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America's Funniest
(& Smartest) Arab

The Beautiful Arabs of Iowa
Amer Zahr
by Amer Zahr
May 10th, 2013 (7 Comments)
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A couple weeks ago, I performed at the invitation of the Arab Student Association at the University of Iowa.  Yes, there is an Arab Student Association at the University of Iowa!  I was just as surprised as you are.

I really thought I would never have a reason to go to Iowa.  I mean, I never knew anything about Iowa except what I saw on TV.  OK, I never saw anything on TV about Iowa.  So, I really knew nothing about Iowa.

I was pretty sure that Iowa would produce a few Arabs.  Every town needs a jeweler and a gas station.  And I’m never surprised when I find a few Arabs in any small town.  You can drop us just about anywhere and we find a way to survive.

When I arrived at the airport in Cedar Rapids, I was immediately surprised when I looked at my iPhone.  Iowa had 4G service!  I then remembered that I had heard of this city before.  Cedar Rapids, Iowa is actually home to America’s first mosque.  Yes, Iowa!  The Arab community of Cedar Rapids has a story that is not much different from that of other Arab-American communities.  One guy from Lebanon came, hustled, made some money, and before you know it, the whole village is there.

Then I made my way about 25 miles south to the University of Iowa.  Now, I already knew the student leader that arranged for my visit to the university was an Egyptian-American.  He was a very nice Midwestern boy with olive skin and a funny name.  Imagine Aladdin, all grown up.

But it didn’t stop there.  In Iowa, there were Arabs from everywhere.  And I’m not exaggerating.

I met a beautiful couple from Morocco.  The husband is a French-trained chef and operates a popular creperie in Iowa City.  I know, crepes in Iowa!  He and his wife both run the restaurant, and though he came up with all the recipes, has all the culinary training, and has all the experience, she still lets everyone know that she is “the boss.” And although she said this many times in front of many people, he never objected.  As it turns out, Arab couples are just like any other.

Then I met another Egyptian-American who was a graduate of the University of Iowa and continued her career there as a coordinator at a domestic violence intervention program.  I don’t mean to burst Bill O’Reilly’s bubble, but Arab women aren’t just the victims of domestic violence.  As it turns out, they lead the effort to help prevent it too.

Then, I met a Saudi Arabian woman who was studying dentistry at the university.  And she was gorgeous.  And I know many people reading this column might not know that there are gorgeous Saudi women since we all we ever see on CNN are their eyes.  But take my word for it.  And don’t worry, I don’t think she is going to get in trouble with her family for appearing in my blog.  I’m sure they already know she is studying dentistry.

I met more and more Arabs.  I was overwhelmed.  I met a young man from Yemen.  His mother was actually visiting him in Iowa, all the way from Yemen.  I don’t think that’s a direct flight.  During my whole show, he sat with his arm around her and they laughed together.  I don’t think I’ve ever made Yemenis laugh, so seeing two generations laugh at the same time warmed my heart.

There was a very loudly laughing Lebanese man in the front row.  He was one of my favorites.  As it turns out, he owns a successful engineering company in Iowa City.  After the show, I met a young Pakistani man who was one of his employees.  That’s right, Arabs employing Pakistanis in Iowa!  Someone should tell the Republicans that the economy isn’t that bad.

Oh, and the crowd had a bunch of Sudanis.  It turns out that Iowa City has a significant number of them.  And in a place like Iowa City, they get noticed.  They live there and occupy all kinds of professions.  There is actually a “Sudanese Center of Iowa City,” but don’t tell Sarah Palin.

Then I met some of my Palestinian people.  This always makes me extra happy.  I don’t mean to be biased, but we have an extra hurdle.  We always have to succeed wherever we go.  We have no choice.  We don’t have a Plan B.  We can’t mess up and go back to our country.

The first Palestinian I met was a PhD student studying Pharmacy.  She had completed her undergraduate studies in Jordan.  And Palestinians are in Jordan because… well, that’s a whole other column.  She made her way to Iowa because… Ok, I don’t know why she ended up in Iowa, but she seemed very happy to be there.

Then I met another Palestinian woman.  She was also getting her PhD (we Palestinians shoot for the stars).  Her specialty was genetics.  I think she is researching how Palestinians can genetically trace their ancestry in the Holy Land ever further back than the Jewish people.  Ok, I don’t know if she is researching that, but I can dream, can’t I?  She was sitting in the front row of the show.  And her laugh was infectious.  After the show, I met her and was surprised to hear that she had an accent.  It wasn’t Arabic, and it wasn’t Midwestern.  It was… Australian!  This Palestinian woman had made her way from Sydney to Iowa City to continue her education.  See, that’s what it means to be Palestinian.  We can travel from one home in Australia to another in Iowa, only to catch a small glimpse of Palestine along the way.

Finally, I met an Iraqi named Talib.

Talib was born in Iraq and was a teenager when America invaded Iraq in 2003.  His life changed instantly.  He went from a young man looking to embark upon his life in his homeland to a young man forced to leave his country in search of hope.  He told me something like, “I was living in Iraq, then one day America invaded, then the next day I had a gun in my face, and then the next day I was like ‘F&*k this.’ So I left.”  And when you really think about, that’s why most Arabs immigrate to America anyway.  They eventually just say ‘F&*k this.’

Well, Talib had an aunt in, of all places, Iowa.  He found refuge in the heartland of the country that had invaded his homeland. And you wonder why we Arabs are so messed up.

In Arabic, “Talib” means student, or “knowledge-seeker.”  Well, Talib studies business, and is definitely putting his classroom lessons to work. My trip to Iowa ended in Talib’s hookah café in Iowa City.  As I sat there enjoying laughs with Iraqis, Egyptians, Lebanese, Palestinians, Moroccans, Somalis, & Yemenis, I actually said something I never thought would escape my lips:

“I can’t wait to go back to Iowa.”

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* Amer Zahr is a Palestinian American comedian, writer, professor and speaker living in Dearborn, Michigan. He is also the editor of "The Civil Arab."

Comments (7)
  1. Beautiful!! Thanks for sharing

  2. Dina Yousef ... May 10th, 2013 - 19:41

    Amer! I’m from Iowa City and I went to college n med school at Univ of Iowa. We even had a bomb Dabke troupe.. Iowa gets such a bad rap :/

    Dina Yousef

  3. Amer, Habibi. Love reading your blogs. At the beginning of this one, I began to wonder if you met any of the Iraqis out there. And then not only did you meet one, you were impressed by him enough to write about him. Of course you loved Talib. He’s my cousin. Lol.

    But not to take anything away from the message of this post, Iowa is truly an interesting place, and to have such a rich Arab/muslim history is remarkable. Hope that you make it out there again.

    Sama Faik

  4. Thank you Amer. This nice nostalgic commentary brought tear of pride to my eyes.

  5. I’m a U of I grad, one of those white, native Iowans. Happy to see that you discovered Iowa. We are becoming more and more diverse.

  6. I was born in Iowa :D

  7. Ustaz Amer:

    You probably didn’t know that I spent the first 10 years of my childhood in Fort Dodge, Iowa, not very far away from Cedar Rapids! I even have relatives there.
    Yes, Iowa is beautiful and Iowans, as conservative as they may seem, are decent hard-working great Americans.

    Arabs and Arab Americans, like some flowers and plants in my home village in Lebanon, grow out of small cracks in the huge rocks and boulders in the country side. They always survive and spread their fragrance everywhere!

    Don’t be surprised. I found and met Palestinians in the small Dutch island of Saint Marteen in the Caribbeans: a place where you would never expect to find an Arab. I wouldn’t be surprised if you found a small shop run by an Arab in the midst some distant planet on the other side of the universe!

    Keep up the great work Amer. I am proud of you.

    Albert Harp


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