Arab Hoosiers’ hidden history uncovered in documentary screened at HEPL Fishers
FISHERS, Ind. (The REPORTER) — On Saturday, April 29, Hamilton East Public Library (HEPL) in Fishers held a screening of Arab Indianapolis: A Hidden History followed by a panel discussion. HEPL was one of approximately 20 organizations from across the state that applied to host funded screenings and discussions.
Now, the documentary has been nominated for five regional Emmy awards including best historical documentary as well as for presenter, photography, editing, and writing.
Public Services Librarian Amy Coleman Weigel served as project director, spearheading the effort to get the grant with help from Adult Program Coordinator Danielle Acton and Public Services Librarian Noor Hamad.
“I appreciate HEPL’s effort to connect with and celebrate other cultures,” Hamad said. “Exploring diversity, understanding that every culture is unique, and learning about their interests and talents is the best part of my job.”
Produced by Fisher Productions in association with Indiana University and underwritten by the Arab Indianapolis Foundation, Inc., and Indiana Humanities in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Humanities, Arab Indianapolis: A Hidden History debuted on PBS affiliate WFYI Indianapolis on June 16, 2022. The documentary has since been broadcast on other PBS stations and selected for the 31st annual Heartland International Film Festival in October 2022.
The film follows executive producer IUPUI Professor Edward E. Curtis IV and other Arab Americans as they trace their heritage in Indianapolis.
What was often referred to as the “Syrian Colony” by the early 1900s has been literally buried under Lucas Oil Stadium. The history of Arab Americans in Indianapolis has been, as the film says, “hidden in plain sight.”
This legacy lives on in names Hoosiers recognize: Dr. William K. Nassar, Mitch Daniels, Fady Qaddoura.
Today, there are nearly 30,000 Arab Hoosiers, with approximately 3,200 residing in Hamilton County.
Local History and Genealogy Librarian Jessica Layman helped organize the panel, including several who appeared in the documentary. Hiba Alalami, executive director of Indiana Muslim Advocacy Network, served as panel moderator.
Other panel members included Dr. Majdi Abu-Salih, Susie Baranyk, Martin Barnes, Ken George, and Judy Nahlawi. Three of the panel members are active at Masjid Al Huda off Lantern Road, which serves over 3,000 congregants in the Fishers area. The other three panelists belong to St. George’s Orthodox Christian Church on 116th Street, also in Fishers.
The panel members, who trace their family histories to Syria, Jordan, or Palestine, discussed why their families immigrated to the U.S., as well as issues such as integration versus assimilation.
“It is clear that assimilation versus integration is not a black and white issue,” Alalami said.
However, they all agreed that it is the Arab language and the food that ties Arabs together despite their religion or their family’s country of origin.
“The Arabic culture is a beautiful thing,” Baranyk said. “You can’t beat Arab hospitality.”
To showcase the great food of Arab culture, HEPL offered a selection of baklava from MOTW Coffee and Pastries, locally owned by Sajjad and Fatimah Shah.
“A person can love more than one place, more than one culture, at the same time,” Alalami summed up the message of the afternoon. “We don’t have to make a false choice between unity and diversity to treat each other as friends.”
One audience member who asked not to be named said, “I hate to admit that I have always thought of Arabs as different – other. But they have stories of their families and celebrations and their goals and dreams just like everyone else.”
One women’s book club came over from Westfield for the event.
“It is never too late to learn,” Barbara Day said. “I am embracing the opportunity to read and learn about other cultures and countries.”
You can view and find out more about this documentary and the Arab heritage in the area at ArabIndianapolis.com and check out more events at HEPL in Fishers at hepl.lib.in.us.
“The Hamilton East Public Library is committed to celebrating education and diversity in our communities through pursuing accessible, equitable, and inclusive opportunities for all,” said Kelsey Sweet, HEPL director of marketing and communications.
If you missed the HEPL program, screenings and discussions will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 24 at St. Paul’s Indy, 6050 N. Meridian St., and from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 30 at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, 100 W. 86th St., both in Indianapolis.
Photo provided by Hamilton East Public Library
(From left) Susie Baranyk, Noor Hamad, Hiba Alalami, Judy Nahlawi, Ken George, and Martin Barnes all share in the heritage of Arab Hoosiers.