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Arab American Fest a Chance to Connect

Organizers of the Garden Grove event also seek to dispel myths about their cultures.

September 19, 2004|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

Standing in the middle of a Garden Grove park Saturday afternoon, Nadia Fathallah smiled. The scent of chicken shwarma and falafel mixed in the air. Arabic pop music blared from a nearby stage.

"This is great. I've been looking forward to this for a week," said the Moroccan-born Angeleno. "It's a chance to connect, maybe find some other Moroccans. But also to show that we're not just a bunch of terrorists with beards."

Exactly the point, said organizers of the Arab American Day festival, a free, three-day event at the Village Green Park that ends today.

With the ripple effects of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks still being felt in Orange County's Arab-American community, festival organizers said they hope the vendors, performances and carnival rides would provide an opportunity for Arab Americans to gather and share what they believe is a misunderstood culture.

Indeed, the festival comes at a time when Arab Americans' relationship to their country is somewhat unsettled. The CIA contributed $10,000 to help defray the cost of the festival, said Ahmad Alam, president of the Arab American Council, which is sponsoring the event. Such contributions are part of a larger, post-Sept. 11 effort by the agency to recruit Arab Americans for jobs and increase goodwill, a CIA representative said last week.

A CIA banner -- "Your heritage is Arab American. Your citizenship is All-American" -- hung at the center of the festival's performance stage.

This year's event comes less than two weeks after Anaheim police opened an investigation into claims by Alam and others that two officers have harassed Arab Americans in the city's Little Gaza shopping district.

Since a humble start in 1996 when fewer than 5,000 people attended, the festival has grown significantly. This year, organizers expect 25,000 to 30,000.

Most will be Arab Americans, Alam said. He welcomed the chance for Arab Americans like Fathallah to celebrate their shared culture.

"It's important for us," Fathallah said. "I have Persian American friends, Afghan American friends, Moroccan American friends. It brings us closer and makes us feel closer to home."

But, Alam said, he is hopeful more people from other cultures will also attend. "We need to show ourselves to non-Arabs. We want others to know who we really are -- that we are good people."

Orli Lahav of Los Angeles agreed with Alam but expressed doubt. "I don't know that Americans with negative impres- sions of Arabs are going to come to something like this," she said.

Regardless, it is a campaign that Alam's group has waged in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

"We have to face reality," Alam said. "If people have [negative impressions] of us, we need to confront it and deal with it. The worst thing is to just shut up and hide."

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