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Home from Home: Shisha, Reading & Coffee at Zenobia Lounge

Posted on 16 September 2012 by Alice

Published in Brownbook.

Take a walk through the centre of Washington DC and you’ll be greeted with the sights and sounds of what you might expect from the American capital – the White House and the Congress building for example – but walk a little further and you will be sure to find wafts of sweetly-scented shisha and strong Arabic coffee.

For in the central political hub lies a little piece of the Middle East: the Zenobia Lounge, café and bookshop. The Lounge is part of the Arab Information and Resource Center (AIRC) established by Farah Atassi, from Syria, a decade ago. Its aim is to educate visitors about Middle Eastern culture, practices, society and its people in general. The bookshop – called The Arab Room – stocks publications in English from and about each and every Middle Eastern country, from Algeria to Yemen in their own alphabetised section. Information is provided within each section about the country’s population, geographic size and history.

Visitors can browse the shelves, order Middle Eastern snacks and drinks and perhaps take a break on the terrace for a puff on a shisha pipe.

The lounge was named after Zenobia – the strong-willed Queen of ancient Palmyra, Syria, in the third century. Atassi’s main aim with the

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centre was to ‘build cultural and intellectual bridges, mainly between the USA and the Arab and Muslim worlds,’ she tells us.

‘I wanted to create organisations that encourage dialogue between cultures, that invite people to know about each other, that focus on people-to-people communication whether it is through art or books and reading or through the media, or now, of course, social media,’ she says.

Atassi originally established the Arab American Communication and Translation Center (AACT), producing translations from English to Arabic and vice versa, plus compiling newsletters of Washington’s main news in Arabic for the growing Middle Eastern audience. It is this media monitoring and language business that supports her cultural endeavours, which are not affiliated or sponsored by any government entity. Money made from the AACT is put right back into the AIRC.

‘You invite them to read and they pay for it with a cup of coffee,’ Atassi explains of her business model, which she compares to that of Barnes & Noble bookshop.

The entrepreneur grew up between her hometown of Homs in Syria and Vienna, where she learned to speak German. Her surgeon-father was also an expatriate, living in Germany for 25 years where he gained a medical PhD.

Atassi moved to Washington to complete her own studies in International Relations and Politics at Georgetown University almost 14 years ago. She met her Lebanese husband in Washington while he was studying for his PhD in Engineering. They soon married and now have two children – Aya, nine and Hadi, 11.

Her time living in the Middle East, Europe and now the United States, has given Atassi an insight into both Western and her own Middle Eastern culture.

‘I take the best of the American and Western culture and I take the best of the Arabic culture. I don’t feel a conflict of identity or anything,’ she explains.

‘Since I understand the Middle Eastern culture and live in a Western culture, I am in a better place really to bring people together, build these bridges, focus on commonality and try to emphasise collaboration and partnership between people. That’s

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my job,’ she says.

Maintaining a work-home balance is difficult for the globetrotter, however, who visits the region between six and seven times a year.

‘It’s so hard for a woman to be a business entrepreneur working in a public issue,’ she elaborates. ‘It’s extremely difficult to maintain this balance. I always feel I’m torn and I wish there were 64 hours in a day, not only 24.’

Her

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family, however, are extremely supportive and her children accompany her when she travels. ‘Nobody can really succeed unless you have moral and spiritual support.’

The AIRC opens its doors for workshops, art exhibitions, Arabic-language lessons and other cultural events and is even home to tutorials held by professors teaching Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University.

It was also important for Atassi to export the Middle Eastern culture to the USA, which is why the bookshop stocks newspapers and books in English that are not available anywhere else in the country. The café is open late and while it has a liquor license it does not serve alcohol, in keeping with its Middle Eastern roots.

‘I had this idea that I wanted to export knowledge and information from the Middle East and bring it to the USA, rather than always importing knowledge and information,’ she says.

‘Why do we always want the West to understand us? They come to us, why don’t we come to them? Why don’t we present what we have? We have plenty of wonderful success stories,’ she continues.

Atassi frequently appears in public as part of her work to promote inter-faith dialogue and for her role as Ambassador for the Islamic Scientific and Cultural Organisation (ISCO) in the USA. Her role with this organisation is to ‘clarify’ misunderstandings about Islam, rather than ‘correct’, she says, explaining that to ‘correct’ an image implies that there is something wrong in the first place. She also previously worked in the media department of the UAE Embassy in Washington, where she became active in Arab-American cultural and community activities.

At the moment, the Washington AIRC is the only cultural centre Atassi has opened. ‘It’s small but it’s big by its influence,’ she says of how the centre has been received in the US. ‘It is very humble by size, but it has a huge and positive impact and influence.’ Expansion, however, is on her horizons and she hopes to open similar centres in other major US cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, perhaps establishing a franchise operation.

‘We are all humans after all, we speak and laugh in the same language. There are a lot of commonalities.’

Photography: Marco Scozzaro

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