Nostalgia for Cultural Heritage: Spending a Day at Al-Bustan Camp

My name is Lisa Ibrahim and I moved to the US from Palestine a year and a half ago.
As I felt nostalgic for my culture, I began to look for organizations that do work in Arabic culture. Nowadays social media makes it easy for us to find the information we seek, that’s how I found  the non-profit organization: Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture! I contacted Hazami , the founder and executive director, and she was very kind to invite me to spend a day at Al-Bustan Camp.
Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect yet I went there with an open heart. I was excited to find a very positive environment that offers classes to kids in: Arabic, drama, art, science and music. The theme was none other than: Umm Kulthum!  Like most people who are from the Middle East, she is one of my icons!  I was excited to discover that she will be the focus of camp and couldn’t help myself from thinking: “Let’s see what these kids are going to learn about the diva…Yalla… “
The diversity of the students was amazing, they were Arabs and non-Arabs which fulfills the mission of Al-Bustan: to reach out to all and spread the Arabic culture regardless of your origin.
The tour began with the Arabic class, where I got to see students learning the “Raa’” and “Zein” letters, they were about 5 to 7 years old and were able to pronounce the letters clearly. Then I went to the drama class, where the teacher asked some students to perform a play discussing their thoughts of having a baby (Umm Kulthum). What shocked me were the answers from the young kids, one of the boys in the class said: “I want the baby to be a boy to provide for the family”! And one of the girls said: “at least we are having one”! That was a striking moment for me, as I got to see how young kids were able to relate and understand the views of Middle Eastern culture tracing back to the era of Umm Kulthum.
Camper Islam’s interpretation of
Umm Kulthum’s iconic image

After that I got to check out the art class where I saw a room filled with paintings that students made of Umm Kulthum.  It was great to see how they perceived her through their imagination and their choice of vivid colors in her portrayal. Most of the paintings were unbelievably reflective of the diva in an amazing way, one of them stood out to me as it looked like Elvis Presley!!  It’s wonderful to see how far kids’ imagination can go.

The most touching moment for me came in the music class.  I was amazed to see students who were dancing to the beats of the drums, then singing songs from Umm Kulthum’s repertoire in a beautiful harmonious way. As a music lover that was the highlight of my day!
Young campers learning verses from Ghanili Shiwayi
and other Umm Kulthum songs 

As someone who is  looking from the outside,  seeing non Arabs and Arabs who are living in the US, getting the opportunity to experience such a rich culture and take part of it , made me realize how Al-Bustan is contributing to the shift of people’s consciousness towards Arabic culture through art, language and music.
Al-Bustan made me understand the importance of its mission and gave me the passion to explore an opportunity to take a part in it. I feel a desire to do my best to take Al-Bustan’s message and spread it out to as many people as possible in order to bring a positive perception of Arabic culture in the U.S as well as around the world!

– Lisa Ibrahim

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Al-Bustan’s Blossomed Seed: Mokhtar Bdeir

Mokhtar with member of Al-Bustan
Percussion Ensemble in 2007.

Born in Palestine, Mokhtar Bdeir moved to America at a young age.  As he reflects on his experience navigating his place in American society, he notes “To me, the journey to discover an identity that could coherently fuse the two halves of my being – the assimilating immigrant and the proud Palestinian – has always been within the crucible of Al-Bustan.” 

In 2002, Mokhtar was introduced to Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture and participated in its first summer camp. Since then, Mokhtar has been involved in various capacities with Al-Bustan Camp, while also engaged in other programs, like Al-Bustan’s Arab Percussion Ensemble.  Although Mokhtar graduated this spring from Temple University and looks forward to a professional career in medicine, he continues to enjoy being a part of Al-Bustan Camp. 


Mokhtar’s role as a camp counselor mediates between campers and teachers, while providing continuity from year to year.  His dedication is evident in his actions. As soon as camp began, I was astonished by Mokhtar’s rapport with the campers.  Campers, old and new, are drawn to him.  His personality illuminates when he is with the campers, spreading good vibes without even trying.  In the morning, campers ask where Mokhtar is as if he is their good friend.  Nothing excites them more than when Mokhtar leads them in the infamous “GaGa Ball” after lunch.  On the other hand, Mokhtar can be serious with the campers, especially when they get a bit restless. His engaging dynamic interactions with everyone foster a fun and nurturing camp culture. 
Mokhtar teaching kids the
doumbek at this year’s camp!

Mokhtar has excelled throughout his journey. Al-Bustan planted a seed of culture and they watched it blossom into a highly motivated, intelligent young man.  He expresses his appreciation in writing, “I had the great privilege to work at Al-Bustan Camp with kids, who like me over 10 years ago, showed tremendous passion, innovation, and motivation at our summer program as they explored Arabic music, literature, art, and language.  The youngest of them truly reminded me of the importance of our work here: they struggled to mold their mouths to form Arabic words, laughed at Arabic children’s books, toiled with an amazing curiosity over their artistic renderings of the Lebanese countryside, and sang, drummed, and danced in class and through the halls. Yet, the most inspiring moments took place outside the classroom when I saw the determination these kids had to understand one another and their backgrounds. They played, ran, and ate in solidarity. Al-Bustan’s programs have real potential to change lives and perception: its not just music for the sake of music, rather it is a vessel for expression, development, and solidarity, a vessel which I have much gratitude for.”


Zeanah Rumman-Obeid, Drexel student interning at Al-Bustan

Science: Knowledge is Power! At Al-Bustan’s Camp

“I try to encourage and expand on the camper’s natural curiosity,” says Hope Willoe, science teacher here at Al-Bustan camp, “That’s my science philosophy.” Hope began by teaching the youngest campers about habitat. She had them compare Egypt and Philadelphia’s habitats. They thought about the various climates and animals in those habitats. She then discussed adaptation of animals, encouraging them to think about what different animals need to survive. The youngest campers thoroughly enjoyed the corresponding project, which was creating their own imaginary animal and discussing their strengthens and weaknesses. Their investigation into animals extended into the second week where they learned about classification of species. Campers had an opportunity to think like an animal, regarding what they eat, where they live, etc.
Campers constructing a dam in the Wissahichon Creek.

Additionally, throughout the week, Hope and the campers went on nature walks where they had the opportunity to construct a dam in a nearby creek. Campers were able to witness how water and humans affect the land and vice versa. Also, campers examined rocks and minerals, specifically the ones that are found in Egypt or were used for the pyramids. They learned about the significance of gold in ancient Egypt culture, and made their own clay amulets. 

The older campers initially focused on water, connecting the Wissahickon Creek to the Nile River. They began working with a land and water kit, learning to simulate water cycles, streams, and dams. Today, their final day of science, campers will focus on the pyramids and their engineering.  They will also compete in a marshmallow challenge where they must build a structure with marshmallows and dry spaghetti only!

Hope did a fantastic job in capturing the campers attention while also teaching them something new. “Science is so fun!” says Noura, a new camper, when I asked her what is her favorite part of the camp. She continues, “I can’t wait to see what we will do today!”

Campers on their nature walk.

Zeanah Rumman-Obeid – Drexel student, intern at Al-Bustan

Lights, Camera, Action! At Al-Bustan’s Camp

Campers filming their mock news broadcast.

“Filmmaking is the act of tying images and sounds to produce meaning,” says Nadia Awad, Al-Bustan’s video instructor. At camp, the teen campers are working on understanding fully what goes into that process. Initially, they learned about Egyptian film production and compared film production in the Global North versus the Global South. Nadia informed the campers that Egypt had a role in film history since the beginning despite common belief that film began in Hollywood. In reality, India and Egypt had one of the earliest film industries and currently, Egypt has the largest film industry in the Arab world. The teens watched several film clips about Umm Kulthum and interviews with her. Umm Kulthum appeared in the first featured length Egyptian film in 1936. She became a cultural diplomat, through her music and her cinema work.  Nadia then led a discussion about Umm Kulthum’s historical significance from a film history point of view; she also had the teens learning about media criticism.

Originally, Nadia had planned for a documentary production related course; however, since day one, it was evident that the campers were interested in a narrative style of production and comedy. So she had them do some research Nadia guided the students, enlightening them about an existing show similar to their vision. Bassem Youssef is the host of El Bernameg (“The Program”), a satirical news program broadcast in Egypt. While working on this project, the campers learned about the historical significance of Egyptian media, its role in creating a new image of Egypt, and current events. The teens are filming, editing, and producing a mock news broadcast including interviews with a protester, an average American, and a correspondent ‘based in Egypt.’ They are incorporating their understanding of this knowledge and their own understanding of stereotypes in making their video production. Also, during production of their video, the teen campers are acquiring technical skills such as camera positioning and lighting.
Teens working on their final edits before tomorrow’s premiere!




Don’t miss their video premiere this Friday, July 12, 2013: 6-7:30pm!

Zeanah Rumman-Obeid, Drexel student interning at Al-Bustan.

Don’t Miss a Beat at Al-Bustan’s Camp!


Music is commonly known as a universal language. Umm Kulthum’s music is no exception. Although  her songs are more than 40 years old, they still speak to listeners, young and old, today. Her songs speak of love, longing, and homeland, and still evoke deep emotions in listeners just as they did when she first sang them.

Hafez leads the youngest campers in singing “Ghanni-li” 

Learning music in a group setting, through singing and playing an instrument, gives students an opportunity to learn about themselves and be part of a team.  Hafez Javier Kotain, long-time teaching artist at Al-Bustan Camp, is teaching campers more about themselves through his passion for music. Hafez began studying the doumbek in Syria at the age of seven and first performed on stage at age nine.

In percussion this summer, campers are learning the names of notes and names of various instruments.  They are learning how to read sheet music for Arab percussion and how to understand the ‘rhythm tree,’ a diagram that breaks down the speed of the different notes. Not only are the campers acquiring knowledge of Arabic and drumming, they also are learning general music etiquette such as proper posture – with and without the drum or doumbek – and how to take care of their instrument.  
In singing class, campers are learning a medley of Umm Kulthum songs that consists of “Anta Omri,” “Ghanni-li,” and  “Habibi Yes’id Aw’atu.”  When Hafez teaches the campers these songs, he teaches them correct Arabic diction and the meaning of the lyrics. The campers have lyric sheets in Arabic with translation and transliteration in order for them to fully grasp and understand the meaning. Keyboard player Joseph Mamari visited the camp yesterday to accompany the campers and help them get the right pitch.
Hafez teaching teen campers the doumbek

Although the campers have been working hard with Hafez, there is always time for their favorite game – freeze dance!  Hafez plays the doumbek for them as they dance around the room, re-enforcing their sense of rhythm and the beats they have learned while still allowing them to let loose, use up some of their boundless energy, and, most importantly, have fun.

For the rest of this week, campers will spend most of their time preparing for the culminating performance this Friday, July 12, 6-7:30pm.  Make sure you don’t miss it, because we know that it’s going to be great!


Zeanah Rumman-Obeid, Drexel student interning at Al-Bustan

"Faa" is for Funoon (Arts) at Al-Bustan Camp

“With art you created a message anchoring the concepts of Arabism, patriotism, and the reclamation of the stolen part of the Arab homeland,” wrote Sudan’s minister of information, as part of his invitation to Umm Kulthum (Lohman, p. 39). 

Umm Kulthum expressed herself through her music; her songs were a way for her to show her soul to the world.  At Al-Bustan Camp, we explore the idea of portraying a message through our artwork. Art is not only an expression of one’s inner self, but also a portrayal of a perspective, depicting a desired message or meaning. Returning camper Jad mentioned “I like art because it gives me a lot of freedom and there is not one right answer.” 

Teacher Tremain and Counselor Rose
work with camper on print-making

Teaching artist Tremain Smith began the camp by introducing campers to basic art vocabulary in both Arabic and English, such as texture (malmass), contrast (tabayun), and proportion (mikyaas).  She helped campers learn how to convey their own views of Umm Kulthum through various artistic mediums. For example, the younger campers painted what they thought Umm Kulthum would look like if she were their age and their friend. Older campers explored the technique of print-making. They drew self-portraits with marks on sheets of styrofoam, which they then rolled paint over with a roller, then laid a sheet of paper over it and pressed hard to make the imprint on the paper. 

Campers’ drawings of the iconic Umm Kulthum


Traditionally at Al-Bustan Camp, the campers collectively create an Arabic alphabet quilt which consists of an image representing each letter of the alphabet.  This year the words representing each letter relate to the world of Umm Kulthum, such as “baladi” (my country) for letter “Ba”, “hub” (love) for letter “Ha”, and “Jumhoor” (audience) for letter “Jeem.”  

I’ve heard a lot about this quilt tradition and seen what was created in past summers hanging at Al-Bustan’s office and at Manakeesh Cafe, so I can’t wait to see this year’s masterpiece.  It will be displayed at Al-Bustan’s End-of-Camp Performance: July 12, 6-7:30pm. See you there!

Zeanah Rumman-Obeid, Drexel student interning at Al-Bustan

"Alif" is for Umm Kulthum at Al-Bustan’s Camp

Arabic is a rich and lyrical language. Here at Al-Bustan’s Camp, we integrate language and culture into every aspect of the summer camp. Teachers and counselors strive to use Arabic as frequently as possible in order to challenge the campers and to enforce their lessons. Brahim El Guabli, the Arabic language instructor,  and Alia Benammar, teaching assistant, are teaching the children with age-appropriate vocabulary, alphabet letters, and common daily expressions. Their immersive lessons introduce Arabic to the beginners and challenges them through practicing use of the language. Arabic lessons consist of familiarizing the campers with the alphabet and numbers while also identifying inanimate versus animate objects. Also, Brahim and Alia have introduced grammar through pronouns and possessives.

The youngest group of campers learning the Arabic alphabet.


The youngest campers traced and colored the letters while aslo playing games incorporating the Arabic. Older campers with previous knowledge of the language are challenged to immerse themselves into the culture and work through Arabic media and literature. The teen campers are writing in Arabic an original story about Umm Kulthum’s life. In addition, they are working on translating Umm Kulthum’s famous song, “Anta Omri,” into English. Similarly, the experienced middle school campers are making a poster depicting Umm Kulthum’s life and songs.


Besides Arabic class, the language is integrated throughout the day. The campers are learning to sing verses from Umm Kulthum’s songs. In art, campers are creating another Arabic alphabet quilt.  Today, campers learned food-related vocabulary as they sampled kushari, a most popular Egyptian dish, during a food demonstration by Egyptian community member, Nevan Hamid.


Language is the foundation of every culture; it is imperative to learn a language in order to truly understand a culture. Returning teen camper Adam acknowledges this and says, “I love learning Arabic because I’m actually doing something to understand my culture.”



Zeanah Rumman-Obeid, Drexel student interning at Al-Bustan