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Accents: Arabic Family

Thursday, December 12, 2002 at 1:25 PM

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For many area immigrants, it's a struggle to assume an American identity while maintaining their cultural heritage. Some local Muslim women were attacked or threatened in the days after September 11th, because their traditional garb suddenly became a symbol of the enemy for some Greater Clevelanders. ideastream is conducting in-depth examination of Northeast Ohio's immigrant culture through a special series of radio and television reports called Accents - Northeast Ohio's Identity Crisis? This morning, David C. Barnett takes us to a local home where the old world is blending with the new.

David C. Barnett: Adnan is learning a foreign language.

His face is very serious as he works his way through the passages. Dressed in sneakers, jeans and a sweatshirt, Adnan contrasts sharply with Rida, who wears a hejab - the traditional scarf, that covers a Muslim woman’s hair and neck. A doctoral student and family friend, Rida is tutoring Adnan in standard Arabic - the language taken directly from the Koran that is used in books, magazines and official documents. It’s different from the informal ways that people converse.

Rida: Now, the colloquial language is the one we speak and it’s very distorted, as compared to the standard Arabic. And it’s different in Egypt, in Syria, in Algeria - different everywhere. But the standard Arabic stays the same.

DCB: Adnan is 7 years old and his parents, Fares and Lila, have taken great pains to ensure that their native tongue will not be lost to him or his brothers, Yousef and Kamal.

Initially Fares left his native Syria for a fellowship in France to pursue a career in medicine, but found that his Arabic origins weren’t appreciated in this new culture.

Fares: I felt all the way that I was discriminated against. I was single then and decided not to pursue a career and start a family there, because I saw it coming the same way for my kids later on in the future. So, I had two brothers already in this country and they gave me the picture and I thought that I would cross the ocean and try it myself. And I’m glad I did.

DCB: Lila says that maintaining her family’s cultural identity, doesn’t preclude being an active part of their new homeland.

Lila: I mean, my kids are in basketball teams, soccer teams, they go to birthday parties, you know. But, my kids also know we’re Muslims. They know we fast during Ramadan. They know that going to your grandmother’s house is more important than going to a concert. I mean, we went to the Backstreet Boys concert - we were right there with them. We want our kids to be well-rounded. Like most people.

Fares: The more well-rounded you are, the better it is. The world is getting very small. The more languages you speak, it’s a bigger advantage to you, and when people see that you are respecting their culture and you’re acting like them and stuff, maybe they will make a deal with you. They’ll pick you and they’ll buy your product.

DCB: The Almadina Market on Lorain Avenue is filled with an international mix of people - Muslim women garbed in hejabs, an Hispanic man pushing his cart down an aisle of Goya products, and a young urban professional pondering a wide assortment of canned chick peas. Some, looking to sample the foods of another culture. Others, looking to reinforce a middle eastern identity while living on the west side of Cleveland, Ohio.

The jarring sound of the call to afternoon prayers causes some customers to jump. In a striking marriage of the old and new worlds, this spiritual message comes from a computer, whose tiny speakers strain to simulate the calls from minaret balconies back home.

Lila herself is an example of old traditions meeting the new. While she identifies herself as a devout Muslim, she chooses not to wear a hejab.

Lila: You have to be convinced that this is how you want to live your life. You have to be convinced that this is what God is telling you. You’ll find that a lot of women who don’t cover. My identity is not to be covered. That’s not who I am.

DCB: But, it’s the identity that a cartoonist, for example, will fall back on, in order to quickly convey the symbol of an Arabic woman. More recently, the total covering of the burka became the symbol of a woman from Afghanistan. But, Lila says that is clearly different.

Lila: This is an oppression. This is a way to oppress. The same way in Saudi Arabia. Women are oppressed - they can’t drive. That’s not in the religion. And covering the face is most definitely not in the religion. But, if you look at the true Islam, I will show you nuclear physicists that are Muslim women. I will show you physicians that go with a covering and are working at the Cleveland Clinic…

DCB: ...and PhD students in English Literature, who do tutoring on the side to help their friends.

Rida has learned to reconcile her identities as a woman, as a Muslim, and as an American. Adnan is slowly piecing together who he is, but being American-born, he’ll probably have it easier than his parents and the many immigrant Americans before them.

Rida: People, when they came from Europe or other parts of the world, they used to keep two identities. A European identity and an American identity, right? And then, they were talking about the “melting pot” and “we’re all American” and they were forgetting about their heritage, whether it’s African, or Hispanic, or whatever. Now, there is a tendency to go back and get all the sources of your identity. Any American identity is hybrid, whether it’s 20 years ago or two centuries ago. This gives it a kind of sophistication. It’s not easy.

DCB: In Cleveland, David C. Barnett, 90.3.

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