Raneen El-Barbarawi brought a piece of Palestine to the Proviso East High School prom on April 27, dressing that night in a traditional dress designed to show off her heritage.
“I’m the only one really out there for my Arabian culture at school, and I want to embrace and show them how beautiful it is,” said El-Barbarawi, a senior, adding that aside from her five sisters, the 18-year-old is the only Palestinian student at Proviso East.
“Everyone was surprised, overwhelmed with how beautiful it was because it’s different,” she said.
For prom, El-Barbarawi wore a traditional thobe, an ankle-length gown commonly worn in the Arabian Peninsula that’s materials, dyes and patterns are emblematic of Palestinian history and daily life.
El-Barbarawi’s thobe was made of two different fabrics — both light pink, her favorite color — with embellishments of flowers indicative of Palestinian design and calligraphy, and glitter and beads to signify the flashy Arabian fashion aesthetic. She then trimmed the tail of the gown in pink fur, added rhinestones to the top and sheer sleeves.
She already had a gold necklace inscribed with her Arabic name — which translates to “loud and beautiful sound” in English — and she borrowed gold bracelets and a ring from her mom. To complete the ensemble she draped a handmade gold headpiece across the bridge of her nose and got henna on her hands.
El-Barbarawi then went to straightening her hair, which took about an hour and a half, and travelled to a professional’s house to get her makeup done. The thobe designer then came over and helped her put on the heavy outfit. All in all, it took about five hours for El-Barbarawi to get ready. She attended prom with her best friend of 14 years, Yamilet Flores, who wore a matching light pink dress.
“I’m usually a really unique person [and] I’m usually the outcast, so I just wanted to find a dress that screams me and yells me,” El-Barbarawi said. “I’m a really extra and dramatic person. I just incorporated all those Arabic ideas and themes and that’s what inspired me.”
A Melrose Park resident, El-Barbarawi was born during a trip her mom, Samireh, made for a wedding to Halhul, Palestine, when she was eight months pregnant. The two stayed in Palestine for a short time, but eventually returned to America where El-Barabarawi was raised.
Growing up, El-Barbarawi visited Palestine a few times, most memorably during her summer vacation when she was 9 years old, meeting many of her extended family for the first time. The trip left her covered in mosquito bites, but astounded by the energetic pace of life.
“It’s a beautiful, embracing culture,” she said. “Parties are a big thing in Arabian culture, especially marriage and stuff. We would stay out until five in the morning and the weather would always be beautiful at night.”
Samireh, her mom, always made sure El-Barbarawi and her sisters remembered their heritage too, teaching them the Arabic language and telling them stories of her childhood in Palestine. The family also connected with other Middle Eastern families in the Forest Park area. Now, El-Barbarawi said she attends parties of those friends almost every weekend.
“They’re all Arabic parties where everybody has good vibes; it’s never negative energy. You’re always happy and having fun, it’s something that brings us all together,” she said.
It was at these parties — and family weddings — that El-Barbarawi got ideas for her dress. She reached out to Chicago designer Donyell Wynn in February and the two spent months researching ideas on how to meld Arabic culture and personal preference. Her older sister, Dalal, helped her cover the $1,100 cost of the dress.
El-Barbarawi hopes to visit Palestine again after graduating from high school this summer. She said she’s on track to become valedictorian — following the family tradition of Dalal, who was valedictorian at Proviso East in 2016 — and is waiting to hear back from the University of Chicago after being put on the college’s waiting list. She’s also secured a spot at Roosevelt University, where Dalal attends school. No matter what, El-Barbarawi plans to major in international relations and journalism.
And she also plans on attending Proviso East’s prom next year, this time with her younger sister’s group.
“I’m definitely going to wear something different,” she said. “I don’t want to overdo their prom, because it’s going to be my sister’s prom. At the end of the day, I want her to shine out.”