Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Meeting of my Favorite Things: Oman and Moffet School

Last Friday I had the wonderful opportunity to talk with Moffet School kids about the country Oman and its history and culture. The students reactions reminded me exactly why Al-Bustan’s work is so impactful: we help expose people from all backgrounds to Arab culture, while simultaneously providing a forum for those of Arab heritage to feel pride in their culture, especially at a school like Moffet where there are a significant number Arab students.

Saeed (front right) brings his copy of The Turtle of Oman
with him even to after-school art class. Photo by Emily Ganser
The roots of my presentation stem from a scholarship I received from the Omani government to study Arabic and learn about its history and culture while I was in college. During my seven weeks living there, I became enamored with the place and ended up writing about Oman as part of my senior honors thesis. So, when I joined Al-Bustan and found out that we were bringing Naomi Shihab Nye to Philadelphia to talk about her latest book, The Turtle of Oman, I got very excited. Then, when I heard that some of our dedicated Al-Bustaners (“gardeners”?) were donating money to purchase a copy of The Turtle of Oman for all fourth and fifth graders at Moffet School, and that Naomi would come and speak to these kids about the book, I was overjoyed.

The intersection of Moffet, Naomi Shihab Nye, and The Turtle of Oman meant that I had the opportunity to go do one of my favorite things: talk to people about the Sultanate of Oman. As all the fourth and fifth graders are reading the book now, the teachers invited me to speak with their students about my time in Oman  They only gave me 45 minutes--I could talk about Oman for hours if you gave me the chance--which was just enough time to review the geography, the impact of Sultan Qaboos on the development of the country, and some show and tell about the food and clothing.

Me giving the first of two presentations on Oman.
Despite the distance of Oman from their lives, the Moffet kids were attentive listeners and inquisitive questioners. They asked about everything from the types of weapons Omanis used to use (small shields!) to the traditional way of eating food with just your hands. And let me tell you, when I spoke about my experience camping in Wadi Ash-Shab (the most fun adventure I’ve ever undertaken) the room was filled with that eerie quiet that comes about when everyone is really focused.

As fun as the talk was, my conversation with Ms. Anderson afterwards was, perhaps, the most gratifying moment of the day. She told me how one of the Arab girls in her class has become more engaged and confident while he class is reading The Turtle of Oman.  As a native Arabic speaker she was able help her classmates with translations of the Arabic words. This is a perfect example of how intercultural work can help engender pride in youth. By introducing a book which contains Arabic and Arab cultural themes it provides opportunities for Arab students to contribute to class from their unique perspective. I can’t wait to see what happens when the students get farther along in reading The Turtle of Oman, and what they say when Naomi Shihab Nye visits their school this Friday!

- Max Dugan, Program Coordinator

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Replanting the Seeds at Al-Bustan

Me dressed in a black skirt, age 7 at Al-Bustan Camp 2007
I'm currently working as an intern with Al-Bustan. My longstanding participation with Al-Bustan says something about the organization, in that its reach extends past those ancestrally connected with Arab culture. 

Though I am fascinated by Arabic language and culture, my mother’s family is Colombian-American, and my father’s family is Angolan. It is the integration of Arab culture throughout the Islamic world, specifically in the Andalusian region, that originally led my mother to send me to Al-Bustan Camp, and it is my own ethnic diversity that has allowed me to be more open to other cultures. 

Growing up surrounded by the languages that tie into my heritage (Spanish and Portuguese, of which I speak Spanish fluently) has further interested me in the languages that go along with the identities of others: while I attended Independence Charter School, I was fortunate enough to study Arabic during my last 3 years. Currently a sophomore at Science Leadership Academy, I take my school life, both in and out of the classroom, very seriously. I'm on the debate team as well as the board of the robotics team. While Arabic is a hobby of mine, I bring the same dedication to studying the language and culture that I do to my schoolwork.

Me playing the role of the "Sea Goddess," age 10 at Al-Bustan 2010 
It’s fortuitous that the first song I learned as an Al-Bustan Camper, Lamma Bada Yatathanna, was one representing the multicultural region of Andalusia, Spain. As a seven year old, I could not grasp the importance of the lessons of acceptance taught to me through Al-Bustan’s diverse and welcoming environment, but returning to Al-Bustan each year has offered me a way to reconnect with those lessons as well as my passions: Arabic and Music. Though I have pursued out-of-school opportunities (I take singing lessons at UPenn and Arabic lessons with a family friend, Tarek Albasti), limited funding within the Philadelphia School District has made in-school access nearly impossible. Working with Al-Bustan seemed like the perfect option for me as I am in the midst of thinking about what I want to do in the future. The organization has done such a phenomenal job of incorporating the arts, especially Middle Eastern art, into education of the Arabic language. 

My general goal for this internship is to improve my understanding of the Arabic language and culture by interacting with prominent figures working with Arab art and culture here in Philadelphia. Most importantly, I want to decide for myself whether or not working in an Arabic-related field and with organizations that promote Arab culture is something that I would like to pursue in the future. If so, I know that the seeds that I plant through this internship with Al-Bustan will prove a strong foundation. Insha’ allah I will use that foundation to better my understanding of the Arab world, while learning from and teaching others along the way.

Fairuz’s version of Lamma Bada Yatathanna

Kia DaSilva - Intern at Al-Bustan
Class of 2017, Science Leadership Academy

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Dancing, Debke, and Tarab at Greenfield School

The experts setting up before the presentation.
When Hazami asked me to help Hafez, Hanna, and Hicham with their presentation about Arab music at Greenfield School, I expected an engaging lecture; there is no way I would have guessed that by the end of the assembly that the students would literally be dancing and clapping in the auditorium. As their teacher pointed out, this extraordinary student engagement is made even more amazing by the fact that this presentation took place during the last period of the day on Halloween, when all the children have on their minds’ is trick-or-treating. Now I’m just wondering about the date of our next school presentation/debke experience.

The impetus for this whole talk is that Hafez--who is currently teaching Greenfield 6th graders Arabic drumming--wanted to give his students a little background in Arab music and culture, so that they could better appreciate what he is teaching them. So, Hafez did what any teacher would do in this situation: he recruited two virtuoso Arab musicians, who are also currently pursuing doctorates in anthropology of music and ethnomusicology, to accompany him in describing Arab music and culture, as well as performing some traditional Arab music. You know, the usual routine in this situation.

Hanna Khoury, Hicham Chami, Hafez, and
Hafez Kotain fielding questions from Greenfield students.
And in an hour and half Hafez Kotain, Hanna Khoury, and Hicham Chami covered so much information. They began with a primer on their instruments (the violin, qanun, and dumbek) and how they are used in Arab music. For the record, the Greenfield students liked the qanun the most; Hicham was extremely happy. Then they traced the history of modern Arab music as the cultural center moved from the Ottoman empire (Morocco was independent during this time), to Egypt and Umm Kulthum, to Lebanon and Fairuz, while also giving a brief overview of maqamat, or Arab scales. Throughout this talk they played examples of the different genres of music, from ‘Aziza to Longa Shahnaz. All of this was wonderful, especially the kids’ responsiveness, but nothing could prepare me for what happened during the finale.

The dabke finale that lit up the room.
To close the presentation, Hafez blew everyone away with a lively debke rhythm. The English language doesn’t have words to describe what Hafez did to the kids, though the Arabic word “tarab,” which roughly translates to “enchanting,” would work perfectly. All I know is that the kids were literally dancing in the aisles of the auditorium, and when the song ended, I heard an audible “woo!” from the students. As someone who went to Philadelphia Public School for thirteen years I can tell you that I never once saw students react to a presentation like that. The reason is pretty obvious: we never had a musician like Hafez come give a talk on Arab music and culture. I’ll be looking to the next time I get to help set up for one of these presentations, which, as I know now, will never be the “usual.”

Max Dugan
Al-Bustan Program Coordinator

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Syrian Awareness Week: Raising Knowledge and Money

Last month Penn for Syrian Refugees and Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture organized “Syria Awareness Week” on Penn’s campus (Sept 23-27) -- and I, in my dual role as board member for PSR and Al-Bustan staff member, took a big part in organizing it. Our goal, which we conceived last spring before the many changes in the Arab world over the summer, was to increase awareness on campus about the sheer size of the humanitarian crisis in Syria. A lot of people get so caught up in the political debates--about things like arming the opposition and US intervention, among others--that they forget just how many Syrians have been killed and displaced in the 3 years since the conflict began and the many other humanitarian tragedies the war has wrought. It was our intention to bring this knowledge to people—as well as do a little fundraising along the way.
Flags on College Green at UPenn campus

On Tuesday, we held a Skype call with Dr. Monzer Yazji, a founding member of the Union for Syrian Medical Relief Organizations (UOSSM). Dr. Yazji spoke to us about the systematic targeting of medical and humanitarian relief efforts by regime forces within Syria and about his work trying to get medical care to civilians there. He told us that the regime restricts medical care from reaching anyone who supports the opposition--or doesn’t explicitly support them--and therefore hundreds of people in opposition controlled areas find it nearly impossible to receive medical care. Dr. Yazji talked about seeing doctors he was working with targeted by military air strikes, including one talented young brain surgeon who had gone on a special mission to reach a child with a brain tumor and was killed. He himself was at risk numerous times. I was particularly struck by Dr. Yazji’s passion for and commitment to what he was doing, not only in such a dangerous situation in Syria but also with intense passion in America, recruiting doctors and Syrian-Americans to support his cause. Everyone in the audience on Tuesday was left with a new appreciation of the difficulties of providing assistance in Syria.
Qusai speaking at UPenn

On Wednesday morning we set up flags on College Green, in the center of Penn’s campus, to show the number of Syrians who had been killed in the conflict. There were 955, with each flag representing 200 deaths. From the morning when we started setting up the flags, there was a lot of interest in them, with several of the passerbys asking us what they were for and many more looking on with interest. By the end of the day, many people were stopping for pictures, and we got interviewed by a reporter for the campus newspaper. The memorial was a good way to raise awareness because it was a striking and public reminder of the humanitarian toll in Syria.

Thursday was perhaps the most moving of all events: a speech by Qusai Zakarya, a Syrian man who spent over a year under siege in Moadamiya, a small town outside of Damascus. During this year, Qusai talked about the starvation of the town and the chemical weapons attack it suffered at the hands of the regime in August 2013, including Qusai’s own near-death experience in which he had to be resuscitated in the morgue. He spoke also about his numerous interviews with Western news outlets and, more recently, since he has been in America, trips to government and international organizations to plead for intervention against Assad. The most meaningful thing he said, in my opinion, was his statement that “people in Syria cannot imagine having what American’s have...not just the jobs, the clothes, the food, but the freedom to say whatever you want to and to not be scared.” That is something that I and some many others take for granted, when we really need to appreciate it. Qusai’s speech had a huge impact on everyone in attendance and gave everyone an overwhelming urge to help.

My colleague Oscar and I presenting about Karam at the event

Saturday provided the opportunity to do just that. In conjunction with Al Bustan, we put on a fundraiser for Karam Foundation. Karam is an American-based non-profit that runs programs for displaced Syrians that incorporate art, exercise, and health; their motto is “Every Child Deserves to Play.” Our event featured a performance by the Al Bustan Takht Ensemble, art-making, Arab food, and a brief attempt at debke. We also screened some of Karam’s videos to highlight their programs with Syrian children. The gathering raised over $650 for Karam's efforts to help displaced Syrians. It was great to see community members--students and adults, Arabs and non-Arabs--come together to support a cause. 

Overall, we were happy with the impact that the week had and hope it will inspire people to continue to follow and support the Syrian cause.

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

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Interview with Mohsen Namjoo: Making Music and Memory

October 13, 2014
By Nikki – Senior at Science Leadership Academy

Mohsen Namjoo at University of Pennsylvania campus

In the next chapter of his career, Mohsen Namjoo is dedicated to breaking new ground. Dubbed by the New York Times as “Bob Dylan of Iran”, Namjoo strives for musical excellence, not only for his fans, but also because of his reverence for traditional Persian music and literature. During his visit to Philadelphia, I had the chance to interview him and learn about the influences and inspirations that drive him to be the type of musician that he is today.

Interviewer Nikki:  In your 2007 interview with The New York Times, you mention that as you expand your music and begin to write new songs, your music won’t “belong to the present time and cannot satisfy the younger generation;” it belongs to the generation of “lost music,” your own generation.  As you expand, do you think you will include the youth and change the view you have of them?

Mohsen Namjoo: First off, the reason I make music is to make it for the sake of music. The younger generation, however, pressures musicians to include political concepts in our songs and art. In some of my music, I have done that, to cater to that generation. But right now, due to the calm, soothing environment I live in here in America, the environment inspires me to write music for the art of music. It inspires me to write just for musical concepts and not for non-musical, more political concepts. My musical ideas include different orchestrations, scenarios, and different collaborations with different cultures, like Al-Bustan. They don’t include political agendas. Even if I were going to have some sort of political agenda, it would not be to protest against different government systems. It would be to protest for the beauty in culture and music. 

Nikki:  Interesting, do you think it is easier to be a musician in America or Iran?

Namjoo: Financially, Iran is better. However, unfortunately, right before I hit the peak of my musical career, I had to flee the country. Nonetheless, I’m emotionally satisfied being here in America as a musician.

Nikki:  You were previously a music fellow at Stanford and are now teaching a course at Brown University. When teaching at Brown, do you feel as though it is a learning experience for you or do you see it as a top-down experience for your students?

Namjoo: Any teaching is a learning experience for me. This semester at Brown University, I teach a course about contemporary Iranian poets and about their political power after the revolution. It’s like I am collaborating and competing with my students. I don’t teach and don’t like the traditional teaching method of “I know everything and you, as a student, are here just to listen to me”.

Nikki:  While growing up in Iran, in your teenage years like me, what type of music would you listen to or who? Eastern? Western?

Namjoo: When I was a teenager, my favorite type of music was traditional Iranian music and some traditional Eastern music. Eastern music from India, Afghanistan, and also some traditional Arabic Music. On occasion, I would listen to pop music from Los Angeles as well. However, my taste changed after university. My perspective on music expanded and became much more diverse.

Nikki:  Are there any specific musicians or concepts that inspire you?

Namjoo: I have a few inspirations. First, I am most inspired by Persian literature and modern Iranian poetry. Next, Persian folklore (several songs that Namjoo will perform on the October 18th are from the folklore). Then, Iranian maestros like Shajarian and Alizadeh. Finally, modern western music, Blues and Rock music from the 70s.

Nikki:  Do you feel challenged by the music you produce for your fan base or do you produce music within your comfort zone for your fan base that you know will sell?

Namjoo: Oh, interesting question. I honestly wish I could produce music for myself. But producing music, in general, involves a lot compromising due to financial stability. For example, if I do solo performances with my setar (the signature instrument that Namjoo plays) around the world, for Iranian audiences, all my fans would be satisfied. It would also be financially beneficial for me as well. That being said, I hate to perform this way. I like composing new songs/albums through new concepts so I discover new ways of producing music. But people don’t like that. They prefer just listening to my old songs and styles, instead of the new ones, because it brings back their old memories. They don’t appreciate my attempt of trying new music out.

Nikki:  So, you like to create music more for the artistic aspect than just for the memories.

Namjoo: Yes, exactly. Except, no one appreciates your efforts to incorporate creativity. They need you to be what they want. After a certain amount of time, the people own you. Sometimes, you can no longer be yourself because you have to cater to them. I would rather spend my time learning new vocal concepts, or, for example, if I had the choice to produce music for a movie or to produce music from my hometown, I would choose to produce music from my hometown.

Nikki:  You talk about wanting to create new musical opportunities and new collaborations. Are you excited to collaborate with Al-Bustan? Do you see it as an opportunity to widen your musical horizons?

Namjoo: Yes I am excited and I think it’s going to be a great opportunity to expand my musical experiences.

Nikki:  Al-Bustan often brings together a very diverse audience. Since your music is geared more towards Iranian audiences, do you think, from this new experience, you can produce music that is geared to a more diverse audience?

Namjoo: Most definitely; however, I’m not tempted to create music that is just in English because it will reach a further audience. Sure, it might be fun to do a song or two to do in English; however, I don’t think I’m going to change my musical path to be in English. That being said, I am very fortunate and optimistic about this collaboration with Al-Bustan. I’ve played with many different musicians all the way from Turkey to here in America. But, playing with the Takht Ensemble is different because we all have the same background when it comes to rhythms. In addition, I love the discussions we are having about music with the members of the Takht Ensemble because they are all very knowledgeable.

You can catch see Mohsen Namjoo perform with Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble this Saturday, October 18th, 8pm at Trinity Center for Urban Life, in Center City Philadelphia. More info at

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Launching the Moffet Arab Arts After-School Program*

Three weeks into our after-school program, so much wonderful stuff has already happened that I have to get some of it off my chest. The kids’ personalities are just starting to emerge, their skills are sharpening, and consequently the days are increasingly fun. Concurrent with the play that goes on there is also a fairly rigorous--for elementary-school-age children--structure to the program. We open with a fifteen minute snack in the cafeteria where all the children gather. This gives them a second to unwind before the bulk of the teaching begins and they are divided into two groups: the visual artists and the musicians.

Mixing oil and water colors - learning about resists
Visual Art
The visual artists go withTremain Smith who immerses them in making art.  Teaching assistants Ms. Rachel and Ms. Stevie, both Temple affiliates, help out in the classroom, and on some days when Ms. Tremain can’t make it, Ms. Lisa, a teaching artist who worked with Al-Bustan last year, fills in. It is relatively early in the program, so we are building a foundation for future art projects by reviewing and learning foundational art concepts and skills such as texture, line, color, shadow, scale. So far, the students have enjoyed art so much that they do not even mind when art has gotten them in trouble with their parents. For example, Yaseen (Little Yusef, for those of you in the know) got a few stains on his shirt after the first day. I response, Yaseen justified this to his mother with a bold, and profound, statement claiming these splotches on his shirt were infact art (“but mama, this is art!”).  What the kids are doing looks like so much fun; I often find myself wishing that I was allowed to just sit and paint with the group.  For the last hour of the program, the teaching assistants and myself jump in to help the kid with their homework so that when they go home after 6pm they can actually relax and unwind a bit.

In the music track, the students take the first thirty minutes after snack to do homework, to lighten their work-load when they get home. Then, they come all together to sing in choir with Hanna Khoury and Hafez Kotain, and on Wednesdays with Serge El Helou. If this sounds mundane to you, take into account that these children sing songs in English, French, and Arabic. While they probably do not understand the Arabic words without the translation (provided on the papers), they are starting to get some of the more difficult Arabic sounds, such as the various guttural, glottal, and emphatic consonants. One of my hopes is that this program is planting the seeds (garden metaphor!) for their future linguistic flourishing.

Serge El Helou leads students in music skills session
Following choir they split into two groups that are distinguished by those who previously drummed with Mr. Hafez, and those who are new to the program. One group does percussion with Mr. Hafez (who is a very popular teacher at Moffet) and another group goes with Mr. Hanna or Mr. Serge to practice music drills and exercises in Western and Arab music. Everytime I hear them drum or sing I’m amazed by how quickly these kids learn new concepts and skills. They are already pretty good at matching pitches, and have learned so many drum rhythms. I cannot wait to see what they are adept at in the next few weeks!

So, this is simply a basic introduction to the program. I love to write, and tons of remarkable things happen every day at Moffet; this is merely the first in a series of articles about the budding program and students.

Max Dugan
Al-Bustan Program Coordinator

*Al-Bustan’s program at Moffet School is made possible with the support of William Penn Foundation, Children Can Shape the Future, Stockton Rush Barton Foundation, and Lincoln Foundation.

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