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Why LA needs a city-funded Middle Eastern cultural center

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Activists are lobbying Mayor Eric Garcetti, pictured above, to create and fund a Middle Eastern cultural center.

Activists are lobbying Mayor Eric Garcetti, pictured above, to create and fund a Middle Eastern cultural center. (Photo: M/Flickr)

This piece is part of a campaign in Los Angeles to convince the mayor to provide funding for a cultural and community center that represents Arab/Muslim communities. Sign a petition in favor here.

I must be out of my mind.

For the past 13 years, I have relentlessly militated for the creation of a Middle Eastern/North African (MENA) cultural arts center in Los Angeles—a place for fresh ideas and challenging programs. I’ve asked that we work together to build an institution akin to the Hammer, the Getty, MOCA or the Japanese American National Museum. I’ve lobbied city officials and federal functionaries, written letters to millionaires and celebrities, nagged TV and radio stations, bugged newspaper and magazine editors, applied to foundations, and even circulated a petition—I’ve done everything imaginable short of lighting myself on fire.

Why? Because we all need a place to meet, a space where we can speak freely and learn about the cogent issues facing Americans and the Middle East. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu just pointed out, “In legislatures in Maryland, New York, Illinois, Florida, and even the United States Congress, bills have been proposed that would either bar funding to academic associations or seek to malign those who have taken a stand against the Israeli occupation of Palestine.”

Whereas it seems to me that Arabs, Jews and others who care about peace can benefit from breaking bread and sharing a conversation, or the experience of a concert, a film, an art exhibition, a lecture, a poetry reading, even a comedy show.

It’s called cultural diplomacy.

After all, 87% of us are moderates. And 99% of Americans love to eat.

We need an oasis in the city devoted to peaceful exploration of each other’s cultures. Imagine the good that a museum-quality Middle Eastern arts institution could do.

The Levantine Cultural Center in Los Angeles. (Photo:

The Levantine Cultural Center in Los Angeles. (Photo:

For years our pleas for major funding fell on deaf ears, so we decided to take action. In June 2001, with friends of Muslim, Jewish and Christian heritage from the MENA region, I cofounded the Levantine Cultural Center. We set up our grassroots storefront project on L.A.’s Westside—not far from where many in the entertainment community live and work. This was no accident.

In our view, folks in the film and television industries have knowingly or unknowingly stereotyped, maligned or otherwise diminished Arabs, Muslims and others from the MENA. More often than not, we’re depicted as terrorists or religious fanatics.

As we know, fear sells. But while 9/11 brought about a heightened awareness of Arab/Muslim societies and was a turning point in East-West relations, anti-Arab/Muslim biases in academia and Hollywood go back decades. The scholarly work of Edward Said and Jack Shaheen et alia documents years of Orientalism, film and TV caricatures, and Islamophobic profiteering. The Center for American Progress in 2011 published a detailed study, Fear, Inc. The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America, exposing an entire industry dedicated to inciting fear of Islam among Americans.

Admittedly, Arabs and Muslims make good bogeymen. In spite of our ample contributions to American academia, science, medicine, business and the arts, we are the least known among 20th-century immigrants to the United States. Most Arabs/Muslims from West and South Asia came to the U.S after World War I, World War II or following any number of post-war conflicts, such as Lebanon’s civil war or Iran’s 1979 revolution. My father, an economic refugee, came to California in the late 1950s and was considered exotic at the time.

Growing up in Los Angeles the son of a French-Moroccan national, there were no positive references to Moroccan culture. Indeed, there was nothing about Morocco available to an inquisitive young boy, other than the film Casablanca, which my father impugned as having nothing to do with the real Casablanca of 1942, where he lived at the time.

Whether out of delusion, compulsive obsession, despair or a longing for peace and awareness, I have become willy-nilly a cultural diplomat. I advocate for Los Angeles to take its place as a world cultural capital by welcoming, including and adequately representing Middle Eastern and North African communities.

I bet you didn’t know that in the worldwide diaspora, Southern California is home to the largest community of Arabs, Iranians and others from the MENA.

Isn’t it about time for a cultural institution that amply reflects our rich past and present contributions?

Or am I indeed crazy?

The other day while getting my young son ready for school, he gave me the most profound look of concern and asked, “Daddy, are you a freak?”

I didn’t answer yes, but I couldn’t say no, either. Maybe it’s true that children tell the truth, and maybe I’m just a lunatic for peace. Yet, hundreds of people have supported my efforts over the years, and more than 5,000 stay on our mailing list. Maybe there is a place for a MENA cultural center in L.A. after all? I keep the faith.

Jordan Elgrably
About Jordan Elgrably

Jordan Elgrably is an American-born writer and French national of Moroccan heritage who spent many years living in Paris and Madrid before resettling in Los Angeles, where he cofounded the Levantine Cultural Center in 2001. He has been passionately committed to strengthening Arab/Muslim, Christian and Jewish relations for many years. His essays, articles and stories have appeared in many anthologies and periodicals, among them the Los Angeles Times, International Herald Tribune, Le Monde, El País, Washington Post, the Paris Review, Salmagundi, Aljazeera and Alternet. He is a member of PEN Center, the international advocacy organization for writers and journalists; the Los Angeles Press Club; RAWI—Radius of Arab American Writers; and AMEJA—the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association.

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8 Responses

  1. amigo
    amigo on April 10, 2014, 11:51 am

    Why not use the power of the Jewish Lobby??.

    I know, I must be out of my mind.

  2. LeaNder
    LeaNder on April 10, 2014, 1:56 pm

    My generation liked “freaks”, maybe that is still a bit too complicated the son. But the very, very best to the project.

    Seems I can sign, since it is not an nationally exclusive petition.

  3. annie
    annie on April 10, 2014, 3:56 pm

    good for you Jordan Elgrably !!! more power to you!

  4. munro
    munro on April 10, 2014, 7:09 pm

    potential partner org
    Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation

  5. Taxi
    Taxi on April 11, 2014, 1:28 am

    Man you are ambitious!

    Opening a mideastern cultural center in Los Angeles is as impossible as opening one in west Jerusalem. Because Los Angeles IS westcoast West Jerusalem.

  6. Inanna
    Inanna on April 12, 2014, 7:35 am

    I thought that LA was the place culture went to die. Why would you wish that on the cultures of MENA?

    • tree
      tree on April 13, 2014, 2:06 am

      In reality, Los Angeles has a quite diverse cultural milieu. People from elsewhere tend to think that LA begins and ends with Hollywood, but it doesn’t. As Elgraby said, “Southern California is home to the largest community of Arabs, Iranians and others from the MENA”. Also:

      Approximately 59.4% of Los Angeles’ residents were born in the United States, and 0.9% were born in Puerto Rico, US territories, or abroad to American parents. 39.7% of the population were foreign-born. Most foreigners (64.5%) were born in Latin America. A large minority (26.3%) were born in Asia. Smaller numbers were born in Europe (6.5%), Africa (1.5%), Northern America (0.9%), and Oceania (0.3%).

      The city is often said to have the largest Mexican population outside Mexico and has the largest Spanish-speaking population outside Latin America or Spain. As of 2007, estimates of the number of residents originally from the Mexican state of Oaxaca ranged from 50,000 to 250,000.[4] Central American, Cuban, Puerto Rican, and South American nationalities are also represented.

      As of 2010, in the world, except for the respective home countries, Los Angeles County has the largest populations of Burmese, Cambodian, Chinese, Filipino, Indonesian, Korean, Sri Lankan, and Thai people. In Los Angeles County the largest Asian ethnic groups were the Chinese and the Filipinos.

      Ethnic enclaves like Chinatown, Historic Filipinotown, Koreatown, Little Armenia, Little Ethiopia, Little Bangladesh in Mid-City, Los Angeles, Little Moscow in Hollywood, Little Tokyo, several Little Saigons, Tehrangeles in West Los Angeles and Thai Town provide examples of the polyglot multicultural character of Los Angeles.

      The city has the most Druze living anywhere in the world outside Lebanon or Syria.[12]
      The world’s largest population of Saudi Arabian expatriates (est. 20,000) according to the Saudi Embassy of the USA.[13]


      Cherokee Indians, among other Native American tribes such as the Apache, Choctaw, Comanche, Hopi, Muscogee (Creek), Navajo, Nez Perce, Paiute, Shawnee and Zuni made Los Angeles probably have the largest Urban Indian population.


      A Middle East Cultural Center would be a welcome addition to Los Angeles.

  7. Walid
    Walid on April 13, 2014, 4:22 am

    “It’s called cultural diplomacy.”

    Fancy words for normalization. With numerous, to not say hundreds of Jewish social groups’ chapters in the LA area and with the very few Arab ones, is it really necessary to have an Arab center dedicated to “cultural diplomacy”? In which ways would this center favour other than Israel?

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