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Monday, July 30, 2007

Feature on New Jersey/New York newspaper Aramica

Newspaper is voice for Arab-Americans
Monday, July 30, 2007

Copies of Aramica on display at the Arab-American festival in New York City.

There was a scarcity of Arab-American voices in the mainstream media before Sept. 11, 2001.

Following the attacks, they were all but silenced. That's when Antoine Faisal chose to speak out.

"Our community here wasn't being covered by anyone," Faisal said. "Mainstream media was lashing out at us, and no one was covering us, so that became my focus."

Faisal started a free biweekly, bilingual Arabic and English newspaper called Aramica –
a combination of the words Arab and America -- in early 2002.

"The challenge was how can you get the Arab-American community here to pick up an Arab-American newspaper after Sept. 11," Faisal said. "And in finding a common denominator that would make a Yemeni Muslim and a Maronite or Lebanese Christian pick up the same newspaper."

Faisal found those commonalities by offering readers a mix of hyper-local coverage of the Arab-American diaspora, as well as interviews with national newsmakers and public opinion surveys on perceptions of Arab-Americans among non-Arabs.

Aramica, which started with a print-run of 10,000 copies, has steadily grown to its present-day distribution of 30,000, according to Faisal. The paper is based in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, but is distributed throughout North Jersey, where it has several local advertisers such as Nouri Bros. of South Paterson. Each issue features news from Arab-American communities across the United States, a synopsis of world events and a lighter section of jokes, puzzles and horoscopes.

It often includes commentary from members of North Jersey's Arab-American community, such as a recent issue examining the topic of sex in the holy texts of different religions.

Sami Merhi, a Totowa businessman and leader of the Druze religious community -- an offshoot of Islam -- was one of those interviewed for the article.

Merhi said he supported Faisal's efforts to tackle issues that might be considered taboo in many of the countries from which Arab-Americans hail.

"The beauty of America comes in many colors," Merhi said. "One of which is we can say and talk our minds without the fear of retribution, that is the beauty of the freedom of speech."

Merhi said he liked the way Aramica's coverage reflected the diverse backgrounds of Arab-Americans in the United States.

"Any type of media that can bring the community, or people together, or be a bridge of truth in bringing a message -- I applaud," he said.

The publication is widely available in many shops along South Paterson's business corridor.

"I like it, I read different papers, but this has a lot of new stuff," said Khitam Arabiat, who works in a Middle Eastern gift store on Main Avenue. Arabiat said she still prefers to read it in Arabic, but knows American-born young people who pick it up for the English.

"A lot of customers take it," she said.

Faisal, now 34, emigrated from Beirut, Lebanon, in his early 20s. He parlayed a background in advertising into a marketing job in New York City, but was laid off when the economy suffered a post-Sept. 11 hit.

"I was an Arab in New York after Sept. 11. No one would hire me," Faisal said.

He decided to go into business for himself. Now, he dreams of one day expanding Aramica into a national paper, but one whose mission will remain the same: to offer a forum for the many diverse voices of Arab-Americans living in the United States.

"Many times, we have criticized our own community with the same intensity that we have defended it," Faisal said.

"We are not just flatterers, or covering events, we do have a say or an opinion, we do consider ourselves part of this community."

Reach Samantha Henry at 973-569-7172 or

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