Language and Art Build Bridges at the Center for Arabic Culture

Center for Arabic CulturePhoto by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

“I want the community to know what I know, because they will love it.” 

That’s what Alma Richeh says about her work at the Center for Arabic Culture (CAC), where she and others explore Arab and Arab-American cultures through art and education.

For more than a decade, the center—headquartered at the Somerville Armory—has helped foster intercultural understanding through Arabic language classes and community events. Richeh, who is the executive director of CAC, said the center’s mission is best reflected in its slogan: “Building bridges, connecting cultures.” 

“We try to reach out to the entire community, not only Arab-Americans, to build knowledge and raise awareness, and also to break the stereotype,” she says. 

CAC was established in 2006 at MIT, according to Richeh. The organization became independent and moved to Somerville a few years later once the Armory was restored and became a home for local nonprofits. 

In addition to running cultural programming, CAC focuses on its Arabic language school. Some 120 students attend language classes through the center, coming from as far as Worcester and Wilmington to attend cultural events and lessons. One family even drives weekly from Connecticut, according to Richeh.

“To Arab people who want to find their community and something special, they’ll make the effort,” says Ruth Faris, secretary of CAC’s board of directors.

CAC is the only non-religious community organization of its kind in the state, according to its staff—while most Arabic schools are run through churches or mosques, CAC is not affiliated with any religious establishment. In this way, the center helps fill an unmet need. 

“There are some Arabs who don’t want to go to the church or the mosque, and they’d rather have something secular,” Faris explains.

The organization also eschews politics. While other groups focus on issues concerning Palestine or Syria, CAC avoids taking a hard stance on political matters or backing candidates, according to Faris. Political issues of course come up in films screened at the center, but they are not the focal point of the events, she adds. 

“It’s not that we don’t care or we don’t have our personal things, which we of course do, but this organization is separate and kind of a neutral zone for everybody,” Faris says. 

Language classes are held on Sundays at the Brimmer and May school in Chestnut Hill. Kids as young as 3 can attend the center’s playgroup, and classes ranging from elementary to advanced are available for children and adults. 

Most of the classes teach Modern Standard Arabic, the type of Arabic generally used in formal speech and writing throughout the Arab world to communicate across dialects. CAC also holds some colloquial classes, where students can learn to communicate in particular dialects, such as Levantine (spoken in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, among other places) or Egyptian, Faris says. 

Many students speak Arabic at home but attend school to learn writing and grammar, according to Faris. A few are not of Arab descent, but simply enjoy learning the language. 

Richeh says the classes are particularly helpful in bringing community members together because they unite people with a shared desire to pass on their heritage.

“They come together and do activities together, and the kids grow up together to be friends,” she says.

Like many of its neighbors at the Armory, much of CAC’s programming features art, music, and literature. 

“It’s part of our human nature,” Richeh says. “It makes whoever doesn’t know about this curious to learn more.”

For example, Richeh runs CAC’s children’s choir—the first Arab-American youth choir in the state, according to the center’s website—where students ages 6 to 10 learn Arabic through contemporary and traditional songs. The choir was recently invited to sing at Berklee College of Music with well-known Palestinian singer Amal Murkus. 

CAC also hosts several free community events, such as monthly film screenings (run in collaboration with MIT’s Aga Khan Documentation Center) and Culture Club meetings. The Culture Club, which meets every second Saturday of the month at the Armory, gives Arab-Americans and other community members an opportunity to gather and socialize. Richeh says the meetings were started to help seniors and people who struggle with language barriers find time to interact with others. Other events include language meet-up groups and a book reading at Porter Square Books. 

In the last few years, CAC has also arranged a few cooking classes, where participants learned to make appetizers such as tabbouleh, hummus, kibbeh, and Arabic sweets such as kanafeh and baklava. 

“We try to introduce authentic, traditional meals, because everybody loves them,” Richeh says.

One of CAC’s biggest events, the annual Cultural Month, showcases Arabic art and music through weekly activities. The event kicked off in April with a film screening about Syrian refugees arriving in the United States and culminates with the Arab Spring Cultural Festival, featuring dancers, singers, and art exhibits reflecting Arabic culture, including a “whirling dervish” dance performance. The dance, which involves spinning in a long skirt, is a part of Sufi religious tradition, but has become a secular form of entertainment in Egypt, Richeh says. 

Richeh hopes these types of events will help to introduce Arabic culture to members of the larger community so that Arabs and non-Arabs can celebrate together. 

“When you work with something related to your culture, it’s personal,” she says. “You want to present it in the best way and let everyone know.”

Part of CAC’s goal in focusing on Arabic art and culture is that it presents the Arab community in a positive light, according to Faris. 

“Some people only have very negative ideas,” she says. “There have been whole books and films written about the longstanding stereotypes and cartoons … We know we’re always up against that.” 

Somerville, on the other hand, has been a welcoming place, Faris and Richeh say. City leaders have invited CAC to join them in a number of popular community-wide events, including the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration and ArtBeat. 

Those at the center believe a well-informed community that embraces diversity is a stronger community, Richeh says. 

“There won’t be any internal problems when people know each other and love each other and trust each other,” she says.

The Center for Arabic Culture is located at 191 Highland Ave. For more information, call (617) 893-1176 or visit cacboston.org.

This story originally appeared in the Voices of the City issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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