Reflections on Al-Bustan Camp

Marhaba! My name is Hannah Erdogan, and I will be beginning my college career at the University of Pennsylvania this fall majoring in Middle Eastern Studies and Pre-Medicine. I have attended Al-Bustan Summer Camp since I was six years old, and I have grown to love the diverse and all-accepting community that Al-Bustan Camp fosters within its program.

This summer, I am returning for my third year as a counselor, this year as the Group Leader for campers aged Kindergarten to Second Grade, otherwise known as Group Lu’Lu’–Arabic for Pearls. Throughout these two weeks, I have had flashbacks to my many summers spent learning about the Arabic language, culture, and arts at Al-Bustan Camp.

The first morning started off with some hesitant goodbyes for the young campers; from what I came to learn, many of these campers travel long distances before arriving at the playground in front of Friends Select School in Center City.

After drop-off, many parents may never fully understand what goes on the second floor of this school building. I hope to shine some light on some of these enriching experiences that may not make it home.

The first day got off to an energetic start and all reservations flew out the door when Mr. Hafez greeted the class with a loud “Sabah al-khayr” and placed a tabla–Arabic drum–in each of the campers’ miniature laps; their wide-eyed expressions were as if each child had been handed the power of the world. The campers quickly picked up on the dum, tak, and tika, eager to experiment to make any possible sound on this seemingly magical tool. As I sit cross-legged next to five-year-old camper Leyla, I am reminded of my own raw excitement but also of my struggle and awkwardness in playing an instrument almost as large as myself. What’s different now, though, besides my stature, is that from the counselor’s perspective I see how Mr. Hafez’s musical pedagogy not only introduces traditional Arab beats but also teaches respect, patience, and teamwork to create the challenging and complex rhythmic piece to be presented at Friday evening’s performance.

With Arabic drumming mastered, we move on in our camp day to learn about the theme of this summer’s camp: Souks of the Silk Route. The spectacular “Miss Lisa” is the glue that holds this camp together. As the teacher for our science and art classes, Miss Lisa skillfully weaves the Silk Road into each and every activity (she actually led all of the campers through a weaving project!)

One of my favorite class activities of hers was during science class on the first day of camp. It takes a special kind of teacher to be able to get across to rising kindergarten, first, and second graders the elaborate meaning and history of the Silk Road; however, after a short introduction with maps and images, Miss Lisa perfectly demonstrated the crux of the theme: trade. With each table representing the countries China, Turkey, India, and Uzbekistan and stocked with index cards labeled with commodities and corresponding point values, such as “1 Unit of Oil: 5 Points,” the campers were instructed to strategically trade their “goods” with other countries’ “goods.” I silently observed as the youngest campers tried to make deals with each other: two units of coffee is definitely a good deal for one unit of gold! Miss Lisa called the closure of the market, followed by an exciting tallying of points, after fluctuating the goods’ point values based on changes in supply and demand along our imaginary silk road. I was amazed by these young campers’ engagement and their understanding of the building blocks of modern economics!


After several mornings of Arabic immersion instruction with Ustadah Farnaz, the turning point in their language acquisition came Wednesday morning. As the campers dawned their fez, bangles, and abayas and entered the makeshift souk (a large white tent decorated with Egyptian fabrics and stocked with food and jewelry) with their individual kees (coin bags) in hand, they transformed into Middle Eastern merchants from 600 years ago. The campers swiftly utilized their new Arabic vocabulary of bekam hatha (how much money is this) to purchase goods including melh (salt), ‘asl (honey), and lu’ lu’ (pearls) by counting their gold coins in Arabic. I was so proud to watch my young campers, especially those who are not of Arab heritage, as their spoken Arabic skills blossomed in front of my eyes just after a week of instruction.
Over the past two weeks, I have witnessed the silk route theme of this summer’s camp truly come to life with the exchange of culture and friendship between campers of all ages. I cannot wait to see all of the campers’ hard work pay off as they fearlessly unleash their artistic talents on the stage of Friends Select School Friday evening!


Hannah Erdogan
Camp Counselor

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