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Arabic in New York City

Sabera Asar and Areefa Arafin

     The aim of this paper is to investigate the use of Arabic, a LOTE used in the Brooklyn Heights section of Brooklyn. We specifically examined the Atlantic Avenue area, which is a large commercial center in which Arabs shop and socially interact. We wish to analyze how pervasive the Arabic language is on several levels, including the commercial, social, political, and religious level. Due to a lack of time, we could not go to the Court Street area, which is a largely residential Arab neighborhood. We realize that the term "Arab" consists of many countries of the world, each with their distinct dialects and cultures. However, from our research among the people themselves, there is no segregation among the Arabs for one country. In a way it is a "mixed Arab" community with Arabic as the LOTE that links them together so strongly. From our observations, Arabic seems to be the language of social, religious, and commercial life. However, this language is not useful in other spheres of life like government, and in some ways medical and educational services. The Arab people are very much aware that they are a minority and those who cannot speak any English (which is rare) make an effort to learn it. One reason for this awareness can probably be attributed to the fact that they are co-existing with various cultural groups including Hispanics, African Americans and Chinese Americans, as was evident in our visit to the area.

     As for our own personal relationship to the municipality investigated, I, Areefa, have twice visited the area to shop. I didn't know much about the services provided in the area for Arab speakers. I was familiar with Arabs before the project but none in that area. I speak Arabic as a second language (which came in handy at certain points). I, Sabera, had no connection whatsoever to the people or the community and was interested in finding out more about this area. I had never heard of an Arab neighborhood in New York prior to this point.

     According to the Census Bureau, Arab Americans are defined as people who trace their ancestry to North African countries like Morocco all the way to western Asia like Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Their cultures and traditions are not necessarily the same but their common tie is the "Arabic heritage" and the Arabic language. Arab immigration to the US started in the late 19th century, the early ones were mostly from Syria and Lebanon who became merchants. After WWII many people emigrated for political reasons including some Palestinians. From 1975-1980, there was a high immigration rate of Arabs to the US. These are all foreign born. Most of these immigrants are educated.

     We found that although the Arab community is well-accommodated for on the commercial scene, the level of accommodation on the government is not as deep. For example the Post office in the area provides no support for LOTE speakers. One woman put it nicely when she said, "They don't provide services for English speakers, let alone people who don't know English." There are no brochures in LOTE and there are no signs that aren't solely in English. But this might be because there is no real need for vast LOTE use among the Arabs. The majority of people interviewed spoke English fluently. This lack of Arabic use was also evident at Precinct 88, where one of the police officers informed us that there is hardly a problem in the Atlantic Avenue area with monolingual Arab speakers; the majority he had encountered spoke English. But in the precinct itself, when the need arises, translating services are provided for Arabic and almost every other language. There is a specific department that can be called on when a translator is needed.

     Not only is the police department accommodating of LOTE, the school in the area is as well. In the closest primary school, P.S. 38, pamphlets are posted in English, Arabic and Spanish. The flags painted outside the school indicate the diversity of the students who go there. Although there is a good size population of Arabic speakers, there are also Spanish and French speakers. There are a few ESL students, but most of the students in the school can speak English. There are no bilingual classes, although one used to be offered in Spanish a few years ago. There is also Al-Noor, which is a private religious school located on Fourth Avenue. They offer Arabic and religious classes along with a standard academic curriculum. Even though the community is very diverse in the area, some Arabs prefer to stay with their "own kind". One student stated that she has always been at Al-Noor and that she feels more comfortable there because she doesn't have to defend her culture to non-Arabs. But Al-Noor is very diverse in itself including students from American born converts to Indians to Africans to Arabs. There are 600 students with grades K-12. There is also a school called Al-Aksa, above the mosque, Masjid Farooq. We spoke to a young Yemeni girl who stated that she loved the school. It was easier for her to speak Arabic than English, which shows the acceptance of Arab speakers in her school.

     As evidenced through the school district, the precinct and the post office, government services are provided for LOTE speakers, especially Arab speakers, only when absolutely necessary. The same goes for the medical services provided in the area. Borough Medical Center provides interpreters for Chinese, Russian and French, but not for Arabic even though the majority of residents are Arabic speakers. In fact, 9114 Arab immigrants were admitted and lived in Brooklyn from 1990 to 1994. So the fact that interpreters are not provided for Arabic speakers might indicate that the Arabs who do come in can speak English, but we were assured that hardly any Arabs came in to seek treatment. Diagnostic Health Services, located in the same building provides translators for Spanish, Haitian and French, but most people who can't speak English come in with a relative who can. Atlantis Medical Center offers no interpreters at all. The doctors are not Arab and cannot speak Arabic. The majority of the doctors are West Indian. Dr. Shwartz's medical office is smaller than the others, but he receives patients from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, including Arabs, Hispanics, and Jews. This might be due to the fact that he can speak French, Russian, Spanish and some Arabic and his secretary can speak Russian and German. Dr.Schwartz is a rare example of the accommodation of the Arabic language in the medical centers of the area.

     On the other hand, the commercial area has more freedom to express itself in an LOTE. We met M.S. Zohny, the Egyptian owner of Islam Fashion with three stores, one in upper Manhattan 95 th St., on in Astoria and one on Atlantic Ave. He does wholesale and retail and ships nationwide. He came here in 1979 so he's lived here for about twenty-one years. His three children were born here, the oldest being fifteen years old in high school to the youngest who is ten. He and his children know both English and Arabic, to the point of fluency. Sometimes people come in to ask about Islam. This shows how friendly people are with him and how well established he is in the community. After Sept. 11, he got a threatening letter. He replied, "If I get another threat I'm not afraid to just take my family back to Egypt." Yet, his children, he said, want to stay here. He sells religious books in various LOTE's like French, Spanish, Arabic, and German, as well as Arab/Islamic women's jilbabs or long overcoats and scarves (hijabs). He also sells Arab clothing called the jalabia (long white gown). Much of his inventory is not made here but imported from countries like Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Atlantic Ave. is lined with stores like his.

     There are also supermarkets and butcheries that sell halal (religiously sound) meat and other products as well as traditional Middle Eastern foods like olives and feta cheese and baklava. One such place is Fertile Crescent. The workers are Egyptian and so is the owner. They speak limited English as they have only been living here two years. They also have a big incense (ataar) stock. We noticed their coffee blends included Belgian, French, Columbian, Jamaican, Italian, Yemen, and Swiss. Is it a reflection of the community? In some ways it is. There are a number of restaurants in the area. There is Bedouin Tent Restaurant where the owners have been living in America for twenty years. Then there is American Middle Eastern Cuisine, which is an interesting blend of both cultures menu from French fries and burgers to kabob and shawerma (grilled lamb or beef on a turnstile). The owner came here when he was nineteen. His children were born and grew up here. The restaurant workers have people who speak LOTE including Arabic, French, Russian, Spanish, Chinese, and Italian. Their cuisine somewhat reflects that mixture of peoples. In fact the two workers we interviewed were Egyptian and Chinese. One worker summed up her view of the area saying, "It's like the United Nations here."

     There are a couple of bookstores which sell books mostly in English and Arabic, but also in Urdu, Spanish, French, Russian, Malay and other languages. Wafa Translator Services showed us two newspapers one from Yemen called Al-Arab al-Ghad (The Arabs Tomorrow) and another from Egypt Al-Akhbar (The News). They also publish Al-Ahram (Egyptian) in English and Arabic, Al-Raie (Jordanian) and others in Arabic. These all are imported. Papers can be found in groceries and bookstores.

     As for the religious aspect of the community, there is a Lebanese Church on Montigo St. and a Lebanese church called Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Cathedral on Remsen St. Brooklyn. At least some parts of the service are done in Arabic. Another church where LOTE is spoken is Bethel Word of Faith Church on Atlantic but the LOTE they speak is Spanish. Also there's the Lutheran Church with mostly Swedish and Caucasian worshipers on Pacific St. Their service is in English. Masjid Farooq is on Atlantic Ave. among the Arab stores. Prayer is done in Arabic, of course. However, Jumuah or Friday prayer is done in Arabic and then translated to English because the congregation is mixed with Arabs and African Americans, Pakistanis, Indians, Africans, etc. They do not have English classes, but do have Arabic classes on weekends for children and adults. Much of the commercial area evolved from the original construction of the masjid since they knew people going to the mosque would have a need for Arab products.

     There is Wafa Translation and Services on 479 Atlantic Ave. It is an organization which is commercial but also a linguistic group. They do translation for consulting, immigration services, insurance, shipping, videos and cassettes, and learner permit tests for the following languages, Arabic, Russian, and French. One of the workers has lived in America for 29 years. He informed us that Arabs were in this area as early as the '20s so they have families now 2nd or 3rd generation. The two people we talked to were from Algeria and Palestine. The Palestinian has lived in Brooklyn for a long time and his family lived here for ten years. He was on a visit. He had moved back with his family in order to be around his own people. Apparently, the Arab population in America was not enough. In their office people come in to translate paperwork in English to any of these languages or vice versa if they cannot understand English. It can be a useful service to LOTE speakers to fill out any legal documents otherwise not understandable in English. During our visit we met some people who have a working command of English to get by on a day-to-day basis but it would not be sufficient to understand an application or type a letter. Another service we encountered is the Blue Nile Insurance Agency and Law Office, 527 Atlantic Ave. We spoke with a Nigerian lawyer who does not speak Arabic. However, his partner of the insurance agency is Sudanese, therefore speaks Arabic. He has many Arab clients, sometimes because they can't speak English, but many times only because they know him through community events. The YWCA on 30 3rdAve. is not a national group but a community one. They are a fitness center for all ages and all backgrounds as their sign says. They get customers from every part of the mixed community including but not limited to Arabs. Their activities range from swimming, taekwondo, basketball to health classes. They have living quarters for single women, none of which are Arab. The person at the desk said that he knows many of the storeowners who are Arab and some come regularly for sports. They also have Montessori Day Care Center with Caucasian, Hispanic, Chinese, Arab, Indian and African American children. One major nationality group is the Arab American Family Support Center on 4th Ave. They have an Arabic-speaking staff and is a social service agency serving the Arab immigrants to NYC. They encourage leadership and promote unity and ways to reap the benefits of the 'American dream'. They have a Big Brother/Sister Mentor Program where Arab-American college students serve as role models for younger children. They offer services like English language classes, counseling, crisis intervention, emergency services, advocacy, translation/interpretation, parenting education, citizenship preparation, end information/referral services for health, education, housing, legal immigration, employment, job-training, and child-care needs. So they are pretty comprehensive in scope. There's no doubt they are addressing the needs of LOTE speakers. However, Arabic as an LOTE is not put into the same category as say, Spanish, for bilingualism.

     The Arabic language has integrated through the commercial, social, and religious scene. But the government still has not accepted Arabic as an important LOTE to provide services for. This might be due to the fact that the majority of Arab immigrants to this country were well educated, and could speak English. This is supported by the fact that the people we spoke to came in to the country 10 to 20 years ago. This is the period of the return to LOTE tolerance described by Ofelia Garcia in New York's Multilingualism: World Languages and Their Role in a U.S. City. The immigrants of this era, between the 1960's and 90's, were well-educated people, mostly professionals, who came to the NYC for economic reasons. So because the majority of the Arab immigrants were bilingual, there was no need for the government to provide LOTE services to them. The schools, on the other hand, are catering to newer immigrants, who may or may not be bilingual in English and Arabic. So they must compensate for this language difficulty by providing information in Arabic. The use of Arabic in the commercial and social scene is best explained through the fact that although many of the people do speak English, the friendly atmosphere invites them to revert to their mother tongue. It is where they came from. Language is a link to their heritage, and therefore, they try not to lose it.

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