CLARIFICATION: The article has been updated to clarify that the event was hosted by the Arab Student Association, in partnership with Arabesque Dance Troupe.
LSA freshman Hiba Dagher arrived at the University of Michigan this past fall hoping to find a close-knit Arab community similar to the one she had at home in Dearborn. But initially, Dagher didn’t see this community on campus. She recalled how she didn't meet people in her classes who shared her culture.
“When I was applying to Michigan, everyone always told me that this was a very diverse campus and you’ll see a lot of people of color, a lot of people who look like you or understand where you’re coming from,” Dagher said. “I was going to my first classes and my first discussions and I wasn’t really seeing that, and I found people treating me different … I didn’t expect it at college and I didn’t expect it at Michigan.”
Dagher learned about the Arab Student Association through a group chat she created with members of her Dearborn Arab community. After attending events and meeting people with similar backgrounds to her own, Dagher became more involved in the Arabesque Dance Troupe and ASA. This past Saturday, Dagher took part in Arab Xpressions, a celebration of Arab heritage.
Xpressions is an annual performance hosted by ASA in partnership with Arabesque that showcases Arab culture through aspects such as music, poetry, dance and song. The theme of year’s performance was “Ajyal,” Arabic for “generations.”
Dagher found herself involved with many different parts of Xpressions this year. She had a role in a video for the freshman skit and danced in the all-girls Raqs Al-Banat Dabke. Dagher also recited an original poem for the spoken words portion of the show and walked in the fashion show at the conclusion of the show.
“You see Xpressions and you see, ‘Oh, this is a way that my culture’s never been portrayed to me before,’” Dagher said. “It’s Arabs who are holding the narrative in their hands and they’re forging it in whatever way they want to.”
Beginning over a decade ago and originally performed in the Michigan Union, Xpressions moved into the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre in 2017. The production moved again to the Power Center last year, a theater with 1,300-person capacity. The show came close to selling out in 2018 and completely sold out this year, according to Xpressions Director Nicola Nunu, an Engineering junior. In an email to The Daily after the event, Nunu said additional seats were added to the Power Center to accommodate the crowd the show attracted.
Nunu became involved with Xpressions during his freshman year and directed this year’s performance. The show involved about 130 people and preparations began in October. He said the implemented theme, generations, demonstrates the changing Arab identity over time and works to navigate the idea of what it means to be an Arab American on campus.
“I love that we can have this many people involved,” Nunu said. “It really brings the Arab community together, and the coolest thing is that each person gets to be involved in their own unique way. One of my big stressors was saying, ‘This is your show.’ I think a lot of people stepped up. I think we had a fashion show committee that did an extraordinary job as well as a lot of our video team and actors. It was just incredible.”
The show drew an emphasis on different styles of Dabke, a traditional Arabic folk dance that combines line and circle dancing. Participants performed six choreographed Dabke dances as well as a belly dance.
LSA junior Mirette Habib is the co-president of ASA. Habib said each year, the show has become more professional and inclusive through its representation of Arab culture.
“We’re trying to go beyond the scope of just the Levant,” Habib said. “We’re looking into more Iraqi and Yemeni and Egyptian dance styles, so we’re trying to be more diverse in our representation of the Arab community. We’re trying to be more professional in what we’re doing just to show it’s not just a bunch of kids goofing off. We’ve put in so many hours, everybody puts so much work into this. Seeing that and seeing how dedicated people are is really, really great.”
In addition, Engineering senior Abdulsalam Alnajjar sang with the Al Salam Band, and LSA senior Maya Youness performed traditional Arab music on the piano. Keeping with the generational theme, Dagher, LSA junior Mohamad Hazime and Public Policy junior Arwa Gayar recited original poems during the spoken words portion of the show, representing the past, present and future respectively.
The show also included four skits documenting the journey of an Arab student at the University. The skits represented the progression through each year of college, beginning with freshmen assimilating into Ann Arbor and closing with a job interview as a senior.
A fashion show concluded the event. More than 70 people walked in the production, showcasing the transition of Arab fashion over time. Locally-owned Arab businesses donated clothes for the show and sponsored the event. The show began with traditional Arab clothing from different Arab countries and progressed into modern-day attire.
LSA senior Jason Wong came to Xpressions to support a friend in the performance. He thought Xpressions was a good way to learn more about the Arab community at the University.
“The community is very inclusive, and it showcased what their community is all about,” Wong said. “It was awesome, and I had a great experience.”
Nunu said the relationships built with others involved in the show help strengthen the Arab community on campus.
“The cool thing is to see how those elements of the show have transformed over years,” Nunu said. “I think the choreography looks very clean, it looks much better than a lot of years in the past as well as the skits. We’ve made a shift to make the skits have meaning and have them be relevant to provide a message for people to be able to take home with them.”
Nunu said one of his favorite parts of his involvement with ASA and Xpressions is helping to build some of the great Arab leaders of the future.
“I love that ASA strives to give the Arabs in this community a voice, especially through things like Arab Xpressions, but not only limited to that,” Nunu said. “I know that they work really hard to make sure the Arabs not only feel ASA is their home but that the whole University’s the place for them.”
Dagher said being a part of Xpressions inspired her to have a voice in the community. She explained how the positive portrayal of Arabs through Xpressions creates a new identity for Arabs on campus.
“Being a part of Xpressions, it makes you not only want to uplift yourself and your voice in the community – that’s by its nature what it does. It shows a very different view of Arabs and Arab Americans over what you’d see in TV or film, because misconceptions about Arabs run rapid,” Dagher said. “To show an hour and a half of positive representations of Arab and Arab culture, to show how Arabs were one of the pioneers of poetic verse, music, art, dance and culture — it’s not just all of those really vile misconceptions and representations that we’ve had of ourselves in the media.”
Habib believes one of the biggest takeaways of the show was the unification of all Arab countries.
“I think one, to show the unity, how despite political differences, despite religious differences, how unified we all are on campus,” Habib said. “Showing that unity, and showing that no matter how separated we are outside, we all share that common heritage and that common culture and the same morals and ideals.”
Habib said the Arab community present at the University empowered her to become an activist on campus. This past fall, Habib helped to found Epsilon Alpha Sigma, the first Arab sorority on campus. She also advocated in the #WeExist campaign to include a Middle Eastern/North African category on University documents, including applications and registrations.
“The Arab community here has really shown me a home away from home,” Habib said. “Michigan’s a place where you can be really isolated, but with them I don’t feel that isolation, I feel at home, I feel supported and I feel loved and I think that’s really necessary.”
Through her involvement with Xpressions as well as other organizations that encompass the Arab community, Dagher feels she has found her place within the Arab community at Michigan.
“My first semester was really lonely,” Dagher said. “I would go to class, I’d come home, shower, sleep, study … the couple hours a week that I’d go do Dabke or I’d do Xpressions work, I would really feel very happy and very excited because I had the opportunity to be around people who understood me. It’s like going into a room and walking into a home, because everyone there is so wonderful and friendly and giving. It was something that I really needed during my freshman year during my transition into college.
CORRECTION: The article has been updated to include the correct spelling of Nicola Nunu's name. The Daily has also clarified that Habib was a founder of Epsilon Alpha Sigma, and that the Dabke is a traditional Arab folk dance, and not exclusively Levantine.