Replanting the Seeds at Al-Bustan


Me dressed in a black skirt, age 7 at Al-Bustan Camp 2007

I’m currently working as an intern with Al-Bustan. My longstanding participation with Al-Bustan says something about the organization, in that its reach extends past those ancestrally connected with Arab culture. 

Though I am fascinated by Arabic language and culture, my mother’s family is Colombian-American, and my father’s family is Angolan. It is the integration of Arab culture throughout the Islamic world, specifically in the Andalusian region, that originally led my mother to send me to Al-Bustan Camp, and it is my own ethnic diversity that has allowed me to be more open to other cultures. 

Growing up surrounded by the languages that tie into my heritage (Spanish and Portuguese, of which I speak Spanish fluently) has further interested me in the languages that go along with the identities of others: while I attended Independence Charter School, I was fortunate enough to study Arabic during my last 3 years. Currently a sophomore at Science Leadership Academy, I take my school life, both in and out of the classroom, very seriously. I’m on the debate team as well as the board of the robotics team. While Arabic is a hobby of mine, I bring the same dedication to studying the language and culture that I do to my schoolwork.


Me playing the role of the “Sea Goddess,” age 10 at Al-Bustan 2010

It’s fortuitous that the first song I learned as an Al-Bustan Camper, Lamma Bada Yatathanna, was one representing the multicultural region of Andalusia, Spain. As a seven year old, I could not grasp the importance of the lessons of acceptance taught to me through Al-Bustan’s diverse and welcoming environment, but returning to Al-Bustan each year has offered me a way to reconnect with those lessons as well as my passions: Arabic and Music. Though I have pursued out-of-school opportunities (I take singing lessons at UPenn and Arabic lessons with a family friend, Tarek Albasti), limited funding within the Philadelphia School District has made in-school access nearly impossible. Working with Al-Bustan seemed like the perfect option for me as I am in the midst of thinking about what I want to do in the future. The organization has done such a phenomenal job of incorporating the arts, especially Middle Eastern art, into education of the Arabic language. general goal for this internship is to improve my understanding of the Arabic language and culture by interacting with prominent figures working with Arab art and culture here in Philadelphia. Most importantly, I want to decide for myself whether or not working in an Arabic-related field and with organizations that promote Arab culture is something that I would like to pursue in the future. If so, I know that the seeds that I plant through this internship with Al-Bustan will prove a strong foundation. Insha’ allah I will use that foundation to better my understanding of the Arab world, while learning from and teaching others along the way.

Fairuz’s version of Lamma Bada Yatathanna

Kia DaSilva – Intern at Al-Bustan
Class of 2017, Science Leadership Academy





Dancing, Debke, and Tarab at Greenfield School

The experts setting up before the presentation.

When Hazami asked me to help Hafez, Hanna, and Hicham with their presentation about Arab music at Greenfield School, I expected an engaging lecture; there is no way I would have guessed that by the end of the assembly that the students would literally be dancing and clapping in the auditorium. As their teacher pointed out, this extraordinary student engagement is made even more amazing by the fact that this presentation took place during the last period of the day on Halloween, when all the children have on their minds’ is trick-or-treating. Now I’m just wondering about the date of our next school presentation/debke experience.

The impetus for this whole talk is that Hafez–who is currently teaching Greenfield 6th graders Arabic drumming–wanted to give his students a little background in Arab music and culture, so that they could better appreciate what he is teaching them. So, Hafez did what any teacher would do in this situation: he recruited two virtuoso Arab musicians, who are also currently pursuing doctorates in anthropology of music and ethnomusicology, to accompany him in describing Arab music and culture, as well as performing some traditional Arab music. You know, the usual routine in this situation.

Hanna Khoury, Hicham Chami, Hafez, and
Hafez Kotain fielding questions from Greenfield students.

And in an hour and half Hafez Kotain, Hanna Khoury, and Hicham Chami covered so much information. They began with a primer on their instruments (the violin, qanun, and dumbek) and how they are used in Arab music. For the record, the Greenfield students liked the qanun the most; Hicham was extremely happy. Then they traced the history of modern Arab music as the cultural center moved from the Ottoman empire (Morocco was independent during this time), to Egypt and Umm Kulthum, to Lebanon and Fairuz, while also giving a brief overview of maqamat, or Arab scales. Throughout this talk they played examples of the different genres of music, from ‘Aziza to Longa Shahnaz. All of this was wonderful, especially the kids’ responsiveness, but nothing could prepare me for what happened during the finale.

The dabke finale that lit up the room.
To close the presentation, Hafez blew everyone away with a lively debke rhythm. The English language doesn’t have words to describe what Hafez did to the kids, though the Arabic word “tarab,” which roughly translates to “enchanting,” would work perfectly. All I know is that the kids were literally dancing in the aisles of the auditorium, and when the song ended, I heard an audible “woo!” from the students. As someone who went to Philadelphia Public School for thirteen years I can tell you that I never once saw students react to a presentation like that. The reason is pretty obvious: we never had a musician like Hafez come give a talk on Arab music and culture. I’ll be looking to the next time I get to help set up for one of these presentations, which, as I know now, will never be the “usual.”

Max Dugan
Al-Bustan Program Coordinator