Arab American Heritage Month 2023: Stories That Matter
According to the Arab American Institute, there are nearly 3.7 million Americans who have ancestry that can be traced back to an Arab country. A majority of Arab American community members were born in America. However, regardless of where they were born—in America or elsewhere for those who immigrated to the U.S.—Arab Americans have valuable creative experiences and perspectives that only they can tell through their creative works.
This month, we’re celebrating the history of Arab Americans throughout Arab American Heritage Month and highlighting several creators who have shared their brilliant works for the world to enjoy.
History of Arab American Heritage Month
Starting in the 1990s, Arab American Heritage was celebrated in some states in the U.S. However, there was no formal national initiative until 2017 when the celebration started to gain momentum nationally. Then, on April 30, 2019, Michigan Representatives Debbie Dingell and Rashida Tlaib led a resolution to recognize Arab American Heritage nationally each year during the month of April. Michigan Representatives Haley Stevens and Andy Levin cosponsored this resolution, and it was formally introduced by Florida Representative Donna Shalala.
Ultimately, April 2021 marked the first year that the United States officially recognized Arab American Heritage Month. Since then, it has become a month to recognize the history, culture, and creative contributions that the Arab American community has shared with the world, including countless inspiring works of art and creations. Recently, on March 21, 2023, President Joe Biden reflected on National Arab American Heritage Month (NAAHM) and stated that “the Arab American story is the American story.”
Noteworthy Arab American Creators
There’s no question that the Arab American community has impacted all creative industries in many ways. Below are several Arab American creators who have contributed significantly by sharing their artistic and creative works.
Tony Shalhoub: Actor
Tony Shalhoub is a Lebanese American who has had a very successful career as an Actor. Shalhoub has won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series and two SAG awards for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor for his work in Marvelous Mrs. Maisel where he plays Abe Weissman. He also played the role of Adrian Monk in the TV series Monk, which he received a Golden Globe, two SAG Awards, and three Primetime Emmy Awards for. On top of his onscreen success, he also made his Broadway debut in the 1985 for the production of The Odd Couple. He was also in The Heidi Chronicles, The Golden Boy, and many more.
To learn more about Shalhoub, you can watch PBS’ series Finding Your Roots where they feature him in Season 7, Episode 4. They cover everything from how Shalhoub’s family contributed to his success to anti-immigrant sentiments.
Naomi Shihab Nye: Poet, Editor, Songwriter, and Novelist
Naomi Shihab Nye is a Palestinian American who wears many hats. She’s a poet, editor, songwriter, and novelist. In many areas of her career, she works to give a voice to her Arab American experiences. An example is in her book 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East. In this book, she explores how the life of Middle Eastern civilians changed after 9/11 occurred.
Nye has received countless awards for her written works, including four Pushcart Prizes, the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Lifetime Achievement Award. Naomi has also been a Lannan Fellow, a Guggenheim Fellow, and a Witter Bynner Fellow, which is a fellowship awarded by the Library of Congress. On top of her numerous awards and fellowships, she also travels often to promote international goodwill through the arts.
Alicia Sams: Film Producer and Director
Alicia Sams is the producer and director of the award-winning series Arab American Stories, which aired in 2012 on PBS. Every week, Arab American Stories featured three different Arab Americans from a variety of backgrounds. They may be an artist, chef, educator, or from another profession. Sams and the rest of the crew on set found a way to discuss immigration, diversity, culture, and so much more in an innovative way.
In addition to Alicia’s work on Arab American, she also won an Emmy for her film By The People: The Election of Barack Obama, which premiered on HBO in 2009. There’s no question that Alicia has made an impact on the film and television industry. She continues to encourage and educate others by appearing as a guest lecturer at a number of colleges around the country. She’s currently the Director of Fellows Program at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics and continues to freelance as a Director and Producer.
Moustafa Bayoumi: Author
Moustafa Bayoumi is an award-winning author. His book How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America won an American Book Award and the Arab American Book Award for Non-Fiction. His book follows seven young Arab Americans as they go through post-9-11 life. It highlights the stereotypes and the ongoing discrimination they face after that traumatic event.
In addition to publishing award-winning non-fiction books, Bayoumi has also been a successful journalist. He has been published in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, and many other noteworthy news publications. Bayoumi is currently a professor at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, where he teaches English to aspiring creators like himself.
Sam Maloof: Furniture Designer and Woodworker
Sam Maloof was a Lebanese American furniture designer and woodworker who handcrafted more than 5,000 chairs in his lifetime. Maloof was the first craftsman to receive a MacArthur fellowship, and in 1985, he was also awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant. There is no other twentieth-century studio furniture maker that has received as many awards as Maloof did.
His collections are featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. He had a large following of fans of his work, including former President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, who both owned one of his rockers.
Before Maloof passed away, he wrote an autobiography of his life titled Sam Maloof: Woodworker where he talks about how he got into woodworking following World War II once he realized there was a high demand for handmade chairs. Maloof’s legacy continues to live on, as his partner Mike Johnson has continued their business.
Yasmine Nasser Diaz: Multidisciplinary Artist
Yasmine Nasser Diaz is a Yemeni American multidisciplinary artist currently living in Los Angeles. Diaz uses “mixed media collage, photo-based fiber etching, immersive installation, and video to explore connections between personal experience and larger social and political structures.” She has had a number of solo exhibitions as well as selected group exhibitions throughout the country.
Diaz received the Harpo Visual Artists Grand and the 2019 California Community Foundation Visual Artist Fellowship. She has also been featured in a number of museums, including the Arab American National Museum’s first solo exhibition called “Soft Powers.”
Arab American National Museum
As seen through the few artists mentioned, it is clear that Arab American creators have made enormous contributions to American art and culture. The Arab American National Museum (AANM) highlights and displays these achievements.
Located in Dearboard, Michigan, the AANM is the only museum in the United States that actively collects Arab American artwork. The museum opened its doors back in 2005, and since then, it has continued to provide endless educational opportunities for visitors of all ages. AANM’s mission has been clear from the start, which is to “document, preserve and present the history, culture and contributions of Arab Americans.”
In addition to having in-person visitation, the museum also offers a virtual tour package. The AANM offers a great opportunity to all who are interested in learning more about Arab culture and the creative contributions made thus far to our society.
Arab Americans have contributed greatly to the creative community within the United States. From film and writing to musicians and woodworking, all are imperative to the growth and overall development of creativity in America. These contributions have unique experiences and perspectives that only they can communicate in their works.
In order for others to see and hear the truth and experiences shared by Arab Americans, people have to be willing to listen to the stories shared; and to listen to what they’ve been through and where they are going. We hope that you will be among those who listen and enjoy the creations shared by the Arab American creator community and appreciate their contributions!
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