Arab Arts & Culture Course at Northeast High School

Posted On:
17 November, 2011

One day the students read Khalil Gibran and discuss the oral poetry tradition in Arab culture, and on another day they draw connections between the improvisation in American jazz and taqsim in Arab music after listening to Mohamed Abdel Wahab.

This is how thirty-three 10th graders at the School District of Philadelphia’s Northeast High School spend their 7th period in an Arab Arts and Culture Class. Each day of the week the students explore an art form with a different Al-Bustan teacher. This program provides a unique opportunity for students to acquire technical skills in the creative arts while learning about Arab culture.

On Mondays, the students are exploring Arab/Islamic art and the elements of visual art with Tremain Smith. Using a compass and ruler the students are creating six-pointed star patterns, a design commonly found in Arab/Islamic art and architecture, and defining their patterns with watercolors and crayons.

On Tuesdays, Hafez El Ali Kotain teaches Arab percussion. He began by introducing the students to the instruments of Arab music, famous Arab musicians, and a demonstration on several percussion instruments. The students now each have a drum and are learning to play Arab rhythms, working towards presenting an arrangement to their school-mates in January.

On Wednesdays, cellist and oud player Kinan Abou-afach leads the students in an Arab music appreciation class. He seeks to draw connections between the past and present and Arab and western and pop music in order to give the students a greater understanding of the Arab music tradition. Abou-afach has embraced the centrality of taqsim (improvisation) in Arab music by encouraging those students who play instruments to bring them to class and improvise with him.

On Thursdays, Ellie Hutchinson introduces the students to forms of Arab poetry and the works of Kahlil Gibran and Naomi Shihab Nye.  They have examined the use of rhythm, personification, and repetition in traditional forms of poetry as an introduction to the writings of Palestinian-American poet Suheir Hammad, who recently visited Philadelphia and will return for a performance on December 9. As they reflect on Hammad’s style, the students have explored in their own writings the themes of place, a minute in time vs. the events occurring around the world, community, and food.

On Fridays, Al-Bustan Executive Director Hazami Sayed teaches an Arab culture/history/language class.  The students are learning about the geography of the Arab world and reading essays on culture and identity while being exposed to the Arabic alphabet, words, and phrases. Sayed asked the students to interview their parents and grandparents for stories that had significance in their life, which resulted in some students eagerly sharing their stories with classmates last week. The class gives the students with a knowledge base in Arab arts and culture while giving them the framework to creatively express themselves and reflect on their own heritage and identity.

Overall, this semester-long course provides students with an opportunity to experience Arab arts. Our goal is to encourage self-expression through art-making by providing opportunities for these youth of diverse backgrounds to acquire technical skills in the arts and a knowledge base in Arab culture and history. We are grateful for this partnership with NEHS, particularly to teacher Laura Engel, for facilitating this cross-cultural exchange and allowing us to work with her students.

We are most grateful for the support of Qatar Foundation International and the Philadelphia Arts in Education Partnership in making this program possible.

See video highlights of the culminating performance and instruction in progress: