The Rhythm of Home

The Rhythm of Home


Homesickness changes with time. It turns from the sharp attacks that hit you unexpectedly at the beginning of your first journey away from home to small bittersweet moments that fill your heart with a combination of longing and satisfaction: you embrace your memories and the part of home that stays inside you, even as you enjoy your current situation.

I used to associate homesickness with missing the people back home, but about ten days ago, in a dimly lit café, while I listened to the rhythmic sounds of Arabic poetry, I realized what home actually meant to me. It took the rhythms of Rooftop Rhythms Arabia at Brand Moxie to remind me that home can be a feeling, as well as a place.

On that very humid Wednesday evening, I went along with a bunch of students from NYUAD to Brand Moxie in Rotana Complex. The Arab Cultural Club promoted the event; the group consisted mostly of Arab students and students studying Arabic, but some came merely because they enjoyed hearing poetry regardless of whether they understood the words or not. I think that that is what makes poetry art: the ability to enjoy it without fully understanding it. The beauty in that is that you can still get the purpose behind the piece of poetry from the dancing voices of the poets performing.

The place was very artistic, with abstract paintings and colorful pictures spread randomly on the walls, reminding me of the cafes my friends and I would go to back home. We used to sink into sofas and talk for hours. Arabic calligraphy decorated the walls of the poetry space, bringing back images of my school’s hallways, which were filled with the students’ admirable attempts at calligraphy. At the back, the space looked like an art studio, but it also had bookshelves that would bring any bookworm to tears. The cozy atmosphere triggered memories of cold winter nights when I would sit in the living room of my house, sipping hot drinks and watching the wind occupy the night. I couldn’t understand how these waves of memories came to me when it’s 38 degrees outside, but it did. Listening to the poetry, however, was a whole other chapter of nostalgia.


I sat in the front row, and watched the people in the audience, which was quite diverse. Most of the audience consisted of Arabs from different nationalities and different age groups. They all seemed tired after a long working day and seemed a bit annoyed with the fact that we, the proud NYUAD students, took over all the comfortable couches. People from other nationalities streamed in as well. My favorite person that night was the organizer of the event, Paul Dorian, who despite not understanding one word of Arabic, roamed the room with contagious enthusiasm.

The evening started off with a piece by Farah Shamma, a young Palestinian poet with a talent and a spark that far exceeds her age. She is the one who popularized the art of spoken word to Arabic poetry. Her poem was about language and its connection to home. She talked about the challenges the Arabic language is facing with the Arab world turning to the usage of English in education and business. Her words were quite personal, and she recited the poem in both English and Arabic. One of the most exciting parts of the poem was when she recited the Arabic alphabet, her voice reaching a higher pitch with each letter, and suddenly switched to the English alphabet at the end. The audience laughed for a split second, and then fell into deep silence after realizing the deeper meaning.

The switch between languages was dramatic, emphasizing the confusion between words and themes that occurs in the transition. She talked about the warmth she feels when she uses her native language. Listening to her took me back to the long discussions we used to have in my school about language and its role in defining our identities. In one of the hallways at school, an Arabic teacher had hung a poster displaying the famous quote “I am my language”, written by the Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish.

Other performers followed, each pouring the contents of their hearts to the sympathizing faces of strangers. Some talked about loneliness, others about God, and others described their homesickness. The most touching performance was by a Syrian engineering student, who dreamed of becoming a theatre major but the idea of a ‘safe career’ discouraged him from pursuing that dream. He recited a short poem about a woman he loves passionately. He reminded me of what I miss about writing in Arabic: the strength you could find in the words. There are around 38 words to say love, for instance, ranging from platonic love to obsession (not good, but it’s still love). His words were powerful and tender, and with a talented musician playing the oud in the background, his performance was touching beyond the barriers of language. It was art. He ended it with a thud, saying how the two lovers, referring to himself and his loved one, were separated by religion.

The mere idea of a poetry night itself reminded me of the poetry competitions we held at school, the literature evenings, and the book discussions we were forced to attend but learned to love at the end. I felt it then, the pinching feeling of wanting to return home for just a few hours, and embrace that feeling of unity and love that art used to create in those days. I realized that my school used to be a home to me in more ways than one. I was practically raised there. Because my mom is such a dedicated teacher, she rolled me up in a blanket when I was only 40 days old and took me with her to school. She would leave me in the nursery while she ran from a classroom to another, taking breaks every so often to tend to me.


The school instantly became home to me. It had all of the components of home: my mother and sisters, to begin with, and most importantly the artistic and open view of the world. We were immersed in all kinds of art, and my personal interest drove me towards language. I saw how beautiful words could be, whether it’s in reading literature, reciting poetry, or turning the offspring of my imagination into words. The love I had and still have for language made me feel safe. As cheesy as this may sound, I used to bury myself in language, usually by writing, whenever I needed an escape. My school nurtured language, my safe haven, and became a home to me. I studied there for 18 years, and now I realize that after I graduated, the school had a permanent place in my heart. Poetry was a big part of what I call home, which I didn’t realize until I visited the home of Rooftop Rhythms.

[Photo Credits: Neil Bie for Rooftop Rhythms, Jean Hellon Productions, and Black on Black Rhyme-Abu Dhabi.]

[Video Credit: Daniah Kheetan.]

Thinking through Music

Thinking through Music


toshi-reagontoshi-reagon-croppedThe first week of classes is hardly a busy one, from an academic point of view of course, so the chances are that you will probably accept a free ticket to a concert if it’s offered. Even though I had not read Octavia E. Butler‘s Parable of the Sower and did not know much about Toshi Reagon’s concert edition of the novel, I took the ticket I was offered and went to the concert, held at the NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Center in early September. I had no expectations — and came out with all kinds of ideas rushing through my head. The American singer portrayed the novel’s ideas in her own musical language, which molded science fiction with African spiritualism.

Lights out, complete silence, and then … nothing. For quite some time, the audience waited with anticipation for the performers to start playing. The orchestra started playing soft African music and the singers’ faces looked like forms of art. When Toshi made her appearance on stage, her voice swayed with cheer and the stage became vibrant; anticipation spread through the audience.

I didn’t know the music — none of us did — but it felt familiar and warm, and intense. Among the singers, two women caught my attention: They were both tall, sitting sideways on chairs and facing each other, and had mesmerizing voices. Their posture and their slight smiles, which they managed to keep through the entire show, held hints of wisdom and passion. Because the opera was co-written by Toshi’s mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon, who founded the African American a cappella singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock, some of the songs reminded me of church songs that I’ve heard in movies. I’ve always found it intriguing how prayer can sometimes be best transmitted through music and dance, and the two women at the back of the circle of singers seemed sometimes to be leading the prayer songs. They looked like the care-takers of Toshi and the other singers. The women’s voices seemed to contain the other voices, bringing them to a communal revolt against what is happening to the world of Parable (and, perhaps, our own).

The songs were my study-guide into the book. Each song turned a theme in the novel into a musical note that reached into the diverse audience. In one song, the stage roared with energy as Toshi raised questions that transformed the roar; she asked us what we would do to be safe, what compromises would we make? The lyrics painted a picture of utter violence and chaos in my head, which the mixture of voices brought to life. The show turned me to the subject of the novel: a girl who can feel other people’s pain and other sensations as if they her own. The songs of the concert allowed me, a member of the audience, the chance to role-play. Suddenly, like the novel’s heroine Lauren Olamina, I couldn’t formulate my definition of things like humanity, ethics, compassion, and other terms I thought I knew so well.

These emotions of fear and worry, however, started me thinking. Maybe this quality is exactly what is needed in this world; maybe people need to feel the pain they’re inflicting on others, whether it’s direct or not, in order to stop all the awful things that have been going on. At least then the world might restore a form of its humanity. And although the humanity obtained this way may seem quite selfish, it’s still better than the reality we sadly live in.

One song in particular brought out my memories of my personal loss, the painful experiences of my loved ones, and the sense of collective loss we feel when we wake up every day to heartbreaking news about the humanity slowly withering away from our world. This song, a solo entitled “Has Anyone Seen My Father” and sung by Shayna Small, was about loss, the inevitable part of life that leaves scars on all of us. The woman who sang stood alone in a spotlight, and the song was soft and slow, so that we could digest the words of confusion and pain that the singer brought to life. She was searching for her father, a hard-working preacher who had suddenly disappeared, and the words repeated, highlighting her sense of helplessness, fear, and despair.

One of the final songs, my favorite, offered a powerful change of tone and emotion. Entitled “God is Change,” the singers stood and surrounded Toshi, as she moved from one place to another. They sang words that I wish a lot of the people in the world right now could hear. Mirroring the novel, the song promoted open-mindedness and adaptation, reminding us that religion is supposed to be guiding and kind, not binding and forceful. The song is a powerful message for all the people of the world to better understand their own religions. Change is good, and people can adapt to the changes of the world without giving up their spirituality. I walked out of the Arts Center with music in my ears and thoughts dancing around in my head, challenging the idea that only homework can get students to think when they’re outside class.


Bertilla Baker, Helga Davis, Karma Mayet Johnson, Tamar-kali, Morley, Marcelle Davies Lashley, Josette Newsam-Marchak, Toshi Reagon, Carl Hancock Rux, Shayna Small, and Jason Walker. Musicians: Robert Burke, Fred Cash, Juliette Jones, and Adam Widoff.


[Image Credit: Kevin Yatarola, courtesy NYUAD Arts Center.]

Qasr al Hosn Festival 2015

Qasr al Hosn Festival 2015


Lights shimmered under the clear night sky as people strolled around Qasr Al Hosn, the fort that built a nation. Music traveled with the masses of people, who sang along or chatted with each other as they visited booths that offered cultural merchandise. I realized I made the wrong choice of shoes when I stepped on the sand and saw that right in the middle of the festival area, a boat rested in a man-made oasis. Small waves swayed as the speakers produced the familiar sound of the sea that nurtured Abu Dhabi as it grew. The fort watched over the crowd, who came to celebrate the past.

Having been immersed in Arab culture for my entire life, I did not think that a visit to the Qasr Al Hosn Festival would teach me anything new. I was wrong. I walked from one booth to another, taking a look at the variety of abayas and kanduras displayed there, mixed in with the bright colors of Indian saris, accessories, and lanterns. Local women were selling herbs, drinks, and foods, and explained that their grandparents used these products for medical purposes long before they became available in pharmacies. I was embarrassed when one of my friends asked me about the meaning of an Arabic word on one of the products and I couldn’t answer, but my confusion showed me how language changes as it travels distances — or, more accurately — cultures.


At the “shore,” I saw how the locals made their living before the discovery of oil. An aged man, with a forehead lined with wisdom, sat on Persian rugs as he knitted fishing nets. His hands made each perfect knot mechanically; it seemed so effortless but the sight of his thin, scarred fingers showed the opposite. Sailors and fishermen sat in the boat, and showed us how they used the fishnets to capture the fish, which they sold at the fish market. In another tent, we learned about pearl hunting. Divers used to explore the depths of the sea to capture oysters in the hopes of finding valuable pearls inside. While it brought wealth for many people and enhanced the country’s economy, this life-risking occupation marked a lot of people’s lives with tragedy. It wasn’t the life of risk compensation or workers’ rights; you had to summon the courage to dive in or watch your children starve. The accounts of history we learned in these tents challenged the common idea that this country started from the discovery of oil. Staring at the miserable face of a pearl diver in old photographs made people forget the stereotype of the Arab who is born with a gold spoon in his mouth.


My next stop was the “Lest We Forget” exhibit, the name of which comes from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “Recessional,” written on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. The phrase has been linked to memory ever since, as a plea to remember the sacrifices of the past. The “Lest We Forget” initiative follows the path of its name as it was born out of a vision of preserving and sharing the Emirati heritage.

The exhibit, which was originally created for the Venice Biennale, started with a hallway of black drawers topped by a timeline of pictures. Viewers see the pre-oil era, and learn when the important landmarks of the UAE were built. The guide pointed our attention to a creative addition to the timeline: each landmark on the timeline in the UAE was drawn in white, while landmarks built in other parts of the world in the same year were drawn in grey. This feature allowed visitors to see how the UAE was developing in comparison with the rest of the world. It also reveals the jump this country made from its founding in 1971 to the present. I opened drawer after drawer and looked through a collection of memories that showed the birth of a country, from the yellowing pages of an old notebook used by pearl merchants to determine prices to the bottle that held the very first drops of oil that transformed the desert to a city.

NYUAD students took part in the festival by having their own exhibition of the work they did with Professor Pascal Menoret in a course called “Modern Architecture in Abu Dhabi.” The students displayed an outline of Hamdan Street, one of the most important streets in Abu Dhabi, and showed off the street’s most important landmarks.

My evening ended with a little food-tasting tour with my friends. The volunteers offered us a taste of the yogurt their ancestors used to make while another woman showed us the process of turning the milk into butter and yogurt by wrapping it tightly with a cloth and leaving it hanging from a stick for a while. Families sat on tables surrounding the little café, shaped like a cottage, which offered several Emirati beverages and snacks. At the far end of the festival, we waited in line to have a taste of the delicious luqaimat, everyone’s favorite Emirati dessert, from a food truck. The food truck presented a nice combination of the food of the past in the structure of the present.

The Qasr Al Hosn festival offered everyone a distinct experience. Locals got a chance to remember and appreciate the history of their country, while expats got a glimpse of a culture and a past they rarely get to see. Just as the fort stands with all its antique glory between skyscrapers, so is the Qasr Al Hosn festival an image of a living history that guides us in our present.


[Photo Credits: Cyrus R. K. Patell (top); Dana Abu Ali (all others)]

The Dust Behind the Magic: Volunteering at ADFF

The Dust Behind the Magic: Volunteering at ADFF


Red carpets … movie stars … and glamour! Aren’t these the words we often think of when we hear about the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, or any film festival for that matter? We see movie posters on the walls and blinding lights that are trying to capture that beautiful smile an actress gave when she walked in. The smell of buttered popcorn surrounds us as we enter the movie theaters, excited to watch and evaluate new movies. We hear the soft chatter of people waiting in lines to buy tickets for films featuring their favorite actors and actresses, the joyful laughs of eager children, and the energetic interviews conducted at the festival. In short, we get a taste of a really wonderful cultural and intellectual experience.

But rarely do we glimpse culture behind the curtain to see the hard work of all those passionate people who help this event come to life every year. Luckily, through a volunteering position, I got the chance to see a glimpse of what it’s like to be on the “inside” of such a huge event, and for a few hours, I got to see the dust behind the magic.

As a volunteer for the 2014 Abu Dhabi Film Festival, I attended a short orientation session where the woman n charge of the volunteers briefly explained the job of a volunteer. This session took place a few days before the festival, and we could see how the ADFF staff were rushing around with papers and small headphones trying to sort out all the logistics before the countdown to the opening night. The woman in charge of the volunteers was very appreciative of our attendance and explained that they worked hard to get people to participate in this festival, and that volunteers are essential to the festival’s success. She proceeded to give us information about the various tasks we would take on, how shifts work, and who to refer to for help. She assured us that the volunteering captains, who are enthusiastic individuals who devote their time to lead volunteers and provide help when needed, will surround us the entire time. She emphasized on the fact that volunteers shouldn’t tolerate any rude behavior and anything of that sort should be reported to the volunteer captain, which made me feel very comfortable and appreciated. While she was talking, her colleagues were in a constant state of mobility, setting the scene for the “magic” to begin.

As ADFF volunteers, we get the chance to be a part of something that’s opening intellectual and cultural doors for the entire country, and creating the opportunity for cultural exchange. The ADFF gives the community an opportunity to engage in film culture, giving those talented directors, screenwriters, actors, and other film professionals the chance to enter the film industry and get what they need. These sorts of projects have one main component to their success, which is the enthusiasm of the youth in the society.

When I arrived for my shift at VOX Cinema in Marina Mall, I was told to check in with my volunteer captain: a calm young man who looked quite exhausted. I found this man’s capacity to handle everything at once and keep a smile on his face very admirable. The ease with which he performed his job, maintaining a schedule even more hectic than us volunteers, made our jobs seem easy in comparison. When we entered the volunteers’ office, I saw how cluttered it was with notes, schedules, and lists. Volunteer captains and other ADFF staff were always running around ensuring that each movie theater had enough volunteers. At certain times, they had to take on certain tasks themselves because volunteers were free to end their shifts when they please, thus resulting in times where the staff had to cover for lack of volunteers.

I learned from one of the student volunteers I met there that the film festival administration needed volunteers, and they got a lot of applications, but when people learned that the position was unpaid, they cancelled their shifts. It was sad to hear that these volunteers, who were mostly students, reneged on their commitments, knowing how much effort the people organizing this event spend to execute the festival. Maybe if they saw how much effort was put into organizing it, they would’ve considered sacrificing a few hours of their time to lend a hand in a project like this. What I found impressive was how the staff and remaining volunteers managed to make everything work despite that obstacle, allowing the festival to proceed smoothly.

At first, there was nothing for me to do as all the work spots were filled with volunteers, so all I could do was ask people to fill out a survey regarding their experience at the film festival. I know my next statement is going to be a shocker but brace yourselves: with the exception of some people who gladly gave me a few minutes of their time, people weren’t that enthusiastic about filling out a survey! Standing there, and waiting awkwardly for someone to show some interest in giving feedback about the festival, I remembered how many times I turned my head away and avoided such surveys. Doing this job got me thinking that maybe, just maybe, this feedback is actually needed; otherwise, the film festival administration would not make the effort to design it and have volunteers carry out this task during the festival days. The people who worked so hard to provide us with such a fun and educational experience need our feedback to improve things in the coming years. Even though ADFF employees/film professionals go through a year’s worth of work to provide an enjoyable, comprehensive film experience for the audience, movie-goers find three minutes for feedback too demanding. This doesn’t make much sense, now does it?

The volunteers whose shifts ended started leaving, taking away their complimentary movie ticket and food voucher as a thank you for their time. I was placed at the door of one of the movie theaters as a ticket-taker. While my job wasn’t the most fun in the world, I thought about how lucky I was to have the luxury of volunteering to gain insight about the film industry with the relatively short commitment of three days. The task may have been dull, but it allowed me to see what audience the ADFF attracted. On the door of that movie theater, I saw diversity; I saw families going in for a night of entertainment, mothers spending their ladies night at the screening of one of the movies, students coming for a night off from course work, and many film professionals who come to enhance their experience. All these people were gathered in one place, and they all had the chance to express their opinions about the movies by placing their vote in a box at the end of each screening. This box had a collection of votes that came from various types of people, achieving the goal of the festival and engaging every single person of the community in film culture.

My experience at the film festival was short, but it opened my eyes to several issues of which the most important one was how such events enrich our culture. Frankly, I was disappointed that I didn’t get to see any movie stars up close because my shifts were always at Vox Cinema, and movie stars are usually at the Emirates Palace. Nonetheless, I’m still happy that I got the chance to see the hustle and bustle behind the curtains, and see how this initiative is attracting and engaging everyone who’s part of the community. These initiatives won’t succeed without the contribution of the people they’re aiming to benefit: us.