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Arab students seek prom balance

Fatimah Ajami, left, dances with friends during the Fordson High School prom in Dearborn, Michigan.
Fatimah Ajami, left, dances with friends during the Fordson High School prom in Dearborn, Michigan.

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DEARBORN, Michigan (AP) -- A hip-hop song ends, and as the throbbing beats of a traditional Middle Eastern line dance fill the room, the Fordson High School seniors form a less-than-stellar line and begin to dance.

Across the room, 23-year-old Hassan Makkad slouches in his chair with his arms across his chest. Though he doesn't care for slinky gowns and coifed hairdos, it's the women wearing the traditional Muslim hijab, or head scarf, who receive the brunt of his disapproval.

"It's not for me to judge," says Makkad, who is Lebanese but has been in the United States for five years. "But in my opinion, if you take the hijab, you shouldn't be out there dancing."

Fatimah Ajami, 17, unaware she's caught Makkad's eye, continues dancing with her friend, Zeina Nasser. Ajami's modest silvery-cream dress and matching hijab are in stark contrast to Nasser's strapless blue gown and the glitter sprinkled delicately at the corner of her eyes.

"I pray, I'm a good student, I do everything I need to do," says Ajami, who is also Lebanese. "My parents trust me, and they know I know what I can and can't do. That's why they let me come tonight."

The prom at Fordson High, where the enrollment of about 2,300 is 95 percent Arab, underscores key dilemmas confronting Arab-American youth -- balancing assimilation and acceptance, and being American without being too Americanized.

Like other immigrants, Arab-Americans wrestle daily with holding on to some elements of tradition while adopting or blending in with the culture of their new home.

But in the post-September 11 United States, they face pressure both from Americans who may expect them to conform and from fellow Arabs who encourage them not to abandon their culture.

Compromises

Despite Makkad's displeasure, he is making his own social compromise even by coming to the prom. By the strictest interpretations of Islam, such gatherings are religiously forbidden. But outside Muslim countries, such rules are subject to broader interpretation and compromise.

Makkad is chaperoning his 17-year-old cousin Zeina Hamyae, who rolls her eyes and shoots him a look when he criticizes the girls in hijabs for dancing.

start quoteMy parents trust me, and they know I know what I can and can't do. That's why they let me come tonight.end quote
-- Fatimah Ajami, Fordson High School prom attendee

"What?" asks Makkad. "We already danced a slow dance. I'm not doing this other stuff."

Hamyae is also making a compromise. Going with her cousin, who in Lebanon would not have been considered a suitable chaperone because he is someone she could conceivably marry, was the only way her parents would allow her to attend the prom. Other girls were chaperoned by their brothers.

Wafa Shuragdi, one of Fordson's bilingual teachers, says many parents won't allow their daughter to go to the prom for fear word will get out she was with a boy.

"It doesn't matter if they were just friends," said Shuragdi, who holds a doctorate in gender studies from Detroit's Wayne State University. "After the prom, they become the talk of the town. That kind of talk lessens her chances of having someone come and ask for her hand in marriage."

Shuragdi says students living in a small community with a high-concentration of Arabs face the same scrutiny as young people growing up in Arab countries.

"Dearborn is like a village, albeit a global one," she said.

Bad influences

Out of the roughly 450 seniors at Fordson, just over a quarter of the senior class attended the prom.

Suheib al-Hanodi, an 18-year-old Palestinian, didn't go. He said he didn't want to spend the money renting a tuxedo and limousine for one night, and instead plans a graduation trip with his friends to the Cedar Point amusement park in Ohio.

But his parents tell a somewhat different story.

"We don't want him to go," says Naziha al-Hanodi, Suheib's mother. "More importantly, even if we approved, he wouldn't want to go. He didn't even tell us about it. He's been raised from childhood to know the difference between right and wrong."

Arab-American students try to find the balance between assimilation and acceptance at the Fordson High School prom.
Arab-American students try to find the balance between assimilation and acceptance at the Fordson High School prom.

"Outside our country, or an Islamic country, there is always concern about bad influences," she says.

Gary David, a sociologist at Bentley College in Massachusetts who has studied Detroit's Arab community, says outside influences also exist in Arab countries. Whether in Beirut, Lebanon, or Cairo, Egypt, teens go out, dance, and meet friends.

"Here, they're compared to an Arab ideal that's largely mythical," says David, a Michigan native of Syrian descent. "It doesn't really exist any more."

Mythical or not, it's a real source of frustration for some Arab-American youth.

"You can't live here like you live in Lebanon," says Jamelah Haidous, 18.

Even those who find themselves being steered along a course similar to one they would have followed in their native countries find ways to blend the two cultures.

Belquis Al-Khateeb, an 18-year-old Yemeni born in the United States, is married, wears the hijab and is seven months pregnant. Her husband dropped her off at the prom but didn't attend.

"He knows what I'm like and trusts me," she says.

Her husband also was born in the United States. "I wouldn't have married anyone who wasn't," she says.

Then, over the music, she yells: "There's not going to be any barefoot and pregnant for me. I'm staying in school!"



Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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