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“Taking Back Our Narrative”: An Arab American Heritage Event at the Kennedy Center

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at American chapter.

The weekend of Feb. 17 the Kennedy Center held a three day event with the Arab American Foundation that included a film screening, orchestra performance and concert from a leading Arab vocalist. 

The Arab American Foundation is a nonprofit organization that works to promote cultural awareness surrounding the Arab identity in America. The organization was founded in 2019 as a way to promote Arab heritage for members of the Arab World diaspora. 

The foundation’s website cites the nearly four million Americans that have Arab heritage as their audience. Additionally, the organization started as a response to heightened hate crimes and increased bigotry against Arab Americans. 

The Arab American Foundation states that “there is a sense of urgency to dispel the negative images, which are causing anguish amongst Arab Americans. There is a need to provide a narrative which is non-biased and accurate.”

With this in mind the Arab American Foundation hosted the “Taking Back Our Narrative” event at the Kennedy Center. A highlight of this event was the film screening that showcased seven Arab films. For this event the foundation partnered with the Arab Film and Media Institute based in San Francisco. 

The film screening was especially notable as foreign films, specifically from the Arab World, are not widely accessible in the United States. In American films there is often a misrepresentation of Arabs and Arab culture. 

According to Waleed F. Mahdi, a specialist in US-Arab cultural politics from University of Oklahoma, “a tradition in this film industry that normalizes what it means to be American in ways that alienate Arab and Muslim Americans.” 

Due to this, an increase in access and viewership of films that accurately represent Arab culture are necessary. The Arab Film and Media Institute works to push this representation with them being a self described “unique ecosystem to find, nurture and develop Arab film and media projects”. 

Through the “Taking Back Our Narrative” event they featured films from Morocco, Yemen, Palestine and Saudi Arabia. There were also films discussing Arabs in America, specifically one featuring a Palestinian dance group that started in the Brooklyn neighborhood in New York City. They all shared different narratives and stories; from the journey of a young Yemeni boy to retrieve bread to a Lebanese woman detailing her dream of being an astronaut. 

The films included:

  • “The Shadows of the Butterflies” by Sofia El Khyari
  • “Coming Home” by Naim Naif and Margot Bowman
  • “The Ocean Duck” by Huda Razzak
  • “In the Long Run” by Yousef Assabahi
  • “Ave Maria” by Basil Khalil
  • “Dunya’s Day” by Raed Alsemari 
  • “Space Woman” by Hadi Moussally.

All of the films were drastically different in their plot, characters, and message. The varied nature of the stories shown is important for representing Arab societies in a fair way. Sharing different stories can give a better understanding of Arab cultures and present them as less of a monolith than they are often depicted as.

“When inauthentic and stereotypical representations of minority or marginalized communities are repeatedly shown in the media, it can confirm society’s biases,” said Yasmina Tawil, director of film programming for the institute. “But when our stories, both good and bad, are told authentically, it can start important conversations that begin the process of building greater understanding.”

The importance of this event was clearly not lost on those in the District with tickets selling out and the theater being filled with an enthusiastic audience. The event put a much needed spotlight on Arab Americans in one of the most significant cultural centers in the nation.

Jordyn Habib

American '24

Jordyn is a rising Senior at American University double majoring in CLEG and Arab World Studies. She writes about anything in terms of politics, DC news and history, as well as pop culture. She is currently serving as HCAU's President.