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.
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.
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.*
Kenyon College, Class of 2017