Arab Expressions honors cultural heritage through poetry, song and traditional food

Laura Simmons and Kara Peeler

Megija Medne, Reporter

The rhythms of Dabke dance, the scents of Mansaf and warak enab, and the sounds of poetry and song filled the Louis Room at the Norris University Center on Friday evening as students celebrated Arab American Heritage Month. 

Organized by the Middle Eastern and North African Student Association, some students said the Arab Expressions event is special to them. 

“It’s just an amazing experience to really have and to be able to connect with the culture and the roots,” said Weinberg senior Ramzy Issa, who is a Palestinian student and MENA Student Association co-president. 

The event marked the second year students gathered for the festival to share their voices and honor their heritage through song and dance. 

Weinberg junior Sara Ibrahim, also MENA Student Association co-president and a former op-ed Daily contributor, said this “vibrant cultural showcase” is her favorite event of the year. 

“It was very heartwarming to see such a large turnout and (get) to celebrate Arab Heritage Month,” Ibrahim said.

SESP sophomore Daniella Karras said she enjoyed having the opportunity to share her culture with those outside of the MENA region and other MENA students. 

“(Arab Expressions) just binds us on a deeper level,” said Karras, a Coptic-Egyptian student who attended the event. “I would run into people (at the event) that share my identity — that are Egyptian — or people that I haven’t seen in a long time, or friends that are non-MENA affiliated.”

This event did not just provide attendees with a way to connect with others but also offered a chance for them to reminisce on childhood memories in places thousands miles away. Karras said the first song played at the event, “Lamma Bada Yatathanna,” felt like home and reminded her of times with her grandparents. 

Medill and Bienen senior Yasmeen Altaji, a Palestinian-Assyrian student and vocalist, performed an array of songs in Arabic on Friday evening. 

She said music, along with journalism, are her chosen methods of storytelling. 

“Both have their unique ways of giving someone who uses that medium the ability to showcase culture and preserve culture, or even push culture forward to its evolution,” Altaji said. 

Following a musical introduction by an group of performers who played instruments like the oud, tabla and nay while Altaji sang, student speakers took a moment to speak on current events in the MENA region. 

Many of the organizers and attendees’ home countries, including Syria, Turkey, Palestine and Yemen, are currently affected by war or environmental crises.

“When the war happened between Russia and Ukraine, Northwestern sent out a statement and they had a vigil. They had all these things that were school-affiliated,” Karras said. “But then right now, for example, there’s a war happening in Sudan, and the school didn’t do anything about it.”

Fighting has erupted in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, and across the country as the Sudanese army and paramilitary group, Rapid Support Forces, battle for control of the nation. About 4,000 have been wounded and more than 450 killed in the conflict so far, according to the World Health Organization. 

Karras said she feels the MENA region is often overlooked, which raises an important issue: The representation of MENA students is essential. 

“We are a big group on campus that represents over 22 countries in a region,” Issa said. “We cannot be invisible. We must make sure that we speak up for our students and also be sure to support those who are Arab and from Middle Eastern descent.”

Prior to the MENA Student Association’s creation in 2021, Ibrahim said there was no formal organization for MENA students. She said she felt there was no community for her when she first arrived at NU. 

Karras said she hopes MENA representation on campus will increase in the future. 

“It doesn’t need to be just for Arab Heritage Month,” Karras said. “Why can’t we be mentioned when it’s not just a month when we’re asking to be?”

In an effort to increase support for MENA students, this year Multicultural Student Affairs recognized Arab American Heritage Month for the first time.

Issa said MENA went “back and forth” with MSA in order to obtain recognition for Arab Heritage Month. Though gaining recognition was difficult, he said, he thinks “it’s going to go uphill from here.” 

Ibrahim said Arab Expressions further emphasized MENA’s efforts to increase representation on campus. The event symbolized MENA Student Association’s efforts to achieve official recognition, she said. 

“This event was very much a testament to the resilience of our community,” Ibrahim said. “We have infiltrated the mainstream spaces at Northwestern and made a space for us here.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @_megija

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @LauraS237

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @karapeeler

Related Stories: 

Mohammed El-Kurd discusses respectability politics during Arab American Heritage Month

MENA students celebrate first University-recognized Arab Heritage Month

ASG votes to not change MENA Student Association’s funding tier in the Student Activities Finance Committee