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Sunday, November 18, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Local Arabs' bonds transcend culture, politics

Seattle Times staff reporter

In coming weeks, The Seattle Times will explore Arab culture and the Muslim community. This is the first of several stories.

At the Seattle Mediterranean Market in Edmonds, owner Safouh Hamoui stocks yogurt sodas, phyllo and lamb sausages — staples of his shoppers' native Arab countries.

On a walk around Green Lake, University of Washington doctoral student Tamir Moustafa once heard five couples speaking Arabic. "If this had been L.A., I might not have been so stunned," he says.

At an arena in Redmond, Arabic shouts dart about the field, as Microsoft programmers and engineers don green shirts for their weekly soccer match.

Arab culture is one of the oldest in the world and has existed in the Puget Sound region for more than 100 years. But the Arab-American community remains one of the least visible and most misunderstood minority groups.

In the Seattle area, there is no Arab hub and few of the tangible landmarks or ethnic shops that are the signature of other communities, such as the noodle houses in Seattle's Little Saigon or the Somalian storefronts in Rainier Valley.

The mosques that dot the regional landscape often are the first thing linked to Arab culture. Yet only about one-quarter of all U.S. Arabs are Muslims.

In the past two months, Arabs have been the subject of increased curiosity — and scrutiny — as world news events focused on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, carried out by 19 Arabs linked to Islamic fundamentalist Osama bin Laden, an exiled Saudi.

The United States is home to 3 million people whose ancestry can be traced to the Arab world; as many as 30,000 Arab Americans live in Washington state.

But being Arab cannot be easily defined. The U.S. census does not regard Arabs as members of a distinct race. And local folks of Arab descent say their connection transcends nationality, language, skin color and religion.

Rather, they feel linked by more personal experiences: feeling like an outsider, perhaps, or shared traditions involving family and food. They speak of an "Arab way," but that way can be through politics for one, through religion for another and, for some, through the weekly ritual of a soccer match.

At an indoor arena in Redmond, a team of mostly Arab men — from Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and the former Palestine — gather to take on a rival crew. They talk about strategies to improve their lousy passing game, not, on this night, about politics or terrorism.

Arabs breathe soccer, explains Tarriq Afifi, also called Karlos after his idol, Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz. In Afifi's native Egypt, wannabe Peles or Diego Maradonas make balls out of socks and play on dirt fields or in alleys.

Soccer is to Arabs what football is to Texans, says Afifi, arguably the most vocal spectator in the arena. From the sidelines, sporting a Jazz cap, he yells, "Aiwa!"

Translation: "Go for it!"

Even the 2000 census had a hard time determining how many Arab Americans live in Washington state. The census reported the number of people with Arab ancestry is between 5,100 and 14,000. Local organizations, however, say the Arab community is actually closer to 30,000.

Who are Arabs?

The League of Arab States includes 21 countries plus what was once Palestine. Neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan are Arab countries. The Middle East includes some Arab countries, but it also includes the non-Arab nations of Israel, Turkey and Iran.

Nationwide, close to half of all Arabs are Lebanese, according to the Arab American Institute of Washington. Other large concentrations have familial ties to Syria, Egypt, what was once Palestine, Jordan and Iraq.

In Washington, as in other places across the country, the first wave of Arab immigrants was Lebanese.

Local Lebanese history can be traced to Kent in the 1890s, according to Rita Zawaideh, who runs a Seattle travel agency specializing in the Middle East. Zawaideh, a Jordanian, immigrated to the U.S. when she was 5 and remembers when, in the 1960s, Washington state's Arab community was maybe several thousand strong.

Most local Arabs have roots in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine, Zawaideh adds.

There aren't many Saudis in the Seattle area, nor many from the North African countries of Algeria, Morocco or Tunisia. Local activists estimate the Seattle area is home to 4,000 people with roots in Iraq, 1,000 whose ancestry is Egyptian and a budding Sudanese community.

Raja Atallah, a research scientist at the UW, organized the past two Arab Festivals at Seattle Center on behalf of the Arab Center of Washington. Originally from Jordan, he has lived in Seattle since the 1980s.

During the festival planning, Atallah, who was raised Christian, had hoped to get many groups involved, regardless of nationality or religion.

But some Lebanese wanted the festival's name switched to Middle Eastern because they didn't identify with being Arab, a label they view as political. The Arab Center, whose membership includes Lebanese, said no.

Diversity among Arabs

"I think the key thing about being Arab is the language," explains Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, a 26-year-old Seattle native who was raised in Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

"You feel good when you hear someone speaking Arabic, and you don't stop and think, 'What are their politics?' "

Tuffaha, a UW graduate and local spokeswoman for the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Coalition, has become one of the more recognized faces in the community.

"My favorite question is always, 'What are you?' " she says. "I think most people my age will say, 'I'm from the Arab world.' And I think most people my dad's age will say, 'I'm from the Middle East.' ...

"And saying where you're from becomes a political issue. If you're from Jordan, you can say, 'I grew up there, I went to high school there.' ... And if you say 'Palestine,' people assume you're making a political statement or that you're anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli."

Politics and especially patriotism have been among the most pointed questions thrust upon the community. Local Arabs have felt the sting of being profiled as dangerous or suspect, even anti-U.S.

But such criticism has in some way bolstered their identity. And in some cases it has motivated Arabs to join local groups. Moustafa, 29, the UW doctoral student, is a California native. His mother is from Illinois. His father is from Egypt. "The Midwest and the Mideast," he likes to say.

The terrorist attacks, he says, were tremendously emotional: the shock of the devastation; the worry about a backlash against U.S. Arabs.

But for Moustafa and others, there was also a frustration that in its national soul-searching, the U.S. did not look critically at its policies in the Middle East.

Many Arabs are passionate in their support of a Palestinian state and cessation of U.S. economic sanctions against Iraq. But many say they feel vulnerable whenever they talk about those issues, fearing they might come across as anti-U.S.

For Moustafa, being Arab American often means feeling frustrated, such as when he saw a man at a Halloween party dressed as an Arab with a bull's-eye on his chest.

"I feel proud mostly when I'm in Egypt," he says. "That's when I see the hospitality and the generosity of the people. My overarching feeling here is frustration."

Even those who blend easily into the mainstream, because of name or skin color, have felt discouraged.

"Look at me. No one knows I'm Arab," says Devon Abdallah, whose father is half-Lebanese. "I wear such white skin. But I hear how much we're hated."

"There are always people around who want to remind you that you're not from here," adds Tuffaha, the spokeswoman for the anti-discrimination coalition.

Once at Alderwood Mall in Lynnwood, a saleswoman wrongly assumed that Tuffaha's mother, who has an accent, could not speak English. Tuffaha's mother is an English teacher.

All immigrants have similar stories. But Tuffaha can also recall how she and her family were treated when they traveled to and from Jordan on summer vacations.

"We had U.S. passports, but the (U.S.) Customs guy would always ask, 'How long are you staying?' It was never, 'Welcome home.' I always remembered that as a kid."

Hamoui, a Syrian native, has been running the Seattle Mediterranean Market for the past 10 years. With a television in a corner broadcasting Arabic programs, and the Arab water pipes, compact discs and food, he jokes his store is "the soul of the community."

Hamoui has light skin but speaks in a heavy accent that signals he is foreign-born.

'I'm American'

But he wants people to know this: "I'm American. We drink American water. We drive on American roads. When I work my cash register, I represent someone who is a good American and a good Muslim."

Nehal Hamdan, 21, was born and grew up in Detroit. Her parents are from Lebanon. When she married a Jordanian, she had a typical Lebanese wedding with dancing and a chorus of congratulatory wailing called zaghareed.

She hopes one day to move to Jordan or the United Arab Emirates. But as an American, religion more than ethnicity defines her.

"I feel a strong kinship to my Muslim brothers and sisters," she says, from the living room of her Redmond apartment.

Muhammad Arrabi, who is also a Muslim, agrees. He is 22, Palestinian, educated at the University of Arkansas. He wears a baseball shirt and an Xbox hat at his job at Microsoft.

He reads Arab newspapers online and plays a stringed instrument called the oud. But Islam, he says, is what largely defines him and even influences how he socializes.

"I can't just go to a bar and pick up women," says Arrabi, who adheres to the Islamic law prohibiting alcohol.

He prays five times a day, often in a nearby conference room. He is also fasting from sunrise to sunset as part of the Islamic month of Ramadan.

On Wednesday nights, though, hours after he has broken his fast, he plays soccer for a team called the Eagles.

Florangela Davila can be reached at 206-464-2916 or fdavila@seattletimes.com.

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