Stories of pain and resilience: Collecting Arab American conversations for the 10 anniversary of 9/11

Arts / Article

By Matthew Jaber Stiffler, PhD, Arab American National Museum

From Sept. 8–10, 2011, StoryCorps, the award-winning non-profit  that has already recorded 30,000 oral history interviews, set up shop at the Arab American National Museum (AANM), a Knight Arts grantee, to record remembrances of September 11, 2001, and its impact on the nation and the Arab American community. In partnership with ACCESS and the National Network of Arab American Communities (NNAAC), the AANM scheduled and recorded 15 hour-long conversations over three days, all of which will be archived at the Library of Congress and will become part of the AANM’s online oral history collection. The StoryCorps recordings were one part of US Rising, a four-day series of events about the impacts of 9/11 on the Arab American and Muslim communities. (Click here for video about the StoryCorps event).

From Michigan State Rep. Rashida Tlaib to SyrianAmerican hip-hop artist Omar Offendum, the recorded conversations highlighted the diversity of Arab Americans and the myriad ways that the tragic events of 9/11 impacted the community. The majority of the conversations, like those of longtime Michigan Arab American community leaders Ismael Ahmed and Ali Baleed, reflected the resilience of the Arab and Muslim communities, due in large part to the cross-cultural and interfaith organizing that these leaders have undertaken for decades. Other conversations, like those between Dearborn middle school students (and aspiring journalists) and their parents were very personal and provided a great opportunity for family members to discuss difficult topics and preserve them for future generations (all participants were given a broadcast-quality CD of their conversations). Other conversations highlighted the bridges that have been built between the Arab American community and other ethnic communities nationwide. Deepa Iyer, director of D.C.-based South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), told how her experience of being in the nation’s capital on 9/11 fueled her desire to work not only  within her own South Asian community, but also to  ensure that people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds are treated equally.

The AANM will continue building on the interest and momentum that was generated by the StoryCorps event. The Ten Years Later project that the Museum is leading aims to capture many more stories from across Michigan in the next year. As a national cultural and educational institution, the AANM will share the stories we collect with as broad an audience as possible. Personal stories have a tremendous impact on education and advocacy, and can be much more powerful than numbers, figures, and other data.