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Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010

A World to Experience

Arab World Fest expands culture, understanding at Milwaukee’s lakefront

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With the loosening of immigration laws in the 1960s, the promise of America became available to more people than ever. The years that followed changed the face—and flavor—of the country, even in cities such as Milwaukee. Many of those new immigrants poured in from the Arab-speaking Near East. Until the ’60s, Milwaukee’s Arab Americans were numerically insignificant and largely descended from Lebanese Christians who settled here before World War I. The influx of new arrivals added to our city’s richness. Thirty years ago there was only one Middle Eastern restaurant in town and hummus was unknown outside ethnic households. Now a half-dozen restaurants serve falafel and hummus is sold in supermarkets.

The 1998 debut of Arab World Fest was a sign of the rising local prominence of a people whose global importance was overshadowed by lack of understanding in the United States. Old stereotypes lingered of Bedouin and desert sheiks. Few Americans understood that while medieval Europe was an impoverished backwater, the Arabs, drawing from Greek and Persian art and knowledge, as well as their own resources, had established one of the great civilizations. In those years the population and wealth of Damascus and Cairo dwarfed London and Paris. Much of the world’s trade passed through Arab lands. The Arabian influence extended into Europe and left a distinct mark on the language and music of Spain and Portugal.

“The mission [of the festival] has stayed the same—to foster a better understanding of Arab people and our rich heritage,” says Ihsan Atta, president of Arab World Fest.

While all of the ethnic groups represented by annual festivals on the Summerfest grounds historically suffered from prejudice—even Milwaukee’s Germans were harassed in World War I—none of the lakefront events faced a challenge as great as Arab World Fest. The fourth annual festival was scheduled to begin within days of Sept. 11, 2001.

“We skipped 2001,” Atta says, adding, “Arab World Fest became a place to learn about who we are. People realized that the behavior of a few fanatics doesn’t represent a whole culture. We received a lot of responses from people who said, ‘We didn’t know what to expect, but we had a great time.’”

And Arab World Fest promises a great time this year. The three-day schedule is crowded with music and dance. On the contemporary edge are rap and hip-hop acts such as Shadia Mansour, Lowkey and Bird & Sharif the Truth. Several youthful singers will perform in more traditional styles, including Palestinian-born Maher Halabi and Damascus-born songbird Gaida. Music from related cultures will also be heard, including Assyrian singer Sargon Youkhanna and a bhangra group representing the contemporary dance music of India. The 20-member Jordanian troop Al Ramtha will perform folkloric dances. Belly dancers will also be on hand. “We cover all bases and age groups,” Atta adds.

Sharing Arab Culture

Several of Milwaukee’s Middle Eastern restaurants will maintain booths at the festival. Cooking demonstrations, a hookah tent and a market are among the attractions. “There will be many displays relating to Arab people and Arab contributions to civilization,” Atta says, along with poetry readings and screenings of documentary films. “It will be an information overload for people with any questions about the Arab people.”

Given the importance of family in the tradition of the Near East, there will be many children’s activities, from arts and crafts to storytelling and bouncy houses.

One of the challenges facing Arab World Fest is the diversity of the world it encompasses. More than 20 countries can be defined as Arab, based on language, culture and history. “The intention of the festival is to represent all of them—or at minimum, all the regions,” Atta explains. “We put a call out to all the different communities. We contact all the embassies for information and brochures. We diversify the entertainment. We do what we can to get a representation from everyone.”

Arab World Fest runs Aug. 6-8 on the Summerfest grounds. For schedule and details, go to www.arabworldfest.com.