Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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I’m a man who could be accused of being a member Arlington’s WASP establishment. Hence I feel compelled to share a recent off-the-beaten-path experience.

On April 14, I spent a pleasurable evening in an Arab-American night club of Wilson Blvd., surrounded by hookah mist and waitresses in skimpy outfits, laughing along with a comedian, who is Palestinian.

For years I’ve written of Arlington’s Christian churches and Jewish communities, so it’s instructive that I should gain exposure to our Arab social scene.

A few years ago, at the end of Ramadan, I noticed a crowd packing the Tarbouch restaurant in Lyon Village. I was thinking how astonished my father, who spent the 1950s as an Arabist for the federal government, would be to behold such as sight in our suburb.

According to the Arab American Institute, the population of Arab Americans in Virginia is nearly 135,000. Though local Muslims may attend mosques in Falls Church or downtown, Arlington hosts the Bangladesh Islamic Center at 2116 S. Nelson Street, which offers prayer sessions and Koran classes.

Anyone keeping up with the news knows the tensions surrounding Muslim and Arab Americans. On April 9, I caught the end of a Muslim Town Hall meeting at Arlington Central Library, at which county and school board members, state legislators, the police chief and political party leaders heard Muslim groups discuss Islamophobia. (That was before news broke that Southwest Airlines had removed a passenger for speaking Arabic.)

And over in the Middle East, the crisis over land, security and violence between Israel and the Palestinians persists with few rays of hope.

Such was the context in which I sat down with friends to sample the gags of the two nontraditional performers. They held forth at the Darna  Restaurant and Lounge on North Jackson Street, at an event to benefit the nonprofit American Near East Refugee Aid. The entertainment was preceded by an appeal for customers to download a new Arab-American businesses app called ArabLink.

The warm-up act was a young South Asian named Shayhryar Rizvi, a cocky stand-up who works by day at the Census Bureau, which he gently mocked it for being low-tech and boring (he later told me his bosses don’t mind).

But the star attraction was Palestinian comedian Amer Zahr, a speaker, writer, and adjunct law professor who has headlined at Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, and guested on numerous TV shows. A Philadelphia native with a Christian father and a Muslim mother, he travels to Palestine to perform using such themes as “We’re Not White” at the “1001 Laughs Ramallah Comedy Festival.”

Zahr is a wiseacre with full command of American lifestyles who trumpets a political perspective not often associated with comedy. “I’m Palestinian and I’m angry, but in a funny way,” he said warmly. “They stole our land, so who cares if somebody’s iPhone screen cracked?”

Surveying the audience for nationalities and names, Zahr singled me out for my all-American name “Charles” and used me as a silent foil the rest of his act. But I found him witty and fresh and not too tough on his Israeli tormenters (he does an amusing if disturbing shtick on strip searches of Arab travelers at Tel Aviv airport). “Palestinians are not good at math but can subtract from 1948,” he said. “68 years of occupation can mess with your head.”

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Sudden departure department: My history friend, the ever-alert Tom Dickinson, last Friday happened on the managers of Latherow & Co., the stamp and coin shop at 5054 Lee Highway, going out of business. Some dispute with the landlord, a staffer said.

I went over on Saturday and found two cleaning ladies at work on the deserted shelves and counters, the hand-written sign on the door reading, “We are closed for good. Everything is gone.”

Several times over the past several years I had stopped in the old-fashioned hobby shop—one of the area’s few remaining–to donate items from my family’s half-hearted stamp collection. In Arlington that leaves only Philatelics Elite Inc., run by Chuck Hale in his basement at 222 N. Park St.