Reconciling Identity Complexity through Arabic Calligraffiti

The narrative that French-Tunisian artist eL Seed expresses is one that speaks to a growing number of people in today’s modern, globalized world. On Sunday, November 12, the visiting artist-in-residence spoke to a room full of people at Perry World House as part of Al-Bustan’s (DIS)PLACED initiative. His story is one that Iand many others in the roomcould relate to on a very personal level. eL Seed was born and raised in the suburbs of Paris, but at the age of sixteen struggled deeply with an identity crisis that would influence how he expressed himself through art. Feeling alienated both by a lack of acceptance in French society and a lack of connection with his Tunisian roots, he pushed himself to explore his Arabic heritage by learning the language and script more fully. He began creating his own brand of “calligraffiti” -Arabic messages written in a calligraphic style- that he has created on many public walls around the world. Ironically, his exploration of this art form led him to more fully embrace his French identity, recognizing that the lack of formulaic rules in his writing of Arabic script that has been both controversial and groundbreaking was due to the influence of his French upbringing.

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eL Seed and Conrad Benner discussing displacement, community representation & involvement through artamong other relevant topics. Photo courtesy Chip Chip Colson.

This careful intersection of identities–Muslim, French, Arab, and Tunisian–is captured beautifully in eL Seed’s journey from rejection to acceptance in his work. The narrative of a “Third Culture Kid”someone who is raised in a culture different than that of their parents’, and the particular challenges that it posesis one that I too am learning to cope with. As the Muslim daughter of a French and Pakistani-British couple who was raised predominantly in the United States, I was struck by the power of eL Seed’s work as it allowed him to deal with feelings of alienation as well as fully embrace his own heritage. My own experiences have also given me insight into the way our own particular brand of mixed heritage allows us to occupy and be accepted in various spheres and cultures. The identity crises that shaped eL Seed as an adolescent has allowed him to empathize and represent the struggles and triumphs of people from the favelas of Brazil, to the garbage-collectors of Egypt, to his latest piece at the de-Militarized Zone between North and South Korea.

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eL Seed recounting various projects he worked on across the globe. Photo courtesy Chip Colson.

Throughout his conversation with Philadelphia-based art blogger Conrad Benner, eL Seed expressed a strong commitment to the transformative powers of art. Although stating that most artists have a social sensibility, eL Seed noted that artists who paint on the street in free space tend to be particularly motivated by the goal of unity. In his travels, eL Seed’s paintings serve the purpose of uniting disparate communities, or highlighting under-resourced ones. Painting for him is an opportunity for communication and connection within communities, what causes him most to thrive and grow as an artist is the conversations that his work inspires- to the point that he paints in a studio with no door in Dubai. Throughout the process of connecting with the communities he paints in, he hopes to encourage the democratization of art.

eL Seed paints phrases in Arabic because he believes it to be a script that you “see with the soul before you see it with your eyes,” but paints a message accessible to everyone that extends beyond his experiences and identities. He does not claim however, to change the lives of the communities he paints in, but rather to have been changed by these communities. I look forward to seeing the connections and stories that he helps to forge in Philadelphia, as he works on his mural in West Powelton this week!


Anisa Hasan-Graneir –Al-Bustan Intern, Majoring in Health and Societies with Pre-med, University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2020


Reflections on Music & Tales of Home

Marhaba, Al-Bustan Friends!
 Here’s a salute to “Music & Tales of Home,” the concert Al-Bustan presented on October 22, 2017, at the Trinity Center for Urban Life, a ridiculously sweet event that took place four walkable blocks from my own Philly home.22555741_10155815917624618_8829624845231114490_o

The concert felt like a summation of Al-Bustan’s (DIS)PLACED series, weaving together the written work of Ann de Forest in which she captured immigrants’ stories, the music of composers like Kinan Abou-Afach, Dave Tavani’s photo portraits of twelve featured immigrants and the presence of many of the immigrants themselves. 
Statuesque storyteller, Denise Valentine, bookended the concert with word pictures that took us to the heart of the human experience of feeling settled or finding ourselves made to move. We never know what events in our lives might shift and sweep us away from those places we call home, or how we might react to the shock of being transplanted.
 The presentation unfolded in fourteen parts—now a recitation by Denise, now a composition by one of the musicians performed by the group. You could feel the sway of moods as highlights of many immigrants’ experiences sewn together by Ann de Forest alternated with the musical pieces, now lyrical, now exuberant. The overall effect was exhilarating. 
As the music and storytelling unrolled, I realized that I was surrounded by friends of Ms. Valentine and actual subjects of the narratives she was presenting. For instance, I had already met Yasser Allaham who made his way to Jordan and the


n to the United States, escaping from war-torn Syria. Thanks to the unfolding (DIS)PLACED series already produced by Al-Bustan, I knew much of his story. And this past spring I had the pleasure of meeting him in Al-Bustan music classes at Penn. He plays the doumbek and knows all the lyrics to the Melhem Barakat songs we learned for last semester’s Arab Music Ensemble concert!)

I wish I could hear the entire production again. There was so much art in its construction! (Is there a CD in the offing? I hope so.) The ensemble included Hafez Kotain, mainstay percussionist at Al-Bustan, himself a Venezuelan-Syrian-American. And he could tell us that the other performer-composers, Kinan Azmeh (clarinet), Al-Bustan’s own Kinan Abou-Afach (cello) and Issam Rafea (oud) all have Syrian roots—connected to the High Conservatory in Damascus. If I have this right, these three last all knew one another there and the youthful looking Issam was actually a teacher of both of the Kinans. The invitation from Al-Bustan is always there, to include yourself in the experiences Hazami Sayed and her noble crew offer. I, as an immigrant to Philadelphia from Massachusetts, lo these forty years ago, a retired rabbi-librarian, can testify, it is a joyous experience.

-Sue Frank, Long-time Friend & Supporter of Al-Bustan