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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


MENA students celebrate second consecutive Heritage Month

‘MENA in the Modern World’ theme acknowledges, affirms rich, vast cultural impact
Photo courtesy of Althea Dotzour

The second consecutive Middle East North Africa Heritage Month has begun. Themed “MENA in the Modern World,” the month celebrates and unites the different countries, cultures and heritages in the MENA region and UW campus community.

Assistant director of the Multicultural Student Center Noreen Siddiqui said there was a grand effort to make space for all the diverse MENA identities in planning the month.

The kickoff event, “Night at the Bazaar” particularly showcased the diversity in the region. Over 300 people gathered at the MSC March 1, where students ran booths from MENA countries and regions. Each booth offered food from their respective country or region including Kurdish kibbeh, Moroccan sweets like chebakia, Turkish dürüm, Palestinian manakeesh and more. Attendees also participated in cultural activities like Arabic calligraphy, henna, glass mosaics and tatreez.


This year’s theme empowers MENA students to reclaim authorship of the MENA narrative, especially in the West, according to MENA Cultural Programming Intern Dana Tabaza.

“We wanted to highlight the fact we are not a static people,” Tabaza said. “We are people that have evolved and changed. We’ve had revolutions. We’ve had uprisings. We’ve had all these great things that have shaped our history just as much as every other place in the world has.”

The theme affirms the MENA region is dynamic, contemporary and diverse, but also appreciates its rich cultural history.

“Our history has often been the victim of foreign authorship,” the description of the theme said. “MENA Heritage Month is a blank page for us to reclaim our stories, liberating ourselves from stereotypes and challenging perspectives that have often overshadowed the depth and complexity of our identities. In this, we honor the resilience embedded in our cultural tapestry.”

Today, acknowledging MENA in the Modern World also includes addressing the war in Gaza. Over 30, 640 Palestinians have been killed in the five months of war in Gaza — surpassing any Arab loss in wars with Israel in the past 40 years, according to the New York Times. The MENA Collective, the group that organized the month and has several Palestinian members, was acutely aware of the war as they planned the events.

“The collective itself has several members who are Palestinian, so it has been obviously on the forefront of our community’s minds,” Siddiqui said. “We really tried to strike a balance of recognizing the horrors that are happening right now, but also looking for ways to still have this month be something that can be joyous.”

Tabaza, who is Palestinian-Jordanian, said she sees the month as a way to move away from negative perceptions of MENA people in the media.

“I want this to be a safe space where people can step away from how we are perceived, to remember the beauty in our cultures, to connect with people and to see the positive side of our culture again,” Tabaza said. “Because all we’ve been seeing is just so much darkness.” 

A senior at UW, Tabaza spearheaded efforts on campus to revive MENA Heritage Month last year. She created the MENA Collective, a group of students and staff dedicated to planning events for Heritage Month.

While other heritage months on campus are organized by heritage month planning committees, MENA Heritage Month is organized by a Collective. Tabaza said the group still functions the same as the committee, but she opted to use the term “Collective” for MENA Heritage Month planning because it was more representative of MENA cultures. 

“Our cultures are very collectivist cultures,” Tabaza said. “That’s the main difference our cultures have versus western cultures, where it’s a more individualistic society.”  

The Collective has representation from a few independent students and seven student organizations — the Turkish Student Association, the Persian Student Society, the Muslim-interest sorority Alpha Lambda Rho, the Arab Student Association, Students for Justice in Palestine, the North African Student Association and the Somali Student Association. There are currently 17 students in the Collective.

This year, different pockets of campus outside the Collective have planned events for MENA Heritage Month — something Tabaza has encouraged since last year. For example, the Disability Cultural Center is partnering with the Writing Center March 15 to host an activism writing workshop for MENA Heritage Month. Siddiqui said this widespread interest is encouraging.

“That wasn’t happening last year,” Siddiqui said. “It’s really showing the university and the campus community are recognizing this population and this community, and wanting to uplift and celebrate it.”

The MSC, which falls within Student Affairs, dedicated funding for the month of events and provided the Collective with additional staff support for the planning, vision and implementation of MENA Heritage Month.

This year, MENA Heritage Month significantly overlaps with Ramadan — the Islamic holy month of fasting from dawn until dusk. Ramadan 2024 begins March 10 and ends April 9 with Eid al-Fitr.

Many, though not all MENA students, identify as Muslim, and the Collective has intentionally programmed events to support those who observe Ramadan. MSC is collaborating with the North African Student Association to host an Iftar March 12, and other student organizations are supporting Iftars throughout the month. Iftar is the evening meal during Ramadan with which the fast is broken. 

This year’s keynote speaker is Aminah Musa, CDO and co-founder of PaliRoots — a clothing brand grounded in Aminah’s Palestinian identity and created to spotlight Palestinian culture through unique clothing concepts.

PaliRoots incorporates traditional Palestinian fashion like tatreez — Palestinian embroidery — and Kuffiyehs — headscarves worn in solidarity with the Palestinian cause patterned with olive leaves, the historical trade routes and waves of the Mediterranean Sea  — into modern styles. Through meal programs and charity projects, PaliRoots supports communities in the Palestinian territories, currently focusing a majority of their efforts on aid to Gaza.

Tabaza said she is excited to bring a young, female leader to campus.

“It’s going to be something that’s inspiring to people our age to see someone who’s done something to carry on their culture here,” Tabaza said. “It’s a big name for Arabs in the U.S., so people are going to be very excited.”

Musa will give a talk in the form of a moderated Q&A March 18 at 8:30 pm in the Play Circle Theater.

In addition to the keynote event and Night at the Bazaar, the MENA Collective has organized five other events — Engineering Lunch March 5, Relief for Refugees March 7, NAS x MENAHM Iftar March 12, Craft Cafe March 13 and Thousand & One Nights March 21. All Heritage Month, including those not organized by the MSC, and can be found on the UW Events Calendar. All Heritage Month events are free.

Siddiqui said she is especially impressed by the Relief for Refugees event. Together with the North African Student Association, who fundraised well over $1,000, the Collective organized an event for students and volunteers to put together care packages for MENA refugees in the Madison area.

No other Heritage Month has touched on the topic of refugees as the focus of an event, Siddiqui said.

“But [the Collective] wanted to do something that was charity driven,” Siddiqui said. “It is a way that students can feel like they’re helping and doing something good. It’s really empowering for students.”

The month will conclude March 21 with Thousand & One Nights, a late-night celebration with game tournaments and food in the MSC. To respect the Ramadan fasting schedule, the event will be held after the last prayer — around 10 p.m. — and run until 1 a.m.

Siddiqui said MENA Heritage Month is about striking a delicate balance.

“We must acknowledge the really difficult, challenging and emotionally draining experience that our students are going through, but also finding that time and place for them to have joy,” Siddiqui said. “Because if we are not taking that time to pause for joy, that is that can be really harmful too.”

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