I thought I’d switch things up a bit on Dina’s Days to share a few frequently asked questions about Arab-Americans. This purpose of this post isn’t to answer questions such as “are all Arab Americans terrorists?” because the answer is an obvious no. Rather, with 1.5 million self-identified Arab-Americans in the United States, this post is intended to serve as a catalyst for dialogue because I believe shared cultural experiences contribute to a sense of place and identity.
1. Who are Arab Americans?
Arab Americans are U.S. citizens and permanent residents who trace their ancestry to an Arabic speaking place in the Middle East or parts of Africa.
2. Where do they come from exactly?
Many Arab Americans were either born in the U.S., have immigrated from or trace their ancestry to places including Algeria, Bahrain, Dijbouti, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Note, not all Arabic speaking citizens consider themselves Arabs.
3. That’s confusing. Not every Arabic speaking person is an Arab?
Correct. Just because someone from that part of the world speaks Arabic does not necessarily mean that they strictly identify themselves as Arabs. Many north Africans speak Arabic but do not identify as Arabs, or they may identify as Berber, African, and/ or Arab.
4. So all Arabs are Muslims then, right?
Nope! This is a common misconception considering a large number of Arabs are Muslims, the Quran is written in Arabic, and the holy place for worship is in the Middle East. However, Christianity is widely practiced in the Arab world (Jesus’ birthplace) so many Arab Americans you meet may be Catholic or Orthodox Christians. Also, there are large populations of Pakistani, Indian, Iranian, Indonesian, sub-Saharan African, and East Asian Muslims. So for example, if you meet a Pakistani Muslim, it would be best not to assume her or she is an Arab, because not all Muslims are Arabs.
5. What about Iran? Are Iranian people Arabs?
No. Iran is not an Arab country and the Farsi language is not the same as Arabic. Iran is descended from the Persian empire. Because many Iranians are Muslims, most people assume they are Arabs when in fact they have a completely different language and cultural history.
6. What languages are spoken within the Arab world?
Arabic is the distinguishing characteristic between Arab Americans. Note that there are many Arabic dialects including Khaliji (the Gulf), Levantine (Syrian, Jordanian, Palestinian, Lebanon), and Egyptian (north African).The Arabic spoken on the news and written in books is called Modern Standard Arabic, or fusha in Arabic. This formal dialect is spoken and widely understood in all Arabic speaking countries. Additional languages spoken within the Middle East include Hebrew, Persian, Turkish, Aramaic, Berber, and Kurdish.
7. What is the difference between Islam and Muslim?
Islam is the religion and a Muslim is a follower of the religion. Think Christian and Christianity.
8. Do I say Muslim or Moslem?
9. Do I say Ay-rab or A-rab?
Arab. Ay-rab usually carries a negative connotation and is offensive to many Arab Americans.
10. What about Arabic and Arabian?
Again, stick with Arab. Arabic is the name of the language. Arabian is an adjective, as in the Arabian Peninsula, Arabian prince or an Arabian horse.
11. Do all Arabs come from the desert?
No. There are certainly many Arabs who reside in the desert but millions of Arabs live in cities. Sure, many Arab countries experience desert-like climates but don’t assume every Arab American you meet came from the desert, lived in a tent or knows how to ride a camel. Many city-dwelling Arabs have never even visited the desert or ridden a camel in their lives. Also, many U.S. born Arab Americans may have never lived in their place of origin.
12. What exactly is the hijab and why do women chose to wear it?
This is a religious practice and not a cultural practice. The hijab is the covering of a woman’s head and / or face. This form of modesty is practiced in the Muslim faith. Many women find the hijab to be very liberating.
13. Are women required to cover their faces and hair in all Arab countries?
No. Remember, this is a religious practice and not a cultural practice. So, going back to question number 4, remember not all Arabs are Muslims. That means that not all Arab women wear the hijab or niqab. Secondly, some Arab countries are more conservative than others like Saudi Arabia where women are required to cover in public. Whereas, surrounding countries like Jordan and Lebanon, do not. Lastly, it is important to note that covering is not observed by all Muslims, it’s a personal and private choice a woman makes. Asking a Muslim Arab American why she does not cover her head may be offensive to some women.
14. Are marriages arranged?
Rarely. It is common for families to recommend someone from another family but Arab Americans don’t view this as arranged marriages but rather more of a traditional form of courting. It is not uncommon for traditional Arab families to arrange marriages but this is not the norm for U.S. born Arabs.