The weekly perspective
Chicago's Arab Community, what went wrong!
By Ali Alarabi
This past weekend I attended an Arab community function in south suburban Burbank. Chicago area. This event was intended to raise some funds to help poor and struggling Palestinian families with essential and basic food supplies particularly after cutting off all humanitarian aid to them after the election of Hamas.
Inside the hall, few tables were filled, it was basically half empty, or half full, depends on your thinking paradigm.
I initially thought as I was driving there that the hall would be packed with people who were filled with the sense of charity and good will, and why wouldn't they be, Chicago has perhaps the largest Palestinian community in the country. A 100,000 people would be a round about figure.
The Mosque foundation by contrast, or the Harlem Mosque as the community calls it, can muster millions of dollars a year without even bothering to have a single event like that.
Harlem Mosque rise to prominence and wealth came at the expense of the community’s social and cultural centers, which all but one has shut down.
Part of those centers demise had to do with it's anachronistic leadership and partly because most people go to the Mosque to seek God (maybe!) Or to see God’s representative, (most likely) asking for reprieve from a very seductive way of life.
Two years ago, and during the month Ramadan, and specifically on it’s most revered nights, the last ten days, the Harlem Mosque’s Imam, sheik Jamal Said, whose skills in fund raising pales everything else, have collected about Million and a half dollars in a span of two hours.
A million and a half dollars is a staggering figure. This is not just a testimony to the rising affluence of the Arab and Palestinian community, but it also shows how influential and powerful Imam Said is.
And for the new Mosque that is being built in the affluent south suburbs of Orland Park, Sheik Jamal, I was told, had raised a cool $ 600.000, in one night, like it was nothing.
At the gloomy hall, where I was, there were old friends and colleagues, the same faces and the same people who always come to such events, driven in part by their since of solidarity with a distant land and to a struggling people suffering in an uncomfortable shackled life.
I asked my long time friend and colleague, Ray Hanania who sat next to me at one table if he can do one of his stand up comedy routine; perhaps he could lighten up the mood in the hall.
He quickly brushed that idea off since he himself was not in his best mood. " These people in here would not laugh,” he murmured." Maybe you would, and maybe they would too,” pointing to a couple of young women, who sat at our table. " Other than that, I will have the rest of these people in here staring at me like I am a some kind of a nut” he added.
But that made us both laugh nonetheless.He then lamented on the good old days, in the seventies and the eighties when the Arab community had more fun at their events, more committed to their causes, and more people attended functions, despite that the community was much smaller than what it is today.
But The Mosque represents religion, and religion is the most potent force in non-renaissance societies of the Middle East.
Few years ago I attended a fundraiser held for a Mosque in Jordan, Imam Said was the chief fundraiser aided by another sheik from Jordan who came to Chicago for that purpose.
I watched with a sense of amazement how the two sheiks, practically, sold heaven as a real estate plots to the highest payer.
If one for example donated, $50.000, God will build him a mosque or a palace in heaven or paradise. The two sheiks kept charging up the audience to give, donate, many verses from the Quran were used to remind the people that this earthly life was worthless, money was worthless, and they need to give more. I thought it was like if someone was trying to sell me an insurance policy for the after life.
An after-life insurance policy! Maybe I should give this idea more serious thoughts.
But what’s a 50 or 100 thousand dollars that might eventually spare you from being roasted in a hellish fire? It’s a nothing really if you come to think about it!
But what about those people like me who cannot afford to buy their way out of the roasting pit.
I know that Sheik Said and his aids would not even bother to ask for less than a thousand dollar.
And I better not try to donate twenty dollars, hundred or two hundreds, I should not even think about it, I'd perhaps get myself publicly humiliated by those who bought themselves mansions and water front properties in paradise.
Moreover, the sheik would not even mention my name or even look at me or worst look in my general direction, thus punishing me even further for insulting him with a hundred dollar donation.
Millions of dollars, however were collected for our less fortunate “ brothers and sisters” in Kashmir, Nigeria, and Uganda or wherever our brothers and sisters happened to be located.
While the Mosque had collected tens of Millions of dollars as far as I remember since the early nineties; those millions, however, did not materialize into a single functioning community institution.
There is not one community- funded public school. Only two private Islamic schools that charge hefty fees to basically teach Arab American kids how to say the words " Humus" Salamalikum" and "Falafel" and for the most part the schools are beyond the means of an average Arab American family.
No social institutions could be found within the community that caters to the elderly, the young, the newcomers, or institutions that might help stem the frightening high divorce rate in the community.As far as where would Arab American kids go to learn some Arabic, or about their cultural heritage, nowhere in Chicago of course but maybe they can go to Nigeria or Uganda.
Ali Alarabi is a veteran Arab American journalist .He writes a syndicated column every Monday.