Over 160,000 New Yorkers trace their roots back to Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East and North Africa. They represent more than a dozen nationalities and three major religions. An exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York explores what it means to be an Arab-American in the Big Apple.
New York City has the third largest population of Arab-Americans living in the United States. Dating back to the mid-1800s with over five generations of family members, Arab-Americans in New York City are not a new phenomenon. The Museum of the City of New York is exploring the richness and depth of this diverse community with an exhibition called "A Community of Many Worlds: Arab-Americans in New York City."
This distinct metropolis is known the world over for its tolerance and diversity. Where else might you hear this mix of sounds: an Imam reading Koran, an Arab Malachite Catholic reciting the Bible and a Syrian Jew chanting at a religious ceremony?
The Muslim, Christian and Jewish religious chants in Arabic and Hebrew were recently heard at a public program held in conjunction with the exhibition.
The museum's program director Kathy Benson says the story of Arab-Americans in New York City is an immigrant story similar to that of any other immigrant group. The first documented Arab immigrant came in 1854, and a significant wave of mostly Christian Arabs and some Arab Jews came in the late 1880s until 1924. A second wave of immigration, which began in the mid-1960s and continues to the present, includes a sizeable number of Muslim immigrants.
"That is very much like any other immigrant group you can think of and most of the other immigrant groups have also gone through a period when they were stereotyped and denigrated and, of course, that's true, unfortunately, of Arab-Americans even now," Ms. Benson says.
The exhibition was originally scheduled to open in mid-November 2001. But after the September 11 attacks, the organizers of the show postponed the exhibition until a larger space at the museum became available. Ms. Benson says that in light of the attacks on the city and their association with Islam and Arabs, the show took on greater significance. She highlights a part of the exhibition attesting to the museum's belief that Arab-American New Yorkers are no different than any other New Yorkers.
"There is a wall of faces that includes people whom you don't necessarily think of as Arab New Yorkers, or Arab-Americans, because they're all New Yorkers. They're like the rest of us," she says.
A continuously running video shows Arab-Americans talking about what it means to them to be Arab in a city full of immigrants. One woman says the Chinatown section of the city is one of her favorite places.
"I like Canal Street. I like the kind of busy atmosphere there, people from all over the world. You can hear any language almost, the things on the street, the kind of bubbly hub of selling things. I like markets all over this city. I like the festivals, the different local festivals," she says.
The show features archival and contemporary photographs, documents, books, costumes, textiles and household objects. The museum hopes to break stereotypes by illuminating the cultural and commercial contributions Arab-Americans have made to New York City and the values and traditions that have connected them for generations. Ms. Benson says she wants people to come and learn and put misconceptions to rest.