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Amer Abdelrasoul

Oral history interview conducted by Liz H. Strong

March 20, 2018

Call number: 2018.006.09

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STRONG: I'll start by saying today's date, which is Tuesday, March 20th, 2018. My name is Liz Strong. I'm here with Amer Abdelrasoul. This is for the Brooklyn Historical Society Muslims in Brooklyn oral history project. I'll just ask you to start out by saying when and where you were born.

ABDELRASOUL: Okay. I was born in Brooklyn -- raised most of my childhood -- [date redacted for privacy] 1991. I come from Palestinian heritage. And my parents are both Palestinian, and they were born in Palestine and moved here for, you know, better career opportunities.

STRONG: Tell me a little bit about your life growing up in Brooklyn. What are your memories of your childhood, your -- what were your parents like?

ABDELRASOUL: I had a very good childhood. You know, my parents were -- my father, actually, at the time, was a very hard worker. And basically, lived in a 1:00-- different communities. At first, we lived in Bensonhurst and Sunset Park, and finally moved to Bay Ridge, where most of the Middle Eastern community now lives -- and used to live. I could say I had a very nice childhood. You know, I did a lot of sports, a lot of activities. And, yeah, just basically lived a good life, you know? Just like any -- you know, Brooklyn neighborhood kid.

STRONG: Did you have siblings or are you --

ABDELRASOUL: Yes.

STRONG: -- an only child? Tell me about them.

ABDELRASOUL: I have a brother. Two years younger than me. And he's also, actually, part of the dance team. And I have a older sister. And I have another younger brother -- actually, who was born in Palestine. He's way younger than us.

STRONG: How old were you when you went back to Palestine for a little while with your family -- with your mother?

ABDELRASOUL: I actually did my high school there -- in Palestine. So, I only 2:00lived there for four years. And I just -- I learned a lot, you know? You know, living in Palestine. It was a big difference in culture and community -- totally different atmosphere.

STRONG: Give me an example.

ABDELRASOUL:Well, it's just -- you know, the schooling systems are different. You know. You know, the lifestyle is different, you know, in terms of -- you know, fun, you know, for example. You know, like, when I grew up here, you know, we did a lot of sports and activities -- mixed sports. There, it was just soccer. It was just soccer. A lot more traditional weddings and events than here. You know, the freedom to move around here is much -- you have more freedom 3:00to move around here than there. And security issue, you know, also -- like, we have much -- better security here than there, also, so that also comes into -- a key factor.

STRONG: Can you give me an example about what you mean -- the balance of freedom and security?

ABDELRASOUL: Well, you -- well, when I -- you know, when -- growing up here, people, I guess -- the community was -- it's much safer to do things. You know, not only politically -- in many different aspects. You know, you always had a sense of protection. But, you know, back home, it wasn't that case, you know?

STRONG: Okay. You also mentioned traditional weddings. Can you describe one and what that was like?

ABDELRASOUL: Yes. You know, one of the beautiful things that we -- that I got an opportunity to experience was the traditional weddings that took place two, 4:00three times a week in the summer in Palestine. And the music and the, you know, festivals. They were fun. And that's where I had -- you know, began my passion in Pal-- into dabka and the dance that I -- that we do now.

STRONG: Can you describe, you know, one of your early encounters with dabka -- your thoughts on it, what drew you to it?

ABDELRASOUL: You know -- you know, as -- you know, as a child -- or a kid, should I say -- when I used to hear dabka music and people, you know, do dabka in weddings, I used to love it. You know, I used to -- I was very highly interested in learning. And I used to always sit to the music. And eventually -- and I always wanted to be part of a -- you know, a dabka team, because there's so many of them in Palestine and so few of them here. I never had the 5:00opportunity to be part of a dabka team. And when I had the chance to learn -- from, you know, my cousins back home -- they taught me some moves and stuff and I slowly began to, you know, just improvise some different moves by myself. And when I come back -- came back to the States, a few of my older cousins had wanted to make a new team -- a new dabka team. And I joined them. And eventually made my own, you know, a successful one.

STRONG: So, you had already encountered it in Brooklyn when you lived here?

ABDELRASOUL: Yes.

STRONG: How was it different in Palestine?

ABDELRASOUL: It's -- it's much more -- it's different -- it's much more different. Because, first of all, here, you're very limited to the amount of people that sing and do dabka. And the musicians. It's very basic here. And it's 6:00not very formal -- in a -- in a dance perspective. Back home, you have a very -- a lot of different varieties from different villages. A lot of different musicians and singers. And it's just -- it's a different feeling when you do it back home.

STRONG: Do you have the opportunity for live music here usually? Or --

ABDELRASOUL: Yes. We do. We have opportunity for live music here. But like I said, it's -- it's the same. It's usually -- the singers who do sing the live music here are all basically the same. They do the same thing. So, there's not much difference. And it's not -- to -- to the traditional standard -- not going to say the traditional standard, but to the standards back home, it's -- it's 7:00much less quality.

STRONG: [laughter] It sounds like you're putting that lightly.

ABDELRASOUL: Yeah.

STRONG: [laughter] Tell me a little bit about the distinctive style of dabka music. What sets it apart from other things?

ABDELRASOUL: Dabka -- dabka music is -- it's very basic. But it can be very high-energy at the same time. So, you know, modern music -- or even regular music -- is sometimes subtle. You know, you dance to it to a -- in a particular way. But when you hear dabka music, even -- you know, you can automatically associate your legs and jumping and -- you know and taking it to the next level. The musical instruments they play -- for dabka, there's three main types. It's usually wind instruments -- the mijwiz, the arghul, the shabbabi are the three 8:00popular dabka instruments. And the way they're played -- the tune that they're played with the dabka is different than -- in other songs.

And it has -- the musicians can improvise when they do -- when we do dabka. So, it's not like when you play a regular song and you -- and you stay with a certain note or a certain tune and you play it over and over again. With dabka, you stay -- you have both. You have the tune of certain dabka songs that you do dabka to, and then there's -- there's a time in -- within the songs where the musicians improvise. And usually, it's very -- it's high-energy. And when the musicians start improvising, the dancers start improvising.

STRONG: How does that work -- coordinating and directing the improvisation 9:00around the group -- not just between the musicians, but the dancers?

ABDELRASOUL: There's a -- there's a respect. Well, I'm going to first say that dabka is -- is a common dance within the Middle East. So, you have -- and not only -- and particularly in the Middle East, in Bilad as-Sham, which is Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Jordan. In Bilad as-Sham, they do dabka. Not all the parts of the Middle East. And also, dabka is not a religious dance. It has nothing to do with religion. In fact, some Islamic sheikhs or scholars might not think it's -- it's -- it follows Sharia law. So that's a very important thing to put in 10:00consideration. So, it's more of a cultural dance than it is a -- religious.

So, within Bilad as-Sham, they have different type of styles and different types of criteria they use when they do dabka dance. In the Palest-- you know, with my dance team, what we follow and the way we do dabka is, we do it the Palestinian way, which is very similar to the Lebanese or Syrian or Jordanian way. And -- and it's very distinctive -- the Palestinian type of dabka. Because the true way to -- to -- to perform the dabka is to have a respect for the musician and for the singer and -- what's that word? -- and to put in consideration when 11:00everybody has to play their role. So, we have to part -- we have to be in sync with each other. Usually, there's a tune for the dabka. And there's special songs that are played when we do the dabka. So, there's special songs like Al Dal'Ona [phonetic], Jafra, [Ya] Zarif Attul [phonetic 0:11:20], and a few other songs. The two major songs that Palestinians love to use is Al Dal'ona and Zarif Attul. And there's special tunes for them. And when these tunes are played by the musician, then the singer knows when to sing. And when the singer finishes singing, then the musician knows when to start improvising. And when the musician start knows to improvising, we know when to start dancing. And then the dancers give the signal to the musician to repeat the sequence again. So, this 12:00type of coordination is highly -- it's done professionally. And it's done the Palestinian way.

STRONG: That's so interesting.

ABDELRASOUL: Yes.

STRONG: I'm curious when you say some scholars think it stands outside Sharia law, what does that mean specifically? What are their concerns?

ABDELRASOUL: I'm not a sheikh, but I can be confident in saying that -- you know, music in general is not -- is -- is -- it's not part of Islam. Yeah. It's not part of Islam. You don't have music in Islam -- that -- that has wind instruments. And which -- the dabka -- we have to have instruments. It's not going to look nice if it doesn't have wind instrument. Me, I wouldn't call it dabka. So -- and also, the dancing in Islam is -- is also not within Sharia law. 13:00So -- this is something cultural, not -- not religious.

STRONG: I'm curious, then, what -- what would you like to share about your own faith or your family's faith and how you were raised and your relationship to Islam?

ABDELRASOUL: Well, we -- we -- you know, I can -- my family can -- are religious, you know? But they're not very religious, you know? They -- you know my mom -- my mom, she wears the hijab. I try to pray five times a day. I fast Ramadan. But we don't follow the rules a hundred percent, you know? If a -- if a true Muslim follows the rules a hundred percent, he wouldn't do dabka.

STRONG: So -- I'm curious about how your faith informs your life in other ways. 14:00What do you gain out of praying five times a day? What do you gain out of being part of these religious communities?

ABDELRASOUL: It's a -- it's a good spiritual cleanser. I do truly highly believe in -- in my religion. I -- at one point, I was very religious -- in my lifetime, and I did feel very good about it, you know? My parents tried to -- their best to give us a Islamic teaching, you know, when we were kids. That's why I went to Al-Noor School, which is Islamic school. And that's why I also went back home -- to learn more about our religion and our culture. But those things -- those two kind of -- some -- some aspects can conflict. And --

STRONG: Between religion and culture, you mean?

ABDELRASOUL: Yes.

STRONG: Interesting. Say more about that.

ABDELRASOUL: Yeah. Like, you know, the prime example is the way we -- we hold 15:00the weddings, you know? That's the number one aspect, I guess. That's the very, very clear example.

STRONG: Meaning what?

ABDELRASOUL: Meaning, you know, a religious wedding is supposed to not be done the way we do it, you know? With dancing and a lot of music and a lot of instruments. You know, it's against our religion. And the -- and our weddings, they're very expensive. And it's also against our religion. You know. But I guess people -- they -- they kind of overlook that.

STRONG: Has your relationship to your religion changed now -- than when you were younger? You mentioned that you were very --

ABDELRASOUL: I do fluctuate. You know, I'm not going to lie -- I do fluctuate sometimes. I do consider stopping doing dabka sometimes -- like, you know, I 16:00have to be more religious and I have to stop. It's against -- it's against what God wants us to do. But I really love it -- I really enjoy doing it, you know?

STRONG: What do you gain out of dancing?

ABDELRASOUL: You know, it's like somebody who loves golfing, somebody who loves playing basketball. They love it, you know? Me, I love it so much. I love the -- I like everything about it. You know, the stomping, the music, the dancing -- the whole nine yards. I love it -- all aspects.

STRONG: Yeah. And it sounds like you have a lot of family members who do it too, right?

ABDELRASOUL: Yes. When we first started the dabka team, it was actually my family -- all my cousins and close relatives. We started the dabka team. It wasn't just me on my own. And we still -- we still -- our family, we still do it together. And our older cousins and relatives had their own dabka team here, 17:00too. So I guess it runs in the family.

STRONG: Was it a cousin who taught you or trained you?

ABDELRASOUL: Yes. Yes.

STRONG: Tell me about that.

ABDELRASOUL: One of my cousins, he had a dabka team. And he was trained from all of his friends, who probably learned it back home. And he -- he loved the idea of making a new one. And this is after maybe 20 years. And then when -- then he had us all come together and said, "Hey, let's start a team." And we did. But his -- his methods -- we were young at the time -- this is, like, seven years ago, six years ago -- or maybe, yeah, seven years ago. Seven years ago. We were young at the time. We wanted something more high-energy, something different -- innovative. And, you know, that's very successful now, because our dabka team is the number one in the U.S. We travel all over -- all over the U.S. And we even 18:00have a trip to Paris. So, people really like what we do. And it's because of the way we do it. We do it differently. And -- yeah.

STRONG: What's different about it? What's innovative?

ABDELRASOUL: It's -- it's much more -- it's very professional. We have many different moves. We're very in sync. And we take it seriously. Yeah. Other people might just say, "Hey, let's start a team." And they just do it for fun a few times and they don't take it seriously. And it ends up not looking too proper. And they end up maybe -- after three, four years, just stopping.

STRONG: And how long has your team been going?

ABDELRASOUL: We've been going for six years. Yeah. Six years. We started, six 19:00people, now we're 16. Yeah.

STRONG: How do you work with a group that size? Do you guys get along? Do you have trouble coordinating? [laughter]

ABDELRASOUL: Of course, we -- sometimes we have our ups and downs, you know, like any team. It wouldn't be fun if it was very formal -- like, you know, in terms of our communication. But, you know, I -- I make it happen. I make it happen.

STRONG: How has the group changed over the six years that you've been doing it?

ABDELRASOUL: We've evolved. You know, we've definitely evolved. We gained a lot of fans. And a lot of new ideas. You know, we didn't think that we'd be like this. You know, a lot of calls, a lot of bookings, and a lot of people, you know, loving what we do. We didn't expect to be -- we thought we'd be amateurs and -- and just do a few events here and there.

20:00

STRONG: Do you have a favorite event or a weirdest event that you've ever performed for?

ABDELRASOUL: Our weirdest event? That's a funny one. Not really.

STRONG: Okay.

ABDELRASOUL: I don't know. We take every event -- anybody who would like to book us, we -- we -- that means they like us, which means that we -- we'd be more than happy to perform for them. We like to do mostly -- a lot of our guys like to travel. You know, especially because they're young. So -- and the more -- the more hyped the crowd is, the more energetic and supportive they are, the more we -- we love it, and the more satisfied we are. So I could say that's the most exciting -- when people are excited. It's sort of like a reflective thing.

STRONG: A reflective thing? What do you mean?

ABDELRASOUL: Like, if -- so if the crowd is supportive and excited, then we'll 21:00be excited. If they're bored and just very introverted, then we wouldn't -- we'd feel -- we'd leave a little dissatisfied. But rarely does that happen.

STRONG: Got it. I'm curious -- I kind of want to go back a little bit and learn about Al-Noor School. What year did you go there?

ABDELRASOUL: I went to Al-Noor School from first grade all up until eighth grade.

STRONG: Okay. So, you started when the school was relatively new. Were you one of the first classes to go?

ABDELRASOUL: I was relatively -- about the first -- within the first five years, if I'm not mistaken --

STRONG:Wow.

ABDELRASOUL:-- of them opening.

STRONG: Tell me what you remember about the school. What was it like?

ABDELRASOUL: The school was very fun. You know, we had a lot of fun. Because it was the same group of kids I -- I went to school with for the eight years. It 22:00was intense. You know, they were very serious about teaching us and for us to be successful. And we had a lot of passionate teachers. And our principal at the time was very passionate -- in us becoming better and making the Islamic image look better. The school also -- you know, most of the Muslims in New York City really -- you know, they condoned the school and they supported it -- financially, spiritually, and in every way. The school did evolve. I remember we opened -- you know, there was three -- two buildings. They -- you know, more, more and more Muslims wanted to -- their kids to learn there. And I went through those phases when they opened up the second building or third building.

STRONG: What do you remember about those transitions? What was it like and what 23:00were the new buildings like?

ABDELRASOUL: They were -- you know, it wasn't like a -- it was well -- it was funded, but it wasn't funded like a public school would be funded, of course -- or like -- very fancy. It was basic, you know? You know, step by step, they took things -- opened up a chemistry lab. And I remember that time. You know, when there was no lab -- and then a computer lab and stuff like that. And those -- those days were fun.

STRONG: Getting the chemistry lab and the computer lab?

ABDELRASOUL: Yeah, you know, it was like, "Hey, we're getting a chemistry lab! Hey, we're getting a computer lab!" You know, we go to the computer lab, we learn a little bit about typing and stuff. And we didn't think it would be like that, you know? Just like our dance team.

STRONG: Just like your dance team -- how do you mean?

ABDELRASOUL: You know, we didn't think, like, oh, we'd be traveling here and there -- and we'd have this much people, and this much people interested in -- in -- in having us -- fans, you know?

24:00

STRONG: Yeah. That it would become like a -- like a job -- like, professional?

ABDELRASOUL: Yeah. Professional. I mean, I'm not -- it's not like we're, you know, celebrities. But to -- to some fans, we are. But we're not -- we're really still small, you know? We're not -- you know, next to Beyoncé and Jay-Z.

STRONG: How do you hope the group will grow from here? What do you hope it will become?

ABDELRASOUL: I wish that it grows all -- you know, I wish -- I wish everybody would -- would -- would know who we were, regardless of who they are or what religious they are. Because I love it and I'd love to share something that's beautiful.

STRONG: Have you had an experience of, you know, performing for someone or for an audience who had never seen dabka before?

ABDELRASOUL: Yeah. Of course.

STRONG: What was that like?

ABDELRASOUL: We've done -- we've done a lot of weddings. And sometimes -- or events. An example like the Bay Ridge [Arab American] Bazaar that we do some -- 25:00every year. Because Bay Ridge is more of a Middle Eastern community. So, these -- the Bazaar is held in Bay Ridge. And of course, there's going to be people who are not Middle Eastern that would go -- you know, come to the event. And they'd see it and, you know, you'll see their faces -- like, they're amazed. They like it. You know, when we step off stage -- "Very nice," you know. And they want to learn about it and they ask us a lot of questions. And they're impressed. And same thing for weddings -- sometimes there's guests or -- you know, marriages, you know, within -- outside Middle Eastern people, you know. Like a bride, maybe she might be Middle Eastern, and the groom is Irish or -- we've done that before. And, you know, they like it, you know? Yeah. They love it. They look at us, and, like, "Hey, wow!" You know? And -- it's -- you know, it makes us happy.

STRONG: What kind of questions do you get? Or what surprises people?

ABDELRASOUL: We get a lot of -- we get questions like, "Hey, what type of dance 26:00is that?" You know, "Hey, where are you from?" "Oh, it's so cool." And, you know, questions like, "How long have you been doing this for?" And they -- very -- get interested, and we give them a business card and stuff like that.

STRONG: Okay. Going back again -- what inspired your mother to bring the kids back to Palestine? How did she come to that decision?

ABDELRASOUL: Well, my -- my parents, they wanted to -- they wanted us to experience living -- how -- how it feels like living back home. And they wanted us to experience -- or see -- the way other people live back home. Yeah. So that -- that was the main -- the main reason why -- for a learning experience, basically.

STRONG: What stuck with you? What did you learn, and how are you different now for having lived there?

ABDELRASOUL: More of manners. Morals. And, you know, ethical reasons. People -- 27:00people there are -- they're different. They're brought up differently. You know, it's a tougher life. And they're tougher -- tougher kids. More realistic. Maybe that's why they sent us back home. And, you know, there's ups and downs in every community. You know, especially -- especially the way they treat people -- like, older people there -- and older -- you know, like, grandparents and grand-- you know, these type of relationships, they didn't want us to lose value of some -- today, kids might have here, you know? So that's why.

28:00

STRONG: Do you think you understand your parents a little better after having lived there for a while?

ABDELRASOUL: Yeah. I do. I see what they -- what they were -- what they -- you know, what their -- what their concerns were, you know? That's -- that was definitely a plus for me -- going back home. But at the same time, sometimes I regret it, because career-wise, people -- people back home, they're not really brought up to -- they're not really pushed into, like, the future -- their future, you know? You know, "I want you to be this. You could do this, study this, do good at school." They don't really concentrate on that aspect.

STRONG: And high school is an important time to get that coaching, you think?

ABDELRASOUL: Yes. Definitely.

STRONG: So, what do you -- what do you think would be different if you had been here?

ABDELRASOUL: I -- I could say that if I had the same manners that I learned back 29:00home and then came here, then maybe I'd be more serious into choosing maybe something more -- better personally for myself.

STRONG: Interesting. So, tell me a little bit about your life since you came back after high school.

ABDELRASOUL: In high school, I was very -- complacent. I didn't really want to -- I didn't really care about a very successful future. I only cared about having a simple future -- which is not going to happen in New York City. [laughter] You know, things like this -- the reality of, you know, bills, children, family, stuff like that -- really hit me when -- when I already 30:00started my career. Which, if I would have known beforehand, it would have probably been a little bit more different. And so, when I finished high school, of course, I wanted to go to college. I didn't want to do something that was too long. I didn't want to do, like, 10 years of school to become a doctor -- or, you know, eight years to get my master's degree. I didn't want to do that. But now I look -- I see things differently. And that type of guidance they don't have back home, you know? So -- so, like, you know, I finished high school. I didn't -- my father, you know, asked me, "What do you want to do? What do you want to be?" I don't tell -- "I don't know." He's like, "Just become an X-ray tech." "Well, okay." I didn't even ask -- I didn't even say no. I said, "Okay. I'll just do it." You know, and I -- I'm happy. I'm not going to say I'm not happy with my career. I love what I do. But if I would have known, I would have probably done something better.

31:00

STRONG: There's still time.

ABDELRASOUL: There's still time.

STRONG: Tell me how you met your wife.

ABDELRASOUL: Traditional way. I did it traditional way, Islamic way. You know, one day, I remember, I was sitting, and my mom told me, you know, "We're going to get you married -- one day -- just get some money saved up." You know, because our weddings, like I said, are expensive. I said, "I have money saved up." She says, "Okay, then we'll look for a bride for you." And then she looked for a bride. You know, they did it traditional way -- they ask around and they -- you know, usually, you go through the mom. Things are different nowadays. And that's the -- that's one of the reasons why my -- I feel like my parents sent me back home. Because many people who are raised here, they don't do it what we consider to be the right, Islamic way, in which we find the bride through our mother and our sister. We don't -- the men don't do it. They don't take it upon 32:00themselves to look for their bride. And that's one of the morals that I -- and cultural points that I learned in Palestine that I might not have learned it here. So that's how I found my wife. I'm very happy with her. And here, they -- they -- you know, most guys, they're -- don't have those -- those same -- ideology as me. They try to find their own wives, you know? And sometimes that causes problems.

STRONG: When you say, "the traditional way," you sort of said that the mother and the sister and the mom might be involved in finding her but describe it in detail for somebody who wouldn't know.

ABDELRASOUL: Some people might -- some people might look at it, and they -- they'd look at it and be like, "Oh my God!" You know, "This is very old-fashioned way of doing it." Somebody who really knows history -- because 33:00most history and most cultures and -- and all religions do it the same way that I did it. As time modernized, I guess people now look at this way of doing it as more of a -- it's not the right way to do it. And, you know, they ask questions like, "Hey, so you never even met her before? Was this arranged?" As if I -- it's forced. And they hear a few stories, and they think that's -- it's a bad idea. You know, the way it works is, you know, you tell your parents, "I'm ready to get married." They find the -- who they think is suitable. They ask you, "Do you want to meet with her?" You say yes. If you want to say no, you say no. You meet with her. And if you sit down, if you like her, you proceed with the 34:00marriage; if you don't like her, you don't proceed. And you have an engagement. And an engagement period is like sort of a dating period, but everybody knows that your intentions are to get married. And that's the point.

STRONG: So, tell me about your first conversations with your wife -- or the engagement period or anything you remember about getting to know her.

ABDELRASOUL: You know, I'm a -- I'm a believer of -- I'm very -- was very confident in myself and who I am. So, I didn't -- I -- you know, this might sound really arrogant, but I knew that I was going to treat my wife well -- good. And I knew she would be happy with me. So, I wasn't scared -- or scared to -- to -- because I knew I would, no matter what, make it work -- the marriage. 35:00And I had that in me -- that no matter what happens, I'm going to make it work -- as long as I like her, you know. So, I liked her. And I liked the way she presented herself when I first met her. She asked very mature questions -- not, you know, silly questions. Like, "Hey," you know, "what do you do for a living?" You know, "What are the things that are important to you in life?" And, you know -- but at the same time, I knew it wouldn't be a very true relationship until we got married, you know? Because engagement is -- you know, engagement -- it's different. You know, when you talk -- because -- and she also lived in North Carolina, so talking over the phone, it was most of our engagement.

STRONG: So how did you get to know each other once you were married?

ABDELRASOUL: Just, you know, living together. We got to know each other. It was --

36:00

STRONG: What did you learn about her that was surprising -- or anything like that?

ABDELRASOUL: What did I learn? Well, she's a fast learner, you know? She didn't know how to cook too well, which was surprising for me at first. Because usually, the Palestinian mothers, they teach -- teach their daughters how to cook before they get married. And she knew how to cook. But they teach them everything. She didn't teach her everything -- my mother-in-law. And when she -- when she didn't -- when she -- you know, when we got married, she eventually picked things up very fast. And she held -- she held onto her family ways of living more than the way we do. And usually, when the woman marries into her 37:00husband's -- her husband's side, she takes -- she kind of transfers, you know. It's like new management.

STRONG: So, her way of life is a little different? [laughter]

ABDELRASOUL: It's like new management.

STRONG: Yeah. So how is her way of life different? What does she do that is --?

ABDELRASOUL: It's much different. Living -- and not only because she's changed families, but the whole -- my parents are -- compared to her parents, is different -- the way we live. The cities are different. She's from North Carolina -- Raleigh -- and we're from New York City, you know? Her -- you know, her parents are from Palestine. A little -- not by much, but a little more traditional than we are. And more old-fashioned than we are. My parents are working people -- both mom and my father. And her father is just -- just the one 38:00that's only working. So it's a little different. And she had six -- she has four sisters. So she always had help around and people to talk to her, and here she has no sisters, you know? And my sister is married. So, she's much -- she's more -- she's not -- she's more lonelier here. In the busier area.

STRONG: Yeah. What does she think of dabka?

ABDELRASOUL: She loves that I do dabka and she hates that I do dabka.

STRONG: [laughter] Tell me what you mean.

ABDELRASOUL: She likes it because, you know, she likes to see that I'm happy. She likes to see that I like -- that I'm doing something that I like. And I'm feeling older -- because I'm 26 now, and I don't move the way I used to move 39:00when I was 22 and 23 -- or 18. So I'm trying to hold onto it as much as I can before I become too, too old and not able to do the same things I do. Because it is strenuous, you know? Doing dabka is not easy. But she don't like it, because it takes up a lot of time. Yeah.

STRONG: So, she doesn't see you as much as she would?

ABDELRASOUL: Yeah. So, the weekends, it's mostly -- you know, I do -- we do dabka on the weekends. And I'm usually working -- a lot. So, when I do have free time -- like today -- tonight, I have practice. And on the weekends, if I have Saturday evenings off in the hospital, I have a performance. So, it steals time. It's a -- substitutes time. So, I've got to find time sometimes for my par-- for my family.

STRONG: Does she come to your shows?

ABDELRASOUL: If they're weddings, most likely not. Some events, you know, she'll 40:00come. You know. She'll come with my parents. You know, especially if they're, like, public events -- like a festival. Because a lot of these events -- weddings, you know -- it's an invitation. It's not really proper to -- "Hey, can I bring my wife to, to look at" -- you know? They're not going to say no, but it's just going to be awkward.

STRONG: Tell me about the birth of your daughter.

ABDELRASOUL: One of the happiest days of my life. It's very -- it's a big changer, you know, with a daughter. She definitely brings a lot of joy into our family, because she's the first -- the first daughter in the family. We don't have a lot of females in our family. And she's a happy baby. Everybody loves 41:00her. You know, it's a lot of work for my wife. It keeps -- she keeps -- you know, the baby keeps her busy. And she only likes her mother. [laughter]

STRONG: The truth comes out.

ABDELRASOUL: She goes to her mother for everything.

STRONG: Yes. How old is your daughter now?

ABDELRASOUL: She's eight months.

STRONG: Eight months.

ABDELRASOUL: Yes. And I have another one on the way, too.

STRONG: Oh, wow! So, your wife is very tired.

ABDELRASOUL: Yeah. She's constantly -- you know, she's always doing something, you know, with the baby. And now we're -- she's in -- she's pregnant, so she has sometimes some back pain and stuff. So, it makes it more difficult for her. But I told her, "Just knock 'em out," you know? [laughter] Make all the kids one -- at one time. It'll save you -- it'll save you stress. You know, if you take it 42:00-- like, too much breaks -- one shot, just get it over with.

STRONG: How many kids do you guys want to have?

ABDELRASOUL: I want to have five to seven kids.

STRONG: How many does she want to have?

ABDELRASOUL: She says she wants to have five kids -- minimum -- maximum.

STRONG: Maximum. [laughter]

ABDELRASOUL: Well, she keeps changing her mind.

STRONG: [laughter] That's really great. Does she work as well, or does she just --

ABDELRASOUL: No.

STRONG: Oh, okay.

ABDELRASOUL: She wants to go to -- she wants to go to school. She went to -- she went to school. She wants to continue. Obviously, it's difficult because of the baby. So, she's -- she's going for, like, more online classes. And I totally support her. I want her to do -- to be successful -- in any career she chooses. But I don't want her to -- to -- to rush into a career and -- you know, it's going to be difficult to juggle a career and a lot of kids. So, she can take her time, you know? I told her, "Take your time," you know? You know, as my mom did -- she took her time. She had us. You know, she's successful.

43:00

She's an audiologist. She's successful in what she does. She earned her doctor's degree, you know? And she did it peacefully -- no, I'm not going to say peacefully, but much -- she did it wiser than some other people. She had her kids, took care of the kids. Then, as soon as the kids got older and went to school, she went to school. She didn't have to worry about a babysitter. She didn't have to worry about -- you know, "The kids got sick, I have to take them to hosp-- to" -- I'm sorry -- "the doctor." You know, "They could do things on their own, clean up after themselves, and I could study on my own, and I could focus on my career." And that's what she did. And that's -- I'm hoping for my wife to choose the same path.

STRONG: What is she studying?

ABDELRASOUL: Psychology.

STRONG: Does she like it?

ABDELRASOUL: She's -- like -- it's like -- she's on and off, you know? She's -- some -- one day she's psychology, sociology -- I told her, "Whatever you want to do, it's fine. I'll pay for it. Just do something that's worth it." [laughter] 44:00"Do something that's going to benefit you that you like. And just take to the max." You know? "Get your bach-- master's, doctor's, research -- whatever you have to do, do it."

STRONG: So how are you planning to teach your kids about your culture? Are you going to do it differently from your parents? Are you going to travel abroad with them? What are your thoughts?

ABDELRASOUL: I don't know. To be honest with you, I have no clue.

STRONG: Are you going to teach them to dance?

ABDELRASOUL: Every time I plan something -- something -- then something else happens. That's why I don't like to plan too much anymore. But -- yeah. Yeah. I mean, definitely, they're going to learn on their own the culture and -- and the morals and that stuff. You know, definitely, I'd love -- I love -- I love my culture, you know? And also, some aspects of my religion, of course, I also have 45:00to teach them.

STRONG: Do you think it's easier to get a religious education in Brooklyn now than when you were a kid? Are there more options?

ABDELRASOUL: No. It's the same. There's a lot of opportunity here. You know, when somebody would say, you know, their kid is not religious because there's not opportunities, that's a big lie. There's a lot of religious facilities -- lectures, programs that can -- that can surround your children. And not only children -- adults. But I think a lot of parents are lazy -- or might not have the time. So that's why some parents might just say, "You know what? Just send them back home." And that way, they're -- they'll learn from not only going to 46:00religious facilities, but through the people -- through the community. Whereas here, you'd have to make an effort into learning. And there, you have to have -- I guess you'd have to have an effort into learning if you want to learn, but I think it's easier if your community has some basic knowledge -- or knowledge of what you want to accomplish or learn. And maybe that's why they sent us back home. Maybe that's a better explanation.

STRONG: Yeah. I didn't even ask -- what was your wedding like? You spend so much time working at weddings and performing at weddings. What did you plan for yourself?

ABDELRASOUL: Yeah. I really wanted one of -- one of my -- the popular mijwiz player to come from -- from overseas, but he was charging too much money. And that was one of my dreams. It was basically, like, the same weddings like everybody else did. Because people are too scared to change here. They don't 47:00want to change. They want everything to be the same. They're scared it might not look nice. And then, you know, they waste all this money for no reason. It was very fun. You know, and we -- I even did dabka at my own wedding.

STRONG: You did? Was the group there?

ABDELRASOUL: Yeah. The whole team was there. Of course.

STRONG: What was that like?

ABDELRASOUL: That was -- it was -- it was the first time I ever seen my team perform without me performing -- without me performing in it. I did perform in it towards the end -- I jumped in -- but it was -- wow. I was impressed.

STRONG: You put together a good team?

ABDELRASOUL: Yeah. It's different when you're performing and when you see the performance.

STRONG: Did you have notes for them afterwards? Or were you just enjoying yourself?

ABDELRASOUL: I always have notes for them. [laughter] But not during my wedding.

STRONG: [laughter] Just enjoying yourself.

ABDELRASOUL: Yeah.

48:00

STRONG: When you said, you know, people don't like changing up weddings too much, did you find that back home in Palestine --

ABDELRASOUL: No.

STRONG: -- people were changing things, or was it always very -- similar there?

ABDELRASOUL: Back home, it's different. Back home, they -- they have -- they have a different taste, you know? For music. And they're more -- they like to try different things. They like to try different music. "Oh, let's add this instrument. Let's add this instrument. Let's put them together." One singer might do something nicer -- you know, more lively. You know, they don't like the same structure.

STRONG: Why do you think that is -- that in Brooklyn they would be so adamant that things stay the same?

ABDELRASOUL: Because they -- I don't think they have a true passion for the 49:00music aspect of the culture. They just -- you know, "He's a good singer. He has good recommendations. He's the best here." Meanwhile, they can get somebody from back home for the same price. And I say, "Well, why" -- I don't -- I never -- I never understood that. A lot of people, they spend a lot of money, you know, on singers or musicians who -- you can get the same price for something much better. But they're scared, because they don't know.

STRONG: What's scary about it? Why are they scared?

ABDELRASOUL: Because they don't want to pay this much money and people not like it.

STRONG: Oh.

ABDELRASOUL: Or they might not like it, you know?

STRONG: So, they rely on the tried and true rather than --

ABDELRASOUL: Yes.

STRONG: -- someone they'd never heard.

ABDELRASOUL: Yes.

STRONG: I understand now.

ABDELRASOUL: Yes.

STRONG: Got it. Got it. Well, I'm just noticing, we're coming up on an hour, so let me just quickly make sure I've touched on everything I wanted to ask you today. You know, I did want to learn a little bit more about Al-Noor School. You 50:00mentioned the principal, but what was his name? Do you remember?

ABDELRASOUL: Brother Nidal [Abuasi].

STRONG: Do you remember anything about who he was as a person or what his philosophy was?

ABDELRASOUL: He actually went to college with my father. You know, my father, I remember, he did -- he did some electrical work for my -- for the school. He was a very nice guy -- you know, very -- had a good sense of humor. But he was serious and very strict when it came to discipline and making sure the kids had a good education. And he had a lot of knowledge about Islam. And he'd tell very -- good stories, you know? About -- you know, Islamic stories. And I remember them. And I remember a lot of good Islamic stories -- about prophets. And it was fascinating, you know? I mean, as a kid -- Islam is not about stories. A lot of 51:00sheikhs, they say, "Oh, again with the stories." But the stories, for kids -- that's what -- that's what, like -- that's what gets them interested in the religion. And they told a lot of good -- nice -- very good stories. And through the stories, you -- you get to -- and just -- you could tell when somebody's passionate about something, you know? You get a -- you get that feeling, that vibe. And that's how he was.

STRONG: Tell me about some of the stories that stick with you from when you were a kid.

ABDELRASOUL: It's basic stories -- like, the stories -- the stories of Moses and Noah -- Prophet Noah. I don't have a very good memory, but -- and -- there's -- all these -- there's so many stories. There are so many stories they used to tell. And not only prophets. You know, it could -- been -- just -- you know, the 52:00prophet one day said something or did something. You know, they don't stick to me now, and I don't want to make a mistake. [laughter] But those stories were -- it was really influential on us. It took an impact.

STRONG: What were the teachers like there?

ABDELRASOUL: Some teachers were better than others. Some teachers, they really cared about your learning and they really taught well. And some teachers -- all of the teachers there, I can say, wanted to teach us because they wanted the society to be better. I can say that. But not all teachers -- it wasn't meant for them -- you know, some teachers. It wasn't meant for them. Like, you have the right idea, but you don't have the right method.

STRONG: How do you -- how do you think that the school is different now? Have 53:00you been back to see it at all since? And how has it changed?

ABDELRASOUL: This might sound funny, but I had a gum collection underneath my desk [laughter] when I finished eighth grade. And I remember, it was a lot of gum. And when I came back after four years, I was looking for the desk all over the -- the school, and I found it.

STRONG: With the gum underneath?

ABDELRASOUL: With the gum. [laughter] That was the memory. Yeah.

STRONG: So, you left your mark.

ABDELRASOUL: I left my mark. I don't know about now. I don't know if they still have those desks or not. This is many years ago. Maybe they probably upgraded. I mean, they were good desks, you know, but I'm just [laughter] -- yeah.

STRONG: Yeah.

ABDELRASOUL: I don't know how it is now, to be honest with you. I'm sure it's -- it's much -- it's better or the same. You know, they have a parking lot and what 54:00not. But I'm not sure about the whole -- you know, the inside -- how the -- how it is in terms of the management -- the new principal or whatever.

STRONG: What about your neighborhoods in Brooklyn? Were they very different when you came back from Palestine?

ABDELRASOUL: Some -- a little bit. You know, it was a little bit different. Not too much. Growing up, we had -- we had a large Middle Eastern community. But now, we do -- we still have a large Middle Eastern community. And we are seeing a little different mixes. You know, this is normal. This is New York. Before the Middle Eastern community came to Bay Ridge, it was mostly Norwegian and -- I think -- I'm not sure -- Norwegian and Greek. Now it's the Greek more -- more 55:00towards the bridge, and Middle Eastern, and now you're getting more Hispanic, Chinese -- you know. But it's basically the same. A lot -- I remember -- to the same stores, same shops. And small businesses. You know, the good thing about the Middle Eastern community is that we -- that some communities, they wipe out or they take over other existing -- the ones -- the previous community, in terms of businesses. But not the Middle -- not in Bay Ridge. We still have, like, pizzerias. We still have, you know, pop-and-mom stores, bakeries, a donut shop. Some people -- some other communities, they only buy from their community, they only deal with their people. We deal with our people and we deal with your people. That's it, you know? And that's something good about Bay Ridge. Because 56:00you want to have a little diversity, you know?

STRONG: What are the -- how do I want to say this? What do you think are the pros and cons of living in a diverse versus, like, a homogeneous place? Because you say that when you went back to Palestine, you know, it was very easy to learn the culture and the values, because you were surrounded by people who were all from there and shared beliefs. But then what do you gain by being in Brooklyn, when you're in much more of a diverse community?

ABDELRASOUL: Brooklyn is tough. It's tough to say. It's -- it's much nicer to live in -- in a place where you can understand people, and people understand you. You know, like, in Brooklyn, for example -- you know -- especially because I work in a hospital, so it's very diverse. So, I do have friends from all 57:00nationalities. And we're all the same, you know? Everybody's the same. Everybody has -- there's good and bad in everybody. You see that. And you don't stick to stupid assumptions, you know? And then some assumptions might rub off the wrong way. You know, if you live in -- in -- you know, within your own community, you only deal with your own people. And if you believe the negative of those people, then what's the point of living in a diverse community like this?

STRONG: Can you give me an example of, you know, an assumption that you used to have that maybe changed through getting to know people?

ABDELRASOUL: An assumption that I used to have? I don't know. I don't know.

58:00

STRONG: Or maybe the flipside -- like, an assumption someone had about you that --

ABDELRASOUL:Or -- yeah -- like, an -- like -- yeah. You know, the -- a really good assumption would be the marriage aspect, like I said -- with my wife. You know, when I explain to some employees -- like -- like, you know, when I tell my -- within my culture, it's somebody -- or this is how we met, it's not a big deal. It's like, "Okay, great," you know? Or "I hope for you the best," you know? They wouldn't ask the same questions as somebody who doesn't -- doesn't know anything about our culture. So, somebody who doesn't know about our culture says, "Okay, how'd you meet your wife?" "It was through my mom." "So, it was an arranged marriage? Really?" Like, as if something bad had happened -- or as if I was forced -- or as if -- you know? And that assumption -- it's -- if they didn't meet me, it would have stuck in their head. And if the hospital I work in 59:00was primarily -- let's just say an Italian hospital, then all the assumptions about my culture and my people that are negative would have stayed with them, you know? I hope they believed me when I told them the truth -- of the way I got married and stuff. And so that's one -- one example -- one prime example of the ups and downs of living in -- in a homogeneous -- like you said -- or a diverse community.

STRONG: Thanks. Just to end on your dancing again -- how do you think dabka in Brooklyn or in the U.S. will change? Do you think it will become more innovative? Are there more groups like yours? Or do you think it will stay something that people will rely on to be the same over time?

ABDELRASOUL:There have had some dabka teams emerge after us. And try to imitate 60:00-- make us. There will always be, in my opinion, somebody who loves it, because it's part of our culture -- it's nothing that you could lose. So, there's definitely going to be people that are going to try to. I'm not sure if they're going to be as great as we are. I hope they will -- if we do, for any reason, dissolve, I hope this is somebody who's -- be better than us. Because there are more people that like it, there are more people that know about it, that know about our culture. That's how I look at it. So -- yeah. You know, there's some people that -- they -- the dabka teams that are emerging, you know, they need some guidance, we guide them, you know? "This is the way to do it. This is the way" -- you know, you give them steps. Because they're usually younger people -- not like businessmen, like they're opening up a business and they have experience and they -- you know. It's usually high school kids. Like, we -- some 61:00of us were high school kids, college. You don't have people that are my age want to start one, you know -- when they're not in their prime.

STRONG: Anything else you'd like to share about your work or your life?

ABDELRASOUL: I don't know. I guess that's it, you know? There's so much to talk about.

STRONG: Yeah.

ABDELRASOUL: But, you know, in terms of the dabka and Islam and stuff, I guess that's it.

STRONG: All right. Well, thank you so much for your time, coming in.

ABDELRASOUL: No problem. No problem.

STRONG: I'm glad we could get you out of here.

ABDELRASOUL: It's nice to finally meet you.

STRONG: Yeah, nice to finally meet you, too.

ABDELRASOUL: And, you know, sorry -- some of my vocabulary and my English is not the best --

STRONG: Oh, don't be silly.

ABDELRASOUL: You know, but I try.

STRONG: [laughter] I'll turn this off now.

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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Amer Abdelrasoul

Amer Abdelrasoul was born in 1991 in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn. He attended the Al-Noor School before moving to Palestine for high school. After returning to Brooklyn, he married his wife and co-founded the Freedom Dabka Group, which performs the traditional Arab dabka folk dance.

In this interview, Amer Abdelrasoul discusses his experiences growing up as a Palestinian American, including attending elementary school at the Al-Noor School in Brooklyn and high school in Palestine. He also talks extensively about his involvement in dabka dance, especially regarding his founding of and continued involvement with the Freedom Dabka Group. In addition, he touches on his cultural and religious values, his arranged marriage to his wife, and the conflict he feels between traditional Muslim teachings and his passion for dance. Interview conducted by Liz H. Strong.

This collection includes oral histories conducted and arranged by Brooklyn Historical Society in 2018. The interviews reflect varying approaches to religious observance among Muslim Brooklynites in relation to a wide range of communities and traditions within Islam, including Sunni, Shi'i, Sufi, Nation of Islam, W. D. Mohammed community, Five Percent, Dar ul Islam, and Ansaarullah. Collectively, there is particular focus on cultural and religious customs, practices, and gender roles within these communities; education and the arts; immigration from South Asia and the Middle East; the Nation of Islam; Islamophobia in the wake of the 1993 and 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center as well as after the 2016 presidential election; political activism and engagement; and community relations with law enforcement and government officials.

Citation

Abdelrasoul, Amer, Oral history interview conducted by Liz H. Strong, March 20, 2018, Muslims in Brooklyn oral histories, 2018.006.09; Brooklyn Historical Society.

People

  • Abdelrasoul, Amer
  • Al-Noor School (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
  • Freedom Dabka Group

Topics

  • Arranged marriage
  • Children of immigrants
  • Folk dancing, Arab
  • Islam and the performing arts
  • Men in Islam
  • Muslim families
  • Palestinian Americans

Places

  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Israel
  • Palestine

Transcript

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Finding Aid

Muslims in Brooklyn oral histories