Widad Albassam

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Director, Arab American Arts Council

The community climate is very depressed. The intifada, 9/11, the Iraq war — it’s too much. The climate is too unsettling. For most people, it’s too much to handle. They’re worried, especially if their legal status is unclear.

There’s a sense of helplessness. Who do we call, for example for legal assistance? People were taken by surprise by special registration. There was a lack of preparedness, problems in getting information translated.

I rely on the satellite dish, because I thirst to hear my language.

It was like the rug was pulled out from under our feet. People were panic-stricken if their papers were pending or their status was unclear. It was a particular problem for Palestinians with an ID from the Palestinian Authority — should they register or not?

People respond with terror, because they have no legal fallbacks. Even basic issues, like registering their car, they don’t know how to deal with.

In my work, cultural programs experienced a setback. People in the community responded that it was frivolous. They wouldn’t come out, wouldn’t contribute to help fund it. Even with established programs like Women in the Directors Chair, with the war climate people would not go out to see films.

We held back and rethought our programming, focusing on what kinds of programs could help lighten the mood, like Ibda’a.

In the fall we’ll have the Arab Film Festival, I don’t know how to tackle it. Maybe I will insist on going ahead — but the community doesn’t want to see any more. They’re satiated. We get comments, about the Palestine Film Festival, for example: “we see it all on satellite TV, we don’t need to go out to see documentaries.”

At the same time we don’t want to be frivolous and show features that mean nothing — it’s a delicate balance…

The Field Museum sponsors a program called Cultural Connections, they do programming for public school teachers and parents. There are 19 other participating ethnic groups in the city — the Polish, Swedish, Vietnamese communities. Anything we do has to be in collaboration with other ethnic groups. There are particular themes each year, such as transmission of culture. This year we’re working with the Polish Museum; we showed a Palestinian wedding and a Polish wedding.

The program brings together parents of public school students from completely different neighborhoods. People from the Latino community came to Bridgeview for a full-day tour of the school, the mosque, businesses, meals, to meet with the imam. They begin with breakfast and go through the whole day together.

It led to some really interesting exchanges between our communities, they don’t even know we exist. Their questions reveal a lot of preconceptions.

Chicago Palestine Film Festival logoThe program has existed for nine years; the Arab community got involved after 9/11. Many institutions felt it was important to establish connections. We wanted to show that we exist.

We are partly to blame for our isolation — we are afraid to be conspicuous, afraid to assimilate, afraid to put ourselves out there. We don’t trust the interaction will be positive. We worry about how it will be misconstrued. We are more vulnerable.

Workshops are very effective for building relationships. We’re seeking funding from the Board of Education to do staff development with teachers. We received a great package from ACCESS after 9/11. We use their materials for workshops in schools and in resource centers for public school on the North Side and South Sides, small gatherings of 20-25 people. We develop the workshops and they bring the teachers…

The kids are trying to figure it all out. There’s a backlash in the schools — you’ll hear comments like, “you should be in jail because you’re an Arab” or “their religion allows them to be violent.” My kids go to a private “laboratory” school connected with the University of Chicago; my son has a reputation in school as a radical. So on all his papers he writes in Arabic, Long Live Palestine / Allahu Akbar [God is Great].

His teachers have no idea what it means. His French teacher challenged him by saying, “I don’t like to see foreign language on your papers.” He answered, “you’re teaching me a foreign language.” I told him you have the right to write whatever you want, and I will stand by you. If they want to know what it says, they can ask you. I have always taught my children you should stand up for what you know is right.

After 9/11 I went to the principal and said that teachers need to be more respectful in their statements about Muslims and Arabs, for the sake of the Muslim students in the school. We brought in someone from the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the university to talk to the teachers. We started the process two days after 9/11 when my son came home and told me about the comments he was hearing. We initiated it but the school was receptive. They worked with us to put together a display for Arab Heritage Month. …

I’m very wary of how my son will figure things out. He’s bombarded with what we all get ... He’s very keen to go “home.” This is home - this is where he was born and raised.

They’ve been beating the drums of war for ten months, and he told me he can’t live in enemy territory. Up until now he’s traveled home every summer, to give him some sense of where we come from — he’s been to Saudi Arabia, Beirut, Syria. We get there and feel a sense of relief, like we can finally breathe. It’s ironic to feel freer there than here.

My son hangs out with Asian and Black students, he has no friends from the “mainstream.” It is quite a phenomenon for us to see this happening. It’s a link we haven’t attempted to make.

My daughter has a different reaction. She doesn’t deny her Arab-ness, but she’s trying hard to find her niche here, her place, to figure it all out. She is 16 years old ...she doesn’t want to talk about Palestine with her friends, she’d rather be quiet and write papers about Zionism.

Women adapt better than men to whatever situation. We’re more malleable, we try to appease others…

There’s a backlash in the schools — you’ll hear comments like, you should be in jail because you’re an Arab.

We are really up against an incredible challenge. It’s easy to lose our focus. It’s so easy to get off track and feel despondent and helpless, just turning on the news. I’m so shaken up by the difficult conditions, what people are dealing with. Maybe this is what they want. We’re so scared we can’t function.

There is a larger purpose to making me so subdued. I no longer speak Arabic in public.

In order not to give in to depression and fear, I need to remind myself constantly of what we’re doing, how we’re doing, what our purpose is.

I face it all with a lot of difficulty — a big part of me shuns it. I haven’t watched American TV for three months. I don’t have the mettle to be constantly under attack. I rely on the satellite dish, because I thirst to hear my language and also to hear analysis and commentary on the news. I rarely skim the Tribune — I get my news from Ali Abunimah’s list serve.

It’s a big change for me, not to watch American TV, even for entertainment. I don’t have what it takes to be on the front line every minute of every day.