The US Experiences Three Seasons of Pakistani Culture
By Zeyba Rahman
New York

Autumn 2011

“Yaar ko humney jaa baja dekha, kahin zaahir, kahin chhupa dekha” sang the first grade class at an elementary school in Helena, Montana.

Their voices rang out as the chorus for Qawwal Najmuddin Saifuddin and Brothers. The qawwal brothers, Mohammad Najmuddin, Saifuddin, Mughisuddin, Zameeruddin, and Ehtisham, were astonished at their quick grasp of the late 18th century Sufi Shah Niaz Ahmed’s Urdu verse.

At a different elementary school, a day later, 3rd grade students followed Lahori Ustad Tari Khan’s flying fingers as he created rhythmic tabla patterns. He invited them to sit beside him one by one and repeat the rhythmic patterns out loud. When some stumbled over the syllables, he murmured encouragement. For others who followed along perfectly, he flashed a quick, appreciative smile.

A little later, the same class watched wide eyed as Abid Hussain and Abdul Rasheed, beat out complex rhythms on dhols and Abid whirled and drummed, lightning fast, without missing a beat. As the dholis were leaving the school, two nine-year-olds marched up to them and one announced with assurance, “You boys were really good!” Surprised, Abid looked down at the small blond girl. Smiling shyly he said, “Thank you.”

The musicians were unanimous in their reasons for participating in the project – they wanted to share their culture and art forms hoping it would humanize Pakistanis and Muslims for Americans despite, feeling uncertain about the reception they might receive. Most had never been to the US before. Their knowledge of Americans came from news stories. As dholi Abid Hussain, put it, “We took a leap of faith with you [to participate in this project].” There was much to this statement as there were many unknowns both for Americans in Caravanserai’s participating communities and for the Pakistani artists.

After the first public program at the Myrna Loy Theater, a group of librarians came up to the musicians and thanked them. One visibly moved woman said, “Things are changing so fast inside me (about perceptions of Pakistanis) that it’s hard to keep my equilibrium.” They were deeply touched by the performances and warmth of the musicians.

Another striking moment that evening involved another audience member, a young man who had obviously never met Pakistanis or known the culture. He was so affected that, as the musicians stood on the sidewalk outside the theater, he stepped out of the theater and began talking out loud to the sky, sharing his feelings about how transformed he was by the experience. Another, who answered the survey for the project’s impact study created to gauge audience reactions, wrote that he hated Muslims after the 9/11 attacks and challenged himself to attend the concert after he saw an advertisement in the local newspaper. He wrote that it transformed him and that he realized not only that the musicians were not unlike him but that he also loved their music. He wished that his brother-in-law could have joined him because he too had become prejudiced against Muslims after 9/11.

 

Winter 2011-12

Of her experiences during the film program of the tour, filmmaker Ayesha Khan blogged about the sessions in Providence, Rhode Island. At the Trinity Academy For the Performing Arts, “I was a little worried as this was the youngest audience I had ever spoken to. I literally could not keep up with the little hands up in the air followed with questions.

The comments ranged from “I have changed my mind about Pakistanis” to “I really liked the fashion showed in the film.” Later, at the Learning Center in Central Falls, she spoke to middle school children aged six to nine and was struck by the thoughtfulness of the students.

Her blog continued, “What an experience… The kids sat in a circle and it was a deeply contemplative session. From the kids: “You know after 9/11, Muslims have really got a bad rap in this country and I feel really bad about it.” “When you talk about stereotypes – I think of how one person does something bad in Central Falls and they say we are all bad in Central Falls and it’s just not true” … What was remarkable to me was how the kids took our discussion to a whole other visceral level making connections to their own lives… asked for a solution – how to stop negative stereotyping of religions, cultures, people … they replied “yes, it starts with us… ”

 

Spring 2012

Pakistani-American Arooj Aftab and Bhrigu Sahni, her Indian-American guitarist collaborator, went from school to school with Punjabi folk music legend Arif Lohar and his ensemble. They did workshops, lecture demonstrations and school performances all followed by discussions with the students.

Quickly, a pattern emerged. Each session would open with Arooj singing a contemporary, spare, meditative version of a classical thumri with Bhrigu on guitar. Fozia, the guest vocalist with Arif’s ensemble would come on next usually, to sing Sindhi Sufi poet Sachal Sarmast’s “Mahi Yaar di Gharoli” and Arif would follow to sing his anthem, Sufi Sultan Bahu’s poem, “Alif Allah Chambey di Booti.” In between, Arif gave lessons on the chimtas he had specially brought with him for the students he encountered.

By the end, all the students and even their teachers would be compelled to their feet as Bhrigu and Arooj led them, Pied Piper like, through as series of bhangra dance moves as Arif sang. One of the most touching moments came at a school for special needs children whose disabilities, mental and physical, varied from mild to severe. As Arif started singing and his ensemble built the tempo, some of the children began dancing in their seats. Soon several stood up, swaying along. At the end, one of them exclaimed out loud beaming, “That was the best music I have ever heard! EVER!!”

Caitlin Strokosch, Executive Director of the Alliance of Artists Communities wrote, “Arif’s performance was like nothing I’ve ever seen – and I’m an ethnomusicologist and a musician … as a cultural experience, it was truly transformative. That this project is happening now – in this post-9/11 world, when most of us hear of Pakistan is about terrorists, unrest, and distrust – is so incredibly important … I can’t imagine a single non-Pakistani (myself included) walking out of that show without feeling a greater affection for the Pakistani people … just through experiencing this incredible warmth, energy and joy.”

The New Jersey community was in for a surprise. Arif’s son Ali, less than four years old, had decided he was ready to do workshops. Nadya Shah, a New York based documentary filmmaker said, “There were many moving moments … Ali sang for the first time at an elementary school … The kids starting chanting “Ali”, “Ali”, “Ali” and surrounded him at the end of the performance.” She is developing an hour-long film about the tour.

Caravanserai: A Place Where Cultures Meet, Pakistan edition, was organised by the US Regional Arts Organisations consortium and led by Arts Midwest. They include, Arts Midwest, Mid-American Arts Alliance, Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, New England Foundation for the Arts, South Arts, and Western States Arts Federation. The project is made possible through funding by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art’s Building Bridges Program.

Caravanserai is a multi-year cultural engagement program in which over three seasons a year US communities host a series of performing and visual arts artists in residence tours. Its mission is to realign perceptions about Muslims by introducing artists to US communities. Artists participating in the Pakistan edition went into the same five communities in three consecutive waves to Helena, Montana; Littleton, New Hampshire; West Long Branch, New Jersey; Oswego, New York; and Providence, Rhode Island.

David Fraher, Arts Midwest Executive Director, who conceived Caravanserai said, “It is no secret that over the last decade, there have been limited, direct conversations and interactions between Americans and people from predominantly Muslim nations or for that matter, between Americans and Muslim Americans. Caravanserai was conceived to create ‘safe places.’ Moments in time in smaller American communities, wherein open sharing and exchange of ideas and cultures might take place. Through music, film, literature, and visual art we hope to build a bridge between people with different perspectives.”

New York City based Pakistani-American Mumtaz Mustafa, Senior Art Director at publisher HarperCollins, immediately embraced this vision and went on to create the project’s logo.

Adam Perry, Arts Midwest’s Senior Programs Director who manages Caravanserai remarked on hurdles leading up to the tour’s launch, “International cultural engagement projects are always challenged by language and technology barriers that affect communication with international artists who are very busy and often hard to track down to coordinate visa paperwork, contracts and US tour plans. We also faced setbacks achieving our media goals of promoting a program focus on building bridges between US and Pakistani citizens, as news sources were more eager to identify points of conflict between the US and Pakistan, than report on efforts to strengthen communications.”

Edward Henry, Doris Duke Foundation’s CEO, summed up Caravanserai’s value this way, “The arts are a powerful vehicle to create understanding between people, cultures, and countries. Whether the art form is traditional or contemporary, interactions between artists and audiences bring insight and mutual respect. Artists do not need to be diplomats. It is their work that brings people together to share beauty, joy, sorrows and aspirations. Caravanserai has brought superb artists from Pakistan to share their work with communities who have had little or no interaction with Pakistani culture. When audiences in the communities visited by Caravanserai stand and applaud, dance in the aisles, and welcome the performers with open arms, we know we are helping to develop mutual understanding.”

(New York-based Zeyba Rahman, Artistic Director, Caravanserai: A Place Where Cultures Meet, is widely recognized as a global culture leader. – Courtesy Dawn)

 

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