Finally yesterday I was able to break away from work long enough to check out the last day of Chicago’s first Arab festival, the Arabesque. It was everything I had hoped for, mostly the opportunity to be in the presence of a lot of Arabs, hear the language, and as they say over there, breathe the air.
The first indication of the festival’s impending success was the weather. A cold front came in just in time for the large numbers of women who attended in modest but less than comfortable attire–scarves meant to cover the hair and jackets completely covering the arms. I myself went to work that morning in a long skirt with jacket so I could jump on a train and go straight to the festival dressed as conservatively as I would be in Jordan.
The second indication was the information derived from another traveler on the train. Was I going to the Taste, he asked, pouring whiskey from a small bottle into a cup of McDonalds coffee. The Taste of Chicago, which I saw in 1979 and have stayed away from ever since on account of the crowds, had already started on Navy Pier. The Arab festival would have a small, select Arab crowd and I would have them all to myself.
The festival had what festivals are supposed to have: booths with food, merchandise, and political information (Jimmy Carter’s latest book was much in evidence). There was free calligraphy–someone would write your name in Arabic with a bamboo brush and there was free henna–someone would draw floral patterns on your hand with henna tubes, not like the lo-tech palms and soles henna you can see at village weddings. One booth offered bread from the local pita bakery as well as Lebanese olives and that finely ground coffee (check out the music on their home page) with cardamom. On stage, an impromptu group of guys linked arms and joined the musicians in dancing a little bit of the traditional dubka.
The argila booth attracted a lot of attention, both with it’s water-cooled smoking pipes, and with its variety of tobaccos. Apple or double apple tobaccos are the most traditional along with strawberry, but they also had some peach, apricot, and melon that smelled pretty good, as well as some more esoteric flavors like banana, raspberry, cola, and jasmine.
The music booth also drew a brisk crowd. A Palestinian guy working the booth with his wife flipped CD’s in and out of a CD player as one hauntingly minor eastern tune after another poured out of the speakers. One CD was ten dollars, and two CD’s were twenty–no Arab-style price negotiations here. Iraqi singer and heartthrob Hossam al-Rassam they had never heard of, but were able to find two other Iraqi tapes out of their huge selection.
Mayor Daley came down earlier in the day, and there were lots of photos all around. The mayor wasn’t the one to suggest the festival, though–the Arab community came to him. About time, said the merchant at one booth. There has been enough publicity about one kind of Arab. The city needs to see the other kind.
قهوة –qahwa (coffee)
هال –hale (cardamom)
شمام –shamam (muskmelon)
مشمش –mish mish (apricot)
دراق –duraq (peach)
التفاح –tufah (apple)
التفاحتين –tufahtain (double apple)
أخضر –akhdar (green)
ملح –milleh (salt)