ت is for تبادل | Discovering Dialogue in Thomas Paine Plaza

The first was a woman—I’ll call her “I.”. She was clearly interested in the artwork, staring intently at one of the 26 banners that adorn the Philadelphia Municipal Services Building. “There’s a caption at your feet, too,” I offered, pointing to the accompanying letter and definitions, written by the Northeast High School students who had authored An Immigrant Alphabet. I introduced myself as working with the project, and spoke briefly about the students, and the process of making the piece, and its scale.“It goes all the way around the building, so you can treat it like a gallery,” I invited. She nodded, still a little tense; “Thank you.”

Interested in the artwork, I concluded, but not in a

conversation. I explained that I would be happy to answer any other questions and moved to give her some space. “This is a great project,” she said, by way of parting. “I came from Pittsburgh, so I’m really happy to see this.”

I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I didn’t ask her to clarify. As an on-site project assistant, much of my job consists of little judgement calls like this: gauging interest, guessing how much someone might care to know, explore, or discuss. I try to give everyone at least the basic details, to invite them to the content and what Al-Bustan and the students

of Northeast High are doing in the plaza. Some people respond viscerally, emotionally, and I explore that if they are willing. Others are more eager to talk, and want to contribute by filling out surveys to share their stories and opinions.

“I.” was not looking to talk. Later, I found her again at one of our display boards, several long racks of postcard-sized versions of each letter in the alphabet. Next to her a man puzzled through the cards— “J.”, for short. I stepped over to offer him information about the project and the students, but he cut me off:

“—such a shame what they did to Argentina and Brazil,” he said, pointing to one of the banners, where a student wore an Argentine Football jersey. It was the kind of loaded statement that experience teaches you will be followed by an explanation regardless of reply, but this being what

I am technically paid for, I took the bait; “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Well, how they banned immigration from certain countries so that everyone could have light skin,” he explained. “They only wanted Europeans. That’s why so many Nazis went there, after the war. They all like fled there, and that’s why everyone in Argentina is like, blond hair and blue eyes, you know? It’s like, bittersweet in a way, because that’s why people there are so beautiful.”

I struggled to think where to begin addressing such a problematic narrative of history that was flattened, distorted, and uninformed. Fortunately, someone else started for me. “I’m sorry, but it is not that black and white,” said “I.” from the postcards. I realized she too had been stunned into stillness as “J.” spoke, but now she became animated. “I am Colombian, and I can tell you it’s not so simple as all that. The history of Europeans in South America is really complex, and involved.” The man

started, a bit taken aback, but began heatedly debating with “I.” Eventually, she grew so frustrated that she simply turned and walked away, visibly upset. “J.” turned to me embarrassed as his friend, “M.” walked over to join us. “I feel bad,” “J.” admitted; “I didn’t mean to upset her. But they really did that, in Argentina! You can look it up!”

I pressed him to think about where he had heard that information, how he had verified it, and about some of the points “J.” had been trying to make. We fell into talking about borders, immigration, and politics. I mentioned a teacher from New York city, who had visited the plaza and shared stories of ICE agents coming to their high school to look for students, or mothers picking up their kids. “M.” spoke about fear, and the ways we oppress ourselves. And then we I saw “I.”, walking determinedly back across the plaza towards us.

“I’m sorry, but I had to say this,” she interjected at “J.”s shoulder, as he turned, “Argentina has the largest Jewish population in South America, largely because they opened their doors to refugees fleeing the war.” “J.” admitted that he

was surprised to learn that, and apologized for earlier. There were many apologies, in fact, passed around the group as we “talked about talking about these things,” one of those odd

meta-conversations that people tend to use to ease through difficult subjects. There was more time to explain what was meant, and what was felt, and room for those things to coexist.

“It’s hard to talk about these things,” “M.” admitted, to a chorus of nods, “and to do it out in the open like this. In the middle of the plaza.”

“And especially to do it with strangers,” someone added.

“Yeah, it’s very strange.” We shared a laugh, and then a long pause.

“I’m John.”




We shook hands, and kept talking, splitting off and chasing different topics to and fro. “I feel like my mind is being opened to a lot lately,” I overheard John tell Ivana at one point, as we had split into separate discussions. Eventually Maurice had to go, and we all seized the chance for a break, shaking h

ands and saying goodbye. “I’m sorry, I just had to come back,” Ivana offered once more. “I’m glad you did,” John said, and they shook hands once more and parted.

تبادل means “exchange;” combined with words like آراء or ثقافات it becomes a dialogue, a sharing of ideas, viewpoints, etc. But perhaps just “exchange” is really more useful to us, as “dialogue” sometimes can feel like too low and too high a bar simultaneously. “I mean, even this isn’t really a conversation,” Maurice explained at one point; we knew very little about each other, about where we were came from or what we stood for. We were touching on many hard topics, without the time or context to go too deep.

When I was first hired as a project assistant, I wondered what kind of conversations I would be having on the plaza—wondered what kind of conversations I should be trying to facilitate. There is a kind of tension between wanting to document people’s viewpoints and wanting to inform a discussion; people often don’t feel comfortable speaking freely if they feel that you want them to ‘learn’ something or to support a particular agenda. And yet, if our ideas pass each other without making contact or being challenged and changed, it feels like a wasted opportunity.

What happened on the plaza that day may not have been a proper dialogue, but as far as I’m concerned, it was a good start. Not every discussion on immigration, race, and heritage needs to be the General Assembly at the UN. Instead, if a few strangers in a large plaza can trade a few thoughts and perspectives, and each walk away with something new, then perhaps they have made their next difficult conversation just a little more possible.

Yannick Trapman-O’Brien | Project Assistant, An Immigrant Alphabet, Nov. / Dec. 2017


Speed Interviews with Moffet’s Little Leaders: Jehaid, Wearer of Many Hats

I had the pleasure of interviewing one of Al-Bustan’s attendance assistants at Moffet Arab Arts After-School Program, a third-grader named Jehaid.

I was always in charge of attendance. However, one Monday I was sitting in the auditorium with my sheet, when Jehaid came up to me and asked, “Can I take attendance for you?” On a whim I agreed, thinking that this would be a one-time thing. The next day, I am taking attendance again, when Jehaid comes up to me and asks, “Where’s my sheet?”


“Where’s my sheet? I am taking attendance.”

Jehaid inspired the creation of leadership roles for Moffet  students. She is responsible, outgoing, smart, and a natural-born leader. During parent pick-up, Jehaid had a minute to chat with me about her experience.

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Jehaid, being a boss.

S: How has your experience been so far at the Moffet Arab Arts After-School Program?

J: The best.

S: In what way?

J: I have never taken attendance before. This is my first job at Al-Bustan.

S: Could you elaborate on any prior experience you have which makes you qualified for this position?

J: I was a teaching assistant for Ms. Kane’s second-grade class. I am also now a messenger for my third grade class.

S: What is a messenger?

J: Oh, it’s like you send things to the office or to another teacher.

S: Got it. Well that sounds great. Last question: What do you want to be when you grow up?

J: A doctor.

S: Wow, that’s really cool, why do you want to be a doctor?

J: My mom’s here.

Jehaid is very well-rounded and super ambitious. Seeing how much she has achieved at Moffet in such a short amount of time makes me confident that she is on her way to accomplishing much, much more.

Stay tuned for more quick interviews with Moffet students!

— Soumya Dhulekar, Programs Coordinator

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

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!



*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.


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