Lecture by Dr. Radwan Ziadeh in Lawrence on April 17, 2012‏

Redwan Ziadel Lecture

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Arab American National Museum

Front view of AANM

Front view of Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, MI

America is defined as a melting pot. From Native Americans to European settlers to African slaves and immigrants, all of us have settled in this land and defined ourselves as Americans. Part of what makes America so rich, however, is that each of these groups has its own culture, struggles and story to tell. They write books, build institutions and educate their children to preserve their identity and experience while maintaining their American identity as well.

Arab Americans are no different; they have been part of the fabric of America since its inception and have a fascinating story to tell. A recent exhibit at the Arab American National Museum is highlighting the contributions of Arab Americans in public service. “Patriots and Peacemakers: Arab Americans in Service to Our Country” tells true stories of heroism and self-sacrifice that affirm the substantial role Arab Americans have played in our country throughout its history. The exhibit introduces us to Hadji Ali (An Arab American known as Hi Jolly who became one of the first camel drivers ever hired by the US Army to lead the camel driver experiment in the Southwest in 1856), Ahmed Najuib, who served in the Peace Corps in Rawanda, and many others, including many Arab Americans in the military forces who served in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and Iraq and Afghanistan.

The museum also highlights prominent Arab Americans who served in the Diplomatic fields of sports, science, and journalism. Museums in general present a glimpse into the lives and and lifestyles of people from other cultures or times. We visit Civil Rights museums, Natural History Museums, Holocaust Museums, and Native American Museums, all of which tell the stories of their people.

The Arab-American National Museum (AANM) in Deerborn, MI, where the story of Arab Americans began, was established to document, preserve, celebrate and educate the public on the history, life, culture and contribution of Arab Americans. The Patriots and Peacemakers exhibit is one of many events that the museum has held in the past year, both online and in its facility at 13624 Michigan, Ave., Dearborn, MI. Recent events and exhibits have included “Making an Impact,” “The Revolution is Online: Social Media and the Arab World Uprisings,” “The 2011 Arab Film Festival,” “Alfred Shaheen:Fabric to Fashion,” “The Annual Arab American Book Awards,” and the online “Reclaiming Identity: Dismantling Arab Stereotypes”. Currently, the museum is working on an exhibit in New York that will focus on the Syrian community that lived in lower Manhattan (at the site of the World Trade Center) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Welcome Sign in Arabic.

AANM is an ethno-specific museum, not an ethno-centric museum. Working closely with many other organizations such as the Ford Foundation and the Kreske Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution, the American-Japanese Museum and Culturally Speaking, the AANM serves as a resource to enhance knowledge and understanding about Arab Americans and their presence in the US. It is also a part of ACCESS – Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, established in 1971. But most importantly, the museum aims for strong ties with the national Arab American community outside the Michigan area and counts on contributions from members nationwide. To learn more about the museum or the Patriots and Peacemakers exhibit, please visit arabamericanmuseum.org or culturallyspeaking.net.

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Bilal, the Ethiopian

This post is about something historic, something recent, something African, something Arab…and all of it relevant. With the recent events in Syria, it’s good to begin this series of articles with a reminder about a blessed companion of the Prophet (saws) who is buried in Damascus, and who embodies Culturally Speaking’s ethos.

Bilal ibn Rabah Al-Habashi, (the Ethiopian) is well-known as the African Muslim who called the early Muslims to prayer. But he was much more than that. In addition to lending his magnificent voice to the adhan and being a humble believer who was promised paradise, he was, in today’s terms, the Prophet’s personal administrative assistant. He was in charge of the Prophet’s schedule and finances, as well as his trusted companion on the battlefield.

Bilal was a slave in Mecca, the “property” of a man named Umayyah bin Khalaf. Bilal lived a difficult life during his pre-Islamic days because Bin Khalif was not a kind man by any means, although he kept Bilal strong and treated him as valuable property. When Bilal heard the message of Islam, he marveled at, among other things, its doctrines of human equality – slaves being treated kindly, fed well and not overworked. He saw his freedom in Islam and was among the first to become Muslim. Of course his master didn’t react kindly to his conversion.

As both punishment and incentive to renounce Islam, Bin Khalif frequently placed Bilal on the hot sand under the harsh desert sun with a bare chest and a boulder placed on his ribcage. Bin Khalif mocked him and asked, “Why doesn’t your God come and save you?” Bilal said nothing but “Ahad, Ahad,” God is one, God is one. This infuriated Bin Khalif not only because he was a polytheist, but because the implied belief in human dignity for all went against his treasured self-superiority.

The more Bilal insisted that God was one, the more torment was inflicted upon him, until one day Abu Bakr approached his master during one of these sessions and offered to buy him. Bin Khalaf knew by this point that there was no chance Bilal would renounce Islam, and the price that Abu Bakr offered was twice what a slave would normally bring. So he sold Bilal to Abu Bakr, who immediately freed him.

When the adhan was adopted as the call to prayer, Bilal’s habit was to stand on a rooftop every morning and call, “O Allah, I praise you and I ask your help for Qur’aish, that they may accept your religion.” Then he made the call to prayer. When the time for prayers arrived during the day, Rasoolullah (saws) would say, “Bilal, relieve us from it,” meaning “Bilal, relieve us from these worldly concerns by calling us to the tranquility of prayer.”

Tomb of Bilal in Damascus, Syria - Photo courtesy of "onemilegrads.blogspot.com"

When the Prophet died, Bilal was too grief-stricken to stay in Medinah. He ceased to make the adhan and traveled instead. In this way he came to be buried in Damascus.

Now, some 1400 years later, people in Syria and all over the world are standing up in the face of violence and oppression and demanding the human dignity bestowed upon them by Allah in the Qur’an – the same universal rights that inspired Bilal to stand up to Bin Khalaf in the middle of the Arabian desert so many years ago.

At Culturally Speaking our goal is to help create a world where everyone’s humanity is esteemed, everyone’s culture celebrated, everyone’s religion respected and everyone’s contribution valued. Just as Islam teaches.