Arab American Heritage Month kickoff: Dancing

The Fusion Zaffa dance group brought its moves to Hahn Plaza for Monday’s celebration starting Arab American Heritage Month at USC. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)


More than 250 Trojans take part in Arab American Heritage Month kickoff celebration

The spirited event at Hahn Plaza featured music, speeches, Arabic food and plenty of dancing.

April 02, 2024 By Greg Hernandez

Some students who made their way to the Arab American Heritage Month kickoff event on Monday afternoon admitted they came for the falafel bowls and other Arabic food that would be served after the program.

So they didn’t expect to be dancing in the middle of Hahn Plaza on the University Park Campus­­ with members of the Fusion Zaffa dance group. After performing an opening number, the group invited audience members to join them for a combination of Middle Eastern circle dancing and line dancing called “dabke.”

“My friend came over and told me to join the dance, but I really wanted to anyway,” USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences junior Susan Simonyan said. “I love this event and think it’s really awesome that they are putting an emphasis on Arab American heritage.”

Simonyan was among the more than 250 people who attended the spirited noontime event presented by the Middle Eastern North African Student Assembly (MENASA). The afternoon included speeches, poetry, belly dancing, and oud and darbuka drum musical performances.

USC Provost Andrew T. Guzman paid tribute to the “grit, passionate commitment and energy” of the MENASA students who organized the first Arab Heritage Month event on the USC University Park Campus in 2022 with a budget of just $100. That year, the students spent $60 to rent a microphone and speakers and used the remaining $40 to buy ingredients to make baklava themselves.

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“Trojans are changemakers, and that includes everybody here,” he said. “I’m honored to celebrate this event with you.”

Acknowledging Arab American contributions

Guzman began his remarks by asking the crowd to pause “and acknowledge the suffering happening both in Gaza and elsewhere around the world.” He continued, “We all hope for peace.”

Guzman pointed out that USC has about 900 students from 21 Middle Eastern and North African countries who identify as Arab or Arab Americans. He added that Los Angeles has the third largest concentration of Arabic speakers in the United States.

In the spirit of the heritage month, Guzman also paid tribute to Trojan alumnus Jamil Samaan, who came to the United States from Syria with his family when he was 10 years old and spoke no English. After graduating from the Keck School of Medicine of USC in 2019, Samaan went on to work at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, specializing in internal medicine and gastroenterology. He recently led a study on the potential to use artificial intelligence to combat cirrhosis and has contributed to a better understanding of mental health issues.

“He continues to do amazing things,” Guzman said. “It’s a powerful reminder to anyone who might doubt the contributions of Arab Americans to the success and vibrancy of our nation.”

Being true to yourself

During last year’s kickoff event, USC President Carol Folt spoke about two-time Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini, a USC student whose life inspired the 2022 biographical film The Swimmers, distributed by Netflix. A refugee of the Syrian civil war, she competed in the 2016 and 2020 Summer Olympics as a member of the Refugee Olympic Athletes Team and Refugee Olympic Team, respectively. This year, the USC School of Cinematic Arts sophomore was personally at the event.

Mardini shared with the crowd that she has struggled with how to respond to violence and discrimination against Arabs and other religions and ethnic groups. She said her experiences taught her that you must always be true to yourself.

“Take pride in your heritage,” she said. “Take pride in the values and traditions passed on to you. Never let anyone tell you that you don’t belong.”

Speaking out against stereotypes

The event’s keynote speaker was Anthony Merchak, a filmmaker from Lebanon best known for the acclaimed documentary short Beirut After 40.

Merchak, a reporter for MTV Lebanon for more than a decade, worked on countless stories about refugees, war, faith, culture, science, wildlife and more. During those years, Merchak said his career has not only been about documenting events but also “amplifying the voices of those who are yearning for justice, freedom, equality and dignity.”

While he has faced danger doing his work, Merchak said it has only made him more determined to share authentic stories from the Arab world to demonstrate the bravery and hope shown by those in terrible situations. He’s also determined to counter the negative portrayals of Arabs in the media, which he said too often include characters who are villains or terrorists.

“These reductive stereotypes not only erase this rich heritage but also create a barrier to understanding, fueling discrimination and hindering genuine human connection,” Merchak said. “Stories have the power to bring people together, make them understand each other better and see things in a new way.”

Students taking the lead

MENASA members Nour Myra Geha and Zeina Kaibni were the event’s enthusiastic emcees and participated in dancing and poetry demonstrations.

“Today, more than ever, our community needs to come together to push through the tough circumstances we’re facing in our region,” said Kaibni, a sophomore at the USC Marshall School of Business. “As Arab students, faculty and staff, we must remind ourselves of our potential. With a history of excellence across all fields, we should celebrate our achievements.”

Geha, a junior at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, has been one of the driving forces behind the creation of MENASA. In her closing remarks, she said she hopes the annual celebration continues to grow at USC.

“I knew it was important to work hard to create a community and opportunities for people like us,” she said. “Hopefully, as alumni, we’ll come back to visit campus and celebrate with the generations coming to USC next.”

Monday’s kickoff is the first in a series of USC Arab American Heritage Month events that also include an art exhibit, a community dinner, a mosaic lamp workshop, an awards luncheon and more.