A World to Experience
Arab World Fest expands culture, understanding at Milwaukee’s lakefront
The 1998 debut of
Arab World Fest was a sign of the rising local prominence of a people whose
global importance was overshadowed by lack of understanding in the United States.
Old stereotypes lingered of Bedouin and desert sheiks. Few Americans understood
that while medieval Europe was an impoverished
backwater, the Arabs, drawing from Greek and Persian art and knowledge, as well
as their own resources, had established one of the great civilizations. In those
years the population and wealth of Damascus and Cairo dwarfed London and Paris. Much of the
world’s trade passed through Arab lands. The Arabian influence extended into
Europe and left a distinct mark on the language and music of Spain and Portugal.
“The mission [of the
festival] has stayed the same—to foster a better understanding of Arab people
and our rich heritage,” says Ihsan Atta, president of Arab World Fest.
While all of the
ethnic groups represented by annual festivals on the Summerfest grounds
historically suffered from prejudice—even Milwaukee’s
Germans were harassed in World War I—none of the lakefront events faced a
challenge as great as Arab World Fest. The fourth annual festival was scheduled
to begin within days of Sept. 11, 2001.
“We skipped 2001,”
Atta says, adding, “Arab World Fest became a place to learn about who we are.
People realized that the behavior of a few fanatics doesn’t represent a whole
culture. We received a lot of responses from people who said, ‘We didn’t know
what to expect, but we had a great time.’”
And Arab World Fest
promises a great time this year. The three-day schedule is crowded with music
and dance. On the contemporary edge are rap and hip-hop acts such as Shadia
Mansour, Lowkey and Bird & Sharif the Truth. Several youthful singers will
perform in more traditional styles, including Palestinian-born Maher Halabi and
Damascus-born songbird Gaida. Music from related cultures will also be heard,
including Assyrian singer Sargon Youkhanna and a bhangra group representing the
contemporary dance music of India.
The 20-member Jordanian troop Al Ramtha will perform folkloric dances. Belly
dancers will also be on hand. “We cover all bases and age groups,” Atta adds.
Several of Milwaukee’s Middle Eastern
restaurants will maintain booths at the festival. Cooking demonstrations, a
hookah tent and a market are among the attractions. “There will be many
displays relating to Arab people and Arab contributions to civilization,” Atta
says, along with poetry readings and screenings of documentary films. “It will
be an information overload for people with any questions about the Arab
Given the importance
of family in the tradition of the Near East,
there will be many children’s activities, from arts and crafts to storytelling
and bouncy houses.
One of the
challenges facing Arab World Fest is the diversity of the world it encompasses.
More than 20 countries can be defined as Arab, based on language, culture and
history. “The intention of the festival is to represent all of them—or at
minimum, all the regions,” Atta explains. “We put a call out to all the
different communities. We contact all the embassies for information and
brochures. We diversify the entertainment. We do what we can to get a
representation from everyone.”
Arab World Fest runs Aug. 6-8 on the Summerfest grounds. For schedule and details, go to www.arabworldfest.com.