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

Saturday, August 31, 2013

See You Soon, Al-Bustan!

Five months ago, I was graciously welcomed into the Al-Bustan community as an intern. Although it was my place of work, I saw this organization as more than that. To me, Al-Bustan is a place to discover one's identity and be accepted by those similar and different than you. Upon arriving, I was ready to immerse myself in this positive environment. As I became more involved in the programs, especially during the summer camp, I learned more about myself as a leader and as a member of a thriving community. I am grateful for having the opportunity to work with the talented teaching artists of Al-Bustan, who have each inspired me to pursue my passion as they have pursued theirs. Hazami Sayed, Executive Director, made the most impact on me from this experience. With her obvious dedication and commitment to the organization and Arab culture, she is the rock of the foundation. Her guidance through these past several months has allowed me to mature professionally, gaining knowledge of multiple aspects of running an organization, such as market outreach, research and analysis, program design and development, customer relations, and database management. Overall, I am extremely appreciative for all that Hazami and Al-Bustan have done for me.

Today, I am traveling to visit my family in Palestine. Although this chapter in my life is coming to an end, I am and will always be a part of Al-Bustan. I will take the lessons and values learned and continue to spread the organization's mission.

Thank you, Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture!
My favorite experience, my family - Al-Bustan Camp 2013
Zeanah Rumman-Obeid - Drexel student, intern at Al-Bustan

Friday, August 30, 2013

On Language and Heritage: Interview with Dr. Shawqi Kassis

As Al-Bustan is planning for this fall's concert series, I learned that the featured guest in December will be a long-time Philadelphia area resident, Dr. Shawqi Kassis, a scientist and author.  Dr. Kassis will be reading experts from his recently published book "Haifa is Not Cordoba."

To my surprise, I realized that at a young age I had met Dr. Kassis through my parents.  Born in Haifa, he grew up in the village of Rama, which is not too far from where my father was born in Acre.  He came to the US at the age of 32 after receiving his Ph.D. in Microbiology from Tel-Aviv University in 1979.  He worked as Visiting Fellow and Visiting Associate in the Neurology Institute at the National Institute of Health from 1980 to 1987.  This was followed by employment at Glaxo SmithKline for the remainder of his technical career where he worked as a Senior Investigator/Lab Chief in Discovery Research and Research & Development.  During this period Dr. Kassis published over 45 biomedical articles in refereed journals in the fields of biochemistry, cell biology and pharmacology.  He has presented over 35 abstracts in international and national scientific meetings and has four US and European patents in the field of microbiology.

Dr. Shawqi Kassis  at a book signing in Virginia in 2011.
After a productive career, Dr. Kassis dedicated himself upon retirement to his passion, the Arabic language, both through teaching and writing.  In 2003, he founded and taught at the Arabic and Hebrew language programs at Drexel University, where I am studying Accounting and pursing a minor in Arabic.  Currently, Dr. Kassis is a writer working on several literary projects, the first of which is the historical fiction book he published last year, loosely based on his life growing up in Palestine-Israel.  I had the privilege of conducting a phone interview with Dr. Kassis, and I am happy to share with you his responses.

How was the transition from working as a scientist to dedicating yourself full time to writing?

Arabic, Arab history, and the situation in Palestine post-1948, have all been on my mind since I was a child.  When I decided to go into the biomedicine I could not pursue my personal interests in writing and Arab literature because I was working all the time in my professional field; so it remained on the back burner for me.  After a car accident few years ago it became difficult for me to commute to my office and work, so I decided to retire and pursue my passion.  The transition was not easy at first due to various reasons; however my love for my heritage and language with its various colors gave me the strength, of which the first fruit was this book about my experience as an Arab living under Zionism.  The idea for this book was sparked in 2003, in response to a request, a desire, from my high school Arabic language teacher to write about my thoughts and experiences.

What Arab literary figures inspired you over the years?

Specifically for this book, none in particular.  However, I adore and am very much fond of several literary figures, some of which I mention in my book, including Mahmoud Darwish, with whom I lived for one year in Haifa in the same room in 1965; Al-Mutanabbi, the greatest Arabian poet of all times; Samih Al-Qasim, who is a fellow villager from Rama, my neighbor and a renowned poet whom I quote many in several verses in the book; and Imru' al-Qais, the first Arabian poet.  Also, other figures like Abdel Rahman Munif, a novelist, as well as Anis Mansour, Abu el-Alaa Elmaarry, Nizar Qabbani, Ahmad Shawqi and Naguib Mahfouz.

What role has the Arabic language played in your life in America? 

Arabic played an indirect role in my profession, in that for any Latin expression, ever since I was undergraduate and graduate student, I would strive to find the equivalent Arabic word so I can comprehend its precise meaning.  In fact when I was a high school teacher (in Rama during the sixties for two years after completing my BS degree), I requested from all the students in chemistry to write the Arabic terms in addition to the Latin terms.

However, outside my profession, Arabic played a major role because I gave many lectures in universities, human relation commission committees, townships, counties, and in police departments about Arab culture and history of Islam.  I gave these talks to American audiences in English.  In preparation, I had to translate many Arabic passages from the Quran and other sources. 

What do you hope to pass on to younger generations in America through your work?

Well, I would summarize it in one phrase attributed to Jesus Christ: 
ماذا يستفيد الإنسان لو ربح العالم كله وخسر نفسه؟  
'What good would it be for man if he won the world and lost himself?' I don't know if that's the exact translation in the Bible or not but that is my translation.  I have never read Christian or Jewish scriptures in English; I only read them in Arabic and Aramaic.  I reference this phrase by Jesus because the message I would like to pass to the new generation is: Don't run after materialistic gains and lose respect of yourself.  Act according to high moral standards, respect your heritage and your language, and don't be fooled by materialistic gains.

What do you hope to leave as a legacy in America and in Palestine?

To Palestinian and American youth, I urge you to get to know your roots and your language - without your language you are nothing. That is the most important thing. No nation on earth, from the beginning of human history until today, produced anything of any significance or value, without thinking about it, formulating it, and transmitting to the world in its mother tongue.  If you ignore your mother tongue, you lose so much.  

My children, for example, they all mastered fusha, the Arabic classical language.  I can sit and discuss with them topics about historical Arab figures, literary or political topics, and chat in Arabic and argue with them about verses of poetry and what not.

* * *
In this brief conversation with Dr. Kassis, I am all the more intrigued to challenge myself and read his book in Arabic.  Dr. Kassis' stories resonated with me, especially as I prepare to travel later this week to visit my father's family in Acre.  It also has motivated me to continue mastering the Arabic language.  His values in fact mirror those of Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, specifically one of its core values, the importance of language.  Language and heritage are an integral part of one's identity.  I am looking forward to Dr. Kassis' reading with musical accompaniment by Al-Bustan's Resident Takht Ensemble on December 8, 2013.  Hope to see you at the Trinity Center for Urban Life!

Zeanah Rumman-Obeid - Drexel student, intern at Al-Bustan

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Mohammad Assaf: Palestine's Voice

ولد محمد عساف في 10 سبتمبر1989 في مصراتة، ليبيا لأبوين فلسطينيين من قطاع غزة، فلسطين، وهو واحد من سبعة أشقاء. عاد عساف ووالديه إلى مخيم للاجئين في خان يونس في قطاع غزة عندما كان في الرابعة من عمره.
Assaf receiving his award as Arab Idol Season 2.
فاز عساف في الموسم الثاني من 'عرب أيدول'، التي تبثها الشبكة MBC  وقال انه لقب "بالصاروخ" من قبل المطرب اللبناني و القاضي 'عرب أيدول' راغب علامه. كان الناس في العالم العربي يصوتون للفلسطيني محمد عساف.
استحق عساف الفوز في 'عرب أيدول' و لأن صوته رائع وجلب بذلك الأمل للكثير من الفلسطينيين. سوف يسافر إلى الشرق الأوسط لإحياء حفلاته في فلسطين في فندق جراند بارك برام الله
كانت فرحة عساف كبيرة بعد أن تلقّى دعوةً من رئيس الإتحاد الدولي لكأس العالم جوزيف بلاتر للغناء في إفتتاح الدورة المقبلة التي ستقام في البرازيل العام المقبل. ويُشارك عسّاف في أضخم حفل رياضي غنائي عالمي على الإطلاق، وأيضا تلقّى الدعوة من بلات، لإفتتاح ملعب رياضي وأول قناة رياضية فلسطينية في الضفة الغربية.

For my Arabic class, I was asked to explore an icon that I believe promotes peace in a positive, apolitical manner. At first, I found it difficult for a peace icon to be apolitical because typically the two go hand in hand. Then I thought, Al-Bustan strives for a similar mission by bringing together the community of Arabs and non-Arabs, from all walks of life. The arts, especially music, are a universal language across the world. One person who recently exemplifies this is Mohammad Assaf, a Palestinian from Gaza. As a public figure who just won Arab Idol, Assaf has the ability to influence the masses through his music. With that in mind, I began writing an expository essay for my Arabic language class. 

As I noted in the Arabic paragraph above, Assaf was given the name "the rocket" by Lebanese superstar and Arab Idol judge and mentor Ragheb Alama because of his exuberant personality. Assaf is Arab Idol's second season winner, which got me wondering about the first season's champion, Carmen Suleiman. While Assaf received overwhelming attention after his victory, Suleiman recognition was more modest. I thought to myself, what is it about his story that is so compelling? 

I was curious to see the reaction of Arabs about his victory so I browsed the web for critiques. It was difficult to find a source that spoke negatively about Assaf. How did he win the love and support of so many people? Was it simply his voice, or is there more behind this story?

I came across an insightful article written by Maysoon Zaid, an American comedian and activist of Palestinian descent. As she writes:

The story of how Mohammed Assaf got to audition in Cairo from Khan Younis is the stuff that episodes of Glee are made of. As the legend goes, Mohammed had to beg and bribe the Egyptians, at Rafah crossing, to let him out of Gaza and into Egypt. His incredible journey spanned two days and when Mohammed finally arrived in Cairo, he was too late. The gate was closed. Devastated, he called his mom to tell her he was coming home. Like a true stage mom, Entisar Assaf wasn't having it and wouldn't allow her son to quit. She told her child that coming home was not an option and to get his singing self over that gate by any means necessary. Apparently, all Palestinians have an inner Spider Man and scaling walls is child's play.

Mohammed obeyed his mama and hopped the wall. Once inside, our hero faced another roadblock. He didn’t have a contestant's number and no number means no audition. He had come too far to give up now, so like a scene from a Broadway musical, Mo spontaneously broke out into song right in the middle of the gaggle of people waiting their turn to audition. He sang his heart out. A man from the crowd stepped forward and handed Assaf his audition number. He told Mohammed that he was just there clowning and that Mo had a real shot and could have his spot. The kid from Gaza had finally caught a break.

I was struck by how his story represents the daily struggles of Palestinians and their perseverance in achieving their dreams. His story inspires Palestinians, and all Arabs, to fight for freedom and to never lose sight of their roots even in times of hardshipAssaf's ability to compete against all odds and his subsequent victory provided a sense of hope, a source of inspiration, and another voice for Palestinian people.

Last Thursday, the Eid in Dubai concluded with one of the most awaited events of the year, the Arab Idol Live Tour 2013. The concert was held at the Dubai World Trade Centre, featuring champion Mohammed Assaf, and the two finalists, Syrian Farah Yusuf and Egyptian Ahmed Jamal, as well as Ragheb Alama. Details about the rest of the Arab Idol Live Tour has not been revealed to the public yet; however, Assaf's team is working on bringing him to the United States this upcoming year.

While in Dubai, Assaf is working diligently on his first album, which will feature ten songs, and his first single to be released soon. MBC is making a autobiographical movie about Assaf's life journey, shining light on Palestine. 

Assaf's experience and modesty makes him a fitting figurehead to draw attention to the Occupation. He does not dwell on the past but he is focused on improving the future and promoting peace. Assaf's peace campaign is just beginning. He is proud of his heritage and of his people; he wants to show the world Palestine's potential as well as encouraging the world in joining his campaign. When returning home to Gaza after his Arab Idol win, Assaf exclaimed, "Thank you Palestine and thank you Arab nations! Thank you for your support and standing by my side to put a light on the suffering of my people in Gaza and West Bank. I give you this win because I am proud and I am proud to have you behind me."

- Zeanah Rumman-Obeid, Drexel student/Al-Bustan intern