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Al-Bustan is Philly’s beacon for Arabic culture in Donald Trump’s age of hate

Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture executive director Hazami Sayed in her garden. July 12, 2016 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose


Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect that Al-Bustan's current Pew grant does not include funding for programming involving musician Marcel Khalife. Edit 7/12 @ 8:22 p.m.
Presidential candidate Donald Trump wants to ban Muslims from entering the United States, but presidential candidate Donald Trump has never stepped foot inside Hazami Sayed‘s West Philadelphia home.

Donald Trump has never perused the modest library of Arab literature Sayed keeps in her home office. He’s never admired the lavish Middle Eastern art hanging on the walls and perched on the shelves. He’s never had the privilege of standing in Sayed’s verdant backyard garden, and he most certainly hasn’t done so with a cup of mint-infused water in hand.

Donald Trump has never even met the kind-eyed Lebanese mother of two, but maybe he ought to.

“There is so much hatred and so much negativity in the mainstream media,” said Sayed, shifting in her seat.”There are moments I think about crazy things that are happening and things people are saying. What can you do from a small nonprofit level to change that?”

That’s the challenge Sayed decided to take up when she started Arabic culture nonprofit Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture in the summer of 2002. Al-Bustan, Arabic for “the garden,” began as a youth camp inside Chestnut Hill’s Morris Arboretum.

Born in Lebanon, raised in Kuwait and educated in the States, Sayed founded the apolitical and nondenominational nonprofit partially out of her and her husband’s desire to ensure that their sons remain connected to Arabic culture, language and people in post-9/11 America.

In-school programming that could create clarity, understanding and respect for the Arab world might prevent people from reacting to tragic events by discriminating against an entire culture.

Cultivating that appreciation has been and continues to be an uphill battle for Arab-Americans, many of whom have found themselves and their culture swept away by a national swell of anti-Arab sentiment. Sayed searched for a solution for her children, and shortly after that national tragedy, began hosting workshops on Arabic culture in local schools.

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That was Sayed’s solution: In-school programming that could create clarity, understanding and respect for the Arab world might prevent her sons’ Arab and non-Arab peers from reacting to tragic events by discriminating against an entire culture.

“The idea is, you teach the language, then you teach the arts, then you teach the culture through the language and the arts,” said Sayed, an architect by trade. “These differences are the things we should be celebrating, not seeing in this negative, preconceived way.”

The way Sayed sees it, discrimination can only be born from one of two things: Misinformation or a lack of information. Over the past 14 years, Al-Bustan’s programming has aimed to counter those factors by introducing youth (and adults) to Arabic music, art and language.

Al-Bustan’s educational programming is carried out through partnerships with public schools like Moffett Elementary in Kensington and Northeast High School and, starting this summer, at the University of Pennsylvania.

“You don’t have a reason to think all Arabs are terrorists when you can attend a concert and hear kids singing in Arabic and they’re from all walks of life,” said Sayed.

The nonprofit’s programming has attracted grant dollars from a number of funders over the years, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the Knight Foundation, the William Penn Foundation and the Barra Foundation.

Just last month, Al-Bustan secured its second consecutive Pew Center for Arts & Heritage grant. The funds will back the nonprofit’s presenting program, a series of events featuring marquee Arab writers, musicians and artists, such as Tunisian muralist eL Seed; past programming has featured Lebanese singer-songwriter Marcel Khalife, a socially-charged artist Sayed described as the “Arab Bob Dylan.” The program gives Arab artists an opportunity to engage and collaborate with colleagues working in different mediums.

"We just take comfort in knowing we're changing one person at a time."
Hazami Sayed

The Pew grant will also fund Al-Bustan’s (Dis)placed project, developed in response to both the Syrian refugee crisis and gentrification within West Philadelphia’s marginalized Black communities.

Sayed said Al-Bustan’s impact on Philadelphians’ perceptions of Arabic culture is may be small, but what it lacks in size it makes up in strength. The nonprofit is charged with representing a robust and ancient culture that has been misunderstood, reduced and dismissed by many in the Western world.

It’s a daunting task, and Sayed knows it. But a single summer stroll through her garden is enough to reassure doubters that she’s capable of doing it, seed by seed.

“We just take comfort in knowing we’re changing one person at a time,” she said, pausing to take a sip of her chilled mint-infused water. “It’s a drop in the bucket, but you’re changing the minds and views of people, and we hope that has a ripple effect.”

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