Tracing Roots of (DIS)PLACEment in Philadelphia

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A commonly seen sign on the front porches of homes in West Philadelphia

The term “melting pot” has itself melted into a vaguely generic notion of people arriving from different places to a location where they all coexist, when the reality is that the term is misleading because, oftentimes, there is an institutional and societal hierarchy still embedded within. Hearing the term applied to the entirety of the United States, unfortunately, still raises eyebrows and doubts to this day. It is no secret that privilege and prejudice remain widespread across the nation and the globe, but it is comforting to know that their existence does not erase the sincere goodness many people have for their fellow human beings. Nonetheless, individuals from different ethnicities, races, faiths and other identities come together and celebrate what they have in common in addition to their unique traits. In settings such as the first (DIS)PLACED Public Forum that took place on March 25, it is evident just how prominent the themes of diversity and displacement are within our community.

The politics of a community greatly influence its inhabitants’ capacity to welcome diversity and inclusivity. Perhaps that is why Philadelphia, a sanctuary city, has a proliferation of neighborhoods with front porches adorned with signs that serve as a reminder of the community’s innate sense of camaraderie.

The Philadelphia community itself encompasses people of diverse backgrounds, which innately strategized the discussions held at the (DIS)PLACED Public Forum. The event began with a simple yet thoughtful activity: Asking attendees to place a yellow sticker on a giant, walkable map of Philadelphia in the Philadelphia History Museum to pinpoint an area where they trace back their arrival to Philadelphia, or their first significant memory there. In no time, the map was marked with yellow dots across different locations in the region that signified pivotal and meaningful locations to many different individuals. What was a mere memory or fact of a person’s arrival to Philadelphia soon became a conversation-starter for the attendees, who genuinely expressed interest in one another’s background regardless of outwardly differences or even mundane similarities to some.

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Huda Fakhreddine and Nazem El Sayed mark meaningful locations to them on a map of Philadelphia

In addition to sharing their own personal stories, attendees participated in thought-provoking dialogues when they were asked to be divided into groups to learn about certain displaced persons whom Al-Bustan has been keeping in touch with for a period of time. Upon learning about these individuals, participants shared personal insight on themes such as what struck them the most about these stories, what issues rise with this new information, and if these real-life stories confirmed or challenged any notions they already held about displacement. Themes such as privilege were critically discussed by participants. After concluding this activity, artists Kinan Abou-afach and Hafez Kotain performed traditional Arabic pieces that blended beautifully into the atmosphere of the event and its theme. They were followed by Nazem El Sayed, who recited powerful Arabic poetry directly related to displacement as Huda Fakhreddine meticulously translated the verses into English.

The final activity involved critical discussions on identity transition, home and belonging. Participants engaged in analytical dialogue, and were soon carrying the formal event discourse into casual conversations as lunch, beverages and dessert were served by local favorite Manakeesh Cafe Bakery and the popular Halal Guys. The genuine interest participants had in each other’s stories had expanded by the end of the event, and manifested itself in the connections and friendships that were forged that day.

 

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One of many signs hung by local businesses and organizations across Philadelphia

Philadelphia is undoubtedly a city where diversity is proudly embraced by its inhabitants, but that does not mean it has reached a utopian status in achieving total and unquestionable egalitarianism yet. Recent political and social events have played a role in bringing people together, forming allyships and facilitating people to look after one another, but issues such as macro- and microagressions have a long way to go before citizens begin a significantly cognizant mission of unlearning these systematic methods of discrimination.

 

Being an ally is a conscientious and methodological task, but it is not by any means too challenging to achieve. In order to become an efficient ally and community member, one must remember that it is a constant state of learning (and unlearning) how to be supportive to those around you. One must also never underestimate their capability to impact positive change within their own community. The (DIS)PLACED Public Forum has met expectations by being a space for critical and eye-opening discussion, and Al-Bustan looks forward to holding more (DIS)PLACED events of the same caliber this year.

Positioning Arab American Identities Within the Nonprofit Sector

This fall season has and continues to offer me valuable experiences. Joining Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture as a NNAAC Transformative Leaders Fellow in early September and learning how matters operate behind-the-scenes of community events and educational sessions that Al-Bustan hosts has truly amplified my appreciation for the nonprofit sector.

An important part of the Transformative Leaders Fellowship involved a recent orientation in Dearborn, Michigan. The orientation was an incredible opportunity to network with inspiring mentors including Mike Corbin, Amer Zahr, Rachid Elabid and Asha Noor – to name a few. Meeting other NNAAC fellows across the States was also a unique opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals, as well as enhance my and their knowledge as to how we can become effective members in our respective organizations and the nonprofit sector as a whole.

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Front entrance design of the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

As we learned new skills to help us navigate through our present and future goals, we were frequently reminded of how important the voices of Arab Americans, along with the voices of other people of color, not to mention Millennials, with an emphasis of how much stronger our social responsibilities are than our predecessor’s given the current state of Arab American issues. We were encouraged to think critically about the roles we play in our communities as individualistic Arab Americans, and how we can bridge socio-political gaps between ourselves and other identity groups around us. In addition to challenging ourselves and thinking outside of the box, we learned more about grant writing and devising work plans that will be of use not only in our respective organizations, but also for accomplishing personal future goals.

Within the span of our two-day orientation, we held meetings at the Arab American National Museum and ACCESS, both locations which are apt environments for the themes we were discussing and learning about. We also had some time to explore Dearborn quite a bit, which truly felt akin to familiar cities I have been to when I lived in the Arabian Gulf region. The proliferation of Arab restaurants, halal options and shisha lounges did make Dearborn stand out to me next to other cities I have been to in the States.

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NNAAC Transformative Leaders Fellows 2016-2017

Having gained a new set of skills and an expanded perspective of how grand the nonprofit sector is, I feel incredibly fortunate to have been accepted into this fellowship and the chance to work alongside Al-Bustan, whose work I had been impressed with the minute I learned about them earlier this year. I have always been an advocate of identity inclusivity and intercultural exchange, but I find myself reiterating that now, more than ever, the need for comprehensive compassion and deference can make a world of difference in creating and sustaining a safer America that encompasses diversity the way it was always meant to.

— Bushra Alfaraj, Transformative Leaders Fellow

Why It Matters to Make Refugees Feel Welcome in Philadelphia

It’s easy to take things for granted. A few months ago, I was stressing out about writing my college thesis, not having “enough” clothes, and having to adjust my budget to spend less on luxuries like my daily latte. It’s not that I consider my lifestyle extravagant to begin with, but -truth be told- there is a lot that I do not have to worry about in terms of financial security, safety and general stability.

That’s why my visit with Al-Bustan to the Nationalities Service Center was so eye-opening for me. I always considered myself fairly cognizant of the injustices around me, but hearing first hand about how refugees who have fled their homelands to the United States really put matters into perspective. Like many refugees before them, the Iraqis and Syrians who arrived to the United States this year had fled war zones and brutal living conditions, and we can only imagine how traumatic their endeavors have been.

But making it out of political madness is not the end of these refugees’ struggles. Many of them escaped overseas to the United States hoping to be taken into the welcoming arms of the American Dream, not knowing that this idealized notion has become just that – an elusive fragment of what was once a mostly accessible lifestyle to American citizens, that is now rendered to a systematic privilege that even the everyday-American can barely grasp a hold of.

Regardless of whether the refugees had drastically downgraded their lifestyles during the process of their escape, or whether they had already fled a similar lifestyle outside the context of political unrest, the fact of the matter is that many of them seem to be undergoing major culture shock. Instead of spacious homes surrounded by picket fences, many refugees are doing the best they can with smaller apartments that barely fit their family members with the level of comfort they are used to. At the end of the day, they do have roofs over their heads without the constant fear of impending attacks. For now, at least they have some sense of comfort and safety, but their wellbeing and stability are indefinite, as some struggle to pay rent and access basic living necessities. They are faced with challenges even outside of their new places of residence: Many refugees are not fluent in English or barely speak it at all, making it a struggle to simply communicate in a city where having at least beginner-level English language skills is necessary, not to mention having to adjust their interactions with others to what is considered the norm in America in order to fit in with the people surrounding them.

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Refugee families enjoying  arts and crafts at an Al-Bustan event organized with Nationalities Service Center – photo by Dave Tavani

Many adult refugees have also had to compromise in terms of how they would support themselves financially by taking jobs that they are technically overqualified for, but unable to pursue in their new environment. When it comes to families, refugee parents are especially determined to make sure their children receive an American education that will enable them to seek opportunities while they are still within reach.

These are only some of the underlying issues we learned about through speaking to people working at the Nationalities Service Center as well as through talking with the refugees, and we can only imagine what else they are struggling with when they are back in their new households. That is not to mention the distress that has come about with the recent outcome of US elections and the effects it will have on existing refugees as well as prospective ones.

Bearing all of this in mind, it only strengthens my belief in our mission to promote intercultural communication and cross-cultural exchange, and that trying to ensure that respect and understanding are the minimum requirements to creating safe spaces for diversity in our communities. Knowing that our efforts are not limited to collecting donations and material needs, but also expanding to creating forums that welcome Arab refugees to the Philadelphia community, gives me hope that we are part of a dynamic that is representative of Philadelphia’s mosaic and Arab hospitality.

— Bushra Alfaraj, Transformative Leaders Fellow

An Overdue Appreciation for Arabic Musical Heritage

Love it or hate it, pop music has a way of highlighting the trends and themes of the era in which they are produced in, a characteristic which can take us back to unexpected trips down memory lane. Such is the case with me, a person who 1) seldom listens to Arabic music and 2) pretentiously says pop music generally is not that great… despite my having some guilty pleasure songs on my playlists.

A large portion of my adolescent years consisted of my older sister blasting different pop hits from the stereo, both in English and in Arabic. I also spent a lot of time with my cousins, who enjoyed bursting into their favorite Arabic pop anthems whether the occasion called for it or not. My interest in music was limited to pop-punk and alternative, almost all of which were in English. I had no interest in the Arabic songs that my family members and many of my Arabic-speaking friends enjoyed so much. In fact, I recall that my opinion on Arabic music was that they were all sappy love songs that used the noun “habibi” far too much to the point where the word lost its meaning in the midst of the musicians’ trying to create relatable and catchy tunes.

Halfway through my undergraduate studies, I discovered a genre of Arabic music that actually spoke to me – Arabic rock. I was totally caught by surprise when I realized how beautifully the language blends next to a hybrid of rock instruments and Middle Eastern ones. The truth is, I had always been slightly fond of oud and takht sounds, but never cared much for the lyrics that often accompanied them. Since then, Arabic rock bands such as Mashrou’ Leila and JadaL had made it to the list of my favorite artists by having created sounds that I love along with lyrics that I could relate to. I also found myself becoming intrigued with the culture of amateur remixes on YouTube, where people would combine Arabic and Western sounds to create fascinating sounds that, to me, sounded even better than the original songs.

After moving to Philadelphia from the Arabian Gulf region nearly three years ago, listening to Arabic rock/alternative artists had been one of the few things in my daily life that still tied me to my heritage. While I still mostly limit my taste in music to English-language rock anthems, I was caught by a pleasant surprise when I found myself nodding bushraa-150x150engagingly along to a choir of students performing Fairuz’s Nassam ‘Alayna al-Hawa earlier this year. Observing Hanna Khoury’s #iSingArabic sessions was not only pleasant on the ear, but his teaching the background behind each song the choir performed redirected my interest in the meanings behind certain classics. I even recall telling one of my Fairuz-fanatic cousins about the experience after I had come back from an #iSingArabic session, to which she was incredibly amused by how drastically my interest in Arabic music had shifted within the course of a few sessions: “I have been trying to get you into this kind of music for years! Who knew you needed to travel halfway across the world and listen to a live performance was all it would take to pique your interest!”

Alaa Wardi’s Evolution of Arabic Music video went viral several months ago, and I may not have enjoyed it as much had it not been for my newfound appreciation for Arabic music. While a part of my enjoyment may sneakily come from that nostalgia factor and the presence of certain songs during my childhood, I still feel that learning about the historical, social and political contexts of those Arabic hits is what makes me replay that video frequently and of my own volition.

-Bushra Alfaraj, Transformative Leaders Fellow

Reflections on the Power of Intercultural Exchange

On the last day of Al-Bustan’s Arab Arts & Culture Course for Educators, we prepared for and performed our recital. Through the teaching of Hanna Khoury and Hafez Kotain, and the direction of Nora Elmarzouky and Max Dugan we pulled off an incredible performance that really demonstrated what we learned from the course. We performed pieces that showed our skills in Arabic percussion, ensemble instruments, and singing. The pieces were selected to emphasize Andalusia; so, we sang poems from that time, as well as instrumental music.

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Participants with Hanna Khoury, Kinan Abou-afach, and Hafez Kotain at the final performance.

 After the culminating recital, I was able to reflect on my experiences during this Professional Development course, and what knowledge and growth I obtained from these experiences. While interning during the week-long course, I was not only able to learn about Arab music, but its history and culture as well. I left the recital feeling like we all accomplished something great and that I had a better understanding and appreciation of other people and cultures. Throughout this course, I was able to expand my knowledge in music and gained a powerful insight on another culture through music. It also gave me more of an understanding of what it means to be a music teacher, and how to incorporate other

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Participants and faculty in Al-Bustan’s professional development course

cultures and styles of music into a classroom. This is powerful because we live in a world where there is so much hate and violence merely because we are unable to truly understand the virtues of our differences. The teachers that participated in this course now have the ability to try and take a step towards fostering more appreciation for one another by using music as a method of connection among cultures and education.

Ashley Geisler, Al-Bustan Summer Intern

 

Out of Andalusia and Into Our Classrooms

On the third day of Al-Bustan’s Arab Arts & Culture Course for Educators, Nora Elmarzouky, director of education, gave the morning lecture.  Nora discussed the culture, ways of life, and contributions of Andalusia. We learned that a major focus during this time was the atmosphere of coexistence and being able to learn from each other and understand our differences rather than isolate ourselves. The Andalusian people emphasized finding strength in cultural differences as well as a common ground on which they could relate and discover similarities. They sought to overcome the oversimplification of racial, religious, and ethical identifications through education and cooperation between all people. At the end of the day, we watched Out of Cordoba, a film documenting the history of Andalusia and a man’s journey in search of information on this critical time period in Arab history. The film and Nora’s lecture connected well, as they emphasized similar points and supplemented the course with more knowledge on Andalusian history. This film also stressed the question of coexistence. Can Muslims, Christians, and Jews live in harmony and cooperation as they once had? Or is it a concept to be left in the past?

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The instrumental ensemble working with Music Director Hanna Khoury and Percussion Director Hafez Kotain

 

A primary goal of Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture is to foster coexistence through education and exposure to Arab culture. During this course, I have been able to experience this first hand. I learned more about Arab culture, history, and music every single day, and through this, I am able to become a more global person. By observing and taking notes throughout the various classes, I also gained an insight on what it means to be a music teacher and how to use music as a way to introduce new cultures and create a welcoming environment for people from all walks of life. Using music as a unifier, we hope to make people less deterred by their social, ethical, racial, and religious differences, and rather express interest, respect, and understanding. Through the Professional Development course, we are giving the teachers the tools to help educate their own students on Arab culture and our message, and to expand the concept of coexistence and appreciation for our differences.

Ashley Geisler, Al-Bustan Summer Intern

Composing Arab Music at Al-Bustan’s Professional Development Course

Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture’s week-long professional development course provided educators in the Philadelphia area with basic skills in order to teach Arabic culture to American children via the Arabic language and arts. As a summer intern at Al-Bustan who helped organize the course, I certainly enjoyed supporting the courses’ teacher-participants during the week. I would like to share with you one anecdote that summarizes the courses’ remarkable ability to provide quality Arabic language and culture teaching skills to educators during a short time frame.

In Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble’s resident cellist and music composer Kinan Abou-Afach’s workshop “Weaving Poetry into Music”, Arabic language teachers Hend and Christine learned a simplified technique of converting Arabic poetry into music. I had the opportunity to participate in this small classroom as a student-observer. Coming into the class, none of Kinan’s three students (myself included) had any musical background. By the end of the week, we set a classical Arabic couplet from the 7th century to a basic melody we each composed. Once we composed the short music pieces, we sang them before the class to the sound of Kinan’s cello. These end-of-class performances proved that with educated and patient instruction, workshop participants with no music background but strong Arabic language proficiency can effectively learn valuable Arabic music and culture at Al-Bustan.

At this point you may be wondering, “What’s the simplified process of converting Arabic poetry into music that he’s talking about?” I would like to preface my explanation by stating that the complete poetry-to-music conversion process for well-known Arabic songs like Fairouz’s Nassam ‘Alayna al-Hawa is a complex one that requires years of musical training. Kinan Abou-Afach’s week-long lesson taught Arabic language teachers without any musical background a universally accessible, simplified version of the process. First, you select an Arabic poem. Then, you think of a pleasing melody for the poem. The basic principle is simple but critical to creating a successful music-poem composition. Both Arabic poetry and Arabic music have related poetic and musical meter, respectively. The process involves creating a desirable match between the poem’s meter and musical melody, making linguistically sensible adjustments to the Arabic poem where the melody necessitates. The end product of Kinan’s composition process is a pretty Arabic poem set to music.

Now that you understand Kinan’s general process of converting Arabic poetry to music, I think that you would appreciate the poetic couplet we converted into music. Kinan chose Ali ibn Abi Talib’s (599 – 661 C.E.) following couplet for his students to convert to music,

إذا ما شئتَ أن تحيا حياة الحلوة المحيى
فلا تحسد و لا تبخل و لا تحرص على الدنيا.

If you want to live the sweet life,

Then do not envy [others], do not be skimpy/miserly [with your wealth], and do not bother yourself with the world’s corruptive qualities.

Kinan’s students Hind, Christine and I worked out the couplet’s Arabic meter and each set it to a pretty musical melody.

Thanks to Kinan’s talented musical pedagogy, Al-Bustan’s professional development course graduated three Arabic music composers by the end of a single week. All I have to say to Al-Bustan’s music program is a resonant masha’ allah! With Al-Bustan boasting such talented music educators like Kinan Abou Afach, many more teachers and students in the Philadelphia area will continue to experience the beauty of the Arabic-speaking Middle Eastern musical traditions long into the future.

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Muhammed Hansrod, Al-Bustan Summer Intern
Kenyon College, Class of 2017