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Published: Saturday, 3/25/2000

Ancient heritage is alive despite miles, years

BY BETSY HIEL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Men and women sit around picnic tables eating hummus, kabobs, and chicken skewers. A few men sit playing cards, while some women wearing headscarves smoke the narjilah, a glass water pipe, stuffed with apple-flavored tobacco.

The older children play basketball, and the younger ones attack the jungle gym with squeals of delight. The strains of the oud, an ancestor of the guitar, and other Middle Eastern instruments flow through the speakers. And a group of 20 gather in a circle and begin to dance the dabka, an Arab version of a line dance.

Welcome to the Sultan Club, a unique social gathering that reaches across two continents.

tx840 It exists as a result of a collective effort of the people of Sultan Yacoub village. The town of 2,500 is at the highest point in western Lebanon, near the Syrian border. Legend has it that the town was founded in the 1300s by a Moroccan sultan named Yaqoub, called a righteous man.

Today, 500 people from this mountain village live in northwest Ohio. "From nearly every single family there [in Sultan Yaqoub], you have someone who is here," says Hussien Boraby, a retired Edison investigator.

Unlike the first Arab immigrants who came to this region and worked hard to assimilate into American society, the Sultan Club, in suburban Springfield Township, is designed to keep the old country heritage alive.

The people from this Lebanese town began to immigrate to this area in the early decades of the 20th century. The Boraby, Smidi, Barakat, Abdoney and Shaheen families, to mention a few, came here in search of a better life. Many settled in the north-end enclave called Little Syria; others went to the east side.

Beginning with 40 families in 1982, the Sultan Club has grown to 120. The current president of the club is 29-year-old Ibrahim Barakat, a recent immigrant working for the Dana Corporation. He says the club is important for the children who are growing up in America.

"They learn the customs and the Arabic language," he says. The activities at the Sultan Club enable the villagers to communicate and connect with each other and reduce the distance that spreads everyone out here. "So many people come here and get the news of the old country."

The Sultan Club, as do other like-minded Arab cultural organizations in places such as Dearborn, Mich., holds gatherings at least once a month. The $150 annual dues per family are used to fund the meetings, to help someone in the community should a problem arise, and assist new immigrants. The club keeps close ties with Sultan Yacoub, sending money back home.

The club once raised $35,000 for a new sewer system in the mountain village and sent money for redevelopment during and after the Lebanese civil war. "If there is a problem, we get together in the club and take care of it," says Mr. Boraby. Self-help, Sultan style.



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