A Fun-Filled First Day at Al-Bustan Camp 2016

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Hafez teaching the campers to an Arabic song “Fil-Bustan”!

The first day of Al-Bustan Camp began with nervous goodbyes and hugs to parents as the campers were dropped off.  By the end of the day, however, all the campers had made many new friends and showed confidence in the various activities. Content-wise, the campers have six classes throughout the day: Arabic with Brahim El Guabli, art and science with Lisa Volta, percussion and singing with Hafez Kotain. In science, the students learned about the healing power of marigold. In art, they explored the garden and collected different plants for making natural paintbrushes. Mr. Hafez led the children through the basics of hand percussion and they learned several classic Arab rhythms. For me, the best part of the day was watching the campers who did not speak a word of Arabic before today courageously sing along to Mr. Hafez’s song, في البستان, or “In the Garden” by the afternoon. I am looking forward to tomorrow and seeing what the campers do next!

Elizabeth Berthy, Al-Bustan Summer Intern

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Cultivating Arabic’s Cosmopolitan Heritage in America

Sitting cross-legged on the auditorium floor of Kensington’s Moffet Elementary School, I listened attentively to a diverse group of American children singing an Arabic song together on stage. Joining me in the audience were dozens of proud parents. The people in the room came from different ethnic backgrounds and communities: African American, White, Latino/a and Arab American. North Philly. West Philly. That moment, all of us, children and adults alike, were united in celebrating Arabic language and culture. When I ask myself, “Why are you interning for Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture?”, this moment at Moffet School is my answer. I work at Al-Bustan because this non-profit actively and creatively introduces a classical Arabic tradition of celebrating cosmopolitanism to Philadelphia’s diverse community.

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The Moffet School choir performing at end-of-year concert

My last sentence may strike some as odd. Do the Arabic language and Arab culture have any historical relationship with multiculturalism at all? Thanks to mainstream media’s reduction of Arabic culture to violence and intolerance, it is easy to view the Arabic music concert at Moffet School as anomalous. But this conclusion could not be further from the truth. For about 1,500 years since the classical period (6th to 13th centuries C.E.), the Arabic language and Arab culture has been transforming one of the most ethnically, linguistically, and culturally diverse regions of the world. Several facts demonstrate my point. The first person to compile an Arabic dictionary in the 8th century, was a non-Arab Persian scholar named Al-Farahidi. The 10th century Perso-Arabic scholar Al-Biruni’s Tarikh al-Hind (History of India) is perhaps the earliest major formal study of Hinduism, and of Indian history in general. Arabic is spoken by hundreds of ethnic groups from Morocco to Oman. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of languages from West Africa to Indonesia include substantial Arabic vocabulary in their lexicons. Many are even written in modified versions of the Arabic script. These languages include Hausa and Fulani in Nigeria, Swahili in East Africa, Farsi in Iran and Afghanistan, Hindi-Urdu in India and Pakistan, and Bahasa in Indonesia and Malaysia. The list of facts that point towards Arabic’s cosmopolitan heritage goes on. Al-Bustan’s success at bringing together diverse children from North Philadelphia to enjoy and reproduce Arabic song and music is a current American twist to the Arabic language’s age-old positive engagement with diverse ethnicities, cultures, and languages around the world.

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Me standing in the literal garden of Al-Bustan’s office

I work for Al-Bustan because I believe in the Arabic language’s uniting power. Al-Bustan’s commitment to celebrating the Arabic language and Arab culture in the United States appeals to my commitment to diversity. The music and choir concert at Moffet School was my first experience with its culturally enriching work. The children, many of whom had little or no background with Arabic music and songs, amazed me with their performances. Their ability to memorize, enunciate, and sing songs in perfect Arabic was phenomenal. Moffet school’s artistic and cultural productions tell me that this non-profit is succeeding at reproducing the Arab world’s rich cosmopolitan heritage in an American context. As my multicultural path with Al-Bustan races by this summer, I will think about Umar Ibn Farid’s humanist verse celebrating diversity:

I hear the many voices

of those who pray in every tongue

In a space of time shorter than a flash.*

Muhammed Hansrod, Al-Bustan Summer Intern
Kenyon College, Class of 2017

*Source: http://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/Poets/I/IbnalFaridUm/Whisperingth/index.html

Reflecting on the Emotive Impact of Teaching the Arts

On Friday, May 27, the High Tide art gallery hosted an art show for the spice paintings, dreamscapes, and Andalusian collages that students created in Al-Bustan’s Moffet Arab Arts After-School Program., led by teaching artist Lisa Volta. The highlight of the evening was my illuminating conversation with attendees whose opinions on the works reminded me of the power of arts education.

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Moffet student Stephanie working on her sunflower using spice “paint”

Following introductions between myself and guests, we began analyzing the art works. Through our conversations I realized that my critiques focused more on the complexity of composition and clarity of depiction. The guests, however, saw the pieces from a wholly different perspective. While I gravitated towards more “neat” paintings, others preferred the more raw, emotive works. For them, the virtue of this art was its lack of refinement—as one guest put it, most adult artists are actually trying to return to a child-like honesty when making art.

In particular, everyone was fascinated by a very dark dreamscape painting because, although the painting itself was murky, the emotions it intimated were crystal clear. After further discussion I remembered that the artist of this painting had previously hinted at some sadness in her life during a choir assignment. Instead of verbally discussing this emotions with us, this child decided to process the emotions in her art class.

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High Tide co-owners and me posing after hanging the students artwork

Being the site-manager handling day-to-day operations of the after-school program tends to detract me from appreciating how wonderful the arts are for our kids. When you consider the diversity of our students, their life experiences, and the art they produce, it is simply beautiful what we get to do on a daily basis. While it was a pleasure to see the students’ work on display once again, the engagement of guests and their observations reminded me that we are not just teaching technical skills and classroom behavior, but we are also offering tools for these youth to express themselves without judgment.

Many thanks to High Tide Gallery for hosting the show!  With their help, and the help of many other people and organizations supporting the Moffet community, we can continue to grow both the literal and metaphorical Moffet Garden.

– Max Dugan, Al-Bustan Program Coordinator

Inspirational Interning at Al-Bustan

As an Egyptian-American Muslim by heritage, and a joint Government and Middle-Eastern Studies major at Harvard University, I have always had a particular interest in the various ways that Arab culture and American society interact and intersect. Given the vitriolic rhetoric and negative stereotypes that have come to define our mainstream media’s presentation of Arab-Americans, Al-Bustan’s mission to present and celebrate Arab culture through arts is especially significant in shaping the nature and impact of these interactions. Thus, from my very first experience working with Al-Bustan, as a volunteer camp counselor in 2014, I was inspired by the prospect of contributing to the cross-cultural awareness and understanding that Al-Bustan promotes through its arts programming and outreach initiatives.

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Volunteering at Al-Bustan Camp 2014

When I decided to apply for an internship with Al-Bustan for the summer of 2016, I intended to dive headfirst into a completely new working environment and hopefully gain a basic familiarity with the inner workings of a non-profit organization. However, what I gained from my three weeks with Al-Bustan surpassed every expectation I had, both in terms of the skills and knowledge I gained, as well as the daily working environment that I was a part of. I hit the ground running with a wide range of complex and engaging tasks from my very first day, which allowed me to gain a nuanced understanding of the day-to-day operations of a non-profit in my short time with the organization.

I spent much of my first week performing tasks related to data entry and organization, which also served as a crash-course in such essential data management programs as SalesForce and Excel. Although tedious, these tasks forced me to become facile with the basic functions of the applications, and allowed me to explore in-detail some of the more powerful tools necessary to complete my specific tasks. My time was split with other tasks such as creating charts for Hazami to present at the upcoming Board/Staff Retreat, coordinating equipment rentals for the weekend concert, and helping Lindsey select posts for Al-Bustan’s social media.

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Volunteering at Al-Bustan Camp 2014

While initially slightly overwhelming, I quickly grew accustomed to the fast-paced and dynamic work environment of the Al-Bustan office, and by my second week, I was able to effectively manage my work of documenting the Board/Staff Retreat which I assisted at, while simultaneously responding to any urgent needs or tasks of my coworkers and participating in the office-wide meetings and debriefing sessions. Through these experiences, I found myself becoming more detail-oriented and efficient, while also learning to organize and manage multiple projects or tasks simultaneously — skills that will be incredibly useful in my future academic and professional endeavors.

– Adam Mohsen-Breen, Al-Bustan Intern, Summer 2016