Friday, March 21, 2014

"Be kind": A weekend with the Narcicyst

The Narcicyst
          When I first heard that Al-Bustan was bringing a hip-hop artist to Philadelphia, I was intrigued. I read about the influence that hip-hop music had in the Middle East during the Arab Spring and, even though I didn’t understand much of what was being said, I liked listening to these tracks and trying to feel the inspiration in them. Some quick research into the Naricyst taught me that I would, thankfully, be able to understand his mostly-English rapping. The sounds of his songs began to fill my study space as I grew more and more excited for his visit. I looked forward to his performance with the Takht Ensemble, which I knew would yield “remixed” versions of his songs, and when I learned he would be doing a presentation for Penn students too, I was excited for an intimate experience with a rapper who clearly has a lot to say. What I didn’t realize, though, was how inspirational his story would be at both events and how relevant it was for me and other Penn students.
          At the event at Penn on Thursday, Narcy read an excerpt from his book, Diatribes of a Dying Tribe. It detailed the identity struggles he felt trying to figure out how to be an Emirates-born Iraqi who had immigrated to Montreal. He recalled coming home to his house in Canada and seeing rude, racial writing scrawled on the garage door and remembered his struggle with answering the question, “Where are you from?” He addressed this at his concert too, saying, “It’s hard enough trying to figure out who I am as a rapper, let alone a Muslim, let alone a Canadian, let alone an Iraqi!”
One of the spoken word poets
          Now, I don’t exactly consider myself someone who struggles with identity issues. I was born 30 minutes away from where I currently live, to a family whose family had essentially always lived in America. But some members of the audience felt differently, and, when Narcy invited anyone who wanted to share their story on Thursday, spoke up about the identity issues they  experienced: some of them growing up, but some of them more recently, on Penn’s campus. A few said that they used hip-hop or even Narcy’s music to alleviate of these problems, utilizing it as an outlet where they could really be themselves. I found these stories really inspirational: college, for me, has been a huge journey in self-discovery during which I’ve struggled to figure out who I am and who I’m becoming. It’s not always easy to talk about this journey, and seeing students who had used the Narcicyst’s medium to do so was really inspirational.
          At the concert on Sunday, the inspiration continued through spoken-word poetry put on at the beginning of the concert by several students who had refined their performances during a private workshop with the Narcicyst. One was a Native American student who talked about his experience being off the reservation and in a city; another was an African-American who talked about the stereotypes that exist within his community. All of their stories were interesting and a reminder of the complex issues that every student seems to experience.
          It was a reminder for me that you never know the experiences of the people you walk past every day. Even when you try to guess who someone is—which is often done in earnest between Penn students—you don’t know their background or upbringing, and in fact you might be shocked to hear their real story. It reminds me of a favorite quote of mine: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” The Narcicyst, in some ways, expressed this when he introduced himself at the concert, saying, “You can call me whatever you want, just please nothing negative.” Overall, his performances in Philadelphia were informative and inspiring for me, helping me connect better with the other students who surround me.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

!صحتين -- To your health!

A full spread: tomatoes,
falafel, hummus, and khobz!
Believe it or not, when I left for the Middle East I didn’t like hummus. I could never quite stomach the texture. So when my roommates and I stumbled into our first falafel place in Amman, I didn’t have high hopes. We chose Mota’m Hashem, which calls itself the oldest restaurant in Amman and, despite its grungy demeanor, is apparently frequented by the Royal Family. A few blank looks at the waiter as he asked us, in Arabic, what we wanted was all it took to “order,” and soon, we had before us balls of falafel, steaming cups of chai wa na’na’ (tea with mint), a plate of onion and tomato slices, hummus, fool (mashed fava beans), and, to go with it all, freshly-baked khobz, or bread. I dipped a piece in hummus, added some tomato, and tried it—had I really not liked this stuff before?? Doused in olive oil and topped with ground up mint leaves, it became a staple of my diet, along with the falafel I liked to dip in it!

Arabic mashawii-- note 
the french fries covering it!
My food journey continued as I spent more time in Amman. I tried manakeesh for the first time: half za'atar and half jebnah, or cheese, spread out over thin bread. I tried a delicious Arabic salad called fattoush, with cut up cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, and small lemon slices topped with thin croutons and a light dressing. Another favorite of mine was kubbah, a ball of minced and spiced meat encased by a fried overcoat. I was lucky enough to try waraq a’nab in the home of a new Arab friend: she piled seven or eight of these stuffed grape leaves on my plate, and although my tongue was overwhelmed at first bite, I soon acquired a taste for the sharply flavored filling of rice and meat. It was with the same friend, this time out at a restaurant, that I tried mashawii, or Arabic barbecue: wonderfully sauced beef kebabs, chicken, and lamb, with grilled onions and tomatoes to eat with it. And it was best paired with limon wa na’na’, a chilled, icy blend of lemon juice and pulverized mint leaves.

Limon wa na' na' 
on a hot day in Amman
There were also two classic Jordanian dishes that I had to sample: mensaf and kunafa. Mensaf, which comes from the Bedouins, the native people of Jordan, consists of lamb over rice, covered in a thick yogurt sauce. The lamb was amazing, practically falling off of the bone; the yogurt sauce, however, was a taste I liked less, and it kept me from going back for seconds. But no one could keep me away from kunafa, a dessert made of heated cheese underneath shredded dough and doused with sugary syrup. I lived a 5 minute walk from one of the most famous sweets stores in Amman, Habibeh’s, and would often make the trip after dinner to satisfy my sweet tooth. And every time after I finished eating came the familiar courtesy, from waiters and Arab friends alike: "!صحتين (saHtain) -- To your health!" 

Delicious, delicious kunafa!

So my question to Al-Bustan readers now is this: Where do I get this food in Philadelphia!?  Hazami at Al-Bustan was generous enough to give me some Jordanian za'atar for homemade manakeesh, and I've found falafel mix that you can fry at home to make balls. But what are the best restaurants?  I’ve tried Saad's and Manakeesh, right across from each other at 45th and Walnut, and was satisfied with their falafel sandwiches and platters. But what about kubbah, fattoush, and mashawii?  Is there anywhere to get limon wa nanah?  Can anyone in Philadelphia make kunafa!? If you know of places that I should try out, please let me know in the comments!!

Amy T. Cass
Al-Bustan Program Assistant
University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2015
International Relations Major

Friday, January 31, 2014

Bouzouki, A Memory of Home

When one sings, his or her voice becomes an instrument. The singer has to practice and fine-tune it, much like a drummer has to practice the intricate beating patterns that build to the complex tempo of a musical piece.  

Last semester, I enjoyed seeing singers and percussionists refine their skills. Their musical dexterity is astounding to observe, and most apparent in the instrumental class, which included an accordionist, a violinist, a cellist, a bouzouki player, and several percussionists.  These instrumentalists syndicate their tunes into an amazing mixture of melodies, rhythms, and compositions.  What surprised me at Monday night rehearsals was that even though each instrument had a completely different sound, they all mixed so naturally that I could only hear and appreciate the compositions as a whole. On one of those nights, after class, I had a chance to sit down with Fragkiskos Koufogiannis, a PhD candidate in Electrical Engineering at Penn School of Engineering, who told me about his involvement in the class.

F: Wait, so are you in the class?

Me:  No no, I’m actually an intern at Al-Bustan. I help them out with administrative functions, taking photos, and conducting interviews like this one. Where to begin then? Would you mind if I asked where you are from?

F: I am from Greece. The country is very multicultural but it definitely has a distinctive Turkish influence. Since the Turks have a heavy Arab influence, I grew accustomed to Arab music and arts. 

Me: Is that why you were interested in Al-Bustan?

F: Absolutely. To be perfectly honest, I am a little home sick. I’ve tried the Greek food around Philadelphia but…you know how you can’t get the same taste from restaurants as you can at home? That’s the same kind of problem I have had with feeling accustomed to Philly.  Music is the closest thing to home right now for me and that’s why I am enjoying the class so much.

Me:  I am glad to hear it. You guys play so passionately that sometimes I feel like it isn’t a class but that you guys are just practicing like a band. . .  So does Greece have a lot of Middle Eastern influences?

F: Kind of... I mean the culture gets communicated from Turkey, Greece and the Arab world. A lot of the musical instruments in Greece have a Middle Eastern influence. The instruments have transformed over the ages and I’ve adopted the bouzouki(a long-necked stringed instrument of Greek origin that resembles a mandolin) as my choice of instrument.  When I came to America two years ago , I was really homesick and the sound of the bouzouki brought me back home.  
M:  Yeah, I can relate to that. Going back to your earlier mention of food, it's a bit harder to emulate the authentic tastes of "back home."  I find restaurants tend to market to a bigger crowd, so they have a fusion of American and foreign foods.  In contrast, music has a universal quality, and as such it's easier to communicate across borders. 

M:  How do you think Al-Bustan presents itself to the public, how does it market itself?

F: I was really surprised. I found that they don’t promote the classes by calling them “oriental music classes” or something that is greatly commercialized. They promote it the way it is, without any false pretenses or any misgivings. The classes have Arab faculty who are very talented and knowledgable about their respective fields. The fact that they have am engaging personality is a perk that is very hard to find.

M:  That’s great to hear. Well this has been a pleasure. If you ever need any help with anything, please be sure to let me or others at Al-Bustan know. 

Fragkiskos's view of the music ensemble reflects many of the other participants' appreciation of the class. I invite you to check out our current classes by following this link... and join us!
Muhammad Naqvi
Program Assistant, Al-Bustan
Class of 2015 - College of Liberal and Professional Arts
University of Pennsylvania

Friday, January 24, 2014

عمّان، مدينة حلوة -- Amman, a beautiful city

Nearly seven months ago, when I boarded the plane to leave the United States for the first time in my life, I wasn’t overly nervous. I didn’t cry when I waved goodbye to my parents, or panic about arriving in a city I hardly knew anything about. Mostly on my mind was the new experience in front of me and my excitement to finally fulfill my study abroad dream: living in the Middle East.

A view of the city!
My plane was bound for Amman, where I was to spend a summer studying Arabic at a language institute before moving to Cairo for the fall semester. As fate would have it, my Cairo trip was cancelled and I stayed in Amman for the whole six months. To some, Amman is a slightly boring, much-less cosmopolitan version of the other Levantine capitals, Beirut and Damascus; but to me, every day was a new adventure. I learned to navigate the city, haggle with shop owners, and chat with taxi drivers. All of these things were more interesting because I got to speak Arabic while doing them—or at least attempt it. In the summer I was there for Ramadan, and it became illegal to eat or drink in public during the day. At night, however, I got my first glimpse at Arab nightlife at a café in downtown Amman, where we arrived at 9 pm and were still surrounded by groups of friends and families—with all of their young children—at 1 am, when we decided it was time to go sleep! I drank limon wa n3na—lemon with mint—smoked sheesha, and took in the Arab culture surrounding me.

Students gather outside of a UJ building
The fall brought a new program and with it about one hundred fellow American students who had come to Amman to study in the same program as me. I breezed through orientation—after all, I had lived there for two months already!—but was entirely unprepared for our first day of classes at the University of Jordan. Although our classes were not with other Jordanian students because of our Arabic level, we were on the same campus and saw an entirely different student experience than most of our universities in America. For starters, UJ has over 37,000 students, so there were literally people everywhere: sitting in groups on the benches, clustering outside of classrooms, and filling tables in the cafeteria. There seemed to be a lot of students standing around without much to do; but then again, when I finally discovered the UJ library, it was nearly impossible to find a seat among the students there, who were studying everything from physiology to business to Chinese. I quickly learned an interesting trick: something as simple as a piece of notebook paper could save your seat for the rest of the day. And this compared to Penn, where students will move your laptop and take that seat when you walk to the bathroom!

Afnan and I at a university concert
One of the best experiences I had at the university was befriending my language partner, a Jordanian-Palestinian girl just about my age who was studying Turkish and English. Afnan let me struggle through my amiyya with her—the colloquial Arabic I finally began learning in Jordan, which is so different from the fusHa taught in university—while telling me everything from her reasons for wearing a hijab to her secret desire to marry a pilot! She showed me places to eat around the university and introduced me to all of her friends, many of whom became my friends too. I was even lucky enough to go to two birthday parties with her, one in a restaurant and one at a friend’s house, where I tried my first home-cooked Jordanian meal. Through relationships like these, Amman really began to feel like home to me: it was comfortable, never dangerous but also never boring, full of wonderful people eager to share their culture with me.

Needless to say, when December came, I was sad to leave. I dreaded the thoughts of my last Arabic class, our program’s goodbye dinner, and returning to the airport to leave for good. But finally, I said tearful goodbyes to my new American classmates, my language partner and the other Jordanian people I had been lucky enough to befriend. I fully intend to keep the promise I made to them to come back to Amman: 6 months gave me just a taste of the fascinating culture and welcoming people that characterize this beautiful city.
Amy T. Cass
Al-Bustan Program Assistant
University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2015
International Relations Major

Friday, December 20, 2013

Remembering Palestine

There is something undeniably enchanting about Arab culture. Its language: from the melodious sounds to the intricate calligraphy. The music: from Umm Kulthoum’s Alf Laila to the folk songs of Palestine. The poetry: from Nizar Qabbani’s Balqis to Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet. The endless coffee and tea sipped while exchanging multitudes of stories. All in cities echoing with the sounds of history, from Cairo to Beirut and Jaffa to Damascus.

However, we tend to get so worked up with all the politics going on in the region that there isn’t much energy left for bringing out the arts. It's a loss for those who don’t get the exposure to anything other than the politics. That’s where Al-Bustan comes in, quite heroically I would add.

Author Shawqi Kassis with Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble
Dec 15, 2013
Al-Bustan's Arab Music Concert Series, which has been running since Fall 2011, has brought to us some beautiful music and literature right here in Philadelphia. The most recent event, Remembering Palestine, was a perfect way to wrap up the fall series as we begin the holidays. Familiar folk songs were performed during the first half by a community ensemble of singers and musicians, followed by a reading of excerpts from Haifa is Not Cordoba by Sh
awqi Kassis. I was happy to discover that Dr. Kassis is an old friend of my family and that I had met him as child.

The night, along with the other concerts that I've attended, had a way of bringing me back to my roots. The words and melodies transported me to a whole other dimension where it's simply me and my roots reconnecting. It's that enchantment of the culture that never ceases to move me in endless ways.

- Nelly Keisi
Temple University
Class of 2017

Friday, November 8, 2013

Gaza: Congealed Gem of the Arab World

A stretch of the long Gaza coastline
Between ideological differences, it is often those that are innocent that get hurt. The political ideologies of Palestine and Israel have clashed for decades and the resulting conflict has culminated itself into a backdrop of daily turmoil in Gaza, a microcosmic gem of the Arab world.  As I am learning about the conflict that is quintessential to understanding the region, I am intrigued by the power of the human spirit. It is interesting to see how in the face of enormous tragedies and distress, the mind finds a path to be resilient and fruitful. Culture is that path and it serves as an outlet of expression that harvests the pain of reality and bares unique qualities that define a society. It is communicated through traditions and one of the most powerful forms of this is the cuisine of a region. 
A traditional food stand in Gaza

It defines the creative abilities of a culture while simultaneously opening new venues of appreciating consciousness. That is the reason why The Gaza Kitchen A Palestinian Culinary Journey (co-authors Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt) is such a good read. Its mouth-watering recipes are juxtaposed with anthropological vignettes of Gazan life, forming a full-fledged realization of a complex and intriguing place. The storytelling nature of the writing immerses the reader in a world that is thousands of miles away and yet feels right at home. 

Gaza is blazing hot with culture and spirit and I invite you to get a taste of it in Philadelphia on November 23, 2013 at the Dorrance H. Hamilton Center for Culinary Enterprises on 310 South 48th Street.
Zibdiyit Gambari,  a seaport dish 
Al-Bustan has invited co-author, blogger, and activist Laila El-Haddad to demonstrate several of the recipes noted in the book and to share her stories from Gaza.

During my work at Al-Bustan, I have gained a lot of insight and incredible opportunities to appreciate the culture of the Arab world. I hope to learn more about Gaza, along with fellow Philadelphians, by sampling scrumptious food at this cooking demonstration on November 23. Click here for details about the event.

- Muhammad Naqvi, Intern/Program Assistant
UPenn-College of Liberal and Professional Studies 
Class of 2015

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Reflections of Notes and Voices: Al-Bustan's Arabic Choir Class

Al-Bustan has been an active contributor to the arts and education community in Philadelphia. Just three years ago, it partnered with the University of Pennsylvania to offer Arab music instruction including choir, percussion, and instrumental classes taught by renowned musicians Hanna Khoury and Hafez Kotain. As a recently admitted Penn student, I've had a lot of new experiences over the last few weeks, including working with Al-Bustan and learning all about its incredible music program. In my role as a program assistant/work-study intern, I have gained first hand knowledge about Arab music and culture.

The Arab Music Ensemble class meets every Monday, 6-9pm at the Department of Music building. After a few weeks into the semester, I got a chance to meet up with some of the students in Hanna Khoury’s choir class. It has been in session for less than a month but the students have progressed immensely due to their commitment to the class. I interviewed some of them to see what they thought about the class and how it has informed their perception and understanding of Arab culture.

I first interviewed Joseph Gorman, a long time teacher in the school district of Philadelphia who is learning Arab music for the first time.

How has this class helped you learn about music?
Choir participant Joseph Gorman
I’m traditionally a piano player and this class is giving me the opportunity to exercise my voice, something that I’ve never had a chance to do. And Hanna’s instruction is so well communicated that it’s really easy for me to understand and adapt quickly to whatever he is teaching. As such, I’m gaining a much deeper knowledge of musical instruction and I hope to teach it to my students one day.

Have you thought about how you will introduce this material to your students?
Yes, I actually want to compose a piece and contribute it to the Monday class. I want to see what I can add to the class, and I think this method will allow me to not only practice my singing voice but also employ my creative abilities. If my piece gets approved, then I’ll build on it so that I can teach it to my own students.

Is the class challenging in anyway?
Some of the notes are definitely harder to hit. For example, the higher notes are a little bit harder because my voice frequency cannot reach that high. But with each week, I feel like I am getting closer to controlling my voice more.
I then interviewed Sarah Shihadah, a junior student at Penn, majoring in Middle Eastern studies. Here’s what she had to say.

So what do you particularly like about this class?
Choir participant Sarah Shihadah

I like that I’m getting to know the culture in a more intimate way. Hanna always gives a brief history of the song right before he starts and it's interesting to see that these songs are very much shaped by the culture of the Arab world.

Have you had experience with singing?
No, not at all. I only started three weeks ago and since my mom is a music director and my brother a musician, I thought I’d try my own musical muscles.

I can hear the conviction in your voice. I mean you don’t have that beginner’s fear.
Oh thank you! I’m just enjoying the class so much, that I don’t have a chance to pay attention to anything that might hold me back. I try my best and I think my confidence comes though my voice and its helping me learn quicker.

I collectively interviewed Kerrina Thomas, Jelani Hayes, and Taylor Blackston, all of whom are juniors at Penn.

So how has this class taught you about the different styles of Arabic music?
Jelani: I thought it was really cool that Arab music has styles that are similar to American genres. I mean they have their own version of folk songs amongst other styles and it’s very interesting how these genres speak to their audiences.

Kerrina: Yeah and Hanna always gives us an opportunity to learn about the artist and genre before we start practicing and this adds to the overall effect of the piece and how I can learn and appreciate it.
Junior students at Penn:  Kerrina (left), Jelani, and Taylor (right)

I’ve noticed you guys hit really high notes? Is it starting to hurt?
Taylor: Yeah definitely. I mean we have a week in between classes but when we are singing in class, our vocal chords get stretched pretty well. It hurts a little I guess.

Good because it should. I’m just joking but this will actually give you guys a chance to broaden the scope of your singing voice.

Taylor: Absolutely. I think the Hanna has been really careful about our voices and that’s given us a chance to practice our singing and learn broadly about Arab music and culture.
Lastly, I had a chance to converse with Yosef Goldman, a community member who is enrolled in both percussion and singing.

Why did you take the class?

I grew up listening to Umm Kulthoum, amongst other great Arab artists. My mother's parents were Syrian and Yemenite Jews, and that was the the music they played in their home. The music has always been very close to my heart and this class is not only a great nostalgic experience but also an incredible opportunity for me to learn more Arab music. I have studied and sang a wide variety of Jewish music. Of course, Jewish music sounds different around the world, depending on its host culture. Jewish music from Arab lands sounds like any Arab music, utilizing the maqams and rhythmic structures. Middle Eastern influences can also be heard in some of the modes used in Eastern European synagogue music. I completed a masters of sacred music degree, studying primarily the music of Ashkenazi Jews (from Central and Eastern Europe). Lately I have been studying more the music of Jews from Arab lands. I've been singing with my band, the Epichorus, that it based in classical Arabic music, and I felt it's time to get a deeper understanding of the music. I looked for Arab music classes in Philadelphia and discovered Al-Bustan. Hanna's class is providing an incredible opportunity for me to explore the music more.

How did you come to know about the class?
I recently moved to Philadelphia with my wife. I just googled "Arab music in Philadelphia" and immediately I came across Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture. The website is very detailed and because of its popularity in the community, I got a lot of encouraging second opinions before I signed up for the class.

What do you think of the class so far?

I think it's going very well. I've seen how it appeals to different people on different levels and I'm especially enjoying the class because of my background. Everybody in the class has a different perspective of Arab arts and culture, but what Hanna does really well is get everyone on the same level and then approach the music in a very detailed way. I love how his method of teaching the music is rooted in the musicality and cadence of the Arabic language. He has inspired me to start learning Arabic!

May I ask what is your profession?
Well just recently, I was ordained as a rabbi. I am a working as chaplain at the Eisenstein Medical Center in North Philly, and it is truly rewarding. Along with Al-Bustan's contributions to the community, I am having a great time in Philadelphia.
After bidding Mr. Goldman and everyone else goodnight, I reflected on the class and its impact. The heterophony of Arab music has rhythms that sway and sigh as the lyrics progress. I was impressed to see how well the students were able to adjust to the singing style. Hanna's instruction is so detailed and sprinkled with humor that the students could just enjoy and sing with passion. Arab music is complex but it has an element of simplicity that many people can appreciate. This was most evident to me in the recent concert presented by Al-Bustan at the Trinity Center, featuring Tunisian vocalist Sonia M'barek. I invite you to visit the Al-Bustan website to checkout what they had to say about the concert at

Muhammad Naqvi
Program Assistant, Al-Bustan
Class of 2015 - College of Liberal and Professional Arts
University of Pennsylvania