Student group seeks to redefine ‘Arab’

The Arabic Language and Culture Association wants to get to the bottom of stereotypes within our society — or at least at Youngstown State University.

Senior Lamia Sassya, an Arab-American biology pre-med major, has been president of the group for the past two semesters.

“It’s mainly there for people to enjoy and to have fun, but at the same time it’s there to kind of open a door for those who want to clear up those misconceptions and education,” Sassya said.

Sassya, with fellow Arabic Language and Culture Association members Tausif Siddiqi and Mansour AlJazzir, recently created a documentary focused around the word “Arab.”

Annette El-Hayek, assistant director for study abroad and exchange programs and the group’s adviser, said she thought the documentary was a good learning experience for students.

“I thought it was a really good idea because most people don’t know who are Arabs and who are not,” El-Hayek said.

Sassya, a foreign film and documentary fanatic, was inspired by “The Listening Project,” a documentary featuring a man traveling from country to country asking about the word “America.”

AlJazzir, a sophomore engineering student from Saudi Arabia, helped to conduct the interviewing process with Sassya.

Upon beginning the project, AlJazzir was simply excited about the interaction among students.

“My first thought was to introduce Arabic culture for other people and make an interaction between students that no matter region or a language can impede to communicate with each other,” AlJazzir said.

Participating YSU students were asked two questions: “When you hear ‘Arab,’ what is the first thing that pops into your head?” and “How do you define an Arab?”

Siddiqi and AlJazzir started the documentary by wearing clothing traditional to their culture. Sassya wore the traditional abaya and hijab, and AlJazzir wore a thobe and ghutra.

However, after having 15 to 20 students refuse to answer, they decided to see what would happen if they wore American clothing.

“I think it’s because they were afraid to offend, and I told them they did not have to worry about that,” Sassya said.

On the second attempt, a wide range of answers began flowing about food, religion and clothing, to more stereotypical answers including, “The dot on their forehead.”

The group debuted the documentary on Nov. 16 at their event, Arabic Language and Culture Association Hafla. The event, held at the Arab American Community Center on Belmont Avenue, was dedicated to discussing common stereotypes within today’s society. Roughly 100 people attended.

The results of the documentary were positive overall, and it captured the attention of YSU students.

“As a result of the documentary, some of my friends have curiosity to learn more about the Arabic culture and see if there is difference between other cultures,” AlJazzir said.

In addition to the discussion about stereotypes, there was dancing and fun.

“We got to perform a dance that not many people see, because in the Gulf area, the women, they do a dance with their hair,” Sassya said. “It’s called Khaleeji dancing.”

Sassya said this was one of the best parts of the event because the dance is typically done in private.

“The politics of today, and the target on the Middle East, I think has caused a really unfair view,” Sassya said. “I hear it every day.”

The Arabic Language and Culture Association was established in 2008. So far, they’ve completed trips to a mosque and local hookah cafes.

The organization has also hosted international coffee hour on Fridays and served Arabic food.

There are no plans for any other events this semester, and Sassya is looking for a student to take over her position after she graduates in December.

“You cannot define an Arab by the religion, the clothing, the region; the only thing you can kind of correlate them is the Arabic language, which itself has so many dialects,” Sassya said. “So, it’s good to open that awareness, and it did for some people; hopefully, we will find someone to take it over.”

El-Hayek said she is not worried about finding a student to step up to the position.

“Leadership is always a problem,” El-Hayek said. “I don’t care what kind of group you’re in, everyone has the same problem, and there are always some people within the group that put out more time and effort than someone else. But there’s always somebody that is stepping up.”

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