- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Middle East is no place for optimists, many foreign policy experts say.

Well, conventional wisdom meet Farah Atassi, an Arab woman too hard-headed to give up on hope.

Her monumental goal is nothing less than promoting understanding among Middle Eastern Muslims, Christians and Jews and explaining the Arab world to Americans, even if that insight takes root in a small but swank cultural center and cafe she opened eight months ago in the heart of Georgetown.

“I’m very optimistic,” Mrs. Atassi said in a recent interview on the patio of her Arab Information and Resource Center, which includes the Zenobia Lounge cafe. “I think change will come. I can see it.”

Her customers also can see the change she envisions when they walk through the door of 1025 31st St. NW. In an exotic contrast to the normal Georgetown hangout, pulsating Arab music greets customers as they browse displays of Arab handicrafts such as elegant perfume bottles, paintings and hookahs.

One wall is crowded with framed photos of Mrs. Atassi with American politicians including Sen. Richard Lugar, Indiana Republican, military leaders such as Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of multinational forces in Iraq, Arab officials including Saudi Prince Faisal and even an Arab-American actor, Tony Shaloub, the obsessive-compulsive TV detective Monk.

Shelves are stuffed with books on Arab culture, history and politics and compact discs of Arab music and documentaries. Her library includes books on Christians, Jews and Muslims of the Arab world and information on doing business in the 22 nations of the Arab League. One bookshelf is topped with a row of small flags of the Arab League nations and an American flag at each end.

“This represents the heart and soul and mind of the Arab world. We are trying to be a mirror to show how Arabs think,” Mrs. Atassi said. “My dream is to have something big here.”

It was a dream that took a young Arab scholar and prize-winning author from Damascus, Syria, to Grand Rapids, Mich., and later to Georgetown University with a stop in Greece, where she met a professor who changed her life.

“I was raised in the Arab and Western cultures,” she said. “I took the best of both worlds.”

As a college student in Syria, Mrs. Atassi wrote a graduate thesis on the impact of Greek mythology on modern literature. She also discovered T.S. Eliot and remains fond of his “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Mrs. Atassi’s journey took her to Greece to study in an American program where her professor, Anthony Sullivan, noted that she had read a definitive study of Eliot by the noted American conservative thinker, Russell Kirk.

He recommended she pursue her studies at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in Grand Rapids, where she arrived in 1999, five years too late to meet Mr. Kirk, who died in 1994. However, she became close to his widow, Annette.

Mrs. Atassi, who comes from a long line of politically prominent Syrians, could have stayed in her homeland and tried her luck in government. Instead she came to America.

“I jumped on a plane. I left everything behind,” she said.

Mrs. Atassi was the first Middle East scholar at the Kirk Center, and she taught Mrs. Kirk about the Arab world while Mrs. Kirk taught her about Americans. She later met many conservative leaders and had a private lunch with Nancy Reagan at the historic Rancho Del Cielo in Santa Barbara, Calif.

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