Recruiting Arab American Voters

By Leila Kawar

On Saturday mornings, Sahadi Importing company on Atlantic Avenue resembles an Arabic souq, or marketplace, as people from all over the city line up with wire shopping baskets in hand to scoop up spices and dried fruit and shop the shelves for Middle Eastern specialties like pickled Z’atar leaf and thin, hot peppers in brine.

Outside the bustle of morning shopping, fresh-faced young professionals have set up a portable table covered with a traditional black-and-white checked Arab headdress and are passing out leaflets that announce the second annual Network of Arab American Professionals (NAAP) voter registration drive.

The twenty-somethings like Sarab Aljijakli and Amal Elsheemy, two of the founders of NAAP, are part of Arab immigrant children who grew up as Americans but found that the Arab American community lacked the institutions necessary for fully participating in the political process in the city.

“Looking around New York, Arabs have no presence in local politics," Aljijakli said. “We are a diverse community, and people own lots of businesses and are willing to get involved in the business community, but not in politics. Arab-Americans have lots of things they want to discuss with other Americans but they can usually only preach. We’re trying to change that.”

More than 100,000 immigrants from the Arabic-speaking countries of the Middle East have come to New York City over the past 20 years, with immigration from these countries increasing by 67 percent in the 1990s alone. NAAP’s voter registration efforts have been targeted at these recent immigrants and their families, most of whom are citizens but know very little about the voting process.

Over the past two years, Aljijakli and Elsheemy have recruited their peers to help register new voters. As Aljijakli notes, getting new immigrants to participate in the political process has been challenging. “It has been hard to win people’s trust,” he said. “They distrust politics but if you keep coming back regularly they get used to you and are willing to listen to what we have to say.”

The NAAP campaign began on Atlantic Avenue in the months ahead of last November’s congressional election, and this fall the organizers have expanded their efforts to cover the Arab section of Atlantic Avenue as well as Arab neighborhoods in Astoria, Yonkers, Paterson, Bay Ridge and Jersey City.

NAAP's voter registration drive is the first community-organized effort with a strategy for reaching Arab-Americans across the entire New York area.It might seem that Arab-Americans should have joined the ranks of organized ethnic identity groups some time ago. After all, Arabic-speaking immigrants have been coming to New York since the 1860s.

But as sociologist Anny Bakalian, who works at CUNY’s Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center, explained, although they shared a common cultural heritage, few of the early immigrants would have identified themselves as Arabs.

“If asked, these immigrants, many of whom were Orthodox Christians from the Levant, identified first with their family, next with their village or town and thirdly with their sect,” Bakalian said.

Although their “whiteness” was initially contested and was only settled by an awkward 1915 court decision that allowed immigrants from the Eastern Mediterranean to become citizens on account of their membership in the “Semitic branch of the Caucasian race”, the initial wave of Arabic-speaking immigrants and their descendants assimilated relatively quickly into the melting pot of white Christian America.

Immigration to the United States from the Middle East was more or less cut-off between the First and Second World Wars and started to pick up again after 1967 when university-educated professionals who were frustrated by Middle East political instability started to emigrated in large numbers.

Newcomers from North Africa, the Gulf States, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon are more likely to be Muslim and are more diverse in socioeconomic background, and they may have a harder time passing for “white” than did immigrants a century earlier. Many have also been influenced by the post-colonial politics of the region, in particular by Arab nationalism. Whether Christian or Muslim, many are troubled by U.S. foreign policy towards the Arab nations over the last 40 years, views that they have passed on to their children.

“After 9/11, everyone found themselves being treated as Arabs whether they thought of themselves that way or not, " Aljijakli explains. "And then there was a common feeling that if you were walking down the street and heard Arabic being spoken you’d want to say hello, marhaba, ahlan wasahlan, regardless of which country the person was from.”

Indeed, NAAP attracts recent Arab immigrants but it also draws its membership from the children of the early immigrants, many of whom are now more likely to see their identity as Arab and to work for their ethnic community and the causes of their people in the old homelands.

For young professionals like Mr. Aljijakli, almost as important as registering recent immigrants to vote is the effort to organize the community politically so that it can make its concerns known to the general public.

The aftermath of the events of 9/11, particularly the special registration program for non-citizens from certain countries as well as the FBI’s “voluntary interview” program that targeted immigrants from these same countries, has galvanized a new generation of rights-conscious Arab-Americans. As Ms. Elsheemy puts it, “It’s the ‘Oh I didn’t know you were Arab’ or ‘But you don’t look Arab’ that we need to take advantage of. If we can’t represent for our people who will.”

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