Bouzouki, A Memory of Home

When one sings, his or her voice becomes an instrument. The singer has to practice and fine-tune it, much like a drummer has to practice the intricate beating patterns that build to the complex tempo of a musical piece.  

Last semester, I enjoyed seeing singers and percussionists refinetheir skills. Their musical dexterity is astounding to observe, and most apparent in the instrumental class, which included an accordionist, a violinist, a cellist, a bouzouki player, and several percussionists.  These instrumentalists syndicate their tunes into an amazing mixture of melodies, rhythms, and compositions.  What surprised me at Monday night rehearsals was that even though each instrument had a completely different sound, they all mixed so naturally that I could only hear and appreciate the compositions as a whole. On one of those nights, after class, I had a chance to sit down with Fragkiskos Koufogiannis, a PhD candidate in Electrical Engineering at Penn School of Engineering, who told me about his involvement in the class.

F: Wait, so are you in the class?

Me:  No no, I’m actually an intern at Al-Bustan. I help them out with administrative functions, taking photos, and conducting interviews like this one. Where to begin then? Would you mind if I asked where you are from?

F: I am from Greece. The country is very multicultural but it definitely has a distinctive Turkish influence. Since the Turks have a heavy Arab influence, I grew accustomed to Arab music and arts. 

Me: Is that why you were interested in Al-Bustan?

F: Absolutely. To be perfectly honest, I am a little home sick. I’ve tried the Greek food around Philadelphia but…you know how you can’t get the same taste from restaurants as you can at home? That’s the same kind of problem I have had with feeling accustomed to Philly.  Music is the closest thing to home right now for me and that’s why I am enjoying the class so much.

Me:  I am glad to hear it. You guys play so passionately that sometimes I feel like it isn’t a class but that you guys are just practicing like a band. . .  So does Greece have a lot of Middle Eastern influences?

F: Kind of… I mean the culture gets communicated from Turkey, Greece and the Arab world. A lot of the musical instruments in Greece have a Middle Eastern influence. The instruments have transformed over the ages and I’ve adopted the bouzouki(a long-necked stringed instrument of Greek origin that resembles a mandolin) as my choice of instrument.  When I came to America two years ago , I was really homesick and the sound of the bouzouki brought me back home.  
M:  Yeah, I can relate to that. Going back to your earlier mention of food, it’s a bit harder to emulate the authentic tastes of “back home.”  I find restaurants tend to market to a bigger crowd, so they have a fusion of American and foreign foods.  In contrast, music has a universal quality, and as such it’s easier to communicate across borders. 

M:  How do you think Al-Bustan presents itself to the public, how does it market itself?

F: I was really surprised. I found that they don’t promote the classes by calling them “oriental music classes” or something that is greatly commercialized. They promote it the way it is, without any false pretenses or any misgivings. The classes have Arab faculty who are very talented and knowledgable about their respective fields. The fact that they have am engaging personality is a perk that is very hard to find.

M:  That’s great to hear. Well this has been a pleasure. If you ever need any help with anything, please be sure to let me or others at Al-Bustan know. 

Fragkiskos’s view of the music ensemble reflects many of the other participants’ appreciation of the class. I invite you to check out our current classes by following this link… and join us!

Muhammad Naqvi
Program Assistant, Al-Bustan
Class of 2015 – College of Liberal and Professional Arts
University of Pennsylvania

عمّان، مدينة حلوة — Amman, a beautiful city

Nearly seven months ago, when I boarded the plane to leave the United States for the first time in my life, I wasn’t overly nervous. I didn’t cry when I waved goodbye to my parents, or panic about arriving in a city I hardly knew anything about. Mostly on my mind was the new experience in front of me and my excitement to finally fulfill my study abroad dream: living in the Middle East.

A view of the city!

My plane was bound for Amman, where I was to spend a summer studying Arabic at a language institute before moving to Cairo for the fall semester. As fate would have it, my Cairo trip was cancelled and I stayed in Amman for the whole six months. To some, Amman is a slightly boring, much-less cosmopolitan version of the other Levantine capitals, Beirut and Damascus; but to me, every day was a new adventure. I learned to navigate the city, haggle with shop owners, and chat with taxi drivers. All of these things were more interesting because I got to speak Arabic while doing them—or at least attempt it. In the summer I was there for Ramadan, and it became illegal to eat or drink in public during the day. At night, however, I got my first glimpse at Arab nightlife at a café in downtown Amman, where we arrived at 9 pm and were still surrounded by groups of friends and families—with all of their young children—at 1 am, when we decided it was time to go sleep! I drank limon wa n3na—lemon with mint—smoked sheesha, and took in the Arab culture surrounding me.

Students gather outside of a UJ building

The fall brought a new program and with it about one hundred fellow American students who had come to Amman to study in the same program as me. I breezed through orientation—after all, I had lived there for two months already!—but was entirely unprepared for our first day of classes at the University of Jordan. Although our classes were not with other Jordanian students because of our Arabic level, we were on the same campus and saw an entirely different student experience than most of our universities in America. For starters, UJ has over 37,000 students, so there were literally people everywhere: sitting in groups on the benches, clustering outside of classrooms, and filling tables in the cafeteria. There seemed to be a lot of students standing around without much to do; but then again, when I finally discovered the UJ library, it was nearly impossible to find a seat among the students there, who were studying everything from physiology to business to Chinese. I quickly learned an interesting trick: something as simple as a piece of notebook paper could save your seat for the rest of the day. And this compared to Penn, where students will move your laptop and take that seat when you walk to the bathroom!

Afnan and I at a university concert

One of the best experiences I had at the university was befriending my language partner, a Jordanian-Palestinian girl just about my age who was studying Turkish and English. Afnan let me struggle through my amiyya with her—the colloquial Arabic I finally began learning in Jordan, which is so different from the fusHa taught in university—while telling me everything from her reasons for wearing a hijab to her secret desire to marry a pilot! She showed me places to eat around the university and introduced me to all of her friends, many of whom became my friends too. I was even lucky enough to go to two birthday parties with her, one in a restaurant and one at a friend’s house, where I tried my first home-cooked Jordanian meal. Through relationships like these, Amman really began to feel like home to me: it was comfortable, never dangerous but also never boring, full of wonderful people eager to share their culture with me.

Needless to say, when December came, I was sad to leave. I dreaded the thoughts of my last Arabic class, our program’s goodbye dinner, and returning to the airport to leave for good. But finally, I said tearful goodbyes to my new American classmates, my language partner and the other Jordanian people I had been lucky enough to befriend. I fully intend to keep the promise I made to them to come back to Amman: 6 months gave me just a taste of the fascinating culture and welcoming people that characterize this beautiful city.

Amy T. Cass
Al-Bustan Program Assistant
University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2015
International Relations Major