The Arab factor

The Arab factor

When recently appointed Joseph Aoun becomes Northeastern’s president Aug. 15, Northeastern will become one of few schools to be led by an Arab. Aoun is a native of Beirut, Lebanon but despite a preconceived notion of Arabs, he is not a follower of Islam.

Sweeping generalizations are made about almost every culture and ethnicity, and the ones surrounding Arabs include that they are all Muslim or may be associated with terrorism. But there is more to Arabic culture than hummus, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or Islam.

This religion is the second most practiced religion worldwide with about 1.3 billion adherents at the beginning of the 21st century, according to several religion sources and encyclopedias. But it is only practiced by a portion of the Arab world.

International students from Middle Eastern countries as well as American students. University faculty and administrators of Arab descent struggle to find ways to enlighten others about what being an Arab is all about.

Northeastern Provost Ahmed Abdelal is one of Northeastern’s Arab administrators. He grew up in Egypt before attending graduate school at the University of California, Davis. Abdelal returned to Egypt for five years then served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Georgia State University. He began his role as Northeastern University’s Provost in 2002.

Abdelal said his Arabic background has not impacted how he functions as provost, and he has been impressed by the open environment at Northeastern.

“I’m very comfortable at Northeastern and I love lots of people here and I feel loved as well,” he said. “It’s not something that has affected me other than feeling welcome and received in this environment.”

Abdelal said he has been shaped by the cultures of all the places he has lived.

“If one keeps an open mind, then as one experiences different cultures through living in different countries, you tend to adopt what attracts you or you think is the best of each culture,” he said. “Having lived in Egypt, California, Germany, Georgia, and now Boston, I have inevitably adopted certain aspects from each by keeping an open mind on what I was experiencing and learning.”

The Arab population, which includes more than 250 million people worldwide, may identify themselves through religious tradition, ethnicity, genealogy, political beliefs or Arabic, the official language of the majority of Middle Eastern nations as well as of Islam. Religions vary, with Arabs following Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

For international students of Middle Eastern descent, Boston creates a true culture-shock.

The blaring of horns, absence of lanes and narrow streets that are true marks of Boston traffic, are nothing compared to what Abdulmalik Skandarani was used to overseas.

“You think Boston drivers are bad? You ain’t seen nothing,” said Skandarani, a middler criminal justice major from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

Skandarani cited the convenience of the MBTA as one of the many differences between Dhahran and the more urban Boston. Having dual citizenship in America and Saudi Arabia, Skandarani has been able to experience various aspects of both countries.

In Skandarani’s home in Saudi Arabia, he said the culture is more family-oriented, with a lot of family gatherings and closeness between members. Socializing between friends, which might include card games, hookah or watching television, frequently takes place in houses or restaurants because there are not as many clubs or music venues. While the entertainment industry faces limitations because certain movies and music are not allowed into the country, Saudi Arabia has a lot of hip-hop and rap.

Skandarani said the weather, different attractions from city to city, and a diverse population are some of the qualities he finds endearing about America. Less attractive are the misconceptions regarding his native country.

“I don’t ride camels to school,” he said. “That was actually asked about me.”

Religion among Arabs is a frequently misunderstood and sometimes generalized topic, said Emily Shay, an Antiochian Orthodox Christian with Lebanese and Syrian heritage.

“When I tell people I’m Arabic, they automatically think I’m a Muslim,” she said. “With everybody I know I try to tell them that I’m Christian.”

Hebah El-Rayess, an economics major who graduated in May, said some stereotypes also portray Arabs as violent.

“I hate it when people use the word ‘terrorist’,” she said. “A lot of people don’t realize that it is not the norm when people blow themselves up.”

Skandarani and El-Rayess are active members of Northeastern University’s Arab Student Association (ArabSA). The group, which promotes Arab culture and sponsors various events on campus, was originally founded in 1984 as the Arab Heritage Club. The group now has about 110 members.

El-Rayess, a previous president of ArabSA, explained the association’s importance on campus.

“Especially with the wars going on, it’s a good way for Arabs to voice opinions and show the side of Arabs that you don’t see in newspapers and in the media,” she said.

ArabSA has sponsored the Sahra, an event featuring a live band and often attracting more than 200 people, and Arab Awareness Week. The week’s events included a comedy show by Ahmed Ahmed, known for his role on MTV’s television show “Punk’d.”

ArabSA faces challenges in keeping its members active and attracting them to the events, El-Rayess said. Throwing such events as 2006’s “Sahra”, a typical nighttime gathering in the Middle East with food, friends and music as well as participating in the International Scholar Student Institute Gala Night and Carnevale month are all efforts made by ArabSA to involve the entire Northeastern community in learning about Arabic culture. El-Rayess added that the association’s membership may be hurt because students are not aware of its existence despite these events.

Suzan El-Rayess, Hebah’s sister and current president of ArabSA, said she is optimistic about the direction of the association.

“Each year we’re trying to improve,” she said. “I feel that we have a lot of potential and the organization is going to grow and excel.”

In addition to being involved in ArabSA, Suzan El-Rayess has also incorporated her Arabic background into her education with a minor in Middle Eastern studies. A first-generation Arab-American, she said Northeastern has allowed her to preserve her culture.

“I feel that my Arab roots are pretty strong,” she said. “And the campus has definitely been supportive.”

Suzan El-Rayess, now a junior, said she has noticed growth in the university’s Arabic population during her time on campus.

“When I first came, it was right after September 11. A lot of Middle Eastern students didn’t feel comfortable coming to the U.S.,” she said. “Having an Arabic university president will really help us gain more attention from students abroad.”

As an international student, Skandarani has enjoyed the different environment as well as the professional and educational experiences offered to him by Northeastern University. He said that the social aspect has also been rewarding.

“I have friends from all different parts of the world; I get to share my culture and learn about theirs,” he said.

Provost Abdelal said he would welcome more Middle Eastern and international activities on campus. He also said as an immigrant, he hopes to serve as a role model for students from around the globe.

“I would hope that international students in general would look at someone like myself who was born elsewhere and see what they could accomplish professionally,” Abdelal said.

Echoing the provost’s confidence, Suzan El-Rayess was hopeful about the progress of Arabs in America.

“I feel like we have so much potential in the future of this country,” she said.

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