Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Interview with Youssef Kassab

The whole world is jealous of us. The breeze was confused. The waves of the ocean are telling a story to the beach without an end. When will time allow you, my beauty, and I to stay together all night near the Nile? Do you think I will ever stay the night with my beauty again? We will stay up all night, far away and safe from the jealousy of others.

- Imta Al-Zaman, Mohammed Abdel Wahab, 1936

In this song, Abdel Wahab could well be describing the dramatic circumstances of Youssef Kassab’s departure from Iraq. I had the pleasure of chatting with Kassab during his visit to Philadelphia last week and he shared with me a few stories from his colorful life.

At the age of 20, Kassab graduated from the Damascus Conservatory with a specialization in voice and qanun and moved with two friends to Basra, Iraq where he found work performing at a nightclub. Having been educated in the Syrian musical tradition he knew no Iraqi music and in just one week he learned an Iraqi repertoire by ear. So impressed by his skills as a musician, the owner of the nightclub asked him to sign a contract.

At the nightclub, he and a few other musicians accompanied dancers. While working at the nightclub, he caught the eye of a dancer with “blue eyes and bronze skin.” Her appearance was as remarkable as her forwardness. “She liked me because I was young. She took me to her family—I had never known a woman like her before—so tough.” He wasn’t the only one to be surprised by her advances. One morning he was awoken by the sounds of pounding on his door. Before he could change out of his pajamas, the police told him to return to Syria because without a work permit he couldn’t legally work in Iraq. It was only later that he discovered that the violin player at the club, envious of the dancer’s fondness for Kassab, told the police that Kassab was working without a permit. Embodying the jealousy that so concerns the lover in Imta Al-Zaman, the violin player
arrested a love affair that might have been by ratting out Kassab. So, Kassab was torn away from the dancer, deported from Iraq, and on top of everything he lost his oud, which he left nightly at the nightclub as stipulated in his contract. He returned to Damascus, the place where his love of music began, with only his voice.

Born into a family of musicians, his introduction to music began at an early age. Though today he is most well known as a vocalist, he played a variety of instruments at a young age. When he was ten years old he began singing and playing the tambourine with his uncle’s group, which played in local churches. His uncle then taught him to play the oud by ear. As he grew up he developed an interest in the qanun and at the age of 16 he entered the Damascus Conservatory to pursue his musical studies. It was there that he formalized his training in music by learning for the first time how to read and write music.

Upon his return to Syria, his mother, so eager to have him stay in Syria, arranged his marriage. But Kassab already had his sights set on pursuing a musical career in America where his friend Muhammad El Aqqad, a qanun player, told him “money is like sugar” and you would come home from a night’s performance to discover $100 bills in every pocket. In his experience only one artist had ever enjoyed such appreciation—renowned Egyptian singer, Umm Kulthum.

The day before his 17th birthday when he went with his father to see Umm Kulthum perform, remains one of his most vivid memories. “The room was completely full—600 or 700 people crowded into the auditorium of a local school. She was wearing red— not like wine, a little lighter—everything red except her dark glasses. She sang 4 songs—very long songs
the best singer in the world! Outside they were making ice cream in big barrels with gum mastic and real pistachios—not just green food coloring.” For Kassab, the day has a slightly mythical significance about it particularly since all the fanfare was in celebration of a musician.

Kassab left Syria for America to seek his own fame and fortune in 1969. He started out performing in nightclubs in Dearborn, Michigan, which was, as it is today, home to a large Arab community. But he did not find the America of abundance that his friend El Aqqad had described. Instead, he was earning a paltry sum and every night he would come home with his oud smelling of cigarettes. So, he left Dearborn for New York where in 1980 he met Simon Shaheen, a composer and oud and violin player who had just arrived in New York from Palestine. With their shared appreciation for the rich lyrics and melodies of the golden age, Kassab and Shaheen began making music together. In 1982 Kassab joined Shaheen’s Near Eastern Music Ensemble as the principal vocalist. With this ensemble, he performed in concert halls around the world. Kassab continues his career in music, singing with a variety of ensembles presenting a classical and folkloric repertoire of Arab music.

Over the course of the interview he made mention more than once of the hardships, both economic and emotional, that a musician endures. “Musicians, they make everyone happy but they are not happy.” However, his rapturous description of the lyrics of Imta Al-Zaman and his impassioned performance Saturday night suggest that he is motivated not by the fame or fortune he sought in coming to America but by the beauty of the music itself.

Miranda Bennett
Outreach Coordinator
Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture

(Photo by Langdon Photography:
Kassab singing "Imta Al-Zaman" at Al-Bustan's Arab Music Concert Series in Philadelphia, Oct 29, 2011)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Defining the "golden age" of Arab music

The first concert of the Arab Music Concert Series will feature Syrian singer Youssef Kassab performing selections of music from Egyptian icons, Umm Kulthum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab, and Farid al-Atrash of Syria—artists who shaped the music of the “golden age” and continue to be among the most famous musicians and composers in the Arab world.

The period from the 1920s to the 1950s is considered the "golden age" of Egyptian cinema and with it came a blossoming arts scene in Cairo that drew artists from all parts of the Arab world. Along with cinema, music reached one of its pinnacles during the same period. With the advent of talkies (films with sound) in the 1930s came the introduction of a new form of film—musicals, which propelled the careers of many musicians to great stardom. Kulthum, Abdel Wahab, and al-Atrash all played starring roles in musicals. Farid al-Atrash (see photo to the right) moved from his home in Syria to Cairo and gained recognition for his role as a singing romantic lead in many musicals. Beyond his numerous film roles, he became known for his skill as an oud player and as a composer, performing only his own music.

In addition to the renowned musicians that the era produced, the music of the golden age is defined by particulars in composition and lyrics and the development of new media. Moving away from the romantic escapism of the post World War I era, music that dealt with the realities and hardships of the common man became more popular by the 1930s and 40s. The works of Egyptian composer Sayyed Darwish, the father of this golden age, depicted stories of working-class people, affirming local culture and politics while criticizing British presence in Egypt.

Like Darwish, many composers reacted to political changes in Egypt in their music. The end of Ottoman rule in 1914 also marked the beginning of the British protectorate and a growing europeanization of Egypt. Composers reflected this transition by moving away from Turkish music traditions and incorporating more elements of western classical music in their pieces. Abdel Wahab (see photo to the left), who emerged as a singer, composer, and actor in the 1920s, was one who juxtaposed European and Arab traditions in his music. With his move away from improvisation and audience-driven pieces that had long been central to Arab music, he is credited with ushering in a time in which composed pieces occupied a place of greater importance. In the face of growing Europeanization and the accompanying growth in support for western classical music, Umm Kulthum advocated for the appreciation of Arab music in her position as president of the Cairo Musicians’ Union and in choosing her own repertoire.

Musicians including Kulthum (see photo to the right) benefited from new forms of media. The development of radio in 1920s facilitated the transmission of music and the growth in popularity of musicians. A large portion of the programming on local radio stations and the Egyptian National Radio, which was established in 1934, was music. Kulthum solidified her status as the most celebrated female singer of her time with live-radio-broadcasts on the first Thursday of each month, which began in 1937 and continued until her death in 1975. As a measure of her popularity, streets would empty across the Arab world in time for her Thursday concerts.

The golden age may have a distinct beginning but the music’s popularity has extended its reign into the modern day. Youssef Kassab has a deep appreciation for this music, which he grew up listening to in Syria and continues to perform to this day in America, his new home since immigrating here in 1970. Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture is presenting Youssef Kassab in a performance of music from the golden age in Egypt and Syria on October 29. Check back soon for an interview with Mr. Kassab himself.

Miranda Bennett
Outreach Coordinator
Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture

Sources referenced:
Marcus, Scott L. Music in Egypt: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2007.
Racy, A.J. Making Music in the Arab Music: The Culture and Artistry of Tarab. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Danielson, Virginia. The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 1998.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

New season of the Philadelphia Arab Music Ensemble begins

For the past two years, a group of youth, college students, and adults from diverse backgrounds have gathered in West Philadelphia to celebrate their interest in Arab culture through music. By day, many members of the Philadelphia Arab Music Ensemble are doctors, teachers, and students. Every Monday night they come together with fellow musicians and music enthusiasts to learn a wide selection of Arab classical music.

While there are many returning members this fall, the Ensemble continues to expand with new students joining. This year many Penn students are participating because for the first time we are offering the Ensemble
as a course in partnership with the UPenn Music Department and Greenfield Intercultural Center. Last night three new members shared with me their interest in the Ensemble.

Penn student Ellie Sun, a new member of the choir, decided to join the Ensemble because of her interest in Arab culture and Arabic language. She saw the Ensemble “as an easy way to start learning Arabic.” In spite of the difficulty she has had with pronunciation, she is enjoying the melody and richness of the music.

Amal Kabalan, a grad student at Villanova is from Lebanon, has found pleasure in other aspects of the ensemble. Cognizant of the fact that she has a tendency to speak softly when giving presentations, she said she has benefited from the emphasis Music Director Hanna Khoury places on projecting her voice.

Peter Schwab was looking for opportunities to continue to play the oud when he came across the Ensemble. “I'm learning about some of the basic structures and scales in Arab music, and rehearsals are training me to hear and play quarter tones.” The introduction to the theory and ideas behind the music that Khoury and the other teachers, Kinan Abou Afach and Hafez El Ali Kotain provide has allowed Peter to build on his previous exposure to Arab music.
Abou Afach recently joined the ensemble, sharing with the group his knowledge of Arab music and skills as a cellist, oud player, and composer.

Khoury selected music for the Ensemble with the repertoire of the October 29th concert in mind. During this concert Syrian singer Youssef Kassab will present music from the “golden age” of Syria and Egypt. Khoury has been leading the Ensemble through Ana Winta composed by Farid Al-Atrash, a Syrian composer from that era and Ashki Li Min Thul lil Hawa, a work composed by Kassab. I’m already looking forward to the
December 9th concert when the Ensemble will perform followed by poet Suheir Hammad.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What's wrong with Moroccan food?

Is it limited by the traditions of the past or has it lost touch with its roots?

Check out Julia Moskin's article in yesterday's Times for a discussion of Morocco's cuisine and how two cooks (young chef, Mourad Lahlou and esteemed cookbook author, Paula Wolfert) have come to understand its evolution in contrasting ways. Moskin touches on issues I began exploring in my post on Chef Ramzi's efforts to record the rich Lebanese culinary heritage. Don't miss the recipe for beghrirs, or Moroccan pancakes, which like their similarly holey English cousins crumpets, beautifully soak up a pat of butter and a spoonful of honey! Lahlou and Wolfert would surely agree that these pancakes represent the best in Moroccan home cooking.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Saad's Halal: The Torpedo

I must admit that I have a bit of bias towards Saad’s, which is a large part of the reason I am addressing it first. I have to get it out of the way to ensure total objectivity, as I have a history with Saad’s, and reviewing their falafel during/after the rest of the series would only unfairly skew my reviews.

It all started senior year of college. Though I attended Haverford College in the suburbs, my excursions into Philadelphia were generally artificial: some trendy new band playing at the Electric Factory, a walk around Rittenhouse perhaps. But during winter break of my senior year, I stayed with a friend who was living in West Philadelphia. It was during my first experience living in any large city that I was first introduced to Saad’s Halal. All it took was that first sandwich to turn me into a regular, and in the two weeks that I stayed in the city I made friends with Saad, and had my first “usual”: falafel sandwich on whole wheat with hummus and hot sauce.

Personally, I call the Saad’s sandwich “The Torpedo,” and one look at the picture should explain it. It is the densest falafel sandwich I have ever encountered, experiences in Palestine included. They pack the sandwich with pickles, tabouleh, hummus, tomatoes, tahini sauce, etc, and is one of the only establishments I have ever frequented which allow you to have it Palestinian/Lebanese-style: french fries inside the sandwich. It comes rolled up in a flat pita, and at the price of $4.50 a sandwich, you can’t really compete with the amount of food you receive. The falafel is spiced to perfection with coriander, cumin, and a little bite from some jalapeño. After you are finished eating, you will feel filled to capacity. I’ve heard “pregnant” used to describe the feeling…

The sandwich isn’t perfect though, and if there is one area that is lacking, it is the falafel itself. The restaurant is extremely popular and much of the falafel is made that morning, so when you order the sandwich the falafel balls are distinctly lacking in the “crisp” that is so integral to the experience. If you are lucky in your timing, and arrive right after the lunchtime rush when the restaurant is out of all their morning stock, they will fry up your falafel fresh and the experience is pure euphoria.

The sandwich also undergoes an end-game collapse, in which the last 3-4 bites are messy, soaked in tahini sauce, and difficult to eat with your hands without looking like you are a newborn baby. Though this situation is mitigated with the addition of fries to the equation: the starch soaks up all the errant sauces. All in all, you can’t beat the Saad’s sandwich, a classic of west Philly.

Later this week I will venture from my immediate geography, cross the Schuylkill and head south to Al-Zaytouna on 9th and Christian.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A New Series on Falafel

Memories of “place” are rooted in our senses, the filter through which our minds record and interact with the world. In particular, the sensory overload of food can jolt a person into remembering even the dullest minutiae from another life. The climatic scene of Pixar’s Ratatouille, for example, shows the insurmountably cantankerous food critic remembering a loving memory of his mother upon tasting the dish prepared by the protagonist.

Growing up in the Palestinian Occupied Territories made falafel an every day occurrence. In my village of Al-Mezra Al-Sherkia, there is a vendor right across the street, meaning that at my whim I had access to fresh falafel. Fried on the spot, lightly dusted with sumac, salt and sesame seeds, steam is visible rising off the crunchy surface. It comes stuffed in a pocket pita with all manner of condiments: pickled turnips, onions, tahini sauce, cucumbers, red pepper paste… the list goes on, as we are a fan of sandwich accoutrement where I am from. Even french fries are stuffed into the sandwich, rather than suffer having them on the side.

I live in Philadelphia now, not the West Bank, and if represented on a Venn diagram, the sensory overlap between the two would look much like the eye of a needle. That is to say, not very large at all. Food sits in that tiny overlap, taking me back to distant memories eating falafel in the summer on the sidewalk, watching men and women dance debka at my cousin’s wedding. Falafel is not merely a niche street food that I enjoy for sustenance and a taste of the “exotic.” It is a way through which I experience and live my cultural heritage and my memories of home.

After listening to my constant critiques of every falafel sandwich I come across, Miranda suggested I write about them. So, I have decided to start a new series on Al-Bustan’s blog, where I will try the falafel sandwiches at different restaurants across Philadelphia and write about each of them in a post, offering meticulous, yet informed critique. The only factor that will eliminate a falafel joint from consideration is if it is an established chain. Sorry Maoz/Falafel Factory, homegrown Philly-fare only. If you have a suggestion, please, leave a comment! My first post will focus on the standard fare for falafel in West Philadelphia: Saad’s Halal at 45th and Walnut. Stay tuned, Philly.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

One more reflection...

Oh boy, I completely forgot to include an excerpt from a wonderful nature teen poet, Chelsea Ann Smith, who participated this summer. This is based off of an exercise we did that examined the experience of rebuilding by first examining the appreciation of life through the writing of an obituary. Here is her piece:

My full name was Landscape, but people often called me anything from nature, trees, oceans, sea, fish or grass. I was everything and have always here, but I have been dying since I have been born. These humans that I allow to use me have abused me. They have been killing me slowly since the beginning.

I was never born, I didn't come from someone or somewhere, I was the start and I started everywhere in all the possibilities of thoughts at the same exact second. Which is a hard thing for you to grasp. Life is lonely with no parents and no siblings and on one on my intelligent level. Being the smarter around can bring you down.

My landscape is full of caring and you as I am also there for my fellow humans and also for myself. I like to help, put out that helping hand, its my hobby; lights me up inside. My light fades thought, when these humans bring me down, when you destroy my surface with trash and smoke and oil.

The service for me is held everyday, all day. I am dead and I am stilling dying You don't realize it but you are part of the reason. No one really shows a helping face in honor of me, at the few that do, I would like to thank you.

Here is a link to catch these amazing performances... Thanks again everyone for your time and support of these great young individual poets and artists!

**She is the young lady to the right of this group photo...

Friday, September 9, 2011

Reflections from Camp

Good evening Al-Bustan followers, I hope this blog finds you all at peace. Since camp, I have been busy planning some new things for Al-Bustan as well as moving onto the next stage of my life. Now that I have caught my breath, I wanted to share with you my reflections of camp this past summer.

The beginning of camp was hectic as I was coming back into the country from practicing my own writing as well as placing myself into the position that I was going to be asking the campers. This position was to ask the group of teen campers to share with me what in their lives do they define as broken and how as a community of people, do we rebuild. And of course, through the use of poetry. The range of responses were amazing and the level of trust that these amazing young adults placed in me is a gift that I will protect in my heart forever.

Here are some lines from two of our poets:

"Love surrounds the air
even at night when you raise your hands to say the prayer
prayers carries by angels to God Almighty "

by: Ayesha Haroon


"I sat on beauty’s shoulder
And she cried
Her tears slid down her down her soft pink cheeks
I climb inside.
What did I see?
A broken heart
Left not to trust again.
Being sold the same beautiful lie of being called the apple of an eye.
Or they’ll always be there
But instead they leave you with a broken heart"

by: Amira Dublin

Can you see why I believed in them?

After battling their way through confidence issues regarding their actual writing, our next obstacle was having the teens prepare for the performance. Because of the limited time I had with them, we had a total of 2 hours to prepare for the actual performance night. I felt like I was a character in a video game that keeps running into a wall because I don't know what direction to go next. Once the teens began to believe in their pieces, they began to doubt their ability to perform for such a large audience and then back again to not believing in themselves.

I know as an adult, a parent, we tend to see things in our youth that they can't even begin to imagine seeing in themselves, if they ever do. But when these teens provided me with the lines they did for their poems, I had no choice to believe in their ability to rise above. This all sounds anti-climatic but I promise you that this performance meant as much to them as anything I have ever done. It was their "American Idol" type of moment. They came together in amazing ways to work on peer-editing their performance pieces as well as offering each other some pointers for their actual performance. They worked on body stance, pace, pause, eye contact and word emphasis. From here we did what this group liked to do the most... chill out and make fun of each other.

Three hours later, as the performance began and their time to go on stage approached, we took a break and headed out into the hallway outside of the performance room and did the "Al-Bustan" poetic chant. "Ew, I feel so good I, I knew I would, ew, I feel so good." It might be silly in print but after 3 minutes they begin to hear the rhythm and we all can feel the confidence rise in the circle. Finally, we all knew they were ready.

Here is the link to the video for a portion of Ayesha's performance (from 2:29 to 3:10 in the video), just copy and paste the link into your browser:

Overall, the noises from the audience, followed up by their applause made this moment incredibly special for the teens. It made it special for me to see them develop and grow over a few short days. I hope and pray that we all have the opportunity to work together again, if not next year at camp, then maybe somewhere in between.

Thank you for lending me your time and ear and have a great weekend!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

An aesthete explains

I work for an arts education organization so you would think the importance of art would be clear to me and yet when I am confronted with someone who doesn’t see the value in creative expression I am speechless, unable to defend my belief that art can be powerful. As the child of two artists I was raised on a diet of Piero della Francesca with a side of Robert Smithson and spent a large chunk of my childhood surrounded by art whether in galleries or in my parents’ studios. However this unique upbringing left me unprepared for a pervasive misunderstanding of art and its relevance to daily life. As I grew up, I was constantly having to defend art’s value and importance to society. Yet, I had trouble conveying my intrinsic love of art. So, whenever I heard a story of art affecting social change, I stored it away for the next inevitable encounter with a Philistine. Mohsin Mohi-Ud-Din’s work in Morocco is just such a story, one that beautifully demonstrates the great value of art.

On a Fulbright fellowship, Mohi-Ud-Din spent a year in Morocco introducing street children, orphans, and drug addicts in Kenitra, Tangier, and Casablanca to film, photography, and music through workshops. Mohi-Ud-Din gave these children, who left broken households for a life on the streets, a means and forum to express themselves. Having experienced great hardship and missed out on their childhood and an education, these children needed a way to share their stories. Under his guidance, the kids wrote, directed, acted in, and shot 17 short narrative, documentary, and animated films.

During a summer I spent in Morocco, I learned that there are thousands of children, typically aged 11-17, who have left broken homes and made a life on the streets of major urban centers throughout Morocco. Salé (Rabat's sister city) responded to the great number of children roaming its streets with L'Ecole du Cirque (The Circus School), which offers street children a typical state-regulated curriculum with optional instruction in circus arts. The school utilizes the excitement of dance, gymnastics, the trapeze, and the tight rope to entice these children to return to school, "resocializing" them to eventually return to living with their families if possible. The school’s students have performed as a troupe throughout Morocco and some have even gone on to join circuses around the world. This phenomenon of children living in the streets is not limited to Salé, and neither is the use of arts to combat it.

Convinced that music and art education could empower these children "to creatively express what they have inside of them, all these issues that they have to deal with" Mohi-Ud-Din exposed the children to art-making. Armed with artistic and technical skills, his students began to tell their stories through pictures, stories, and films. The children used their new found voice to address the many issues they face including poverty, broken families, lack of father figures, and drugs. While many of the films have a serious tone, others are more whimsical, comedic pieces.

When Mohi-Ud-Din screened the films at a cinema in Tangier in front of an audience of 300, including his students, their reactions reaffirmed his intentions for the program. He noted that the students "were beaming with happiness. They were beaming with pride and confidence.” Filmmaking had freed them to share their stories, hopes, and dreams with others.

While the goal of his project may have been to make a difference in the lives of these children, art lives on beyond its creator. As a conduit for understanding and communication, art connects people who otherwise wouldn’t understand each other or even come into contact. Mohi-Ud-Din’s work in Morocco reminds us that though we can never fully understand someone else’s experiences, art, as the most intimate expression of a person’s character, may be the closest we get to seeing the world from another perspective. The hardship that these children have undergone at such a young age is incomprehensible but their films allow us to briefly walk in their shoes.

You can bear witness to these children’s stories this week and next at the 2011 Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Mohi-Ud-Din has partnered with Bright Light Theatre Company to produce All Places From Here, a multimedia performance based on the stories these children told through music, photography and film.

The Loading Dock, 1236 Frankford Ave., 8 p.m., through Sept. 17, $17. Tickets here.

Monday, August 8, 2011

An Exhilarating Second Week at Camp: Documented by Kyle Garvey

The second week of Al-Bustan camp was very action-packed, filled with great guest speakers/instructors, unpleasant humidity, and daunting power-outrages. Despite the poor weather, everyone had a splendid time, including myself. Below are some edited vignettes that I would love to share of week 2...

This first video features the musical side of the camp. Mr. Hafez acutely instructs the campers in his master craft of percussion using a few different instruments and the different parts of rhythmic musical notation. He also lets them have a lot of fun with the popular Arabic dance styles. And, Ms. Gaida's amazing voice and singing styles truly inspire the campers in their singing class.

In this next video, a few very interesting instructional moments are highlighted. The first is the demonstration on Manakish made the traditional way by Mr. Khalil. This made me very interested in the inexpensive method of cooking, using wood and pebbles. Also, Ms. Hazami introduces the teenage campers to the famous Lebanese picture-book author Nadine Touma, because of their exceptional artistic skills relative to her work. Also, Ms. Mary introduces the very fun process of soap-making to Group B. Some very cool soap-sculptures came from this and I hope you all had a chance to view them when they were on display on the evening of the performances!

This video features one of the high points of the camp: a conversation with Nadine Touma via Skype. I found her to be a very delightful woman (as you will notice in the video) and also quite humorous. In addition to Nadine's input on Lebanon, this video shows Amer and Mariam, two campers from Beirut and their imagery of Lebanon, interviewed by Mr. Musa. Also, the Arabic class learns about the ingredients and preparation of the Arabic salad Tabbouleh.

In this video, Mr. Justin and Ms. Suzy explain their excellent teaching methods in the Drama and Video Production classes. With drama, Mr. Justin's very creative method of letting the campers form their own stories around a Nadine Touma story whilst incorporating Lebanese culture is a very fun way for everyone. And, the end result of these Drama courses was one very original and entertaining collaborative play. With myself being an avid enthusiast of production, Ms. Suzy, with the video course, absolutely taught the teens a lot of valuable information in the process of putting together a story and a crew to develop a phenomenal short film that spoke to everyone who viewed it on the night of the performances.

Thanks for viewing my edited pieces, and I hope to have a few more for you very soon!
Yours truly,

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Sensory Tour of Lebanon

Last Thursday night a culminating exhibit of the campers’ experience in Art, Poetry, and Science classes transported families and community members from the auditorium in Springside School to Lebanon, the focus of Camp this summer. The campers’ creations in these classes filled the walls of the auditorium, demonstrating their creativity and the rich cultural heritage of this small but diverse country.

As the books of Dar Onboz and the geography of Lebanon informed the trajectory of Art Class this summer, a display of books from this Lebanese publishing house was available for browsing. The books are very visually stimulating—communicating the story line not just through text but also through images, including many collages. Campers made their own materials for collage making while exploring of the six elements of drawing: line, texture, space, value, shape, and color. With these materials they created individual collages while also working on a collaborative collage project depicting the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet.

The varied geography of Lebanon also served as an inspiration for projects in Art Class. Groups Alif and Ba’ used drawing, printmaking, and tissue paper to depict the Lebanon’s mountains, iconic cedar trees, and Mediterranean coastline. This same landscape informed the many poems that campers wrote in Poetry Class.

Groups Alif, Ba’, and Ta’ wrote poems in response to both texts from Dar Onboz and what they learned about the Lebanese agricultural economy and the Civil War, which poetry teacher, Eric Hitchner then assembled in an anthology. Integrating what they learned in Poetry and Art Classes, campers filled 10 feet long scrolls, which hung around the auditorium, with their poems and Arabic letters cut from the materials that they made in Art Class.

Not only did the campers' work stimulate the visual senses but the scent of orange blossom water and lavender floated through the auditorium. Following the technique practiced in Lebanon of making soap from the country’s abundance of olives, campers made orange blossom and lavender scented soap with science teacher Mary Walsh.

The campers beautifully captured the varied landscape of this country in their art and poetry and their soap serves as a tangible reminder of one of the country’s traditions. The campers’ art, poetry, and soap will act as souvenirs from their cultural visit to Lebanon during this year’s camp.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Teen Animation

This animation is about a boy in geography class, and he is falling asleep because it doesn't entertain him. He starts to fantasize about all the places he wants to be in Lebanon. -Tyleem Gray

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Good evening everyone. I am fresh, well a week fresh, back from my writing journey in Italy. The picture here is from when I was granted an opportunity to work the garden on my final evening in San Marco. I have never had better tomatoes AND I picked them! I also got to come back and start making homemade pizza for all the people I was staying with.

As you can tell, I was excited and feeling very blessed to have the opportunity to visit this beautiful country. However, what I was more excited about was to come back and work with some amazing teens.

It has been a very hot and SHORT week and a half with them. We have two teens who have returned from last year and are used to my craziness, three new teens, and finally, two beautiful young ladies that I have worked with before at NE High School in Philadelphia.

The ranges of writing experience are vast and to be honest, too academic. As a teacher, I find myself giggling at this, but it's true. This translates into the teens wondering if their poetry is good, or if it makes sense, or should it rhyme. It also translates into absolutely no writing getting done.

So, I had to change up my approach with them in many ways. The first is, the art teacher asked if we could add words to their beautiful works of art about rebuilding. Done. The second was to get inside of what their art said and why they chose the theme, the colors, the textures, the shapes, the amount of "slides" used in their pieces, and of course, what does it say about them.

From here we passed their works around and each teen spent some time free-writing about what their peer's work meant to them. They had to use dialogue, point-of-view, and prose to flesh out those works deeper. We also discussed the term rebuilding. The teens shared some similar ideas about rebuilding, such as happiness. A term that was brought up a lot. So, we then examined what it means to be happy and what if your happiness if different than someone else's happiness. What does that mean? And of course, we wrote about it and then each day, everyone read aloud and shared what they wrote that day, even if it was "bad" or didn't "rhyme".

The next step was to have each teen tell the journey of their own piece in their own words. I had them write an obituary about their piece as a way to practice writing about death and then a life. Translation - if you read an obituary, you will find that a good one will have celebrated the person's life. Just as in the theme rebuilding, we have the teens celebrating their pieces.

I can't tell if they are excited, nervous, or just plain old tired from a long emotional week and for the performance tomorrow. We had a lot of them today asking if they had to read their piece and what it meant if they did or didn't. I really didn't give them a choice, they have to read. They have to read because the small things they say in both their art and their poems are worth hearing about.

Any person, any country, any family, any community, any religion experiences conflict and rebuilding... and so have these teens. I tell you all, you have to come out and experience what the very near future holds and be witness to the creative ways in which these awesome teens are opening our eyes to what they value.

Thanks for your time and see you all tomorrow!



Teen experience at Al-Bustan camp

This year Al-Bustan camp was a very fun and interesting experience. We got to meet new people. We even had the chance to email teens from Lebanon and create friendships while learning about their culture. In film class we are working on a great video about stereotypes and discrimination. In these three weeks we have learned a lot of Arabic, probably a years worth. In art class we created an art piece based on change over time. In poetry class we got to go inside our artwork and find the emotion and the story that we created in Tremaine’s art class. During video class, we traveled to Center City and interviewed people about their thoughts on stereotypes and discrimination. It’s very interesting to hear how different people feel about real world situations. In video class we also had the opportunity to create our own plays, and act in them. I think kids who will attend Al-Bustan Camp in the future will benefit from this learning experience. Al-Bustan staff members motivate you to do better, and have fun while learning.

Post by Tyleem, Khalida and Amira

Monday, July 25, 2011

Creative Chaos...Afterall, it is Drama!

Theatre presents a way for students to engage with ideas in a high kinesthetic manner. It is another avenue for students to tackle complex issues and to work through them in group contexts as they develop stories based on the experiences of themselves and others. At Al-Bustan, I cherish the role that I have as the facilitator of such explorations.

My approach differs from that of a teacher in a more traditional sense. Indeed my highly collaborative methods mean that each year at Al-Bustan is different than the one before it, not merely because each year brings a new theme, but also because each year brings a new group of students and a new classroom dynamic. The students bring their unique approach to the material. They tell me what interests them about the topics that they study in other classes such as Arabic, art, poetry, and science. I record their ideas, place them into an outline format, read the outline back to the students and have them add flesh to the bones of the outline through improvisational exercises. This process requires a healthy amount of creative chaos, which may seem odd to the outside observer, but which always proves to be highly effective. Ideas flood the room, and the student’s unfiltered comments give way to open debates and further queries. The process is partially controlled thanks to a primary rule, which I heavily enforce, that all ideas must be treated with respect and must be considered fully before they can be dismissed.

This year at camp the middle school students decided to craft a play about the lives of kids who grew up during the Lebanese Civil War and who, despite suffering great adversity, persevered and demonstrated their remarkable resilience and ultimate love for life. Thus far, the students and I have staged the first scene, and our process has conformed largely to the method that I described above.

In many plays the first scene establishes the time, place, major characters, and circumstances of the play. The students themselves came up with the idea to have a scene inside the home of a traditional Lebanese family. In this scene an elder brother attempts to read a book as his two young, rambunctious siblings pester him with questions. Although their questions initially seem inconsequential, silly even, they dovetailed into a series of more weighted remarks about the nature of the Lebanese Civil War and concerns for the family’s ongoing safety. The seriousness of the conversation causes the older brother to change tactics and adopt the calming voice of authority, telling his siblings not to worry, but to be strong in the face of such adversity. The dialogue itself is determined by the students who play the roles on stage. The onstage actors are given further guidance by the students who sit on the sidelines awaiting their turns in the spotlight. If one of these students in the audience has an idea of what a given character should say, he/she raises his/her hand in order to offer a suggestion. Those on stage consider the suggestion and embody it. In this way, each student has the opportunity to add his/her insights, becoming playwrights themselves. This process will continue until Thursday when we treat our friends and family members to the culmination of our efforts, a fully-staged performance about Lebanon!

Baskot wa raha

On Friday camper Amer introduced the rest of Camp to baskot wa raha, or "biscuit with Turkish delight" in Arabic. This Lebanese treat is made by spreading raha (turkish delight) in between two lemony lucky 555 Gandour cookies. Gandour is a confectionary company that was established in Lebanon in 1857. Initially they began as a sweets manufacturer producing raha, a gummy sweet often rose scented or studded with nuts. In 1936 Gandour started selling biscuits and the baskot wa raha was born. Thanks to Amer for introducing us to this delicious and classic combination. Sahtain!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Virtual Visit from Nadine Touma

Oh the miracles of modernity! Though Nadine Touma, the publisher of Dar Onboz, was not able to come to Camp she visited via Skype on Wednesday. Many of our teachers have incorporated books published by Dar Onboz into their curricula for Camp so it was a great pleasure to finally meet her.

Nadine began her conversation with the Campers by sharing her grandmother's tradition of

beginning the day by sticking her face into a basil plant and taking a deep breath. Basil holds a rich symbolism for her family. Taking a deep breath of this herb is said to bring success, a happy family, and a peaceful home and to drive away negativity. She showed us her basil plant and blew its positive forces the 5694 miles from Beirut to Philadelphia.

In addition to the morning ritual of taking a whiff of basil, her grandmother inspired Nadine to embrace storytelling at a young age. Her grandmother too told great stories. Nadine said that her grandmother’s storytelling was "an homage to her matriarchy and her independence and strength as a woman." For Nadine, becoming a writer was not a choice. She has loved telling stories since she was a young girl and “while some people see storytelling as telling lies I see it as creativity.” She has unleashed her boundless creativity in children’s books such as Doodles and The Moon and the Bird, which have informed this summer’s Art and Drama Classes respectively.

After this brief introduction, some campers asked Nadine how she comes up with her story ideas. "Sometimes they come to me in the morning when I'm sitting on the potty. Sometimes they come when I am kissing someone I love." Campers giggled at her honest response.

Though she draws on all of her experiences in her writing, the book Is This a Passport Photo? is based on the incessant questions she had as a girl. This book of questions includes many thoughts and musings with which she pestered her parents. With this book she hoped to encourage parents to embrace the questions that their children pose.

The name of the publishing house exemplifies her reasons for writing and publishing books. ‘Dar Onboz’, which translates to ‘house of hemp seeds’, is a nod to the legend that feeding hemp seeds to birds make them sing. Similarly, she hopes that the Dar Onboz books will nourish people’s souls and ideas and inspire them to proudly express themselves. She aims "not to teach, but to share" with these books which she declared are her children. Rather than explaining what she hoped to convey in the stories she prefers to let “the reader to decide the deeper meaning in the books." One topic that comes up in several Dar Onboz books is the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990).

One camper wanted to hear about Nadine's experience growing up in Lebanon during this civil war. "It was horrible. It was scary. I saw my parents' pain and lost touch with family. It is something that has made me realize that violence is futile." She dreams not only of peace but of a world in which there is a ban on manufacturing arms thereby forcing people to imagine other ways to solve problems than by picking up a gun.

Her desire to inspire people to think about the world and themselves in new ways is a common thread that runs through Dar Onboz books. She hopes the books will remind people to “look at the full moon and even if it happens every month, to notice how it is different and beautiful each time.” Her continuing sense of wonder, even as she grows older, makes her a captivating storyteller.