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Al-Bustan’s (Dis)Placed project is navigating a crucial moment in history

From Philly to the Middle East. February 10, 2017 Category: FeatureFeaturedMethodShort
When Hazami Sayed, founder and executive director of Philadelphia-based Arab arts and culture nonprofit Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, began working on a project that ties together narratives of displacement in the Middle East and Philadelphia in the summer of 2015, the notion of a travel ban was inconceivable.

Yet, here we are, a year and a half later.

The project, called (Dis)Placed, got its start this past summer with funding from Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and has two parts. For the first part, two documentarians are capturing the stories of 12 displaced refugees as well as African American families in Philadelphia displaced by gentrification through videos, photos and essays.

Sayed said the stories will focus on what displacement means for people here, both those who were born and raised in Philadelphia and those who emigrated here from the Middle East. Those stories will be compiled on the project’s website by the end of February.

The second part of the project is where Sayed has run into some unforeseeable issues, thanks to unforeseeable new foreign policies — specifically, the one that seeks to ban the residents of seven Middle Eastern countries from entering the U.S.

(As of the writing of this report, the state of that ban was in flux.)

Four Arab artists, largely from the Levant, have been awarded residencies in Philadelphia, where they will create works of art inspired by displacement happening here. Those artists are Lebanese poet Nazem El Sayed, Tunisian muralist eL Seed, Syrian composer Kinan Abou-afach and Syrian visual artist Buthayna Ali.

Abou-afach is currently based in Philadelphia. Ali, on the other hand, is still in Damascus.

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Sayed said earlier this month that the last time she spoke with Ali, the artist had her visa application ready to go, but was hesitant about whether or not she should submit it to the embassy.

“Things are really unclear,” said Sayed, and Ali “most likely” will not be able to make it to the United States for the residency. Now, Al-Bustan has to figure out whether or not they defer her residency to later in the year or hustle to find another artist altogether. But Ali is perfect for the role — her work, which largely challenges cultural and socio-political norms, fits nicely with the theme of displacement.

(Dis)Placed is being obstructed by a diplomatic reaction to the exact crisis it is trying to shed light on — and the project had already been unlike anything Al-Bustan has ever tried to do before.

“It’s not like planning a concert and having a big production,” said Sayed. “We’re learning from the process.”

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