For Arab American Heritage Month, MEPC is exploring the history, culture, and contributions of the Arab diaspora across the United States. Dr. Diana Abouali is Director of the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn and was previously Head of Collections and Research at the Palestinian Museum in Bir Zeit. Through her work in Palestine, Jordan, and Michigan, Dr. Abouali has extensive experience developing cultural and educational initiatives with refugee populations. MEPC catches up with Dr. Abouali virtually.
1. Could you tell us about your journey studying Arab and Arab American history?
I started my career as a historian teaching Middle Eastern studies at Dartmouth college, but I felt somewhat unfulfilled. As I was finishing up my job at Dartmouth, I was offered a position at the Palestinian Museum, which is currently in Bir Zeit but, at the time was basically an office in Ramallah. They hadn't even started building the museum yet, it was still in its conceptual phase. I was hired as head of research and collections, so my background as a historian positioned me well. I was interested in looking at different ways to inform people and share knowledge about the Middle East outside the classroom. I also liked the idea of participating in a project that was one of the first museums privately funded by Palestinians. If I were to think about how my previous work in cultural heritage, preservation, and museum work led to my current role in Dearborn, I’d say I was hired because of my background as a historian, my experience in the cultural heritage sector and also because I am equally comfortable in the United States and back home in the Middle East.
2. What is the most rewarding aspect of leading the Arab American National Museum?
There are many things that are rewarding about it, especially meeting members of this community, not just in Dearborn but nationally—artists, writers, poets, and visitors to the museum. People who have an interest in Arab American heritage and history, whether they're recent immigrants, first generation, or even third or fourth generation Americans who come to the museum and really find joy and learning about their history and their heritage. So, I think it's meeting the people for whom this museum was created. As a historian, being in a museum that has the arguably the most comprehensive archive of Arab American historical documents is very exciting, and I hope to be able to do more with that.
3. What does it mean to run a community-oriented museum, working not only with historical artifacts, but also hosting artists in residency, musicians, and chefs?
The role of museums has changed to not only serve as a repository for collections, but to also meet the needs of the community. The Arab American National Museum grew out of ACCESS, the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, based in Dearborn. ACCESS is a health and human services and employment agency that is now the largest Arab American nonprofit in the country. It started as a community organization, very grassroots. The museum's origins are as a cultural arts program in ACCESS, so we've always been part of the community. We are really working with the community to not just collect and document the stories of Arab Americans, but also to empower community members and create opportunities to showcase their work. We are an organization that offers spaces for community organizations to congregate and have events or meetings—sometimes for a nominal fee, sometimes for free. We're very much about providing services and resources to the community, but also enabling them to use us to uplift and empower themselves.
4. What has been your favorite exhibition at the museum?
I’ve only been here two years, but of our temporary exhibits my favorite was one called As Far As My Fingertips Take Me, a collaboration between Syrian conceptual artist Tania El Khoury and Palestinian artist Basel Zaraa, who was born and lived in Damascus, Syria at the Yarmouk Refugee Camp. It was a kind of performance exhibition piece, where you would go into the space and there'd be a wall with a small circle cut out and a chair; you would sit down and insert your hand into the cut-out circle. The artist, Basel, would be on the other side, trying to reenact and communicate the refugee journey that his sisters took from Syria to Sweden. It's a very tactile experience because you put your hand through the circular hole and you can't see him and he can't see you. But he's holding your arm, listening to music, and drawing on your arm while you're also listening to an audio recording of him speaking and reciting a poem. It’s a very sensual experience and an effort to humanize the refugee. The immediacy of touch really brings the refugee experience to life.
5. Why is it important for the broader public to visit the AANM and learn about the stories and contributions of Arab Americans?
It's important to understand that communities like ours are productive members of society, we have a history, we are like any other immigrant community that came to the United States. Understanding who we are, why we came here, what we did once we arrived in the United States and how we contributed to the building of this nation is important because I don't think there's ever been a time when immigrants and people who are members of a marginal group were not vilified. It's important to present them as human beings and as members of society like anybody else. I think this museum, which opened in 2005—only four years after 9/11—very much had an intention to address negative stereotypes about Arabs, Arab Americans, and even Muslim Americans, and to present authentic narratives about Arab Americans in their own voices. The museum provides visitors a more nuanced understanding of who this community is and what this country represents.
6. Could speak a little bit on the importance of accurate education about Arabs and Arab Americans and the link with good public policy?
Accurate information is essential not just for public policy, but for anything really. Knowledge is power and if you have accurate information, you can operate in a way that is meaningful and productive. With policy, it's important to understand the Arab American community. There's not much information about us in terms of statistics because we are not listed on the census. So perhaps policy is shaped in a way that does not benefit the community or address its needs. At ACCESS (our parent organization) we're doing a lot of work to build knowledge and data about the Arab American community whether it's through health, data, activism, politics, or civil issues. All these things are needed in order to create a more informed understanding of what the community needs and to address the issues that we're facing.
7. Any advice for students studying their cultural heritage?
For young Arab Americans who are interested in studying their heritage, I think the best advice I could give is to keep an open mind. To not go in with assumptions or ideas that you may have grown up with, whether they're legitimate or not, but to be open and understand that Arab America is a very diverse community in and of itself, there is not one kind of heritage or culture that represents all Arab Americans, though there are some commonalities for sure. The Arab world has almost 400 million people spanning two continents, multiple religions, and even several languages. The community here is just as diverse and rich. It's important that one explore one's heritage with that kind of openness and willingness to understand and accept the diversity, and to find inspiration and meaning in it.
8. Could you tell us more about your work with Tiraz and cultural heritage initiatives with refugees in Jordan?
Tiraz is a center that contains a collection of traditional dresses from Middle East. The collection belongs to an amazing woman called Widad Kawar, she's Palestinian and in her 80s currently. The traditional dresses of village women in Palestine feature cross stich patterns with regional varieties. Unfortunately, after 1948 with economic hardships, women started selling their dresses and so Kawar began buying and collecting them as a way to support them. But then her interest in these dresses took off.
I worked with her and partnered with different organizations to work with kids and women in the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan. What we tried to do is teach them a little bit about their heritage. I worked with a friend, Salua Qidan, to develop lesson plans about how to learn embroidery and the meanings of the patterns. Working with the women in Zaatari Camp (which is now, I think, the fourth largest urban settlement in Jordan) was a really wonderful experience. We would bring the dresses and they would touch and examine them, and sometimes wear them. These are old dresses from the 20s and 30s. We would teach the women color theory to help them to think about taking inspiration from their heritage to design their own embroidery motifs. They were very skillful and after showing them a few things, they started creating these wonderful designs.
9. We love the Yalla Eats! Chef Series—do you have a go-to Middle Eastern dish?
My favorite foods tend to be these sort of comfort foods, so something called qalayet bandora, which is basically tomatoes fried with onions and ground beef and when it's done you sprinkle toasted pine nuts on it. It's just a wonderful, very simple dish. I like freekeh soup, a cracked bulgur wheat with broth and chicken. I also like stuffed cabbage—those kinds of typical Palestinian foods. In particular, my favorite food is actually just a slice of Nabulsi cheese in pita bread.
10. In addition to TeachMideast, what resources would you recommend for students and teachers who want to learn more about Arab American History?
Of course, the Arab American National Museum’s website! On the education pages there are quite a few resources. We provide lesson plans and activities, and have created individual webpages that correspond to each of our four permanent exhibitions. Each one has a web page where you can go in and virtually visit the exhibit, click on images that take you to the object and descriptions. There are also lesson plans and activities associated with each of the galleries. That's one resource that teachers could use, they can also call and get in touch with us, we do presentations and virtual tours for schools as well. Another resource is a booklet that we recently published called “Arab Americans: History, Culture and Contributions” that provides a primer or introductory text to the history of Arab immigration to the United States. There's a physical booklet and you can download a PDF for free on the website as well.
As a final resource, I would really direct people to the Moise A. Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies at North Carolina State University. It’s a center for Lebanese migration studies, the director is Dr. Akram Khater, a professor at NC State. They have a wonderful site that focuses mostly on the Lebanese but also Syrian and Palestinian communities in the United States. They have a wonderful archive and have digitized a lot of materials. They also have an online exhibit currently called Turath, that is very informational and educational, so I really also recommend that people go to that website as well.
11. What’s in store for the Arab American Museum?
Since going virtual last year around March, every month we show films online. At the end of the month, we host some open mics online and we currently have an open mic and iftar event called “What's on Your Plate.” It's an opportunity for artists to get together (anybody can also join) to express themselves through poetry, spoken word, what have you, but also to talk about what's on your plate, both literally and figuratively—what are you dealing with at the present, what are you eating, and with what are you breaking fast.
On September 23-26, we have our first musical festival called JAM3A, which in Arabic means gathering. For obvious reasons it's going to be virtual, but we have a great lineup of musicians. We're working really hard to put on a spectacular show and it'll be free. We hope that people come and listen to these wonderful musicians who are both Arabs in diaspora and Arab Americans. It'll be wonderful!