An Arab music orchestra performed on the grand staircase of the building’s rotunda, accompanied by vocalists wearing colorful dresses with elaborate embroidery, and folkloric dancers from two different troupes. Flags from the Arab world’s 22 different countries hung from above the staircase and the aroma of Arabic appetizers, such as mini spinach pies and meat pies filled the area. There was also an exhibit of contemporary Iraqi Art on display, courtesy of art.com.
Shadi Elkarra, chair of the Arab American Heritage Month committee, organized the event in partnership with the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services.
“If I may say, Ahlan wa sahlan,” said San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee, welcoming the audience in Arabic.
Lee mentioned the recent “spotlight on the Arab community,” referencing the current political and social uprisings taking place in the Arab world, but he emphasized that in San Francisco, diversity is embraced.
“Here in San Francisco we have a tradition,” he said. “Particularly when it comes to immigrants, and that tradition is we learn from our immigrants, where they come from, who they are and what they want to do. That’s the beauty of being here in San Francisco. That’s our strength, and that’s why we have these wonderful celebrations,” he said. Lee also congratulated the Arab American community for their leadership in small business, politics and technology innovation in San Francisco, and the Bay Area.
According to the Arab Cultural and Community Center of San Francisco, there are an estimated 180,000 Arabs in the Bay Area. Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, Supervisor Malia Cohen, and Supervisor John Avalos attended the festivities.
Long-time community activist and leader Nabila Mango was honored at the event with a lifetime achievement award. Mango, who is of Palestinian descent and is battling stage four of breast cancer, is a mental health therapist who has served the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood for over 20 years. She also chairs several Arab arts organizations and philanthropic efforts in the community.
Michel Shehadeh, executive director of the San Francisco based Arab Film Festival, also spoke at the event and received a certificate of recognition for his work in the community.
“Today is a good day to be Arab,” he said. “We are proud Americans and we come from generations of builders, not destroyers,” he said.
He listed several cities that Arabs have built, including Damascus, which he said is regarded the oldest city in the world.
Shehadeh addressed the current political climate more candidly and said it’s important to recognize and celebrate Arab heritage, especially “in these times.”
“Despite everything, we are still achieving,” he said. Despite “the nature of political climate, the attack on our community, and the pain that’s caused, we are still positive and we are moving forward,” he said.