Longtime term offends some

The Baltimore Sun

The clatter of hooves and clink of bells down a city street. The soulful voices proclaiming local cantaloupes and watermelons.

For more than a century, Baltimore residents have associated these sounds with the street vendors they call "A-rabs," a long "A" followed by a short second syllable.

But the name grates on the ears of some people of Arabic descent.

"Arab-Americans like myself feel very strongly about this," said Bash Pharoan, the president of the local American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "When we hear it, we almost like feel like African-Americans that are faced with the N-word."

City records dating back to the 1800s refer to the produce merchants as "Arabs," according to Scott Kecken, who, along with his wife Joy, produced and directed the 2004 documentary We Are Arabbers.

The term "street Arab" was used to describe homeless children in the United States in the 1800s and eventually became applied to the vendors.

"Upon seeing [the word 'A-rab'], it may look offensive, but you have to look at it in context," Kecken said. "It really wasn't meant to be derogatory or an ethnic term."

Once whites and blacks worked side-by-side as Arabbers, but now the men with horses and carts are all black, Kecken said.

He said he believes the term "Arabbers" is as essential to the men's identity as their guttural calls, colorful nicknames and ponies.

"They don't say 'huckster.' They don't say 'fruit peddling.' They say 'Arabbing,'" he said. "If that's how they describe themselves, I'm not going to say to them, 'That's offensive to me, you need to change your name.'"

The English language is rife with ethnic misnomers, said William Taft Stuart, an anthropology professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Perhaps the best-known example results from Christopher Columbus' navigational error. When he arrived in the Americas, he thought he was in India and called the native people Indians, Stuart said.

The ethnic group known as the Romany people are often referred to as Gypsies. The term derives from "Egypt," where the group was mistakenly believed to originate. Actually, they are traceable to India, Stuart said.

In Central America, descendants of Palestinian Christian immigrants are called "los turcos," although they are not Turkish, Stuart said.

"Names can just be applied as a convenience, and then they take on a life of their own," he said. "The rule of thumb we anthropologists say is, let the people tell you what they want to be called."

Baltimore's Arabbers say they don't consider the term offensive.

Donald "Man Boy" Savoy, 74, said he has never thought twice about being called an "Arabber."

"To me, it's a part of African-American heritage," he said. "My father had horses, we kept them in the yard, it's what I've always known."

Some have hypothesized that the name A-rab comes from the vendors' exotic-looking carts or their garbled calls, which can sound like a foreign language, Kecken said, adding that the prevailing theory is that the term derives from the expression "street Arab."

A chapter from Jacob Riis' 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, includes a chapter titled "The Street Arab."

"The Street Arab has all the faults and all the virtues of the lawless life he leads. Vagabond that he is, acknowledging no authority and owing no allegiance to anybody or anything, with his grimy fist raised against society ... he is as bright and sharp as the weasel," Riis wrote.

Pharoan says that this pejorative history makes the use of the term "A-rab" more offensive.

"A street vendor, selling vegetables and fruits - and that's not necessarily a flattering portrayal of Arab-Americans," he said. "Arab-Americans are as diverse as any other community. We're doctors, lawyers, chemists, engineers and sometimes street vendors, too."

When Pharoan, a gastroenterologist, first moved to Baltimore in 1975, some people would pause when he said he was Arab-American.

"They would think for a moment and then say, 'Oh, you mean Aaaa-rab,'" he said, adding that some would associate him with the produce vendors.

Pharoan said that he would prefer use of the term "mobile grocer."

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, said that he was not bothered by the term "A-rab."

"Offhand, it doesn't strike me as offensive given the historical context and even the mispronunciation," said Hooper, who noted that he was not of Arab descent.

But Tony Kutayli, a spokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, said the term "A-rab" was "ridiculous."

"When the Arab-American community is trying to constantly defend itself from stereotypes, this kind of thing does not help the situation," he said.

Kutayli, who had not heard the term before being told of it by a reporter, said, "We just hope this is something that can be phased out over time."

Kecken, who spent seven years working in stables and walking with produce carts for his documentary, said that the name is central to the Arabber's identity.

"How can you tell a culture to change its name?" he said.


Sun reporters Liz F. Kay and Kelly Brewington contributed to this article.

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