Sunday, September 13, 2015

A Garden From Ash

In nearly all things bad there is a silver-lining. On the fourteenth anniversary of one of the worst events to occur during my lifetime, I could not help but think that 9/11 has brought us closer to reconciling the constructed division between “Islam" (which mistakenly doubles as “Arab Culture” for most Americans) and “The West.” My best evidence of this phenomenon is also my most personal: despite being raised without engaging Arab culture much (my parents are wonderful and extremely open-minded, for the record), I find myself drawn closer to it in direct proportion to how much vitriolic hatred is produced by the extremes in the US.

As I reflect on my life up to now, I realize that without 9/11, my Islamophobic relatives might not have exposed me to such disagreeable and upsetting views that obligated me to seek better information. Without the demonization of Arabs and Muslims following 9/11, I probably would have never been intrigued enough to step into the Classical Islam course with Vernon Schubel my first semester at Kenyon College. Without 9/11, there likely would not have been multiple Arabic courses at my college and many fellowships to study Arabic abroad. Without 9/11, Al-Bustan may not have come into existence because there would not have been as much need to counter ignorance of Arab culture in the US. Without 9/11, I would not have the opportunity to help educate about Arab culture and language as a part of Al-Bustan.

In the continued struggle against post-9/11-ignorance and the consequent education of people, I see a silver-lining. This is not to say that the suffering of hundreds of millions of people in the Arab and Muslim World is worth it—the US will never fully ameliorate the damage we have done to those communities in the name of “freedom”—but it may help us envision how a garden can grow from ash.

- Max Dugan, Program Coordinator

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Weaving Arab Music and Cultural Education at Comley Elementary

After visiting Maura Diberardinis’s choir class on Monday, March 30th, I left with two observations: (1) We at Al-Bustan are very lucky to have Maura in our fold and (2) Hanna Khoury, Al-Bustan’s Music Director and PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, does a great job of weaving Arab culture into music education in a way that feels seamless and natural. About the latter point, Hanna's lesson at Comley School exemplified the way that a teaching artist can use Arab music as a vehicle to educate students about Arabic language and culture. By interweaving diction training, cultural anecdotes, and translation, Hanna simultaneously taught culture, Arabic, and music in a way that engages children regardless of their experience with the language or culture.

Maura Driberdinis (2nd row, third from left) at Al-Bustan's
professional development course in June 2014
That said, I was first struck by how effectively Maura taught her students Nassam 'Alayna al-Hawa, and, furthermore, by how well her 80 students engaged with the music during our visit. I first met Maura last summer during Al-Bustan’s professional development course; she was highly engaged and eager to get the most from the course so that she could introduce her students to new material. One of the songs which the participants learned was Nassam, a classic Arab song made famous by Fairuz. When I found out that Maura had begun teaching her students Nassam and wanted Hanna Khoury, who was the lead teacher in the summer course, to work further with her students, I was simply excited! Despite having seen a fair number of these educational visits, the teacher’s and students’ positive energy always surprises me. A visit to Comley Elementary was extra-exciting because it offered the opportunity to work more with Maura and to meet her diverse and talented student choir.
Hanna Khoury answering questions from eager Comley students

In addition to the wonderful students, I was very impressed by how Hanna taught Nassam, which concisely and naturally blended Arab culture education with music education. He began by asking the students about their origins, and explaining how the song’s lyrics speak to the emotional challenges of immigration. From there, he worked on the students’ diction by using fun vocal games and song excerpts to keep everyone engaged. For example, he had the students sing “fi-mantoura…” a little softer because, as Hanna explained, mantoura is a small picture, so you must reflect that smallness in song. Then, during the following Q&A period, Hanna ended up giving a mini-lesson on traditional Arab classical music. Consider everything that was covered in one class visit!

I'm excited to see Maura's students perform Nassam on May 21 accompanied by Hanna Khoury and percussionist Hafez Kotain at an all-school assembly for students and parents.

- Max Dugan
Al-Bustan Program Coordinator

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Interning at Al-Bustan: A Synthesis of My Passions and Interests

Playing the guitar (top center, next to cellist Kinan Abou-afach) 
with the Philadelphia Arab Music Ensemble
As a junior double majoring in Music and Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, it took me a long time to find a place where I could gain hands-on experience in both areas. Not only was I looking for an organization in which I could learn professional skills, but I also wanted to be engaged creatively and personally.  After an extensive search, I am very glad to have found Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture.

I first encountered Al-Bustan when I signed up to play the guitar in the Philadelphia Arab Music Ensemble class at UPenn.  I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I would be playing with their world-renowned resident musicians, as well as members of the broader Philadelphia community. It was even more surprising to know that we would play both canonical and original compositions (such as compositions by cellist Kinan Abou-afach), and perform alongside famous Arab artists, such as Oumeima El Khalil.

Preparing the City Hall exhibit with 
program coordinator Max Dugan and Mazin Blaik (seated)
Given my experience in tutoring and music, and how much I enjoyed playing Arab music, I decided to apply for an internship as soon as I learned about Al-Bustan’s many programs. On my first week I was assigned as a teaching assistant to the After-school Arab Arts Program at Moffet School. Working with children can be hard, but there is no better way to ensure that our efforts will be impactful and long lasting. In addition to helping our teaching artists, I had the opportunity to record the Moffet choir singing, which you can listen to on  Recording the kids was a great way for me to put into practice techniques I have learned at UPenn, while also helping provide a way for more people to hear Moffet students’ singing.

In addition to the year-long Moffet program, I have also worked with Al-Bustan helping implement various events, which range from exhibits of audiovisual works made by children, to concerts showcasing international stars.  In fact, many of these events involve our students as primary performers, showcasing their mastery of the materials learned.  I am glad to help this organization broaden the cultural experiences of the broader Philadelphia community.

Although I have just joined the Al-Bustan team, my long search for the right internship is certainly over. I am currently a student, a teacher, a musician, and an intern, and I feel fulfilled in every one of these aspects. I hope to give this organization at least as much as I am sure it will give me. Meanwhile, we all work together to spread understanding in this world that needs it so badly.

Henrique Nakamura
University of Pennsylvania
Class of 2016

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Tears of Joy for the Moffet Ensemble at City Hall

The Moffet Choir singing Tik Tik Tik, with four soloists
around the microphone. Photo by Pamela Yau - Art in City Hall
Anyone who came to the opening reception for Al-Bustan’s Art Exhibit at City Hall on February 25th probably saw me cry while speaking about the Moffet Arab Arts After-School Program.

My duty was to briefly introduce the Moffet Ensemble (choir and drummers) as well as our music teachers Hanna Khoury, Hafez Kotain, and Serge El Helou. As straightforward as that should have been, when I started speaking about the program—how hard everyone has worked, how inspiring the children’s effort is—I choked up and couldn’t speak without crying. People may have thought it a bit strange that I would be so emotional when speaking about the kids; then when the Moffet Ensemble actually performed, I think everyone could understood why I would be so emotional: this is such a special group of kids!

The Moffet students were simply amazing! The Choir performed two songs in Arabic and one relatively simple English song: Tik Tik Tik, Yalli Zara’tu, and Rhythm of the Rain. They sang beautifully, especially considering that the majority of them are not of Arab descent; thus, the language in which they are singing was previously foreign to them. 

The Moffet Drummers before they amazed the audience.
Photo by Pamela Yau - Art in City Hall
The next half of the performance -- the percussion -- really leveled the audience. The two Moffet drumming groups (advanced and beginner) performed individually, together, and finally with Hafez in a call-and-response style. During the performance, every action was done with amazement: people shook their heads with amazement; they audibly sighed with amazement; they expressed their amazement with exclamations like “wonderful” and " At this point, you would think I am used to this; however, this wonder and awe always feels unique.

So, I cried because I am very inspired by how hard the Moffet Ensemble works to be better drummers and singers (and people!). In spite of the many obstacles that these kids face on a daily basis, they still do so much work in our program. I can’t wait to see what the Moffet Ensemble will do in their upcoming performances this Spring!

- Max Dugan, Program Coordinator

Interview with Rosalie Swana: Countering Islamophobia Through Art

Rosalie Swana
As a Muslim-American student, artist, and activist, Rosalie Swana works toward informing others about the harsh realities facing too many Muslims in the United States. One such example, her art show in December, Media Overload: Islamophobia of Muslims in the Media, tackled themes of identity and misrepresentation. As a classmate and friend of Rosalie's, I had the pleasure of discussing her background, process, and recent exhibition. In our short meeting, I was able to feel the passion that she has for her work, and understand the connections between her personal identity and the grander question of how to address the issue of media discrimination against Muslim Americans.

Interviewer Kia: I loved looking at the art from your exhibition! Would you mind explaining the themes you had in mind when putting together the show?

Rosalie Swana: Well, the goal of the opening was to show how the media misportrays Muslim Americans. There are so many stereotypes about Muslims that have been fed to Americans by so-called "news" networks. For years, the media has made money off of Islamophobia.

K: Are there any messages that you want viewers to take away from your show and art?

RS: I want my viewers to just be able to see it [the Media's treatment of Muslims] from another person's perspective. I am not asking viewers to agree with my message; I only hope that they will listen before making up their minds.

K: What is the motivation behind this specific message? 

RS: Islamophobia in the media doesn’t just make me hurt because I am Muslim. Islamophobia upsets me so much because Muslims are not seen as Americans. We are seen as foreign; seen as animals and barbarians.

K: Of all of the works in your exhibit, do you have a piece, or pieces, of which you are most proud?

RS: I would say I am most proud of my pieces “American Enough?” and “Narcy”. I felt extremely connected with these two pieces; really put myself into them, and they were very personal.

K: What inspired this piece(s)?

RS: The inspiration for "Narcy" came from the political Iraqi-Canadian rapper the Narcicyst. A pencil drawing of him was one piece that was sold. A lot of his music has inspired me to discuss topics that most people are covering up, and to do it through an art form. He has inspired my artwork along with who I am as a person, and helped me express my feelings through something so beautiful.  

"American Enough?"

As for "American Enough", this piece has a story. I was on the train with one of my close friends who wears the hijab. Two men got on and started to just stare at her. Soon after they were yelling things like: “Go back to your country”; “Take off that rag“; “Burn in hell“; “They shouldn’t let scum like you come into my country“; “People like you need to go back home.” As we left the train we turned to them and said: “This is our country just as much as it is yours. Our religion should not make us any less American." That night I went home and painted a portrait of her titled "American Enough?" I put the word “label” across her eyes. I then drew her heart with words reading “made me bleed red white and blue.”

K: Very interesting. I'm wondering if you can expand a little more on your personal connections to your work?

RS: With most of my work there is always a personal connection. When I paint I am usually happy or frustrated. I started painting because I felt like no one was listening to me and no one cared. I wanted someone to just listen before they rejected my opinion. If I put what I felt in a painting, it would be harder for people to ignore. We can talk over each other's opinion but we find it harder to ignore them when they are put in front of us.

K: Are there any overall themes that you’d like the reader to take away from this post about you, your art, or Islamophobia in general?

RS: All I see on these media networks are non Muslims speaking on Islam, saying how toxic the religion is. Most of these people have never read the Qur’an. You can not condemn an entire religion because of a few followers. It is up with the followers of that religion to interpret it. You cannot blame every follower for one's mistake. We all interpret religion differently, some interpretations may be barbaric. But we cannot let those few barbaric followers blind people from the true meaning of Islam.

Rosalie is a current 11th grade student at Science Leadership Academy, exploring Islamic identity and Islamophobia while inspiring her peers and the greater community.
Kia DaSilva - Intern at Al-Bustan
Class of 2017, Science Leadership Academy

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Merion Elementary's Amazing Arabic-Language Winter Concert

I don’t even know where to really gave some of our families a wonderful window into music that was unknown and also brought to other families the music they love and are familiar with in their homes.” - Marita McCarthy, music teacher at Merion Elementary

What a packed auditorium!
I empathize Marita, it is surprisingly hard to write about a winter concert during which American students beautifully sing in Arabic, Hanna and Hafez give a brief lesson on classical Arab music, and 200 people do a call-and-response percussion session with Hafez. Honestly, I can’t imagine enjoying school assemblies more than those I attend with Hanna and Hafez. Everytime I expect to see a generic assembly, and everytime Hanna and Hafez blow me away and have the entire audience totally engaged. All of this is a testament to their genius as both educators and performers.

All of this came about when Marita McCarthy, the music teacher at Merion Elementary, began teaching her students Arabic songs for the Winter Concert. When I met Marita at our professional development course over the summer she possessed an infectious enthusiasm. I remember how dedicated she was to learning the nuances of singing in Arabic, and by the end of the week her version of Yalli Zara’tu sounded she had spent months working on it. And in addition to learning Arab songs, the intention of the week-long course, Marita was also just an extremely fun person to be around and added this positive energy that everyone responded very well too.
Hafez and Hanna taking a moment to pose for a photograph with
the Merion students behind them.
This all provides the background to understand why I was so excited when I found out that Marita had taken the Arabic songs she learned back to Merion Elementary and included Arabic songs in her Winter Concert program. She personally taught her students the bulk of the songs, but Hanna and Hafez went to Merion with some frequency the two weeks before in order to make sure that the singers’ diction and rhythm were on point. Hanna himself was blown away by Marita’s choir; he said that their focus and enthusiasm for the song was exemplary. All of this makes so much sense when you consider their teacher and model of behavior, Ms. McCarthy.

I was lucky enough to attend the morning performance of the Winter Concert and see both the choir’s performance, and a brief demonstration by Hanna and Hafez. All of this was just so impressive. The kids were surprisingly good at singing in Arabic, both in terms of the song’s beauty, and the pronunciation of the students. What had me reeling though was the audience’s noticeable engagement with all of the Arabic music, especially Hafez’s drumming. I mean, it is pretty hard not to enjoy Hafez’s percussion, especially when 200 or so people are clapping along with him. I should expect this by now, since I have seen Hafez’s magic countless times at this point, but it still had not worn off. And Marita’s letter to us is a testament to how amazing Hanna, Hafez, Marita, and the Merion community are that everyone could appreciate one another so much!

Max Dugan, Program Coordinator

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Something for Everyone in The Turtle of Oman

The more I read and talk about The Turtle of Oman, a new book authored by Naomi Shihab Nye, the more I see the many layers that it contains. Of course, it speaks well to its target audience of young adults. For this demographic, it touches on the ways that young folks’ identities and understandings of “home” are fluid, and often confusing. Shihab Nye also infuses everything with her wonderful way of looking at the world, best shown by the lists that Aref makes of interesting facts he learns. Consequently, The Turtle of Oman is filled with lots of thoughtful and fascinating ideas for young adults to ponder.

A Moffet School student's brand new copy
Photo by Emily Ganser
But, there are many other dimensions of Shihab Nye’s new book; the one which struck me hardest was the way that Aref (our young protagonist) is a metaphor for contemporary Oman’s negotiation of tradition and modernity. Essential for understanding this metaphor is that Oman only really started modernizing when Sultan Qaboos came into power in 1970, and still maintains most of the traditional culture that predates his ascendence. For example, almost all Omani men still wear dishdahsa outside, only now the streets are paved, electrical wire runs overhead, and they get great cellular reception. It should be noted that maintaining a traditional lifestyle is difficult in country that wants to be global, because there is constant exposure to what many consider non-traditional-Omani culture. The Turtle of Oman speaks beautifully to this national struggle by having Aref pulled in two directions, that of his parents and that of his grandfather, referred to as “Sidi.” Aref’s parents represent globalizing Oman; they speak lots of English and are traveling to Michigan to obtain higher degrees. Sidi symbolizes traditional Oman; he lives in a pre-Qaboosian house, tells Aref all about the time before electricity, and he seems to know every man around. Aref is the product of these two influences, and Shihab Nye’s book is his journey to reconciling the two sides.

The only problem with my above analysis is that it simplifies Omani history by ignoring that Oman has exemplified a vibrant, multicultural society for centuries. For example, to see the influence of East Africa and South Asia on Omani culture, one needn’t look further than traditional Omani food and music. So, while the previous paragraph is helpful in simplifying The Turtle of Oman, the book actually touches on the fact that, while Aref’s journey may seem groundbreaking and totally unfamiliar, he is actually going down a path well-traveled by other Omanis throughout history. Like I said, there is something for everyone in this book.

-Max Dugan, Program Coordinator

Naomi Shihab Nye's Amazing Concert

The Takht and Philadelphia Arab Music Ensembles.
Photo by Danielle Nowak
It might seem a bit late to write about Al-Bustan's last concert (it took place on December 13th, after all), but it has been on my mind because I heard about it all holiday season from my parents. You see, my parents have very little experience with Al-Bustan concerts, Naomi Shihab Nye, the Takht Ensemble, the Philadelphia Arab Music Ensemble, or the Moffet Drummers; thus, when they came to our last concert they were pretty blown away. And then when holiday season comes around and relatives are sharing news, the amazing concert that just happened gets talked about a lot, which is why am I writing this blog post now, and not a month ago.

Of course, the concert itself really was quite amazing. The Takht Ensemble was, per usual, spectacular. I have seen them perform so many times at this point, and even now they still manage to make every song unique to the moment. They really are an exceptional group of musicians, and we are lucky to get to see such world-class talent create tarab in Philadelphia.

Naomi Shihab Nye reading with musical backing by the
Takht Ensemble. Photo by Danielle Nowak
Additionally, the Philadelphia Arab Music Ensemble and the Moffet Drummers lit up the room, and, from a personal perspective, warmed my heart. As the on-site administrator for both groups, I have had the privilege to watch both groups grow exponentially over the course of a semester. After all of work that each group put in these past few months, it means a lot to see them do such a great job.

As amazing as the concert as a whole was, the real scene-stealer was Naomi Shihab Nye. I do like her poetry a great deal; it is socially conscious while still remaining beautiful and transcendent, and she has this optimism about humans that induces hope. And all of that which is good in her written work shines even more brightly when she reads it. To illustrate her charisma, there was a moment during her final poem, "Gate A-4," when the whole room seemed to lower into another level of quiet, because they were so focused that they forgot to breathe (my theory, not empirically justified). If you're curious about her work, check out Gate A-4 or A Valentine for Ernest Mann, along with her extensive published works.

Now I'm just looking forward to our next performance!

- Max Dugan, Program Coordinator