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Artists discuss “Everyday Life in the Middle East”

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On Friday evening, a series of events under the title “Passion for the Arts and Everyday Life in the Middle East” took place over a span of just four hours. The events — workshops, screenings, and performances — were sponsored by the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, the Islamic studies program, the peace and conflict studies program, the department of film and media studies, and the sociology/anthropology department.

The evening began with two concurrent workshops in Kohlberg classrooms. Ala Hamdan, a Palestinian Jordanian photographer and filmmaker based in Amman, Jordan, led one. Marwa Sayid Ahmad, a Lebanese-Palestinian dancer and musician, currently living, in Jordan lead the other. David Heayn, a professor at Villanova University, introduced the artists.

“Ala is based in Jordan,” explained Heayn as he introduced Hamdan, “but her work has a global reach.”

Hamdan’s workshop was a mixture of practical skills as well as personal and cultural anecdotes. As a Middle Eastern woman, she overcame many hurdles as she pursued her career in photography and film, particularly from her parents.

“My family and friends were worried that I was going to lose my morals and break too many cultural norms,” recalled Hamdan. “It took a while for me to convince them that I could practice art without disrespecting where I came from.”

Hamdan described the endearing chain of anxious texts she received from her mother every time she traveled alone, which is somewhat taboo for Middle Eastern women. Students who attended the workshop found these personal narratives refreshingly honest, and felt they learned a lot from them.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of context she gave for her work,” said Selina Ye ’20. “The stories about being a woman photographer in Jordan … [were] enlightening and very interesting … I learned more about gender biases and barriers in the Middle East in her particular profession.”

Nonetheless, students were saddened by the wealth of obstacles Hamdan and Ahmad had faced and discussed in their workshops.

“I was a bit upset that they [Hamdan and Ahmad] had to surmount so many barriers to become successful because they were women,” said Gabriel Brossy de Dios ’20.

In her workshop, Ahmad taught students how to dance dabke, a traditional Palestinian folk dance often performed at weddings and festivals. Ahmad is part of a dance group that performs dabke competitively in both Arab and Western countries.

“I have two passions: music and dancing,” Ahmad said frankly. “When we dance dabke, we relive how our ancestors used to meet, how they used to fall in love, and so on … It’s very important to us that we claim this history when so much has been taken from us.”

Ahmad, who has played the “oud,” a Middle Eastern instrument similar to a lute, for the last 14 years, is also a part of an all women’s musical ensemble, Naya, with whom she has performed across Jordan as well as in Cyprus, Kuwait, and Algeria.

After the workshops finished, the artists and the students in their workshops all moved downstairs for a lively reception by the Kohlberg Coffee Bar. Students munched on hummus, dolma, and pita as they looked at a pop-up exhibition of Hamdan’s work.

“Ala was super accessible,” said Xihan Zhang ’20, describing how Hamdan and Ahmad comfortably chatted with other students about art and life in Jordan.

Eventually, the students and professors were herded into LPAC Cinema, where the evening of events was to conclude with performances by Ahmad and screenings of films by Hamdan. As they waited for people to fill the auditorium, they casually played “Somos Sur,” a song by French-Chilean hip hop artist Ana Tijoux that featured British-Palestinian singer and MC Shadia Mansour, called “the first lady of Arabic hip hop.”

Ahmad played a number of home videos in which she danced dabke. In one, she is happily performing with her dance group.

“We love dancing dabke,” said Ahmad. “We’re always looking at each other’s faces, enjoying it together, enjoying our time together.”

In the other video, she is dancing at a lively wedding.

“When we were touring in the West, people often asked us about Middle Eastern weddings,” said Ahmad. “They often envisioned women in hijabs, very serious and separate from men. It’s actually quite different.”

After the videos, Ahmad skillfully played a number of songs on her oud. The audience was completely captivated by the performance and erupted into applause after each song.

In addition to discussing her passion for music, Ahmad mentioned her second job as a pharmacist, which she needed to help support her artistic pursuits.

“It doesn’t make a living,” said Ahmad in regards to her music and dance. “Everyone has their extra thing that supports their passion — pharmacy, engineering, and so on.”

After Ahmad’s performances, Hamdan screened a number of informative videos she made for Mawdoo3, an Arabic Online encyclopedia, and continued to discuss the formal elements and practical skills necessary to make them.

“Make sure you have large apertures!” she stressed.

The event-packed evening left many students feeling more informed about the artistic landscape of the Middle East.

“I felt like I gained a lot of knowledge, but not necessarily in the way that I hoped to [in regards to my own practice],” said Ye. “I loved the workshop nonetheless.”

Some students like Ye attended the events with the main intention of hearing practical tips to inform their own work, while some went specifically to listen and learn about the Middle East.

“Arts have a unique way of introducing people to topics they may not know about,” said Heayn in one of his artist introductions.

Such was the purpose of the event as a whole. In addition to learning practical skills about filmmaking, photography, dance, and music, they also gained particular insight into “everyday life” in parts of the Middle East — just as the title of the event suggested.

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