Friday, July 25, 2014

So Many Different Foods at Al-Bustan’s Potluck

Hummus, waraq 'anab, and soft-pretzels. Photo credit to Dana Scherer.
I know that I sound like a broken record here, but the diversity of this camp was just simply astounding; between the counselors, campers, and parents, I may have never been around such an ethnically and culturally diverse group before in my life. What is perhaps so amazing about this is this community is that, while people usually gravitate towards similar folks, the parents at Camp Al-Bustan sought to immerse their children in an exceptionally heterogeneous and polyethnic community. The wonderfulness of this pluralism should not be overlooked.

And the end-of-camp-potluck perfectly showcased this. Parents of all ethnicities jovially sat with one another and ate foods from all over the world. The range of foods --from mjadara, hummus, Pakistani-style peas and carrots, and Sudanese potatoes and beef, cookies, macaroons, and so on-- itself indicated the diversity of the campers respective cultural backgrounds. At the end of two weeks packed with intercultural exchange, this potluck beautifully, and deliciously, symbolized the heterogeneity of the Al-Bustan community.


There are never too many photos of food.
Photo credit to Dana Scherer.

The desire of Al-Bustan parents to expose themselves and their children to other cultures reminds me of Omid Safi’s contrasting of tolerance and pluralism. By comparing these two approaches to multiculturalism, Safi, editor of the generally excellent Progressive Muslims, highlights what is so special about the fact that Al-Bustan Camp parents chose to enter in a heterogeneous community. To explain that tolerance is not a simply positive concept, Safi informs us that tolerance is etymologically linked to someone’s ability to “tolerate” poison. Although tolerance may be peaceful, it also can imply a subtle contempt for “others” lingering beneath the surface. Safi contrasts that with pluralism, which is a celebration of difference. Pluralism, and not tolerance, is the engine that really drives cultural exchange and innovation, and as such, is a benevolent concept in Safi’s conception.

What I have seen here over these past three weeks (two for camp and one for orientation) is pluralism at its clearest. Everyone involved in the camp at Al-Bustan seemed actively invested in intercultural exchange. With so much divisiveness between ethnic, political, and religious groups throughout the world today, a scene such as the one I witnessed during the end-of-camp celebration was really inspiring. It was truly a pleasure being involved with Al-Bustan Camp and getting to see the pluralistic mentality in action.


Max Dugan
Kenyon College, '14
Summer Intern at Al-Bustan


Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Gullah Narrative: Expanding Our Understanding of Identity


Nashid Ali with his djembe and family lineage. Photo credit to Dana Scherer
This Monday we were lucky enough to have storyteller of peace, Nashid Ali, use music and anecdotes to talk about home and identity, specifically focusing on how family plays into those constructions. Amidst his performance he informed us of a dimension of his identity; Nashid is Muslim and can trace his family roots back to the Gullah region of South Carolina and Georgia (Gullah here has nothing to do with the show Gullah Gullah Island, by the way). It should be noted that his knowledge of his ancestors is an extraordinary thing, as the majority of people descended from enslaved Africans were deliberately robbed of that knowledge or simply lost touch as older generations passed away. Additionally, he informed the campers that his Gullah ancestors were Muslim, and had maintained their Muslim practice throughout their time as slaves and, following that, legally oppressed people in North America.

The Gullah communities to which our guest alluded existed in Georgia and South Carolina and maintained a polyethnic West African culture that also mixed with some Western European culture. Due to reasons related to climate and disease, the Africans enslaved in the Gullah regions were isolated from white communities and subsequently were able to preserve their culture in ways not afforded to slaves in other areas. Along with music, dress, and language (there is a unique Gullah patois, for instance), they also maintained vernacular West African Islamic practice. It is this Islam to which Nashid alluded when he spoke to the campers.
While Islam’s presence in Gullah communities was remarkable, it was by no means unique in slave communities in North America. As scholar Kambiz GhaneaBassiri explains in his fabulous primer on Islam in the Americas (A History of Islam in North America, 2010), many slaves from West Africa maintained their Islamic identity and practice following their enslavement in North America. As GhaneaBassiri notes, there are records indicating that enslaved Africans continued to practice Islam until at least around the turn of the twentieth century by using written Qur’anic verses from talisman, as well as memorized ritual practices. And today there are certainly lots of African immigrants, African-Americans, and Blackamericans practicing Islam in North America.
I write all of this to say that, with his remarks about his Gullah roots, Nashid subtly provided a narrative for the students at camp regarding how one’s identity is constructed. Whether he was raised Muslim or converted, Nashid connected in a deeper way with both his religion and ethnic roots by discovering his bloodline to Gullah communities. Seeing as our theme at camp is “identity and home," I think a narrative like this one provided the campers a wonderful example of how someone constructs a part of their identity.


Max Dugan
Kenyon College, '14
Summer Intern at Al Bustan

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What Personality!

The passing of time, and consequent increase of comfort at camp, has resulted in the campers’ personalities really shining through over the past two weeks. Whether this means that the children are more pensive or loud, disciplined or distracting, it says that the campers are being more like themselves. Of course, every camper is unique in how they express their personality, but at the same time, they do gravitate towards certain types.
Perhaps the most inspiring of these are the children who, despite how difficult Arabic can be at early stages, have become more diligent and invested over the past two weeks. Partially, it shows their personal interest in the language, which also shows that they have good taste. At a deeper level though, I think it indicates their intellectual curiosity. I saw a bit of this the first few days, but around the end of last week it became very apparent who had this extra desire to understand Arabic. Those kids just sought more Arabic, like extra worksheets or practice time for writing. And when they learn new vocabulary, they have this look of satisfaction. 

Just as there are linguists, some of the kids are just artists. At the beginning of the camp I did not really see those campers as much, partially because I was not in art class, but also because the youngins were shy about their drawings and paintings. Now, as they have become less nervous, the artists actually started showing their creations to the other counselors and me. Like when the youngest group had to decorate old photographs to look like celebrities, they wanted us older folks to see what they had made. 

Then there are the jokers. Not that I have favorites, per se, but I feel a profound connection with the shabab who spend all their time trying to make someone laugh. As someone who used to spend his time joking throughout the school-day, I see a bit of myself in them. And every class has a few children who are really, really funny. A goofy example of this is the youngest group who while playing butta, butta, asad--our own version of duck, duck, goose that actually translates to “duck, duck, lion”--found so much comic pleasure in the similarity of butta and a word that everyone finds funny. Again, I know this a stupid example of how funny the children can be, but it is what first comes to my mind, and one of the things that has consistently made me laugh over the past few days.

My only regret in all of this is that there are only a few days left, and I will not get to see their progress after the end of the week. That said, it has been a pleasure seeing their personalities come out over the past two weeks.


Max Dugan
Kenyon College, '14
Summer Intern at Al Bustan

Children are Our Greatest Teachers: Stories from Al-Bustan Camp

This past week at Al-Bustan’s summer camp has been a whirlwind, so much so that I feel I’ve hardly had a second to take a breath, let alone sit, reflect, and blog. So, before I blink and the two weeks have passed, I want to take a moment to commemorate the experience.

Part of the reason I suppose I have struggled to reflect on camp is because I feel I am just getting to know the campers. The diversity of their background is amazing, and their personalities reflect the uniqueness of their experiences. Given the theme of this year’s camp ╸ Home and Identity ╸ we have spent a great deal of time discussing the campers’ families. Suffice to say that there has been a lot to think about, especially as I try to represent the varying experiences of such a widely varied group of individuals.

Joan Baz with campers in Art class

One of the most fascinating things about this week has been the opportunity to see the campers teach this summer’s resident artist, Joan Baz, about the U.S. This is Joan’s first time in the U.S., and, as she readily admits, she arrived with certain preconceptions about the country and its people. And I can hardly imagine a group more appropriate for an introduction to at least what I think of as one of the U.S.’s greatest assets: Its diversity. Among our campers, faculty, and staff are first, second, third, and fourth generation immigrants, from Austria to Sudan, France to the Ukraine, Iraq to Morocco ╸ we even have our own “foreign exchange student” of sorts, a young girl visiting family for the summer from Saudi Arabia! There are also others with longer lineages here in the U.S., or simply those who when asked about “heritage” reference formative experiences in local and domestic places, such Philadelphia, Lancaster County, or Texas. In addition to diversity of heritage, so to speak, children come from a variety of socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, diversity that enriches our conversations in vital ways.

A good example can be seen in one of the first exercises we completed at camp. Joan asked each camper to ask someone in his or her family to write down a family recipe as a way of beginning to explore the camp theme. Campers brought in recipes as colorful as they are: Some of the students with parents from the Arab World brought “traditional” recipes for mahshi and makdous (stuffed vegetables), tagine, and falafel; other students brought recipes for home-fried potatoes, bacalao con verdura (salted cod with root veggies), moussaka, a pumpkin roll served at Thanksgiving, corn fritters, baklawa, and pancit bihon (a noodle dish from the Philippines). But even food challenges our stereotypes: A counselor with (self-described) “Bulgarian gypsy” roots told me that her (non-Arab) mother makes hummus almost daily and buys za’atar by the pound. And our camper from Saudi brought in tea crackers and nutella as her recipe, a snack she and surely millions of other children around the globe enjoy!

To make the exercise even more personal, Joan then had the students construct sentences in the format of, "I went looking for home, and I found…” first using the name of the dish and finally substituting the ingredients. (e.g. My grandmother’s holiday brisket; “I went looking for home, and I found my grandma’s brisket and onions.”) The exercise highlighted the sensory experiences involved in cooking and preparing these foods. And it also gave Joan an opportunity to observe some of the multiple, shifting ways in which the campers’ identities and those of their families overlap and intertwine ╸ but also how they differ. It was but one nice, albeit brief and certainly limited, window into the lives of kids in the U.S., one of many that I hope will broaden her perspective on the very questions with which she arrived: On family, heritage, genealogy, and identity.

-- Jane Lief Abell
PhD Student in Anthropology
University of Pennsylvania

Friday, July 11, 2014

Why Can’t Adults Be As Kind As These Kids?


On the first Thursday of camp I saw a few of the students display such compassion and benevolence that my heart metaphorically melted. To set the scene: one of the female campers who is visiting the U.S. for the summer is a native Arabic speaker, but does not know a word of English, and over the past week she has made friends with a number of other girls, despite that sizeable language barrier. Today during “choice” period, when the campers can choose to do art, dance, or percussion, I noticed that group of 8 to 9 year old girls was not participating in any of the offered activities. When I walked over to see what was going on I discovered that two of the girls were attempting to teach English to the non-English speaker. Writing their own practice sheets with the alphabet, numbers, and days of the week on looseleaf, the girls were teaching their friend the alphabet using sentences like “A is for apple,” and “J is for jet.” Only a one-dimensional cartoon villain would not have been moved by such an image. Really, it would be impossible to overstate the sweetness of this whole activity.
Practice sheets that campers created for
their fellow camper to learn English


To put this in perspective you have to acknowledge that less than a week ago none of these campers knew one another. Upon arriving at camp they befriended one another despite significant personal differences, including the ability to articulate ideas to one another through a common language. So, to remedy the problem the English-speaking campers decided that it would be best to teach English to the non-English-speaking camper so that they could better communicate. Thus, they used one of their precious free periods to undertake this activity. The benevolence and compassion contained in this is deeply touching, isn’t it? 

In addition to this example of the kindness of these kids, this vignette also speaks to the essence of Al Bustan Camp, which is intercultural exchange among the youth. The diversity at the camp allows for an immersion in diversity that, hopefully, conditions the campers to embrace their differences. The image of English speakers and Arabic speakers teaching one another their respective languages during free time is certainly a perfect example of this. But I should also note that I have seen countless other instances of this ideal exchange during the camp so far. Sometimes this takes the form of linguistic education, but other times it will be an Arab student telling their friend the meaning of an Arabic word, or, in a less culturally-oriented exchange, a boy bringing in Pokemon cards to give his friends (these cards are worth their weight in gold to the youngest group). In the midst of the consistently bleak national and international news it does give me some hope to see these kids treating one another with such benevolence. I’ll try to keep posting about this linguistic exchange as it develops.


Max Dugan
Kenyon College, '14
Summer Intern at Al Bustan

Saturday, July 5, 2014

A Garden of Diversity at Al-Bustan Camp

This past week I was blown away by the diversity, and yet strange connectedness, of the various camp counselors at Al-Bustan. Since the theme of the camp this year is home and identity, we decided that it might be helpful for the counselors to share stories about their understanding of those two subjects. What began as a storytelling exercise became a demonstration of the heterogeneity of our group, all the while showing that we are all bonded by our interest in intercultural exchange, as well as our respective lack of a set identity. At the end of it all there was a sort of benevolent comfort in the room as everyone realized both what they shared with and were uniquely able to contribute to the group.

When discussing identity, nearly everyone expressed a sense of confusion as to their categorization. I won’t go into details here, out of respect for the counselors who trustingly shared their stories. However, I will say that anyone who discussed identity talked about the conflict between their inherited identity--ethnicity, gender, religion, language, class, race, etc.--and their different experiences and influences. It was beautiful to see counselor after counselor emboldened by one another’s stories, quickly realizing that our respective identities are all in flux.

Part of the power of these stories was their diversity, with counselors expressing their identities with anecdotes about food, or language, or location, or personal history. This variety will be great for camp, where the counselor’s special qualities will expose the kids to a range of identities. I am of the opinion that this sort of diversity is simply good; we can come up with explanations for its goodness, but at the end of the day it just is beneficial in an profound way.

At the same time, the commonalities of our stories were inspiring. For one, we are all deeply interested in intercultural exchange, specifically related to Arab culture. But even more specific connections emerged. For instance, one counselor and I, who are were not raised in Arabic-speaking households, were drawn to the study of Arabic by encountering the Qur’an at a young age. She thought the written language was beautiful, and I was enamored with the sounds. Our similar catalysts created this notable sort of benevolence as we shared stories with one another. 


After our one-time experience talking about identity and home, I’m very optimistic about the coming two weeks at camp. If the counselors have this diversity of understanding of their identities and homes, then I can’t wait to see what the campers will say.


- Max Dugan
Kenyon College, '14
Summer Intern at Al-Bustan

Sunday, June 29, 2014

What's So Wrong with Mohammad Abd al-Wahaab?

Is there such a thing as pure Arab music? Has Arab music been westernized in a way that surpasses the natural intercultural exchange that constantly occurs, and if so, is this a serious problem for the future of Arab culture? These questions continued to arise in discussions this past week at Al-Bustan's Arab and Arts and Culture course, probably due to the fact that we spend a large part of the day thinking about Arabic music and how it can be incorporated into lesson plans. Among the group there is disagreement over whether “modernizers” like Egyptian composer Mohammad Abd al-Wahaab set Arab music on a path which has lead to the erosion of Arab culture or not. I must concede that I lean towards “not,” believing that the issue is much more complex than the notion that an Arab musical genre has been progressively destroyed by Western culture. That said, I agree with much of the discontent regarding the loss of knowledge of Arabic musical history.
Musician Kinan Abou-afach on cello leads instrumental
ensemble practice with music educators, 

For me, the disagreement hinges on the notion that there is a static thing that is Arabic music. There is an Arabic music style, but it is so multivalent that I have a hard time thinking that fusing it and other styles is automatically problematic. Arab music has now-accepted influences ranging from all parts of Africa, Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, and even Europe (the violin, for instance). There was likely a time when this intercultural exchange was considered a serious problem. But then, as time passed and the musical genres became better integrated, these fusions became natural and accepted. That is not to say that all fusion music is good, James Brown does not mix well with the singer Hakeem, for instance. I am merely trying to say that fusion is not fundamentally problematic.

At the same time, colonialism has affected hybrid music such that western music did not naturally mix with Arab music because there was not an even socio-political-cultural-playing-field. The cultural power of colonialism here should not be underestimated. Partially as a consequence of the Western cultural hegemony, some traditional Arab musical forms were ignored and not preserved, thereby reducing the richness of Arabic music today. Abd al-Wahaab is perhaps at fault here, inadvertently setting in motion the privileging of Western musical styles over Arabic ones. This is just a fraction of the arguments against the westernization of Arab music; I included it specifically because it was the most common argument that came up in our group.

I really am unable to pick a side, because there are so many factors to take into account here, and each argument is itself very layered. The only conclusion I can come to with any certainty is that the questions which opened this post are much more complicated than they appear initially. I know this is a cop-out at some level, but it also something that we will likely all agree upon.

- Max Dugan
Kenyon College, '14
Summer Intern at Al-Bustan