Syrian Awareness Week: Raising Knowledge and Money

Last month Penn for Syrian Refugees and Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture organized “Syria Awareness Week” on Penn’s campus (Sept 23-27) — and I, in my dual role as board member for PSR and Al-Bustan staff member, took a big part in organizing it. Our goal, which we conceived last spring before the many changes in the Arab world over the summer, was to increase awareness on campus about the sheer size of the humanitarian crisis in Syria. A lot of people get so caught up in the political debates–about things like arming the opposition and US intervention, among others–that they forget just how many Syrians have been killed and displaced in the 3 years since the conflict began and the many other humanitarian tragedies the war has wrought. It was our intention to bring this knowledge to people—as well as do a little fundraising along the way.

Flags on College Green at UPenn campus

On Tuesday, we held a Skype call with Dr. Monzer Yazji, a founding member of the Union for Syrian Medical Relief Organizations (UOSSM). Dr. Yazji spoke to us about the systematic targeting of medical and humanitarian relief efforts by regime forces within Syria and about his work trying to get medical care to civilians there. He told us that the regime restricts medical care from reaching anyone who supports the opposition–or doesn’t explicitly support them–and therefore hundreds of people in opposition controlled areas find it nearly impossible to receive medical care. Dr. Yazji talked about seeing doctors he was working with targeted by military air strikes, including one talented young brain surgeon who had gone on a special mission to reach a child with a brain tumor and was killed. He himself was at risk numerous times. I was particularly struck by Dr. Yazji’s passion for and commitment to what he was doing, not only in such a dangerous situation in Syria but also with intense passion in America, recruiting doctors and Syrian-Americans to support his cause. Everyone in the audience on Tuesday was left with a new appreciation of the difficulties of providing assistance in Syria.

Qusai speaking at UPenn

On Wednesday morning we set up flags on College Green, in the center of Penn’s campus, to show the number of Syrians who had been killed in the conflict. There were 955, with each flag representing 200 deaths. From the morning when we started setting up the flags, there was a lot of interest in them, with several of the passerbys asking us what they were for and many more looking on with interest. By the end of the day, many people were stopping for pictures, and we got interviewed by a reporter for the campus newspaper. The memorial was a good way to raise awareness because it was a striking and public reminder of the humanitarian toll in Syria.

Thursday was perhaps the most moving of all events: a speech by Qusai Zakarya, a Syrian man who spent over a year under siege in Moadamiya, a small town outside of Damascus. During this year, Qusai talked about the starvation of the town and the chemical weapons attack it suffered at the hands of the regime in August 2013, including Qusai’s own near-death experience in which he had to be resuscitated in the morgue. He spoke also about his numerous interviews with Western news outlets and, more recently, since he has been in America, trips to government and international organizations to plead for intervention against Assad. The most meaningful thing he said, in my opinion, was his statement that “people in Syria cannot imagine having what American’s have…not just the jobs, the clothes, the food, but the freedom to say whatever you want to and to not be scared.” That is something that I and some many others take for granted, when we really need to appreciate it. Qusai’s speech had a huge impact on everyone in attendance and gave everyone an overwhelming urge to help.

My colleague Oscar and I presenting about Karam at the event

Saturday provided the opportunity to do just that. In conjunction with Al Bustan, we put on a fundraiser for Karam Foundation. Karam is an American-based non-profit that runs programs for displaced Syrians that incorporate art, exercise, and health; their motto is “Every Child Deserves to Play.” Our event featured a performance by the Al Bustan Takht Ensemble, art-making, Arab food, and a brief attempt at debke. We also screened some of Karam’s videos to highlight their programs with Syrian children. The gathering raised over $650 for Karam’s efforts to help displaced Syrians. It was great to see community members–students and adults, Arabs and non-Arabs–come together to support a cause. 

Overall, we were happy with the impact that the week had and hope it will inspire people to continue to follow and support the Syrian cause.

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


Abstract themes in Ethereal spaces; Thoughts on The Deserted Station

By Muhammad Naqvi

Director: Alireza Raisian

Writers: Abbas Kiarostami (story), Kambuzia Partovi

Stars: Leila Hatami, Nezam Manouchehri, Mehran Rajabi

The Deserted Station (2002), an Iranian masterpiece by director Alireza Raissian, stayed at the peripheries of transnational cinema even after critical and audience success. Leslie Camhi of the Village Voice (amongst other critics) praised its delicate direction and Leila Hatami’s performance as the film’s lead. But even with credits to Abbas Kiarostami for his original screenplay, the film went widely unnoticed, quietly bought by Netflix to be stashed away in the seldom-visited corners of its foreign movies category. But it remains true to the nature of Iranian cinema in not only its art-house exhibition but also aesthetic composition. It uniquely acknowledges its past cinematic influences and also the contemporary and mutational nature of Iranian national character.

 The film begins with a long shot of a car driving into a sunrise. Mahmood the driver looks out the window to picturesque vistas of the Semnan hillsides, the camera ignoring for over 6 minutes our actual protagonist, his wife, dreaming in a calm sleep. After their car breaks down, the couple seeks help, coming across a seemingly barren and dry labyrinth occupied by women, children, and Faizollah, a do-it-all pragmatist that helps Mahmood attempt to fix his broken vehicle. Once the film starts to focus on the wife, a complex system of dynamics is introduced. Parallels are drawn between her, a pregnant goat, and a pregnant woman, that begin to reveal our protagonist’s evolving psychological state through visual cinematic techniques rather than dialogue.

A plethora of analyses can be extrapolated from the wife’s interaction with the characters in the labyrinth. But the most significant perhaps is how feminine identity and its spectatorship is challenged more progressively here than its western counterparts. Contemporary critics of Iranian culture tend to focus on the extreme conservative values that have come to negatively and internationally characterize Iran. The Deserted Station challenges these assumptions in a syntax appropriately reflecting the progressive and powerful sentiment in the nation for the realization of an equal Iranian feminine identity. As demonstrated in the revolutionary and controversial works of Jafar Panahi, Iranian cinema has come to invent a novel cinematic language that uniquely symbolizes a profound freedom of expression. This film stands as a relatively modern example of how Iranian national cinema is not only a socially constructive tool, but one that is shifting the landscape of traditional cinematic storytelling.

The Deserted Station is rich with  themes and intense examinations of the human psyche. It is riddled with questions as intellectually challenging as the best films that western industries have to offer. It is an astounding achievement that connects the early Iranian new wave cinema of the 90’s to the contemporary burgeoning market of Iranian films. Abstract, beautiful, and subtle, it is a film that sparks imagination and an intense desire to discover one of the most profoundly influential nations in the Middle East. 

I invite you to explore more amazing Middle Eastern cinema at the New Middle East Cinema Film Festival hosted by the University of Pennsylvania from October 27-30 at the International House.

Muhammad is a native of Houston and a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree with distinction.

Interview with Mohsen Namjoo: Making Music and Memory

October 13, 2014
By Nikki – Senior at Science Leadership Academy

Mohsen Namjoo at University of Pennsylvania campus

In the next chapter of his career, Mohsen Namjoo is dedicated to breaking new ground. Dubbed by the New York Times as “Bob Dylan of Iran”, Namjoo strives for musical excellence, not only for his fans, but also because of his reverence for traditional Persian music and literature. During his visit to Philadelphia, I had the chance to interview him and learn about the influences and inspirations that drive him to be the type of musician that he is today.

Interviewer Nikki:  In your 2007 interview with The New York Times, you mention that as you expand your music and begin to write new songs, your music won’t “belong to the present time and cannot satisfy the younger generation;” it belongs to the generation of “lost music,” your own generation.  As you expand, do you think you will include the youth and change the view you have of them?

Mohsen Namjoo: First off, the reason I make music is to make it for the sake of music. The younger generation, however, pressures musicians to include political concepts in our songs and art. In some of my music, I have done that, to cater to that generation. But right now, due to the calm, soothing environment I live in here in America, the environment inspires me to write music for the art of music. It inspires me to write just for musical concepts and not for non-musical, more political concepts. My musical ideas include different orchestrations, scenarios, and different collaborations with different cultures, like Al-Bustan. They don’t include political agendas. Even if I were going to have some sort of political agenda, it would not be to protest against different government systems. It would be to protest for the beauty in culture and music. 

Nikki:  Interesting, do you think it is easier to be a musician in America or Iran?

Namjoo: Financially, Iran is better. However, unfortunately, right before I hit the peak of my musical career, I had to flee the country. Nonetheless, I’m emotionally satisfied being here in America as a musician.

Nikki:  You were previously a music fellow at Stanford and are now teaching a course at Brown University. When teaching at Brown, do you feel as though it is a learning experience for you or do you see it as a top-down experience for your students?

Namjoo: Any teaching is a learning experience for me. This semester at Brown University, I teach a course about contemporary Iranian poets and about their political power after the revolution. It’s like I am collaborating and competing with my students. I don’t teach and don’t like the traditional teaching method of “I know everything and you, as a student, are here just to listen to me”.

Nikki:  While growing up in Iran, in your teenage years like me, what type of music would you listen to or who? Eastern? Western?

Namjoo: When I was a teenager, my favorite type of music was traditional Iranian music and some traditional Eastern music. Eastern music from India, Afghanistan, and also some traditional Arabic Music. On occasion, I would listen to pop music from Los Angeles as well. However, my taste changed after university. My perspective on music expanded and became much more diverse.

Nikki:  Are there any specific musicians or concepts that inspire you?

Namjoo: I have a few inspirations. First, I am most inspired by Persian literature and modern Iranian poetry. Next, Persian folklore (several songs that Namjoo will perform on the October 18th are from the folklore). Then, Iranian maestros like Shajarian and Alizadeh. Finally, modern western music, Blues and Rock music from the 70s.

Nikki:  Do you feel challenged by the music you produce for your fan base or do you produce music within your comfort zone for your fan base that you know will sell?

Namjoo: Oh, interesting question. I honestly wish I could produce music for myself. But producing music, in general, involves a lot compromising due to financial stability. For example, if I do solo performances with my setar (the signature instrument that Namjoo plays) around the world, for Iranian audiences, all my fans would be satisfied. It would also be financially beneficial for me as well. That being said, I hate to perform this way. I like composing new songs/albums through new concepts so I discover new ways of producing music. But people don’t like that. They prefer just listening to my old songs and styles, instead of the new ones, because it brings back their old memories. They don’t appreciate my attempt of trying new music out.

Nikki:  So, you like to create music more for the artistic aspect than just for the memories.

Namjoo: Yes, exactly. Except, no one appreciates your efforts to incorporate creativity. They need you to be what they want. After a certain amount of time, the people own you. Sometimes, you can no longer be yourself because you have to cater to them. I would rather spend my time learning new vocal concepts, or, for example, if I had the choice to produce music for a movie or to produce music from my hometown, I would choose to produce music from my hometown.

Nikki:  You talk about wanting to create new musical opportunities and new collaborations. Are you excited to collaborate with Al-Bustan? Do you see it as an opportunity to widen your musical horizons?

Namjoo: Yes I am excited and I think it’s going to be a great opportunity to expand my musical experiences.

Nikki:  Al-Bustan often brings together a very diverse audience. Since your music is geared more towards Iranian audiences, do you think, from this new experience, you can produce music that is geared to a more diverse audience?

Namjoo: Most definitely; however, I’m not tempted to create music that is just in English because it will reach a further audience. Sure, it might be fun to do a song or two to do in English; however, I don’t think I’m going to change my musical path to be in English. That being said, I am very fortunate and optimistic about this collaboration with Al-Bustan. I’ve played with many different musicians all the way from Turkey to here in America. But, playing with the Takht Ensemble is different because we all have the same background when it comes to rhythms. In addition, I love the discussions we are having about music with the members of the Takht Ensemble because they are all very knowledgeable.

You can catch see Mohsen Namjoo perform with Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble this Saturday, October 18th, 8pm at Trinity Center for Urban Life, in Center City Philadelphia. More info at

Launching the Moffet Arab Arts After-School Program*

Three weeks into our after-school program, so much wonderful stuff has already happened that I have to get some of it off my chest. The kids’ personalities are just starting to emerge, their skills are sharpening, and consequently the days are increasingly fun. Concurrent with the play that goes on there is also a fairly rigorous–for elementary-school-age children–structure to the program. We open with a fifteen minute snack in the cafeteria where all the children gather. This gives them a second to unwind before the bulk of the teaching begins and they are divided into two groups: the visual artists and the musicians.

Mixing oil and water colors – learning about resists

Visual Art
The visual artists go withTremain Smith who immerses them in making art.  Teaching assistants Ms. Rachel and Ms. Stevie, both Temple affiliates, help out in the classroom, and on some days when Ms. Tremain can’t make it, Ms. Lisa, a teaching artist who worked with Al-Bustan last year, fills in. It is relatively early in the program, so we are building a foundation for future art projects by reviewing and learning foundational art concepts and skills such as texture, line, color, shadow, scale. So far, the students have enjoyed art so much that they do not even mind when art has gotten them in trouble with their parents. For example, Yaseen (Little Yusef, for those of you in the know) got a few stains on his shirt after the first day. I response, Yaseen justified this to his mother with a bold, and profound, statement claiming these splotches on his shirt were infact art (“but mama, this is art!”).  What the kids are doing looks like so much fun; I often find myself wishing that I was allowed to just sit and paint with the group.  For the last hour of the program, the teaching assistants and myself jump in to help the kid with their homework so that when they go home after 6pm they can actually relax and unwind a bit.

In the music track, the students take the first thirty minutes after snack to do homework, to lighten their work-load when they get home. Then, they come all together to sing in choir with Hanna Khoury and Hafez Kotain, and on Wednesdays with Serge El Helou. If this sounds mundane to you, take into account that these children sing songs in English, French, and Arabic. While they probably do not understand the Arabic words without the translation (provided on the papers), they are starting to get some of the more difficult Arabic sounds, such as the various guttural, glottal, and emphatic consonants. One of my hopes is that this program is planting the seeds (garden metaphor!) for their future linguistic flourishing.

Serge El Helou leads students in music skills session

Following choir they split into two groups that are distinguished by those who previously drummed with Mr. Hafez, and those who are new to the program. One group does percussion with Mr. Hafez (who is a very popular teacher at Moffet) and another group goes with Mr. Hanna or Mr. Serge to practice music drills and exercises in Western and Arab music. Everytime I hear them drum or sing I’m amazed by how quickly these kids learn new concepts and skills. They are already pretty good at matching pitches, and have learned so many drum rhythms. I cannot wait to see what they are adept at in the next few weeks!

So, this is simply a basic introduction to the program. I love to write, and tons of remarkable things happen every day at Moffet; this is merely the first in a series of articles about the budding program and students.

Max Dugan
Al-Bustan Program Coordinator

*Al-Bustan’s program at Moffet School is made possible with the support of William Penn Foundation, Children Can Shape the Future, Stockton Rush Barton Foundation, and Lincoln Foundation.