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By: Kristin Savage/Arab America Contributing Writer
The family is at the heart of Arab culture. Traditionally, Arab people prize family life and interests above their own. When one member of a family encounters triumph or failure, everyone else celebrates or commiserates accordingly. Large families are the norm in traditional Arab societies, so everyone has a support system in place whenever they are in need of help.
In Arab societies, they gather to celebrate marriages, births, and religious holidays and community festivals. However, because the family is the primary social unit, they often come together just to catch up and enjoy each other.
Family events are the perfect time to keep Arab traditions alive. Here are a few ways Arab Americans can celebrate their culture:
1. Sharing tea, coffee, and traditional cuisine
In Arab culture, food isn’t just a source of nourishment. It’s a chance to forge and strengthen relationships. The type of food served will depend on regional influences, but Middle Eastern dishes such as falafel, manakeesh, fattoush, dolma, and shanklish are popular. Lamb and chicken are the most common types of meat. Meals traditionally were presented on sharing platters, especially the breakfast meal, but now, Arab and Arab Americans also enjoy intaking food on individual plates. When parents and children prepare meals together, traditional recipes are passed down through generations. What is striking about food is its variety, abundance, and quick availability.
Tea and coffee are taken very seriously in this culture; mint tea is often served alongside meals. Coffee, flavored with cardamom, offered as a gesture of hospitality. Traditionally, it is prepared in view of guests. Selecting and grinding the beans is an important custom that can be upheld in any home.
2. Playing traditional games
Games are a fun way to bond with relatives. Wherever they happen to be living, Arab families can introduce their children to traditional games. These include:
Barjees is a complex but fun game in which each player or group has to move four pieces across the board along a predetermined path. It is traditionally played using a cloth board and small shells. Because many people can play at the same time, it is great for family gatherings.
Tawla is a Turkish form of backgammon which dates back approximately five thousand years. Combining both strategy and an element of luck, it is popular with people of all ages.
Outside Arab culture, dama is more commonly known as Turkish draughts or checkers. Although the rules are relatively straightforward, it can be highly challenging depending on the skill of the players.
3. Sharing stories
Arab history contains a strong oral tradition. Traditionally, a storyteller – or hakawati – would recount stories or teachings from the Quran, along with classic fables. These days, storytelling is still a prized art form in many Arab societies, but sharing personal accounts is becoming an increasingly common practice.
Whether a family member recounts an ancient tale or discusses a memory from their past, giving them space in which to reflect can be a stepping stone to close familial relationships. Elderly relatives, in particular, may be pleased to share their memories of times gone by. If they grew up in another country, their tales might be of special interest to younger members of the family or anyone keen to establish family genealogy. Making digital recordings of family stories can preserve precious memories when relatives have passed away.
4. Playing music
Arab music is noticeably different to that of non-Arab cultures. There isn’t a single genre of Arab music – there’s classical music, sacred music, and even pop music. Playing and singing along to music is a common and beloved aspect of Arab family gatherings. In fact, very often, family members and friends have the greatest time just spontaneously gathering and clapping around one of them playing the Tabla (Arab drum) and them joining with folkloric songs.
Arab Americans with emotional ties to another country may enjoy singing and playing songs from the region. They may also use music as a means of reflecting on their family heritage, and on their culture in general. As a rule, the greater the emotion a musician conveys through their art, the more highly they are regarded.
Arab music is based around a mode – of which there are more than 10 – that allows for a lot of creative expressions. Playing Arabic instruments can foster a sense of connection with ancient cultural practices.
Here is a quick list of some Arabic instruments:
The most popular of all the traditional instruments, the oud is the ancient ancestor of the lute. It has up to 13 strings, one of which makes a bass sound. The player uses a plectrum to play the instrument.
Dating from the 10th century, the Qanun is an ancient style of the harp. It comprises a trapezoid board and at least 81 strings, which are arranged in groups of three. The strings are either plucked with the fingers or a plectrum.
A simple flute made of cane. It has six holes on one side and a single hole on the other.
A drum that resembles a pedestal or goblet. A skilled player can alter the sound by changing where and how they strike it.
A small tambourine often used alongside a Tabla.
Dancer, instrumentalist, vocalist, Karim Nagi
There are three principal styles of Arab dance: Classical, folkloric, and contemporary. Countries, regions, nomadic groups, and even social classes have their own unique styles of movement.
Dancing is seen as a healthy social activity and can be a wonderful way of commemorating a special occasion. The contemporary dance began to take on new momentum in the 1930s when the Egyptian film industry fed the public’s appetite for professional choreography.
During family gatherings, people may perform one or more of the following: Line dance, circle dance, women’s dance, men’s dance, or a ceremonial dance if it is appropriate to the occasion. Dancing brings people together, both literally and metaphorically, and is a popular social pastime in Arab culture.In a few instances, men and women do not dance together. For example, during a line dance, they will form gender-segregated lines.
Why not set new family traditions?
You can also make your own traditions. Pick something that reflects your core values, and make it a family ritual. For instance, if your family values charity and generosity, why not set aside an afternoon and make some food for a local homeless shelter? Combining old and new traditions will generate happy memories that will last for years to come.
Many Arab and Arab Americans of certain religious group did form a tradition of providing an abundance of food and gifts to friends of different religion on their holidays.