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

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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

An Eye Opening Journey

Coming to the United States was not my choice, however, it is not a regret.  It’s been the most challenging experience yet, the most empowering for me as I continue to learn and meet extraordinary people. Thinking back to the first time I arrived here, it felt like I had started from square one. I had to work hard to improve my knowledge of the language, cultures, and different ideas.  We were first brought to Kentucky, where we lived for a year and a half trying to fit in, until my family decided to move to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This small change expanded my view once again. When I arrived in Philadelphia I was amazed at the diversity that it held.  

When I came to America, Arabic was the only language I knew to speak, read, and write. The only words I knew in English were “How are you?” and “good”. English was taught in Syria but it was much different, with different words and pronunciations. I had to go through the difficulty of learning to communicate with my classmates and people around me. Even when I started to understand people talking to 

Doha and her schoolmates working on the making of ‘An Immigrant Alphabet’ while at Northeast High School, April 2017

me, my accent had kept me from speaking much. I would get replies like “can you repeat that?” or “sorry, I didn’t understand what you just said.” This problem continued until my second year in Philadelphia, where I made new friends who came from two different countries. To me, their English was a great motivation for me to improve my language, they began sharing their favorite books with me to help.

In seventh grade, reading had became a hobby of mine; the words I didn’t understand, I would translate. When I started at Northeast High school four years ago, my English was much better, allowing me to be the translator for my family. Whenever my parents went to the doctor or someone would call I would translate to help.  At Northeast  High, I was astonished at the many cultures present, most of which I did not know much about. The ESOL (English as a Second or Other Language) community was filled with students trying to assimilate into the new environment.  I started to volunteer to translate for the newly arrived students who spoke Arabic, as I didn’t want them to go through what I did when I first came to the United States.

During my sophomore year I had started to understand the importance of college especially since neither of my parents were able to attend school after their high school. My sister, who is a year older, and I weren’t sure of the college application process although we had lots of help from our counselors and teachers at the school. Pursuing higher education had became a primary goal for me, especially as it was also my parents’ dream. We had left our relatives and close friends for our future and education. I would constantly tell myself to be thankful for my education and to achieve the dream we came here for.

Being an immigrant has been challenging, although it was a big change in my life which made me more responsible, understanding, and open minded. As I became aware of all the diversity at Northeast High School, I didn’t see myself as an outsider. It is a place where people have similar understandings, especially if they shared experiences.  After setting aside my native language, Arabic, to develop a better understanding of the English language I am now enjoying reading books in both languages for improvement.

-Doha Salah, NEHS Alumnus, current freshman at the Community College of Philadelphia

Doha is one of the students who participated in ‘An Immigrant Alphabet’ —  a collaboration between artist Wendy Ewald and eighteen students at Northeast High School that will be on display in the Thomas Paine Plaza from September through December 2017. The students reflected on their journeys and ways of representing their stories through images and words. Expressed as an alphabet of 26 large banners installed around the exterior of the Municipal Services Building, their stories give insight into the complexities of immigration in America.  Click here to learn more about the project!

 

Hug Parties & Birthday Reflections

Hello Al-Bustan Community!


This is Soumya Dhulekar, your Program Coordinator for Al-Bustan Camp 2017.

I just returned from a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains. On my birthday, I decided to hike with my dad and my brother to the top of a mountain called Charlies Bunion. When we got to the top, I stood on a cliff and witnessed one of the most amazing views I have ever seen. You could see all of the mountains before your vision panned into the great, booming, metropolis city of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, that we all know and love.

While we hung out on the cliff, I climbed over a huge rock that was jutting out from the cliff to get a better view. It took 30 seconds for my dad to yell at me in front of strangers to get down from the rock. I am 25 years old.

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I was, in my mind – understandably, very annoyed. Then I realized that my dad is super afraid of heights and had already pictured me dead from falling off a cliff, even though I was right in front of him. I also realized that my dad is 55, has a messed up knee, and still decided to take the ten-mile hike with me. I remembered how generous that was of him.


This is the kind of generosity I saw with all of the families involved in

Al-Bustan Camp 2017, and I cannot emphasize how happy I was to be a part of this experience. To the parents of these families — you are all raising extremely generous people. Your children weren’t just campers at Al-Bustan, they were artists, dreamers, interpreters, leaders, translators, and storytellers. It is clear that all of you would hike ten miles with your children, even if your knees get weak.

 

I will always remember playing the parkour version of Red Light Green Light, talking about what we want to be when we grow up (a rapper!), my long overdue fan base for my unnoticed basketball *skills, unsolicited updates about Star Wars, sharing sketchbook drawings, the girls of group Awraq who became my crew of assistants for our final celebration, and my all-time favorite conversation from camp:

 

Soumya: “Okay, we’re going to play Red Light Green Light.”

Seraj, Group Funun: Nope, change of plans. Hug party!


You are all so special, and I wish you all of the hug parties you could ever hope for. See you next year!


Love,

Soumya

*I can shoot free throws and dribble a ball one time through my legs.

The Al-Bustan Experience: Camp 2017

I’m Adam. I was the counselor in charge of Group ‘Baladi’ (Arabic for ‘my country’) at Al-Bustan Camp. Despite my height and spattering of facial hair, I was pretty much a camper myself. That’s because everything the children did and learned, I did and learned, too. Shoulder to shoulder, we recited Ustadh Yaseen’s Arabic lessons and songs and banged on the Tabla with Ustadh Hafez. We crafted radial designs and herbal concoctions with Ustadha Lisa, told stories with Momma Sandi, Brother Nashid Ali, and Kala. I have to say there’s no better way to learn than by being ten years older than all the other students in the room.

I’m quite versed in the ways of Al-Bustan, being I was actually a camper myself from a young age, both my own and the program’s. As I greet parents dropping their children off in the morning, I realize that I can’t tell them about all the magic that goes down once camp begins. Much of the experiences I’ve had, that I wanted to tell them their children would have, remain unavailable for articulation. But I know. I’ll try to share some of what I know now.

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I know what it’s like to sit there and loll my oversized head and then all of a sudden, a teacher has directed me back to Earth where there is Arabic before me. Arabic! Yep the language that my parents speak at home. The one that I understand but I’m not confident enough to speak. The one that’s responsible for making unpronounceable the names of all those dishes I love but my American friends have never heard of. The one that gave me my name! Masha’Allah! Yes that one!

Anyway, I know what it’s like in the art room, waiting for Ustadha Lisa to finish her explanation because I’ve already snatched one of the colored pencils from the middle of the table, and this color is mine, and I’m going to make a fish, and I’m so excited, and as soon as it’s time to actually let loose I have no idea what I’m doing because I wasn’t really listening. Yeah. That happens. I always loved art.

I definitely know the drumming circle, the drum that’s too big for my little lap, so it wobbles when I play it. I know how to say “Dum, dum, tik-a-tak, dum, tik-a-tak, tik-a”, and then how to play it, and then how to tell you what that rhythm is called. It’s called baladi. (woah, isn’t that, like, the name of our group?!) I know the impulse to tap, tap, tap that tabla while Ustadh Hafez is talking but I refrain so I don’t miss a beat!

Something we brought back this year is the Dabke. We learned to dance. Sort of. Group Baladi was the absolute unruliest of the three when trying to teach the thing. They just wanted to play ninja. I’m a sucker for ninja. I beat everyone my second time around. But we had to learn it! So together we counted the steps, wahed, ithnan, thalatha, arbaa, khamsa… Or around the circle, holding hands, and we’d go wahed… ithnan… wahed… ithnan…. wahed, ithnan… Funny. We could never get the whole thing down unless the word ninja was mentioned.

Playful learning aside, Al-Bustan reminds me of home, which, Isuppose was the original mission for young Arab-Americans like myself. It’s never just Arab-Americans, however; there are campers with heritages from around the world and some whose histories lie in mystery. Some who shrug their shoulders when asked where they’re from and say, “Ana min Philadelphia!” (‘I am from Philadelphia’) It’s all great. We all get reminded of our homes, the ways in which culture and language express our lineage and livelihoods.
– Adam Bdeir, Temple University Class of 2020

A Journey In How Arabic Language & Arab Culture Shape Perspectives

In my freshman year at Motivation High School, I was exposed to something that would be instrumental in shaping my future and career goals.  I had  the opportunity to study the Arabic language, which is unique and rarely taught in American secondary educational  institutions. As I continued my academic journey,  I had the great privilege of traveling to Morocco in North Africa, where Arabic is one of the primary languages. This experience allowed me to gain better understanding of different cultural traditions and even develop friendships that will last a lifetime. As my passion for  the Arabic language grew, I was able to further my studies at Middlebury Monterey Language Academy, and now at West Chester University.

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Soumya Dhulekar (Programs Coordinator) and Byquill Mosley (Counselor/Intern) working together at Al-Bustan Camp.

Arab culture and the Arabic language have opened an abundance of doors for me and will continue to pry open more doors of opportunity for me in the future. Through my participation in Arab cultural traditions and institutions, I was able to gain a broader perspective on life. The language has also given me a wonderful opportunity to intern this summer for Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, an arts based non-profit organization in West Philadelphia.

Interning for Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture over the years has been an eye opener for me on many levels. I never realized how big of an impact one organization has on an entire cultural community. During my internship I had the opportunity to meet immigrants and refugees from Syria and Iraq, who sought sanctuary in the city of Philadelphia. Just interacting with the families and hearing their stories made me realize that I will be continuing my career as a humanitarian domestically and internationally far into the future. As Al-Bustan continues to be very supportive of immigrants and refugees in the community, I am glad to to be a part of an organization that tries to improve the lives of others  through altruistic deeds.  Al-Bustan’s mission is not just to expose Philadelphia to Arab culture, but to develop better relationships in our city regardless of ethnicities, religion and political affiliation.

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Wrapping up the last day of Al-Bustan Camp with an amazing team of campers, educators and counselors!

One of Al-Bustan’s key contributions to the Philadelphia community focuses on helping people understand Arab  culture through initiating  conversation and through the arts.  That’s huge to me because Arabic language and culture helped me reach certain heights. These heights are reachable for anyone, you just need to be open to experiencing new things. Through this internship program, I was able to see first hand the day-to-day operations in running a successful arts based non-profit organization in a major city. I also  learned certain aspects and the amount of diligence that goes into running a non-profit organization. Thanks to Executive Director, Hazami Sayed, for establishing  Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, as it truly taught me how to use my knowledge of Arabic language to benefit my community.

Byquill Mosley- Intern at  Al-Bustan

West Chester University

Class of 2019

Reflections on (DIS)PLACEMENT – Through The Arts

Weeks of planning from Al-Bustan’s staff led up to the (DIS)PLACED Arts Workshop on June 22nd. The theme of our (DIS)PLACED project is to highlight not only the physical reality of moving or immigration (whether through coercion or choice), but also the mental state or condition of being displaced. Over fifty people participated in the workshop, from a variety of backgrounds and with a great diversity of experience. All different age groups, ethnicities, nationalities, races, and religions were represented; the enormous diversity and plurality of experiences seemed to encourage increased connections and communication between different individuals.

What struck me the most was the fact that in a group with such divided experiences, almost everyone could reflect on and express their own emotions, thoughts, and experiences stemming from displacement. It has become clear to me over the course of this project that displacement is a universal condition of the human experience. My own life experiences have been shaped by displacement: First the displacement of my grandparents from Pakistan to Europe, and then that of my parents and I from Europe to America. Not everyone has experienced the forcible displacement that refugees in the Middle East and around the world are experiencing on a daily basis, however, being able to understand the feelings associated with displacement is a step towards developing the empathy to relate to their stories. This became tangible to me during the workshop.

Syrian installation artist Buthayna Ali had been invited to participate in a workshop with us during the summer months as an artist in residence, but the reality of the travel ban eventually made this impossible. This did not deter Al-Bustan from showcasing Ali’s work, and Ali helped participants engage with difficult themes and topics using her artistic process as a means of expression. She managed to present her work and lead the workshop by videoconference from Damascus against the odds. As I watched her interact with audience members in Philadelphia, a location where she was expressly forbidden from physically being by the current American administration, I felt that this was truly a symbol of artistic vision and exchange overcoming the bigotry and hate that divides our world today.

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My final thoughts as I helped lead workshops and watched as audience members continued to engage with the challenging theme of displacement was the power of varying and diverse kinds of arts as modes of expression. Through music, poetry, and visual art, participants in the workshops were able to unlock and express their own narratives, as well as understand those of their fellow participants, bridging gaps in culture and experience.

Anisa Hasan-Graneir – Summer 2017 Intern, Sociology Major at the University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2020