Festivals on UT’s campus are an opportunity to bring cultures that seem far away into our own community.
That is what makes Knoxville’s annual Arab Fest so special. This year, UT is again partnering with the Arab American Club of Knoxville to host “Once Upon a Time in Arabia,” featuring traditional Arabic dance performances, live music, a fashion show, foods, and crafts.
The free event takes place on Johnson-Ward Pedestrian Walkway from noon to 9 p.m. on Friday, September 20 and Saturday, September 21.
“Attendees have an opportunity to come learn about another culture and realize it’s not as different or as far away as they may have thought,” said Sierra Teta, of Pittsboro, North Carolina, a senior double majoring in religious studies and global studies.
This summer, Teta experienced this realization firsthand when she traveled with Erin Darby, professor of religious studies and festival co-coordinator, to southern Jordan, where Darby co-directs the ‘Ayn Gharandal Archaeological Project with her husband, Robert Darby of the School of Art. For years, the Darbys have worked with students to survey and excavate the remains of a Roman military outpost.
Teta will present her research at the festival and speak with students who may be interested in studying in the Middle East.
Susan Dakak, a board member and former president of the Arab American Club of Knoxville, has worked with Darby to organize the annual festival since 2013.
“There aren’t enough words to describe the benefits we get from being able to partner with UT for this event,” said Dakak, a Knoxville business owner who emigrated from Iraq in 1978. “We have non-Arab students on campus reaching out to host tables. We get to see the smiles of the students who pass by on their way to classes. It’s an uplifting story of our communities coming together.”
In its first year, the festival had approximately 100 attendees. Last year, 3,000 community members attended.
“The festival introduces students and community members to the food, music, dance, clothes and handicrafts of our local Arab American community,” Darby said. “It is a great opportunity to demonstrate the rich diversity in Knoxville.”
One realization that Darby and the other festival organizers hope attendees come away with is that Arab culture isn’t all that different from the culture of many East Tennesseans.
“Arab neighbors invite you into their parlors just like we do,” Darby said. “Only instead of sweet tea, they serve you baklava.”
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