Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 2004, pages 72-74

Arab-American Activism

Record-Breaking Attendance at American Task Force on Lebanon Gala

  • Darrell Issa (l) accepts award from Ambassador Thomas Nassif (photo Michael Keating).

THIS YEAR'S American Task Force for Lebanon’s Gala Awards Night, held March 31 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington, DC, was the largest in the organization’s history. The ATFL, which works to reinforce the historic relationship between the United States and Lebanon, each year honors awardees who have made contributions to their community and respective countries. Among the Arab-American luminaries in attendance were presidential candidate Ralph Nader, White House correspondent Helen Thomas, and Congressman Nick Rahall (D-WV). Also spotted in the audience were Congressman Chris John (D-LA) and ABC’s Sam Donaldson.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson introduced Richard A. Abdoo, CEO and chairman of the board of Wisconsin Energy Corporation, a Fortune 500 company, who received the Joseph J. Jacob Distinguished Achievement Award.

“It’s nice to win prizes,” Abdoo told the audience, “but it’s even better to be recognized by an organization with a special place in your heart.”

Abdoo’s grandparents immigrated from Lebanon in the early 20th Century and began living the classic American success story by selling fruit and groceries. Although his paternal grandfather, who had had little formal schooling, signed his driver’s license with an “X,” he realized the importance of a good education. In America freedom and rights are for everyone, Abdoo’s grandfather and father taught him, but no one is guaranteed a job. That is a privilege, Abdoo said, and you need to work as hard as you can. “Those are the rock solid values that Arab Americans brought to this nation,” he explained.

“Today this country is challenged by global terrorism, the effects of 9/11, the troubling occupation of Iraq, instability in the Middle East and the lost support of our global allies,” Abdoo continued. Millions of jobs have moved offshore, he added, and American values like freedom, justice, generosity, and compassion have been shaken to the core. “We must not let this happen,” Abdoo warned. “We must export freedom not by military means but by providing the tools of education and opportunity. We can set the example right here at home.”

Ambassador Thomas A. Nassif, ATFL chairman, introduced Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), who serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Congressman Issa, the grandson of Lebanese immigrants, is perhaps best known as the architect of the successful effort to recall former California Gov. Gray Davis. “Darrell was doing just fine,” Nassif kidded, “until the Terminator turned up.”

Issa was presented with the Philip C. Habib Award for Distinguished Public Service. In his remarks, the California congressman said that Lebanese Americans have a special honor and a special obligation. Their ties to Lebanon make them look at the world differently, he said—and that world is changing each day: 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even Libya opening back up. For better or for worse, he said, Saudi Arabia and Iraq also are in transition. The capitals of the world had not helped Lebanon, Issa noted, and the issue of Palestine seems to be left for yet another generation. “We still haven’t found out if Arabs and Jews can live together,” Issa stated. “The status quo is less than acceptable. We wince at what is going on in the homes of our origin.”

Despite these difficulties, Issa concluded, “There is hope because change is at hand.”

The final award recipient was Lebanese Deputy Prime Minister Issam M. Fares, who has helped draft modern laws, government policies, and international support to bolster Lebanon’s financial and economic stability. Describing “sectarianism as a cancer eating at Lebanon since 1946,” Fares told the audience that the United States needs an even-handed policy in the Middle East. “If we solved the Arab/Israeli problem,” he said, it would solve 99 percent of the problems in the region. We need a just and comprehensive peace.

“You can have reforms without peace, but reforms may not endure,” Fares concluded. “Democratic reform thrives on a foundation of peace and stability.”

The Capitol Steps comedy troupe provided a hilarious end to an uplifting, if sobering, evening.

Delinda C. Hanley

Maryland County Celebrates Arab American Heritage Month

Montgomery County, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC, has designated the month of April to celebrate Arab American heritage. Artwork by members of a talented organization, Muslim Women in the Arts, was on view in the county’s executive office building. A ceremony April 6, as well as an April 13 reception and open house, brought residents and visitors to admire the exhibit. Among the well-attended talks sponsored by the county, which prides itself on its promotion of multicultural dialogues and partnerships, was one entitled,“What is Arab? What is Islam? What is the Middle East?” It was clear that many Marylanders, including public officials, were interested in learning the answers.

Delinda C. Hanley

The Jerusalem Fund’s Gallery Hosts Exhibition of Art and Stories

The Jerusalem Fund’s Gallery in Washington, DC held an April 2 reception to honor artist Helen Zughaib and introduce her newest exhibition of paintings with narrative entitled: “Stories My Father Told Me.” Attendees admired Zughaib’s vibrant art—her specialty is gouache and ink on board—and read the stories each painting illustrates.

  • (L-r) Artist Helen Zughaib, Jerusalem Fund executive director Nadia Hijab, and Gallery curator Dagmar Painter in front of the painting “Coming to America.” (staff photo D. Hanley).

Gallery curator Dagmar Painter asked audience members to share stories from their own family heritage. People told their memories of their fathers’ fathers—stories of the Arab immigrant experience, histories and experiences that have shaped their world. They were encouraged to tape those tales and write them down.

Zughaib’s “stories her father told her” include a poignant description of “Rising before dawn, they lined the edges of the ship, as they sailed into New York Harbor for the very first time....”

Many of the stories describe her father’s annual summer visits to his grandfather’s house in Zahle, a mountain village in Lebanon. He described his grandfather’s love of poetry, and recalled some of the folk tales his family passed on for generations in order to teach lessons. He described village events like wedding feasts, Palm Sunday processions, preparing Sunday brunch kibbeh, and the “one big happy mess” that occurred when his village made molasses.

Zughaib, who has lived and worked in Washington, DC since 1985, uses color and pattern to define a new sense of space and perspective. She plans another exhibition at the newly opened National Arab American Museum in January 2005. We hope this exhibit turns into a book that can be enjoyed by every generation. In the meantime, artlovers can visit her Web site, <www.hzughaib.com>.

Delinda C. Hanley

Remembering Edward Said

On April 6, Georgetown University held an event entitled “Remembering Edward Said: A Life in Literature and Social Justice.” Sponsored by the university’s Graduate School, English Department, and the Program on Justice and Peace, the memorial recognized Said’s contributions to the humanities, literature and social justice movements.

The event commenced with a five-minute video presentation of one of Said’s final lectures, which took place at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s annual convention in June 2003. In his speech, Said described peace activist Rachel Corrie’s actions as “heroic and dignified.”

Philosophy Professor Mark Lance’s reflections on Said, who died last Sept. 25, focused on the late professor’s influence in “the global justice movement.” Said’s writing, Lance said, “urged eloquently for the demands of a deep and widening solidarity [among activists].”

Government Professor Bassam Haddad spoke of Said’s impact on social science and the Arab world. Said’s “most effective and canonical contribution” in this regard, Haddad said, was his book Orientalism. “Nothing can be written on the Middle East now without having to contend with the points Said raised in his seminal work,” Haddad noted.

With the Sept. 11 terror attacks likely to “revive Orientalism,” he added, Said’s “recent writings told of how we can deal with such actions with intellectual honesty.”

English Professor You-Me Park said Edward Said helped her “read, interpret, and change what Dr. [Martin Luther] King, Jr. called the great purveyor of violence, our own government.” She recalled an October 1998 meeting on U.S. military violence against women in East Asia in which elderly women from Korea sat across the room from “white men in their 30s” who denied their claims of abuse. Said’s writings, Park said, helped her “read the situation.”

Orientalism, she continued, taught her about the “binary logic of colonialism” and helped her understand “the U.S. military’s domination of East Asia,” specifically the “masculinized power of the military.” Concluding her presentation, which uniquely applied Said’s theories about the Middle East to the U.S.’s relationship with East Asia, Park said Said “taught us that disasters and crises can be understood through our own mundane cultural lens.”

Unlike the other presenters, David Lipscomb, also a professor in Geogetown’s English department, had a personal relationship with Edward Said. He taught Said’s daughter, Najla, high school English, and Lipscomb subsequently became Said’s student at Columbia University.

Lipscomb admitted that he held preconceived notions about Said before even meeting him. “I assumed he would dislike the books I selected [for Najla’s class], especially because there were so many Western books,” he recalled. However, Lipscomb said, he discovered that Said “loved good literature wherever it was from, especially complex multi-layered [texts].” As a professor, Lipscomb added, Said often asked his students to question what was presented to them and not take it at face value. “I remember a quote from an interview [Said] gave in which he said, ”˜The last thing I’m interested in is disciples.’”

Laila Al-Arian


Planting Olive Trees

  • Planting olive trees with Jiddu (staff photo D. Hanley).

This is a story that was told to my father by his father. It is a lesson that is taught to children all over the Middle East in one form or another.

Visiting Jiddu (Grandfather) and Teta (Grandmother) in their mountain village was always a special treat. Teta would have special sweets and my favorite food prepared for me. Best of all, though, was Jiddu taking me with him to the fields. Sometimes it was just a brief trip to see how the plants were growing. But sometimes Jiddu would ask me to be “Jiddu’s helper” and help him with some small chores. During one visit, Jiddu told me that we would be planting olive trees. Because we would be staying in the fields all day, we had to bring with us a zuwaidy (picnic lunch), water and other provisions.

The next morning, Jiddu and I set out for the fields much earlier than usual, with a donkey carrying our provisions and small olive plants. We worked hard planting the young olive trees in furrows which Jiddu had dug earlier. My job was to hold the plant straight while Jiddu would dig a small hole in the ground for each plant. Then I would ladle some water from a water drum and water each new olive tree.

During our break for lunch, I told Jiddu that next year I would return to help him harvest the olive crop. He smiled and said that would be difficult because olive trees take many years before they bear fruit. Disappointed, I asked him why we were bothering to plant olive trees if we would be dead before they would give us any fruit. He looked at me with a very serious expression and said: “Zara’u fa akalna, nazra’u fa ya’kulun” (“They planted so we would eat; we plant so our descendants will eat”).

Helen Zughaib

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