Arab-American Heritage Festival highlighted arts, food social justice

The Arab-American Heritage Music Festival may be in its ninth year in Brooklyn, but its debut in Cadman Plaza Park on Sunday blended the day-long celebration of Arab culture with awareness of recent suffering caused by violence in the Middle East, particularly in the Gaza strip and Iraq.

The festival, which took place on the park’s North Lawn, is an outreach of the Arab-American Family Support Center (AAFSC), based on Court Street.

Rama Issa-Ibrahim of the AAFSC who emceed Sunday’s event with two youth volunteers, began the day’s events with a moment of silence for the victims of violence and to reflect on ways to overcome hatred with understanding. Throughout the afternoon, AAFSC ran a project of photographing volunteers and fairgoers holding mini dry-erase boards bearing the name and age of a child who had been killed since violence erupted in the Gaza Strip last month. These photos were then tweeted as part of the growing worldwide #373children movement on Twitter.

The photos were also posted on AAFSC’s website.

The AAFSC has had a long-standing presence in Brooklyn, according to Heath Program Manager Maha Attieh.

"The Arab-American Family Support Center has been providing preventive services, adult education and English as a Second Language [ESL], legal services and health programs in Downtown Brooklyn for 20 years," Attieh said.

The Festival also highlighted the lighter aspects of Arab culture — dancing and, of course, food. Fairgoers could enjoy beef or chicken kebobs, grilled corn, moist falafel and grape leaves. Attendees could also shop for the herbs and spices that comprise these regional dishes.

Nelly of Alamani Organic Herbs and Beyond provided tasting samples of herbs like the dark-red sumac and Jordanian pine nuts, which could be purchased in $5 baggies. Also on sale were jars of Jordanian olives and olive oil, and soaps. Bags of mixed herbs for teas were also among the goods.

Other booths were advocacy centers for various healthcare services. The AAFSC booth, in addition to tweeting the #373children project, held a raffle to raise funds for the center’s social service work.

The Festival’s central focus was music and dance of all kinds around the Arab world.

However, Ambreen Aureshi, deputy executive director at the center, said this year's festival also celebrated the conclusion of the month-long fast of Ramadan, which ended on July 29.

Back by popular demand, world-renowned male belly dancer Tarik Sultan and his student partner, Naomi, performed for half an hour, each individually and then together. The growing crowd cheered especially loud when Tarik successfully did a complicated dance, the whole time balancing a water-filled hookah atop his head.

Basilio Georges, Tiana and company were a festival highlight as they bridged the Arab and Spanish worlds with several flamenco pieces. Mr. Georges runs a dance and music studio in New York City that specializes in flamenco and other dances of the Latin-Caribbean.

Other performers included Omnia Hegazy whose dual heritage in Italian and Arab culture led her to a career that blends songwriting and social justice. Ms. Hegazy was born of an Italian Catholic mother and an Egyptian Muslim father. In addition for her passion for music and politically-charged storytelling, the New York native is “also a belly dancer and choreographer seeking to create a fusion between East and West in both her music and her dancing,” according to her website.

Visitors to the event also had the opportunity to have intricate henna designs drawn on their hands by Omneah Hamdi, an art designer who displayed a number of colorful paintings as well.

An intergenerational troupe of dabke dancers from the Arab-American Family Support Center also performed. The youths in that group continued dancing informally on the lawn throughout the afternoon to the music coming from stage.