Oppression. Islam. Terrorism. For many Americans, these words are the only things they know about Arab culture.
Countries such as Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have received a lot of negative attention in the United States since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
In light of these negative stereotypes, members of various Arab student organizations united last week in Ortega Hall to celebrate the positive aspects of the culture.
Ahmed Al Shlowiy, president of Saudi student club and a PhD candidate in educational linguistics, dressed in traditional Saudi attire to show his support for the occasion.
Incorporating Arab food, attire and presentations, the event organizers wanted to make a place to discuss customs, behaviors, and stereotypes, he said.
“We are human beings. We are not what the media told them about us,” he said.
Al Shlowiy said after coming from Saudi Arabia, he realized that media in his native country played a role in how he thought of Americans – who are villianized in movies and newspapers there.
“American people are very nice. American people are very friendly; they liked to help us a lot when we arrived here. Wherever we go they help us achieve our goals,” Al Shlowiy said.
Not all people in the Arab culture have had good experiences with Americans. A junior in international studies said he was the target of racist behavior when he wore traditional Arab garb on a walk one day. But that student, Michael Trent, is an American-born Caucasian man who immersed himself in the Arab culture because he thinks it is vibrant and beautiful, he said.
“I think there is a lot of ignorance about the Arab culture, and a lot misunderstanding,” he said. “I’ve never known a group as loving and giving and caring as the Saudi students I met last year,” he said.
Mohamed Elshirbini Ali, an Arab linguistics professor, said the heightened awareness of Arabic cultures after 9/11 has had at least one positive effect. Ali said he had been petitioning for Arabic language classes for more than a decade before 2001.
“It was slow going at first, but the story completely changed after 9/11. Arabic became more important and a lot more Americans wanted to study the culture and the language,” he said.
Ali, who is originally from northern Egypt, said he moved to New Mexico in 1981 and quickly realized that Albuquerque was the place he wanted to stay.
“The most attractive thing about New Mexico is that it doesn’t take you long to realize that New Mexico is very similar to the Middle East. With all these people, I’m home actually,” he said.“The people are so good, and I feel like I belong here too because this is my culture also.”