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Principal at New NYC Arabic-Language School Forced to Resign

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The principal of New York City’s first public school dedicated to the study of Arabic language and culture resigned under pressure after she was quoted explaining that the word “intifada” literally means “shaking off” in Arabic. Debbie Almontaser’s remarks were in response to a question over the phrase “Intifada NYC,” that was printed on T-shirts sold by AWAAM, a Brooklyn-based girl’s empowerment organization. The shirts have no relation to her school. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Khalil Gibran International Academy will be New York City’s first public school dedicated to the study of the Arabic language and Arab culture. It’s due to open this fall, but ever since plans for the school were announced early this year, it’s been the object of a well-orchestrated attack from local right-wing media and neoconservatives like Daniel Pipes. The New York Sun has been relentlessly hostile, calling the school a place that could “groom future radicals.”

In the latest setback, the principal of the school, Debbie Almontaser, resigned last week under pressure after she was lambasted by the media for publicly explaining that the word “intifada” literally means “shaking off” in Arabic. Her remarks, made last weekend, were in response to questions from The New York Post over the phrase “Intifada NYC,” which was printed on T-shirts sold by Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media, or AWAAM, a Brooklyn-based girl’s empowerment organization. The shirts have no relation to Almontaser’s school. She was widely criticized for not denouncing the use of the word and condemning its use on the T-shirt. On Wednesday, a headline in the New York Post called her the “Intifada Principal.” This weekend, an editorial in the paper had the headline, “What’s Arabic for 'Shut It Down'?”

In a statement on Friday, Debbie Almontaser said she was stepping down as principal of the school. She wrote, “I became convinced yesterday that this week’s headlines were endangering the viability of Khalil Gibran International Academy, even though I apologized.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he continued to support the school, but welcomed her departure. On his weekly radio program this weekend, Bloomberg said of Almontaser, “She’s very smart. She’s certainly not a terrorist. She really does care.”

Almontaser had a major hand in designing the Khalil Gibran school. As described by its planners, it will offer a standard college preparatory curriculum, with instruction in Arabic each day and a focus on international studies.

We’re joined right now by two people. Paula Hajar is a veteran educator and activist in Arab-American communities. She joins us now in our firehouse studio here in New York. We’re also joined by Mona Eldahry, the founding director of AWAAM. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

PAULA HAJAR: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s first start by talking about why the principal was forced to step down — why don’t we begin with you, Paula Hajar — and the origins of this school, the significance of the Khalil Gibran school?

PAULA HAJAR: Well, having an Arabic — a public Arabic-language school or a school that at least teaches Arabic and teaches within its social studies program the contributions of the Arab world, the relationship between the Arab world and the West, in terms of cultural and other scientific contributions, it’s been just the logical next step. I mean, post-9/11, people have been very curious about — more curious than ever about the Arab world and actually more curious about Arab Americans. So it seemed like the moment was at hand where we could — Debbie took the reins — could produce, bring about a school that would both serve the Arab-American community, serve the New York City community, in terms of the language, but also in terms of opening up what it — what the Arabic culture was all about.

I find in my own work, my own life, that people are very, very ignorant about Arabic culture. They have mainly negative impressions. Their initial fallback position is always negativity. And that’s really saddening for someone of Arab heritage who knows the — you know, the beauty of the heritage and feels bad for people who are kind of sunk in negativity about it. I think the fact that the museum of — the Metropolitan Museum is holding a fabulous exhibit of the Arab world and Venice right now, even as we speak, shows just how much is sort of like under the radar for most people, that they don’t know that the Arab world has had enormous impact on Western civilization.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain who Khalil Gibran, who the school is named for, is.

PAULA HAJAR: Khalil Gibran was one of the first immigrants from what we called in those days “Greater Syria.” He’s from the mountains of Lebanon. He was one of the early immigrants, came in 19— sorry, 1895 at the age of 12, immigrated with his mother and sisters to Boston and showed early promise as a poet and an artist. And I think it was in 1915, or those years, he moved to New York, so he spent part of every year in New York. He had a studio on West 10th Street and became quite a central figure, both in the Arab-American literary community and in the American arts. He was very fond of Walt Whitman and his group, which was called in English the Pen League, formed a writing group where they produced a lot of good literature, both in Arabic and English. And they pretty much revolutionized Arabic poetry, which is a very important art form in the Arab world.

And I was just noticing — I mean, they were very much integrated. They loved their new country, and they were very much integrated in the new country, and they felt very much that people should be proud of where they came from, but they should also contribute to the new land.

And the other —- a few weeks ago, I was up at the City College. I saw Finian’s Rainbow, and that was written by one of the people in that group: Fred Saidy was one of the original members of the Pen League. But 20 years later, he wrote that musical. So it’s very interesting that they chose that name for their school, because -—

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, Khalil Gibran, famous for The Prophet.

PAULA HAJAR: Famous for The Prophet, and The Prophet, that little book, was in the backpacks of soldiers in, I think, it was World War II. That book was published in 1923, I think, by Alfred Knopf, which was just a fledgling publishing house, and it made that publishing house, and it had incredible success, generation after generation. And that little book was sent off with soldiers, American soldiers, in World War II. So, you know, people don’t know how integrated some of the Arabic culture already is in this city and in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Mona, would you explain the controversy? Mona Eldahry is the co-founder of AWAAM, Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media. The school about to open, the founding principal about to take the reins, and then this T-shirt explodes into a controversy. Explain it.

MONA ELDAHRY: Right. Well, the press saw the T-shirt displayed at an Arab heritage festival in Brooklyn. And —

AMY GOODMAN: You have a copy of this — do you have a T-shirt here?

MONA ELDAHRY: I do. I do have a copy of it. This is the T-shirt.

AMY GOODMAN: And you can explain it for our radio viewers. It says —- it’s a tan T-shirt with pink letters -—


AMY GOODMAN: — that says, “Intifada NYC.”

MONA ELDAHRY: Right. “Intifada NYC.”


MONA ELDAHRY: And ”” So, the controversy occurred when pictures of this T-shirt got to the press, of course, you know, in the middle of this war against the school. You know, so the Post and Fox, especially, started then using the T-shirts in their coverage of the school, and they were against the school, to say that the principal of the school supports the T-shirts.

Now, “Intifada NYC” is not a call for terrorism, as they say. It’s not a call for violence or, if I could quote one of the publications, “Gaza Strip uprising in the Big Apple.” “Intifada NYC” is a term that, you know, we developed maybe two, three years ago in the years since September 11th. Basically, for myself — everybody interprets it differently — but for myself, I feel, as an Arab woman, as a Muslim woman and as a woman of color, pressure from two sides. You know, on the one hand, especially after September 11th, there was the discrimination that we faced, you know, the hate crimes. And if you talked to any of our young women, they experienced hate, you know. They experienced hate in the streets. And then, on the other hand is, we go home to our families, you know, and we are advised, especially in the years after September 11, don’t say anything about, you know, where you’re from, don’t speak your language in front of people, and certainly don’t get involved in political discussions.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, what does AWAAM have to do with the school?

MONA ELDAHRY: OK, AWAAM is not related to the school. And it’s unfortunate that the school has been related to us. AWAAM uses the — basically we’re a small nonprofit organization. We don’t have our own space or a staff. So the Yemeni association, the Association of Yemeni Americans, donates space to us, and the principal of the school serves on the board of the Yemeni association.

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s how the two were connected?


AMY GOODMAN: You talked about this as only the latest war or battle for the school. What is the history of this in the founding of the school? What other troubles has there been, even before the doors open in the next week?

MONA ELDAHRY: Well, the school was slated to open in a different location and was forced, you know, to move. And this is something that’s happened, you know, ever since Little Rock, you know, people protesting young children of color coming into their communities. And it’s happening today. You know, today in California, in LA, there’s a school, and also in Oakland, you know, people don’t want social justice schools to open, schools that serve communities of color. Even Hetrick Martin Institute in Manhattan, a school for LGBT youth, you know, was heavily, heavily protested by community members, by the press. You know, the press actually — in our case, the press created this war.

AMY GOODMAN: What does “intifada” mean for you in that T-shirt, “Intifada NYC”?

MONA ELDAHRY: OK. Well, as I mentioned before, I, as an Arab woman, for example, feel pressure from two sides: on one hand, from the community discrimination — from the outside, I mean, you know, discrimination on the streets — and then from our own communities, you know, we’re told, you know, “Be careful. You know, don’t — you know, don’t go to demonstrations. Don’t be too outspoken, you know,” you know, especially when we were young.

September 11th happened. I was about maybe 22, you know? And my parents were telling me this. Now, imagine if I was 15, 16, you know, and you’re experiencing hate on the streets and in the school, and then you go home and you’re told not to speak about it, not to act about it. That’s actually a big detriment to adolescent development. And that’s why AWAAM is around, because, you know, young women need a place to productively, you know, discuss these things and take action on what they’re experiencing, by producing media pieces, by speaking out and by educating themselves about the issues.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, “intifada” means…?

MONA ELDAHRY: “Intifada” means “shaking off,” you know, so shake off these pressures that we’re feeling, both from the other side and from our side. You know, we have to speak out. And if we don’t speak up for ourselves, who will?

AMY GOODMAN: As a scholar of Arab culture, Paula Hajar, what do you think of this becoming the kind of flashpoint for the principal, and the significance of who Debbie Almontaser is?

PAULA HAJAR: Well, I think it was an excuse. They were obviously looking for something. It’s tragic that they attack the language the way they do. I mean, Mona has talked about the word “intifada.” You know, the word for a school is “madrasah,” and they use it as an epithet, you know, that this was going to be a madrasah, meaning a training ground for jihadists or for, you know, warriors. So it’s kind of tragic for all of us to see our culture peeled away this way and trashed, really.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the school will open? Will it get a new principal?

PAULA HAJAR: I have great hope that it will — that it will open. I also have great hope that Debbie — that she will be able to maintain her involvement, and I think she should.

AMY GOODMAN: Her significance in the community?

PAULA HAJAR: She has been one of the most patient, gracious — I don’t know what the word is for people who extend the hand, bridge builders. She has done it for years. She has met with everyone. She has not gotten fed up or tired of it, tired of being misunderstood. She has just been indefatigable. So somebody like that and who is — anybody who has met her knows she’s the most gracious, gentle person. She is the — I find her a fabulous resource, both for the American community and for the Arab community.

AMY GOODMAN: In The New York Times on Saturday, the piece said the school’s first proposed location was in the building that houses Public School 282, an elementary school in Park Slope, Brooklyn, but parents there mounted vigorous opposition, saying there was insufficient room for the two schools. They prevailed, and the school was reassigned to another site. This time, Khalil Gibran would share with two schools: Math and Science Exploratory School, a middle school, and Brooklyn High School of the Arts. But parents were just as antagonistic for sharing space with Khalil Gibran, protesting at a contentious public hearing. The Education Department insisted the school would open as planned, though. So where will it be?

PAULA HAJAR: It will be in that second place, that I think that Mr. Klein and Mayor Bloomberg —

AMY GOODMAN: Joel Klein, the chancellor of schools.

PAULA HAJAR: — have not backed down on the idea of the school, on the existence of the school. I think they are committed. I think that our community needs to — and other interested parties needs to remind them of their commitment, but I think — at least that was my understanding from talking with Debbie’s family, that they are committed to opening this school.

AMY GOODMAN: And the forces opposed, how would you characterize them? Who are they?

PAULA HAJAR: People who are afraid. People who are afraid and ignorant, and that’s exactly why we need the school.

MONA ELDAHRY: The forces opposed are actually, you know, organized, organized people, who should be, you know — who should be brought to, you know — we should address this. There’s a Stop the Madrassa Coalition, and if you go to their website, you can see all of the organizations who are involved. There’s Pamela Hall, who’s the head of that. And there’s Daniel Pipes, who is a blogger, website owner, you know. And they have really whipped up this hysteria. And the thing is that the press, the Post and Fox, have actually helped them do it. The press is — if it wasn’t for the press, Randi Weingarten would not have condemned Debbie, and if it wasn’t for that, Debbie probably would not have resigned.

AMY GOODMAN: And let me explain, Randi Weingarten is the president of the United Federation of Teachers. She previously had defended the school and, according to the Times, called the word “intifada” something that ought to be denounced, not explained away. Your comment on that, Paula Hajar?

PAULA HAJAR: You know, the language is a large language. Obviously words can be used any and in many different ways. And “jihad,” for example, “jihad” has an explanation. “Jihad” is a struggle. It’s more relevant to the inner struggle. It’s like your 12-step program or Al-Anon or Alcoholics Anonymous or Weight Watchers. It’s what you do to get clear, to kind of clean up your own business. That’s what a jihad really is. But people use it always as a holy war. And this “intifada” — I mean, Mona gave a beautiful explanation, and that was what Debbie was referring to. And people cannot just have these knee-jerk reactions. They have no context. They’re not allowing for context either.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. We have to wrap up. Last comment, Mona.

MONA ELDAHRY: I think there’s a culture of fear around the Arabic language. You know, the term “madrasah” has been used against us. You know, all of these things. But, you know, you could go to our website and tell us what you think about, you know, the “I word.” Take the “I word” survey. What do you think about “Intifada NYC”? Send us your blogs, and we will post them. And stay tuned for our press conference Wednesday, to be announced.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is your website?


AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us: Mona Eldahry, co-founder of AWAAM, Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media, and Paula Hajar, longtime educator and activist, has written extensively about Arab and Arab-American communities in the United States. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, another T-shirt story. It’s the story of Raed Jarrar. His T-shirt said “We will not be silent,” and JetBlue said he could not go on the flight he was planning to take if he wore that T-shirt.

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