The Arabs of New York: Arab-American Identities

As a host to a large Arab community, New York City is an exceptional and interesting location to look into the multiple facets of Arab-American identities and understand the ongoing integration process for people of this community in a wider context that is often challenging and even, sometimes, hostile. As a visiting researcher at CUNY Graduate Journalism School and with the Fulbright Alumni Development Grant, I was able to look into the different aspects of the multi-layered Arab-American identities by conducting research through interviews with Arab-American artists as well as academics and everyday people.

The best part was meeting such fascinating characters and engaging in conversations with them about how they navigate complex identity issues in their daily lives. This was a very enriching experience for me as an individual and as a documentary filmmaker. The activity was an eye-opening experience in my endeavor to understand how individuals construct their own personal image and identity in a world of prejudice.

In addition to the interesting characters I met, I was able to meet many fellow documentary filmmakers and learn from their different styles and approaches. New York, being a bustling city with filmmakers from all backgrounds, is unique in offering that kind of possibility. I’m so grateful to the Fulbright Program for giving me the opportunity to complete my master’s here.

During my studies, I was particularly inspired by one American filmmaker, Elizabeth Stevens, who adopts a very personal approach to documentary film-making. I found that mixing the personal with the political and the social in a documentary can create a strong emotional impact on viewers. That inspired me to adopt a more personal approach in my interviewing techniques. In my interviews, I drew from my personal experiences and identity crisis in order to turn them into challenging conversations and dialogue rather than classical interviews.

One of the people I connected with was Palestinian-American artist Iasmin Ata, who was particularly interesting. I met Iasmin at an art exhibition called “Over the Rainbow” organized by Art Palestine International, which is a New York-based cultural organization dedicated to contemporary art. Iasmin, who is half-Palestinian and half-German, was raised in Orlando, Florida, in a largely Arab neighborhood. She was a young teenager when the September 11 terrorist attacks happened. As a person from the Middle East and with a last name that sounded like one of the airplane hijackers, she was stigmatized and bullied by her classmates. This only gave her the determination to claim and be proud of her rich heritage.

Iasmin Ata

In her artistic work, Ata depicts the aspirations of Arab-Americans beyond stereotypes. Today, she juggles different identities. She identifies as Muslim and Arab-American but also as gender non-conforming and queer. For her, there is no contradiction in having these multiple identities. Her artwork is particularly interesting and unique since Ata designs video games. Beyond the entertainment aspect, her games are deeply political, almost existential in that they address the question of longing for the idea of home.

“I grew up listening to my father and family’s stories about displacement. Even if I have never been there, I feel deeply impregnated by these stories that highlight their thoughts and internal struggles,” Ata told me. She spoke about a video game she designed recently called, Being. “In my video game, I wanted to express the longing for a place one calls home, a place that is not necessarily physical but could also be an idea, a sensation,” she said describing her game.

Ata’s video game, Being.

I focused on interviewing Arab-Americans who were conscious that they were juggling different identities, whether national, ethnic, religious or sexual. I think that overall I got a sense that having various identities is enriching rather than contradictory. Most of those that I interviewed said that their identities blend together and help them develop more open views about life and the world.

After completing my interviews, I wrote several articles based on material I gathered during my U.S. trip. The articles were published in a Beirut-based Arabic-language newspaper, Al-Modon. In addition, I made several video interviews and have just pitched an idea of a documentary on Arab-Americans in New York to Al-Jazeera TV channel.

Without the support of Fulbright, I would never have been able to accomplish this project. Being a Fulbrighter gave me access to valuable resources and opened many doors for me since people are always impressed by the Fulbright Program.

This experience allowed me to deepen my insights of the mechanisms with which identities work to inform individuals about their positions and attitudes in life. It was also interesting to see a time when Arab and Muslim cultures felt under attack, how Arab-American artists were able to take pride in these identities and used the controversy around them to influence their art. I learned that art can help present different perspectives of Arab and Muslim cultures that complicate the simplistic narratives of mainstream media. Fulbright is meant to create cross-cultural conversations, and I hope that my documentary about Arab-American identities can do just that.

Raed graduated from the City University of New York (CUNY) with a Master’s in Journalism in 2013. He is from and currently lives in Beirut, Lebanon.

Read more Fulbright stories here.

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