A recipe for forming a Middle East identity

Times Staff Writer

Inside the UCLA exhibit case, the family cookbooks offer generations of recipes and traditions that have persisted beyond place and time in America’s Middle Eastern diaspora communities.

There is “Assyrian Cookery: Exotic Foods that Outlasted a Civilization” and the “Iraqi Family Cookbook: From Mosul to America.” There are Palestinian cookbooks from 1960s Detroit, and Armenian cookbooks from 1920s Boston. “Alice’s Kitchen: Traditional Lebanese Cooking” by Linda Dalal Sawaya offers a treasury of her mother’s recipes, including spinach pie and sesame cookies.

The most extraordinary thing about the cookbooks, however, is that they are housed together in one glass exhibit case. They are part of a groundbreaking exhibit at UCLA that seeks to present a pan-ethnic identity for Middle Eastern Americans though a collective display of their literature, media, scholarly works, memoirs and other written material.


Whatever political, religious and ethnic differences divide ethnic Armenians and Turks, Arabs and Israelis, Iranians and Assyrians, exhibit organizers say, commonalities also bind them -- like shared spices and dishes in their cuisine, such as cardamom, falafel and hummus.

Consider Sawaya’s book. It might focus on growing up Lebanese American in Los Angeles, but it contains scenes that might resonate with an Armenian or Arab -- memories of community picnics, visiting family vineyards, curing olives and cooking with three generations of women.

“We’re saying you can build bridges and see commonalities without neutering your own heritage,” said Jonathan Friedlander, assistant director of the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies. He organized the exhibit with David G. Hirsch, librarian for Middle Eastern Studies at the UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library.

Friedlander, an Israel native, said the exhibit represented fledgling efforts to promote and explore a Middle Eastern American identity through academic programs and cultural offerings.

Like Asian Americans who have established collective studies centers, professional organizations and civil rights groups despite their ethnic differences, he said, Middle Eastern Americans could potentially move toward such joint endeavors based on shared geography, immigration patterns, cuisine, music and other traditions.

The need for research on Middle Eastern Americans has soared since 9/11, Friedlander said. But only one program in the nation, he said, collectively examines them -- City University of New York Graduate Center’s Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center.


Mehdi Bozorgmehr, the New York center’s co-director and a UCLA graduate, said that Middle Eastern Americans have long been an “invisible community” in academia, in part because they are classified as white by the U.S. Census and other government agencies.

As a result, ethnic studies departments have not included them. Also, Title 6 federal funding, which supports international studies, bars universities from researching groups within the U.S., he said.

“What it means is that this population falls through the cracks,” said Bozorgmehr, a Tehran native who helped establish the New York center in 2001 with a Ford Foundation grant.

UCLA eventually hopes to develop a similar program, beginning with its first course on Middle Eastern Americans next year. The university recently hired Nouri Gana, a professor of comparative literature, to offer its first faculty-taught course on Arab American literature, starting in January.

The university is a natural home for such courses, he said, because California houses the nation’s largest concentration of Middle Eastern Americans.

According to U.S. Census figures compiled by Bozorgmehr, there are 2.1 million Americans of Arab, Armenian, Iranian, Israeli, Turkish and Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac descent.

But the collective grouping is still a tough sell for many. The climate to coalesce has worsened since 9/11, many say.

Vazken Movsesian is a cleric whose congregation has sought to distance itself from a Mideast identity after 9/11, when their house of worship was defaced by graffiti: “Go back where you came from, Muslim Armenians.”

But Movsesian is a priest, and his congregation at the time was St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church in Pasadena.

Movsesian said he had never thought of himself as having a Middle Eastern American identity. He said he could see some commonalities in food and music, and acknowledged the increased political clout a larger grouping might bring. But he doubted many Armenian Americans would embrace the idea.

“You could probably get away with it inside the academic environment because it’s safe,” Movsesian said. “But outside, it’s going to be rough because you’re talking about personal prejudices and old scores that need to be settled.”

Helen Samhan, executive director of the Washington-based Arab American Institute Foundation, said she would support a Middle Eastern American ethnic studies program -- but only if it included separate tracks for Arab Americans and others.

“The way academia organizes the world is not necessarily how communities identify themselves,” she said. “Arab Americans, Iranians and Armenian Americans are vastly different.”

In Los Angeles, at least one organization has tried to promote a collective Middle Eastern American identity: the Levantine Cultural Center, which offers arts and cultural programs incorporating influences from Morocco in the west to Afghanistan in the east.

Founder Jordan Elgrably, a Los Angeles native and son of a Moroccan Berber father and Lithuanian American Jewish mother, said he turned to culture to bring communities together after an effort to develop political unity failed.

In six years, more than 25,000 people have attended the center’s lectures and performances; a Middle Eastern American hip-hop night is scheduled for Saturday. But he said the center has not attracted the kind of financial support needed to establish it as a permanent arts complex on a par with places like the Skirball Cultural Center.

“It’s a tough sell,” Elgrably said. “Our concept of common bonds that exist among people in the Mideast is something in the process of proving itself.”

For the moment, the research and reflections of Middle Eastern Americans are unified, at least physically, in the UCLA Powell Library’s exhibit space.

Many of the materials were collected by Hirsch, the lanky librarian who speaks more than 10 languages, including Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, Spanish, Italian and Yiddish, and smatterings of others, including Swahili and Hungarian. His search for “almost anything and everything” involving Mideast and Middle Eastern American materials takes him to ethnic festivals, grocery stores, cyberspace and places from Turlock to Texas.

One exhibit case displays memoirs and autobiographies, including several by Iranian American women, a hot publishing trend. In another are newspapers and glossy magazines, including “Zeba” for Afghan Americans and “Bonbon” for Turkish American children.

Hirsch said an increasing number of diaspora publications are now published in English, reflecting efforts to reach out both to American-born children and the broader U.S. society.

Friedlander said it may take time to get there, but the momentum for a collective studies program is on his side.

“Middle Eastern Americans are one of the hottest topics on the block today,” he said, “and can no longer be ignored.”