Arabic T-shirt Project

Created: 08/24/10
Last Edited: 12/04/12
The Arabic T-shirt Project explores the political and linguistic ramifications of non Arabic speakers reacting to seeing written Arabic. While I was studying in Boston, I learned that an American citizen was prevented was prevented from boarding his ticketed flight at JFK because he was wearing a T-shirt with Arabic script on it. I was dismayed at and curious about the fear engendered by the mere sight of Arabic letters. In response, I began creating T-shirts with Arabic script that translates to “The words on this T-shirt are written in the Arabic language,” printed on the front without translation. Over the course of three years I distributed these T-shirts locally, nationally and internationally, first through personal contacts and then through requests on the project website. I collected feedback from participants about the reactions they experienced when wearing the T-shirt. My expectation was that participants would receive hostile responses from people who were frightened of the Arab world. Although there was some of that, the strongest reactions that participants reported and that I experienced personally were from native Arabic speakers, who were delighted and amused to see their language presented in a non-threatening manner and excited to have a chance to talk about the perception of Arabic in the U.S.

While traveling to Spain, I met the two native Arabic speakers working at a coffee shop in at the Boston Logan airport. They were very excited about my T-shirt so I told them about the project and gave them the web address. While I was drinking my coffee they and got online and printed out the homepage from the Arabic T-shirt project website to show me to make sure it was the same project.

This project grew as my skills set grew. It was my first attempt to work across in-person, print and digital channels to invite public interaction. I learned to silkscreen to create the T-shirts and how to write HTML and later how to use Wordpress to create the website. I regret that when I was working on this project I was not familiar enough with social media to incorporate it.
  • Arabic T Shirt Project
  • Participant wearing a project T-shirt  in the Istanbul Airport.

  • Arabic T-shirt Project postcard.

    Participants were encouraged to distribute and leave postcards in relevant locations. 
  • Project Website

    Comments from participants requesting a T-Shirt via the website:

    “I think this is a wonderful idea. I teach high school in NYC and advise a Middle East Club.”
    - Athan, New York

    “My son and I are interested in how your project is going. My daughter always received questions because she wears a hijab. Some people just couldn’t grasp that she was born here and was an American. My son is wondering if the t-shirt will produce similar results. If you are still looking for t-shirt wearers for your project he would like to volunteer and see what happens at school.”
    -Sheila, Kansas

    “My colleague forwarded me the info on your project and I think it is really interesting. I am a linguist and of course am drawn to issues of language and politics. This notion that seeing the Arabic script activates so many fears and stereotypes is intriguing.”
    -Gretchen, Florida

    “My company just hired our first Muslim employee and it’s great to have the diversity on the crew. There’s not much of that here in Park City...”
    -DeeAnn, Utah

  • Arabic T-shirt Project installed as part of a group show at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

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