Final Northeast High Project Transports Students to the Arab World

This semester of the Arab culture class at Northeast High School has wrapped up in a cumulative project. Over the course of the semester, students had the chance to explore many different aspects of Arab culture; from art and music to language and history. As a final task, students planned a future trip to the Arab world. The emphasis, though, was for students to plan out concrete logistics for a realistic trip that they might take in the future. “I had no idea I could actually go there,” one student said. They were told about the many different avenues open to young people who seek to travel. They could choose between college study abroad programs, English-teaching fellowships, or a more customary vacation. Whichever they chose, though, they were graded on the thoroughness of their vision for travel in the Arab world.

One student describes his plan to attend Princeton to take
advantage of their study abroad program.

Students presented their projects via Powerpoint, with an accompanying oral presentation. Each student chose a country, and specific sites and cities within that country that connected with the issues they learned about in class. They were encouraged to find vibrant, interesting photographs of the places they planned to visit. In the weeks leading up to the presentations, students learned about what good, clear presentation design, and confident oral presentation style. Especially for the Pre-International Baccalaureate students in the class, these are skills that will serve them well in the upcoming years of high school, college, and beyond.

The project also called on students to connect some aspect of their chosen country with what they had learned in class. This included connections with issues and events we had discussed throughout the semester: from the adventures of the 14th century traveler Ibn Battuta and the recent upheavals of the Arab Spring, to the unique life of journalist Anthony Shadid.

Another student connects her planned travels to
Lebanon with Anthony Shadid, his ancestral village
of Marjayoun, and the home he rebuilt there. 

For one girl, the project took on a more real-life flair. She presented on the specifics of an actual trip that her family would soon take to their former home in Iraq. Forced to leave for Syria and then America in the wake of the violence in Iraq, she expressed great excitement at the prospect of visiting her homeland again. Concluding an excellent presentation, she went beyond the bounds of the assignment, and discussed an issue we had touched on several times over the course of the semester: stereotypes and media attention. She presented a series of photographs that came up first on Google Image Search when she typed in “France.” Unsurprisingly, it was a melange of photos of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and other tourist sites. “Now,” she said, “see what comes up when we search for ‘Iraq.'” A series of photographs of soldiers, rubble-strewn cities, and bombed-out vehicles appeared before the class. “People think that everything in Iraq is about violence,” she said. “But it’s not the whole truth.” Wise words from a young individual.

The semester at NEHS will conclude next Friday with a final performance and demonstration of art, poetry, and percussion, as well as a potluck with many cuisines from the students’ diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Traveling the Roads to Damascus

The Umayyad Mosque of Damascus

They say that Damascus is built on 7 layers. Nowhere is that more perfectly expressed than in the Umayyad Mosque located in the heart of Damascus, which according to UNESCO is the world’s oldest continually inhabited city.  Built between 705 and 715 AD the mosque sits on the ruins of a Christian Basilica, which rests on a 1st century CE Roman temple to Jupiter and before that an Aramaean temple to the god of thunderstorm and rain.  The mosque embraces its layered history and religions with a shrine inside containing the head of John the Baptist, a figure revered by Christians and Muslims alike. Syrian-born cellist and composer Kinan Abou-afach sees parallels between this layered history and the sounds of old Damascus where you can hear the call to prayer from mosques in between the church bells. “It may be one of the first examples of polyphony,” he remarks. In archaeological terms those layers date back to the 3rd millennium when the Aramaeans designated it the capital of their kingdom. 

Shrine to John the Baptist
inside the Umayyad Mosque


In a collaboration commissioned by Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, Kinan Abou-afach and visual artist Kevork Mourad are drawing upon the rich history of Damascus and their own memories of the city to create “Roads to Damascus,” an experimental work incorporating sound and image. The work will have its premiere in Philadelphia on February 23, 2013.

Kinan Abou-afach is a cellist and composer who received his master’s degree in cello performance after earning his bachelor’s in cello performance with a minor in oud performance from the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus. As a soloist and chamber musician Abou-afach has performed in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, France, Germany and Japan.  Kevork Mourad, a visual artist of Armenian heritage was born in Syria. Shortly after receiving his MFA from the Yerevan Institute of Fine Arts in Armenia Mourad moved to the United States and developed his technique of spontaneous painting, in which he shares the stage with musicians, creating his art in real time in counterpoint to the music.

This collaboration springs from a familiarity with each other’s work and a shared interest in Damascus, particularly in the context of the current conflict engulfing Syria. These two artists are seeking to capture significant moments in the city’s history that is steeped in mythology, religion, and culture. 


“Roads to Damascus” is comprised of 7 parts moving chronologically through the history of Damascus, which is a play on those 7 layers of history, religion, and culture, and the 7 gates to the old city of Damascus. The first piece entitled, bidayat (“beginnings” in Arabic) shows the first moments of Damascus. 


Once the artists agreed on a conceptual foundation and framework for the work, they worked independently on their interpretation of it. In 7 experimental pieces that have their origins in Arabic music, Abou-afach attempts to recreate the warm and friendly atmosphere that the city represents in his memories.


Sad Morning, Every Morning, 2012 by Kevork Mourad

Meanwhile Mourad has been working on a visual depiction of the narrative. In addition to featuring some pre-made animations, Mourad will be drawing spontaneously on paper with a camera overhead projecting his images on a large screen as the musicians perform. This is a technique that Mourad uses to explore a variety of subject matters. He notes that as a lover of many genres of music, “it was natural for me to find an expression that married my interest in rhythm with my use of line.” He combines this technique with a great deal of preparation. “Though the story is laid out in advance, there is an aspect of improv in the way the musician and I respond to each other, each building off the other’s impulses.” This intersection of music and art is something that Abou-afach also references in his work. “As I write music I always have a story or an image from my memory in mind.” Their connection to each other’s medium and shared conception and affection for the city of 7 layers makes this a compelling collaboration.


The concert takes place on February 23, 2013, 8pm at the Trinity Center for Urban Life. Purchase your tickets here.

Writing change

On December 9, 2012 Nada Bakri gave a reading at Al-Bustan’s event in Philadelphia in remembrance of her husband, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Anthony Shadid.

When I asked Nada Bakri if she thought that journalism could affect change in the world, she responded wryly, “sure, if you’re Anthony Shadid.” As someone who has grown to revere journalism for its ability to convey untold stories and pose unasked questions I was unnerved by her answer. When I say “change” I don’t mean anything as grand as world peace, yet making a difference on an individual basis still seems like a worthy and fulfilling pursuit. Indeed a central principle of Al-Bustan’s mission is that sharing the arts and culture of the Arab world can foster respect and understanding between people of diverse backgrounds. Shadid has made extraordinary contributions to American understanding of contemporary life in the Arab world. But was his ability to touch and challenge readers with in depth articles about ordinary life in a world so different from their own unique?
Many reporters have likewise immersed themselves in a seemingly different world and skillfully engaged readers with their stories about ordinary people who have been marginalized not only by society but also by the media. Last year Katherine Boo revealed hope and resourcefulness amongst the harsh circumstances of Mumbai’s Annawadi slum in her book Beyond the Beautiful Forevers. Drawing on 3 years of research she has written a work of nonfiction from a fly on the wall perspective that reads like a novel driven by elegant writing and compelling characters who exhibit endless creativity.

Katherine Boo interviewing residents of the Annawadi slum
One of his private vanities was that all the garbage sorting had endowed his hands with killing strength—that he could chop a brick in half like Bruce Lee. “So let’s get a brick,” replied a girl with whom he had once, injudiciously, shared this conviction. Abdul had bumbled away. The brick belief was something he wanted to harbor, not to test.
His brother Mirchi, two years younger, was braver by a stretch, and wouldn’t have hidden in the storeroom. Mirchi liked the Bollywood movies in which bare-chested outlaws jumped out of high windows and ran across the roofs of moving trains, while the policemen in pursuit fired and failed to hit their marks. Abdul took all dangers, in all films, overseriously. He was still living down the night he’d accompanied another boy to a shed a mile away, where pirated videos played. The movie had been about a mansion with a monster in its basement—an orange-furred creature that fed on human flesh. When it ended, he’d had to pay the proprietor twenty rupees to let him sleep on the floor, because his legs were too stiff with fear to walk home.
As ashamed as he felt when other boys witnessed his fearfulness, Abdul thought it irrational to be anything else. While sorting newspapers or cans, tasks that were a matter more of touch than of sight, he studied his neighbors instead. The habit killed time and gave him theories, one of which came to prevail over the others. It seemed to him that in Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people, did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they dodged. A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught. And while he regretted not being smarter, he believed he had a quality nearly as valuable for the circumstances in which he lived. He was, chaukanna, alert.

She manages to convey the depth of her knowledge about Annawadi and its residents without producing a dry string of facts and anecdotes or a one-dimensional presentation of poverty. So familiar is she with the residents that in her hands they become fully formed characters, individuals that the readers can identify with rather than representatives of poverty.
Shadid similarly drew audiences into the lives of Iraqis when he emphasized the “street sentiment” during and after the Iraq war. With his knowledge of the region and Arabic language skills he set scenes with complex characters who we got to know through detailed conversations and beautifully captured moments.
Anthony Shadid working in Cairo 

In the houses along the street, neighbors and relatives spoke of injustice — a resonant theme in the lives of Shiites Muslims, whose saints and centuries of theology are infused with examples of suffering and martyrdom.
“We’re poor. We can’t go anywhere else. What is the fault of the families here? Where’s the humanity?” asked Abu Ahmed, a 53-year-old neighbor sitting in a home with three pictures of Ali and a painting of his son, Hussein. “I swear to God, we’re scared.”
Their talk was angry, and they were baffled.
If the Americans are intent on liberation, why are innocent people dying? If they want to attack the government, why do bombs fall on civilians? How can they have such formidable technology and make such tragic mistakes?
In Hussein’s Iraq, with a 30-year-political culture built on brutality, some were convinced the Americans were intent on vengeance for the setbacks they believed their forces were delivered in Basra and other southern Iraqi cities. Others, in moments of striking candor, pleaded for the United States and Britain to wage war against their government, but spare the people.

Without being social activists these journalists write pieces that manage to be catalysts for change by challenging peoples’ assumptions and enriching their understanding of issues facing people around the world. Just as Boo is careful to write about the complexities and incongruities of life in Annawadi, Shadid presents the multiplicity of opinions and concerns occupying the thoughts of residents of a neighborhood in Baghdad. They seamlessly tuck history and statistics into poignant narratives. Building on their prose-like writing, deep understanding of the situation, and respect for their subjects, these journalists have powerfully illustrated current conundrums and in doing so, engrossed and educated their readers. Their accounts are meaningful because they give voice to marginalized people who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to share their story.
Of course there are historic examples of journalists whose writing has had direct political ramifications. In 1890  journalist Jacob Riis immersed himself in the poverty of lower Manhattan  and incorporated humor, graphic detail, intimate descriptions, and anecdotes to captivate his readers and raise their consciousness about the issue of urban poverty (with a heavy dose of the era’s xenophobia, it must be said). In 1890 Jacob Riis pushed tenement reform to the top of New York’s policy agenda with his seminal work How the Other Half Lives. 
While it’s too early to credit Shadid and Boo’s writing with specific social changes, all of these journalists have successfully engaged their readers, forging a connection between people who they might not otherwise meet. Ultimately their compelling and empathetic storytelling encourages us to recognize the humanity in those who may seem different from us. A change indeed.

– Miranda Bennett, Outreach and Programs Coordinator

A Moffet Drummer Returns

In the cozy confines of an auditorium, a group of young students eat after-school pretzels, anxiously waiting for their Arabic percussion class to begin. When “Mr. Hafez” arrives to start the lesson, the youngsters scamper over to their drum bags, excited to begin the day’s music-making.

The partnership between John Moffet Elementary and Al-Bustan has blossomed for over six years. Recently, this relationship took a new and exciting turn. One of Mr. Hafez’s star drummers, now graduated and attending middle school, has returned to that familiar auditorium, to pass on the lessons she learned under Mr. Hafez’s tutelage. Her name is Dalal. She was effusive in describing how learning the art of drumming helped her connect to her Palestinian heritage. “I’m Arab,” she says, explaining how she chose the art of drumming. “And this [gesturing to the drum on her lap] is like the main Arabic music instrument.”

When her family is able to visit Palestine, she has been able to showcase her talents. “In my country, before a wedding, we have a party. And I have played my drum at those.” As part of her new school’s community service program, Dalal was given a choice of where she would like to serve. She immediately decided to come back to her old school to help out; both in the office and with Mr. Hafez’s after-school drumming sessions. “I feel very excited to be back,” she says, “and to know that everybody knows me.”

Dalal attended Al-Bustan’s summer camp in 2008, 2009, and 2010. It was there that Mr. Hafez first noticed her many abilities. “She is a born leader!” he exclaimed. “She would help me. I would give her five younger students, tell her to teach them certain rhythms, and they would be off.” He couldn’t say enough about what an asset she has been, both in the past and in the present. “She is so smart. And responsible, too. You can really trust her, you know?”

It is a great thing to see Dalal sitting on the stage, confidently leading a group of youngsters who sit in seats where she once sat. Leading students to broaden and deepen their experiences with Arab culture is a foundational goal for Al-Bustan programs. It is always gratifying to see students come back to visit.

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Visits NEHS Students

On November 9, students in the fifth period Arab Culture class at Northeast High School were treated to a rare opportunity. Paul Salopek, a Pulitzer award-winning journalist, arrived to speak to the class about his past experiences, and about his exciting new upcoming project.

Mr. Salopek has reported stories from many parts of the world, including Sudan and other parts of Africa. The students had been learning about the life and writings of Anthony Shadid, in preparation for the upcoming visit from his wife, Nada Bakri. The experiences of Mr. Salopek dovetail with those of Mr. Shadid. Both won Pulitzer Prizes for their excellent writing. And both covered conflict zones, with these attendant dangers. In fact, both even had the terrifying experience of being imprisoned by regimes that feared what the reporters’ words would reveal.

The writer talked to students about his most recent reporting trips to the Horn of Africa, where famine threatened thousands with starvation. In relating what he saw there, and presenting pictures of that land and its people, Mr. Salopek touched on an important lesson of unintended consequences. The famines are due to many factors, he said. Soil erosion and drought among them. When people are unable to feed themselves, they gather in huge refugee camps where the UN and other organizations can distribute food. And yet, Mr. Salopek points out, this act of life-giving charity is not without complications. Herders who use the land have been displaced by these camps. The soil there has been further degraded by thousands of feet and trucks, stamping away the topsoil and reducing the level of vegetation and threatening the people and animals who relied on it. Mr. Salopek encouraged the students to look beyond surface-level knowledge in coming to understand the world.

In collaboration with the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, Mr. Salopek plans to spend the next seven years literally tracing the footsteps of ancient humans. Beginning in the Rift Valley, he will travel by foot north to the Middle East, continue through Central Asia, cross from Siberia to Alaska, down the west coast of North America, before finally reaching his destination in Patagonia, at the tip of the Americas. The route he has chosen follows the patterns of human migration, as early humans traveled out of Africa and across the globe. This monumental journey will be taken on foot or, as he put it, at “three miles an hour” in an effort to learn more about the people and cultures he will encounter along the way. The entire adventure is slated to cover 22,000 miles, and last seven years. Like Ibn Battuta, he will travel great distances for the sake of knowledge, growing closer to the Earth and its cultures. Like Anthony Shadid, he reports from the ground up, speaking with people he meets and sharing their stories with the world.

He calls the project “Out of Eden” and will be posting reports and updates on his website when the journey begins. It will surely be an exciting project to follow.