“Listen to the Iraqis in NYC” is an audio and mapping project aimed to locate the presence of an Iraqi community in the five boroughs of NYC. I know there are Iraqis scattered in the five boroughs and have had the opportunity to hear the Iraqi Arabic dialect in different areas and locations of NYC. However, as an Iraqi in NYC, I do not know where there is an established Iraqi community in NYC, or if in fact there is one. This project is an attempt to find the Iraqis.
The people of Iraq are diverse both in race and ethnicity, so the best way to locate or “spot” an Iraqi is to listen for the Iraqi Arabic dialect spoken by most Iraqis. The intent of the project was to gather as many audio testaments from self-identifying Iraqis in Iraqi Arabic about how they meet other Iraqis in NYC and their experience as Iraqis in NYC as possible and pin the audio files to a map. The audio location would mark the participants location in a city of one of the five NYC boroughs. The interactive audio map would serve as a community map, a database, and a sound archive for both Iraqis and non-Iraqis to locate, and potentially interact with, an established Iraqi community or communities. However, grand plans, must begin small. As far as I know, the map description feature in both Google Maps and Story Map is not compatible with audio files. One can insert text and images only. However, Story Map Cascade allows audio files in the “Immersive” section, so there was hope. In lieu of the technological challenges, I decided to use Story Map Cascade and create a page for each participant, where I can still upload sound, as well as, feature an image relevant to the participants location in NYC or to them as an Iraqi. Not abandoning my mapping idea, I decided to add a map with pins that indicate places where the Iraqi Arabic dialect was or has been heard. Although, the map does not feature sound, there is some interaction and the sense of community, or lack thereof, is visible.
It was my first attempt at using Story Map Cascade, or Story Map in general, but I found the tool efficient. Several of the helpful feature include, Flicker, Unsplash, their very own ArcGIS content, multiple map views and features, the small note identifying which medium that can be uploaded, the ability to crop or not crop an image, thematically matched background colors for cropped images, text for people who need assistance, the “Health Checker”, and an automatically created credit page to remind the user– work is never done without finishing the credits. My favorite feature is possibly not having a new URL for any updated work. The URL stays the same while work is updated and synced instantly.
On the other hand, I wish Story Map Cascade (beside allowing audio in any and all components) would improve the text editing features. Font types and size are limited. For example, the caption text size for any medium is too small for most people to read and engage in. The caption can be easily missed and relevant information can go unnoticed.
My project was a test in patience and resourcefulness. I needed participants and could not begin incorporating sound in my project until I had participants. After waiting for one week for one person out of the many who saw or liked my request on Facebook and Twitter to send an audio file to the email I created for this project, I went to my Iraqi friends and began from the inside out. I was unhappy to solicit friends and friends of friends because the point of the project was to feature Iraqis I did not know. But, my friends were my saviors. They understood the significance of the project, because they too can not locate the Iraqi community in NYC and found a couple of people I did not know, as well. Finally breathing, I was struck by a common thread in most of the testaments. These Iraqis are happy to hear the Iraqi Arabic dialect like me, and they recognize the absence of a community of Iraqis in NYC. Moreover, they too, are trying to analyze the absence of an established Iraqi community.
Of the featured participants, a young lady who worked at the United Nation and found other Iraqis at cultural events hosted, either by the Iraq Mission to the United Nations, or through other cultural outlets, described the Iraqis as hidden. I found this profound. What are the Iraqis hiding from? Who are they hiding from? Why are they hiding? When will they stop hiding? Could this be from the political turmoil that has plagued Iraq for decades? I have not known Iraq without political turmoil, so I think of identity and politics.
Another featured participant was yearning to meet Iraqis in NYC and was lucky (or he thought so) when he heard the Iraqi Arabic dialect in the density of the Fourth of July fireworks at the East River. He says in his testament that it was a lesson that he will never forget and an act he will never attempt. He walked up to the conversing Iraqis and introduced himself as a fellow Iraqi and they all began to converse. However, they were cold and distant, and he felt more alone then before he had heard them. I don’t know their reasons, but this has happened to several people I know, when they attempt to make connections with other Iraqis and they are shut down. Back to questioning…why are the Iraqis afraid? Are they afraid of each other? Has fear from decades of political turmoil become instinctive? Are they afraid to themselves? Again, politics and identity are on my mind.
Or is the Iraqi identity ambivalent in NYC? The last participant in my project reminisced an Iraqi restaurant that features rare and authentic Iraqi cuisine where Iraqis used to flock to and celebrate special occasions at. Yet, the restaurant closed, and there is no Iraqi restaurant in NYC. The chef went back to Michigan where there is an established Iraqi community since the 1990’s. I researched the restaurant and found a New York Times article, published in 2008, featuring the restaurant as a hub for Iraqis outside Iraq. Food, generally brings people together, so do the Iraqis not want to collect? Why hasn’t anyone opened another restaurant? Is there an initiative to open an Iraqi restaurant? Is it the fear and politics that keeps the Iraqis away from each other, or is NYC’s economics and policies not suited for an established Iraqi community or communities? Or, is the political turmoil traveling the ocean and deteriorating our need or want to identify as Iraqis or identify with other Iraqis?
This project rose out of a comment someone made to me when I told them I am an Iraqi from Queens. They had visited Astoria (known to have a large Arab community) but did not find any Iraqis there. Shyly I confirmed the presence of Iraqis in Queens, but the comment was enough to make me want to understand the Iraqi identity and its apathy for an established, visible, and viable Iraqi community in NYC.
The most important feature of this project was the unexpected, yet profound, aspects of data collection and research. The testimonies, although few, sparked a deeper interest in digital humanities. A tool or project can have a simple, fun, and relevant intent for the researcher, but as the research and critique continue, the issues become universal: The project becomes about humanity.