Arabs--From Fascination to Hatred to Tolerance / by R. Sheth

December 8, 2005
BY JASON GEORGE

It was 112 years ago that an Egyptian Muslim climbed the stairs of a newly constructed minaret along the Chicago lakefront and sang out "Allah Akbar" to a crowd of enchanted, and puzzled, spectators.

Islam's Arab emissaries were an uncommon sight when they appeared as part of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Bedouin camel boys, the Algerian theater and the scandalous "danse du ventre" (belly dance) only heightened the fascination with the Middle East.

How much has the understanding of Arabs and Muslims in Chicago advanced since then?

According to some, not far enough. Interviews show they feel as though they are under suspicion by large parts of the public, especially since the 9/11 terrorist attack

And it's no different nationally. According to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll taken in July, of the 1,006 adults polled, 53 percent said Arabs, even those who are U.S. citizens, should undergo more-intensive security checks when boarding an airplane in the United States. About 46 percent said that Arabs and Arab-Americans should carry a special ID.

Other observers said that there is great acceptance of Muslims in Chicago, which just finished celebrating Arab Heritage month.

In interviews, Arabs have expressed frustration, ambivalence and gratitude toward this city. Here are four of those voices.

THE DIRECTOR

In the play Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith now in Chicago, an Egyptian-American family deals with one son renouncing Islam and another having a homosexual experience. The family's daughter wrestles with her arranged marriage and wearing a scarf.

It's a portrait of how one Arab-American family straddles two worlds, yet the play's Arab-American assistant director was nervous about bringing a family member to the performance.

"He's going to hate this play and embarrass me," Carol Karaguez remembered thinking when she invited a cousin.

Karaguez is Lebanese Christian, and feelings toward Muslims have not always been warm in her family.

"My dad had to leave Lebanon because of the civil war, a religious thing, and then after Sept. 11 happened he was so angry," she said.

For her, 9/11 left mixed emotions as well.

"I was frustrated because I didn't want people to think because I'm Middle Eastern, I approve of something like that," she said. "But then again I was frustrated about yeah, there they go again."

Karaguez said it took her studying both faiths to gain tolerance. "The way I view religion is that we all believe in the same God, but we have different ways of getting at him."

As for her cousin, the play produced a surprising reaction.

"He loved it," she said, smiling. "All the way home, he kept talking about it and how he totally identified with all the characters."

THE STUDENT

When Manar Kandil arrived at the University of Illinois at Chicago in August, she came bearing traditional freshman worries like: How far is my dorm from my classes? Will my professors be tough?

Kandil, an 18-year-old Egyptian-American, had another question: Would she find anyone like her?

"The first thing I did was try to go everywhere and look for Arabs," she said of her first days on campus. "Every person I saw with a scarf on, I was like, OK, are you Arab?"

Find them she did. "Within two weeks I met so many Arabs," she laughed.

But she met two groups, she said.

"There is always going to be a group of Arabs that are proud to be Arab, and they try to uphold the Arab culture. And then there is that group that they try as much as they can not to associate with being Arab," she said. "Initially it was kind of frustrating to see people who are like, My name is Mo, not Mohammed."

Sitting in the university's student center, Kandil said this experience has made her faith stronger.

For Kandil, that means no dating or alcohol. Prayer time comes five times a day. It also means decorating her dorm room and acting like an average teenager.

"My father continually tells us take the good from both cultures," she said. "They wanted us to strike a balance."

THE CABBIE

In the basement of a West Loop restaurant sits one of Chicago's most austere, and active, mosques.

It exists underneath Kabab Corner, an eatery whose customers are mostly taxi drivers who steer their wheels here for quick chicken and rice plates and a place to pray

The austere mosque has worn black carpets and buckets of paint stacked in the back as if touchups were once under consideration.

Zaher Halimeh comes here at least once a day to talk with God. It's peace he needs, the 33-year-old Palestinian said.

"I'm not scared of anything," he said with a grin. But "I've got a big mouth."

It's a problem that surfaces when the insults come, Halimeh said. "Afghani reject." "Suicide bomber." "Osama's cousin."

"I have Mexicans' saying, Go back to your country," he added.

As sort of a sociology experiment, Halimeh said, he sometimes looks in his rearview mirror and tells passengers that he is Greek or "from Jerusalem."

The reaction is almost always better than the one to "Palestinian," he said. "That should clearly tell you that they look at you differently."

Halimeh said he wants to soon return to Palestine with his son.

"I want my kids to grow up in my country. I want them to know the true meaning of free," he said.

But he also feels a pull toward the United States.

"The benefits of this country make me want to be here," he said. "But it is a road full of thorns

THE DOCTOR

Dr. Abdulgany Hamadeh counts his blessings.

His three healthy children not only have friends at their Islamic school in Bridgeview, they also go to neighborhood birthday parties and play sports near their Burr Ridge home. And the hours the physician puts in at a successful pulmonary and sleep-disorder practice allow them to enjoy the finer things.

Such a life was not even a dream 24 years ago, when Hamadeh emigrated from Syria.

"When I came here, my main goal was to get the best education I can get," said Hamadeh, 45. "Later on, I decided to stay here."

He is a proud Arab-American who argues that integration is key to Arabs' being accepted here. "I think it's wrong for communities to stay together and just stay enclosed, because it gives that wrong impression. The Arab communities should come out," the physician said.

He's trying to help further this by working with local Islamic and Syrian organizations that do community outreach. He's also part of a group of suburban Muslims who plan on building a new mosque, far from Chicago's Arab neighborhoods.

"We live in this society, and we are a part of it, and we have to act in a way that's responsible," he said.