Giving Deeper Thought to Arab Heritage

Originally published in U.S. News and World Report. Read it here.


Melissa Bunni Elian for Round Earth Media/IWMF

Giving Deeper Thought to Arab Heritage

A grassroots effort to learn more about Arab culture has developed into a larger community in three continents.

NEW YORK – The topic might be the economics of making baklava or the history of pistachio farming; a Syrian poet, or what it would take to create an Arab luxury brand. On a chilly Sunday evening in Greenwich Village, people took a deep dive into the history and culture of the Circassian diaspora in the Arab world.

But they wouldn’t know that until they arrived.

When Mikey Muhanna, a former New Orleans public school math teacher, gathered some friends on a New York City rooftop on a September evening five years ago, he was searching for a way to expand his knowledge of his own Arab heritage. He thought others might want to do the same, so he asked some of them to make short presentations.

Muhanna was onto something bigger than he thought. “It was this massive itch that was scratched,” he says. “By the end of the evening, everyone was like, ‘When is the next one? Who’s presenting next?”

He came up with a vision, a curriculum and a name – “Afikra,” which means “on second thought,” or “come to think of it” in colloquial Levantine Arabic. Afikra grew, and now hosts presentations on Arab culture on three continents. This one has drawn about 40 people to a library at New York University.

Besides New York, there are chapters in Montreal and Washington, D.C.; Dubai and Beirut; London, Bahrain and Amman. Organizers estimate 4,000 people attended events last year, and many more viewed presentations online. There are plans to open chapters in Berlin and Paris; in Boston, Los Angeles and Toronto; and in Middle Eastern locations including Doha, Kuwait, Tunis, Cairo and somewhere in Saudi Arabia.

Events are free, and although most attendees are Arabs or people of Arab heritage, anyone is welcome. Topics are not announced in advance, nor are they likely to cover what’s in the news — particularly in the United States, where reporting on Arabs and the Arab world can be critical and susceptible to stereotypes. They may be low-brow (“How to create an Arab luxury brand Rihanna would wear”), high-brow (“Nizar Qabbani, a feminist poet?”) or somewhere between.

An Informal Exploration of Culture

Muhanna grew up in an expatriate community in Cyprus, went to high school in Lebanon and came to the U.S. for college. He has since moved to Beirut. Despite being an Arab culturally, he says he had only a cursory understanding of what that meant. “It was only hummus and tabbouleh and belly dancing,” he says. “Cliché stuff.”

Afikra aims to address this shallow understanding of Arab history and culture, Rami Abou-Khalil said as he welcomed attendees to an evening’s discussionat NYU’s Center for Near Eastern Studies.

The vibe is informal, but the meetings are usually even more so. Events commonly take place in members’ homes, where guests sit on the floor kindergarten-style.

Tonight, one woman arrived from a rally at nearby Washington Square Park in support of anti-government demonstrations in Lebanon. She was wearing a sweater emblazoned with a brightly colored image of three women in protest.

That’s another common way to encounter Arab culture – through protest, Abou-Khalil said. “But our goal at Afikra is to explore a kind of third space that celebrates the depth and the breadth of the region’s history and culture.” Abou-Khalil, an architect who grew up in Lebanon, was at Muhanna’s first rooftop event. Since its founding, he says, Afikra has emphasized “curiosity for the sake of curiosity.”

“It’s not a ‘for us, by us’ kind of space,” Abou-Khalil says. “It’s for everyone. But we value Arab narratives. We value interest in the Arab voice, knowing that it can come from multiple different types of people.”

Attendees chat at the Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU during an event organized by Afikra, an international community that celebrates Arab culture and history, in New York City on Nov. 10, 2019. (Melissa Bunni Elian for Round Earth Media/IWMF)

A Promise to Satisfy Curiosity

Afikra events typically begin with two “forwards,” bite-sized talks before the main event. Abou-Khalil introduced speakers who took five minutes each, one to discuss the history of the Iraqi national anthem, and the other to talk about Huguette Caland, a provocative Lebanese artist who died in September.

A short break followed, during which Abou-Khalil played a mix of Palestinian hip-hop and a compilation of Egyptian music from the record label Habibi Funk. Some of the conversations drifted back and forth between Arabic and English.

Once the guests had settled back in the library, Ahmad Yamak began his talk on the history, customs, and identity of the Circassians, an ethnic group originally from the Western Caucasus. Yamak became interested in the group after his brother-in-law’s grandmother, who is Circassian, told him that his family name is also Circassian.

Before diving in, Yamak recited the “presenter’s promise,” part of every Afikra talk. “I am not an expert,” it begins, “but I promise that I tried to learn as much as I could to satisfy my curiosity about this topic.” Self-promotion is off-limits, and presenters are discouraged from talking about subjects in which they already are experts.

During his 45-minute presentation, Yamak explained that Circassian tribes had inhabited the shores of the Black Sea. Most were driven out of the area by the Russian Empire in 1864, after which the diaspora settled in Arab lands across what was then the Ottoman Empire. As Yamak spoke, a few audience members interjected questions or additional facts.

Yamak is an organizer of the London chapter who recently moved to New York for a work assignment. He learned about Afikra through Facebook, and when he attended his first event in London, he was captivated by the breadth of topics.

Striving to Go Beyond Protests and Parties

There’s no requirement that presenters be Arab, and no set definition of what Arab even means. Although most Arabs are Muslims, Afikra makes no religious distinctions and organizers stress that it is not a religious organization.

Jesse Marion Bowley, who is not of Arab descent, says she hesitated when organizers invited her to give a presentation in 2017.

Bowley was finishing a three-year stint teaching art at an American school in Beirut when she learned about Afikra from Dina Mahmoud, one of the New York organizers who was on a visit to Lebanon. When they reconnected in New York, Mahmoud brought Bowley to an event. She says she’s been hooked ever since.

Bowley’s talk covered the history of pistachio farming and the economics of baklava. “At first I said, ‘I don’t know if it’s appropriate for me to talk about these things,'” she recalls. “Rami and Dina and Mikey were like, ‘Are you kidding? Of course, you should. We would love to have your voice.'”

Afikra’s attempt to expand narratives of Arab culture and history does have limits. Most participants are well-educated young professionals. “You’re not going to see Yemeni bodega owners coming to these events,” says Mahdi Blaine, a former D.C. chapter organizer now part of the New York team.

Blaine, whose mother is Algerian and father is Moroccan, joined Afikra in part to add a North African voice, which he felt was lacking. “That’s not justa problem with this organization,” he says. “That’s (a) problem also in academia and activist spaces. The Maghreb is often an afterthought. The Levant is usually at the center.”

Muhanna acknowledges that is something the organization can improve. Many participants are Lebanese simply because Afikra grew out of a primarily Lebanese social network. He also wants to make sure that the organization’s growth is thoughtful and structured. While there are plans to expand, the organization’s leaders say they are in no real hurry.

“It’s mostly about people who already think they’re interested in the Arab world, who want to enter this metaphorical library,” he says. “We’re trying to suggest how big the library is. Everything doesn’t have to be a protest, and everything doesn’t have to be a party.”

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