and it’s really easy for me.”

Although he won’t be in the spotlight, Hatim knows that the event is important to the Arabic Saturday School. Members of the Board of Education should be making an appearance. Hatim has done the math.

“If they see we’re not doing a good job they’ll probably cancel the programs and not give us any more funds,” he said.

While Nadi firmly believes the members of the Board of Education will be delighted with what they see, she agrees that the students need to impress. “Feedback we will see when they give the budget.” Attallah said that the school is growing in popularity and there are even plans of extending the program for older students. The organizers hope to have an extended program for teens set up next year.

The Principle of the Arabic Saturday School, Dr. Koran Korach, 56, is not surprised that the program is growing. He believes that it is important for the Arab-American community to have kids both immerse themselves in American life while keeping their Arabic heritage alive, especially the language. He feels that his school is effective in doing that.

“The 21st Century philosophy of education. When you have music, painting, all of that, it makes it easy to learn language,” Korach said.

Olfat Jamhour, 32, has four children that attend the Arabic Saturday School. She also thinks it’s vital for her kids not to lose touch with their roots.

“It’s the most important and they can speak in the house and for families overseas,” Jamhour said.

Yet, she said that the education the school provides isn’t thorough enough and has to teach her children at home too.  “It’s the basic stuff. I want my kids to learn the whole package.”

She is also concerned that currently there is no program running that’s designed for older children. “If they learnt it there should be more stuff to keep studying,” Jamhour said. “What’s the point if you’ll forget it?”

However, Annas, the youthful captain of the dubke team, dances to a different beat. He feels that if the student is enthusiastic, he or she won’t lose the language skills.

“If the kid would want to learn Arabic he comes with all his heart he won’t forget.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sub-liminal Messaging

By William Denselow, Palestinian Beat Reporter- A poster war is in full swing these days in New York City and it’s bubbling beneath the surface.

In late September, a controversial poster campaign went up across 10 New York subway stations. Within hours, many of the ads had been vandalized, some with stickers branding the posters as “racist.” There are now three different counter-ads in the subways.

The ads are scattered across Manhattan. Several stations in the Upper East Side have the posters up, as do stations at Times Square and West 23rd Street.

The original poster reads, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel, Defeat Jihad.”

“The posters infer that certain human beings are savages,” said Zead Ramadan, 46, president of the board for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in New York. “It’s demeaning and de-humanizing,” he added.

Ramadan, who was born in Palestine, also believes that the term jihad has been intentionally taken out of context.  Jihad, he added, means “struggle” in Arabic and has been used in these posters and elsewhere in order to spread hateful rhetoric against Muslims and Arabs.

Pamela Geller, executive director of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, the group that bankrolled the original poster campaign, said that leftists and Islamic supremacists have misrepresented the ads message.

“The jihad against Israel is a jihad against innocent civilians, and the targeting of civilians is savage,” she said.

Ramadan said that he has no problem with a poster that advocates for Israel. What he contests, it is Geller’s attempt to take a good word and make it evil.

“If you want to put up a poster saying ‘Support Israel,’ that’s fine, it’s hunky dorey, but it’s unfortunate they defame a decent word.” Ramadan added, “They try and make anything Arab or Islamic evil.

Since the posters went up, various members of the Islamic community in New York have attempted to inform the public about Islam, especially when it comes to jihad.

After seeing the posters, Shehnaz Khan, 26, volunteered to join Why Islam, an educational organization that seeks to upend negative stereotypes about the faith. On the first Saturday after the ads were released, Khan and four other volunteers set up shop on Columbus Circle near Central Park to hand out flyers. Braving the wind under a flimsy yellow gazebo, Khan said that she was responding to Geller’s hateful ads.

“I just feel that Pamela Geller is a hateful bigot and an Islamophobe who doesn’t care to know the truth,” Khan said.

Geller dismisses charges that she is motivated by bigotry and turns the tables on her opponents.

“Why aren’t they standing with me and supporting this ad? Surely they don’t support the violent jihad against Israeli civilians. And if they’re so ’tolerant,’ why aren’t they tolerating this ad?”

The backlash against Geller’s posters has not solely come from the Islamic community. In fact, of the three counter-posters, two are from Christian organizations and the other is from a Jewish group.

The first counter-ads that went up were funded by the United Methodist Women, a group that claims to be the largest denominational faith organization for women. They argue to have around 800,000 members. Their posters went up in the same subway stations as Geller’s. A few were even placed next to each other.

Their pea-green poster reads, “Hate speech is not civilized. Support peace in word and deed.”

Harriett Olson, CEO of the United Methodist Women, said her organization felt compelled to speak out. “The original ads seemed to us to be so objectionable that it seemed important to respond in the same public space.”

While it may seem that the United Methodist Women are wading it a fight that isn’t their own, the Rev. Vicki Flippin, 29, of the United Methodist Church of the Village on West 13th Street, supports the move. “Our Muslim brothers and sisters are people of faith just like we are and that stereotyping them in any way is harmful to all of us,” she said.

Not everyone in the United Methodist community is happy with their message though. Mark Tooley, 47, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a watchdog on church denominations, questions why the United Methodist Women would react to a poster that denounces violent Jihad.

“They seem to dispute that there should be any legitimate concern about radical Islam,” Tooley said. “They seem to accept the critique that to express any concern about radical Islam was to slam all Muslims,” he added.

Olson said that her organization’s posters were not intended to address that issue.

“The point of the posters is not to take on the violence itself. It’s to take on the de-humanization of using the of language savages for other people,” Olson said.

She added that throughout history, de-humanization has been used as a tactic prior to violence.

A few days after the Methodist posters went up, two more poster campaigns hit the subway. Geller’s posters are now outnumbered three to one. One is backed by Rabbis for Human Rights and the other is supported by Sojourners, a group led by Christian author Jim Wallis. They both urge love for “Muslim neighbors.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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[VIDEO] Hubble Bubble, Health Department Trouble

Hookah lounges in Paterson, New Jersey are going up in smoke. Health Department officials are busting the lounges for violating a 2007 ban on smoking indoors. They say the Middle Eastern water pipes, used for smoking flavored tobacco, are simply not allowed inside businesses.  Paradise Hookah Lounge on Main Street has faced crippling fines and a dramatic decrease in customers. Colleen McKown has the story.

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Ethnic America Goes to the Polls

Reporters from the New York Torch visited polling places in the New York City and Jersey City area to ask first-time voters from ethnic communities about their experiences, opinions and hopes for America.

Click on the pictures to know their stories.

Reporting by Mea Ashley, Yvonne Bang, Magdalene Castro, William Denselow, Shaukat Hamdani, Colleen McKown, Michael Orr, MaryAlice Parks, Nia Phillips, Griselda Ramirez, Rebecca Sanchez and Charlotte Stafford.
Edited by Jay Devineni, Lorelai Germain, Stephen Jiwanmall, Ntshepeng Motema and Christina Thorne.
Complied by Dhiya Kuriakose.

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[VIDEO] Palestinian-American Pride at the Polls

20-year-old Aber Kawas, a Palestinian-American and activist, heads to the polls for the first time. William Denselow reports.

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Language Barrier Creates Problems for Arab American Voters

Written by Jay Devineni

Reported by MaryAlice Parks, William Denselow, & Jay Devineni 

For many Arab Americans voting on Tuesday in Brooklyn, language barriers made it harder for their voices to be heard.  Despite Brooklyn’s large Arab population, there were no ballots available in Arabic.  However, the New York City Board of Elections does provide translations in Bengali, Chinese, Korean, and Spanish.

The Arab American Association of New York has been campaigning since the summer to increase voter registration among Arab Americans.  But members of the organization have found that even registered Arab voters run into problems when it comes to reading the ballot.

“We found that we would either have to write it out or interpret it for them,” said Aber Kawas, 20, a voter registration fellow for the association.

In addition, the voting process in many Arab neighborhoods proved to be difficult on Election Day.

“It’s confusing and people are not very nice,” said Kawas, who voted Tuesday for the first time.  “It can be intimidating for immigrants.”

Kawas grew up and works in the area of Brooklyn known as Bay Ridge, where an estimated 35,000 Arab people live.  Kawas and other Arab Americans in the area were told to vote at Public School 200 at 1940 Benson Ave.  They arrived there Tuesday afternoon, only to find that the polling site was closed.  The school had a sign that directed them to St. Finbar Roman Catholic Church about two blocks away.  Upon arriving there, they were directed to a third polling site, Regina Pacis Housing Corps, which was over 15 blocks away.  The process was confusing for many Arab voters who didn’t speak English, and some couldn’t even take the extra time to vote.

Before Election Day, the Arab American Association’s staff tried to find out if election materials could be translated into Arabic.  In order to do this, they talked to the Kings County Board of Elections, which serves the borough of Brooklyn.  But when they asked if Arabic ballots were available, the Board of Elections was not very helpful.

“People would give you different information,” Kawas said.   “You never really knew if you could get it.”

Upon further research, the group found that translations were available in several languages, but Arabic was not one of them.

“Hindi was the closest we found,” Kawas said in reference to certain areas of Queens that have high percentages of South Asian people and have been granted Hindi interpreters.

Kawas said that if the South Asian community in Queens can get voting assistance in Hindi, then Arab Americans in Brooklyn should be able to get help in Arabic.

“There might be racial undertones,” she admitted, but she doesn’t want to jump to any conclusions.

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[VIDEO] Subcontinental Discontent

Some organizations say the South Asian voice is underrepresented in the polls.  The groups have been working to mobilize this community through get out the vote efforts in Queens.  William Denselow reports. Edited and produced by Colleen McKown.

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Hurricane Sandy Update

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