In West Philadelphia, through a hedge-lined gate, and down a few cellar stairs, there is an office for a small non-profit named Al-Bustan. “Al-Bustan” means “the garden” in Arabic, and it is not only located in a garden, it is an orchard of sorts.
Arabic language and arts are the tools this non-profit uses to plant seeds for cross-cultural understanding in our city.
2017 proved a fruitful year for the organization: Both An Immigrant Alphabet (a mural Al-Bustan installed around the Municipal Services Building) and (DIS)PLACED Philadelphia (Al-Bustan’s displacement-themed artist-in-residency program) went live. Their annual summer youth camp and regular public arts programming also continued.
The woman at the helm is Hazami Sayed, Founder & Executive Director. When she welcomed me into the Al-Bustan office, she was warm and kind. She left briefly to make her morning cardamom coffee, so Zoe Rayn Evans, Marketing Associate, made her introductions. Zoe explained as we waited: “They’ve been working here for 15 years. This is the basement of Hazami’s home; she lives here.”
“What is home?,” Hazami echoes. “For me, it’s both a physical place, that could be built anywhere with time and relationships, and it’s also memories of childhood that I inadvertently try to recreate. Nostalgia informs who I am; it’s no question that’s why I founded Al-Bustan. It was a way to make home here in Philly.”
Home is the theme of An Immigrant Alphabet and (DIS)PLACED Philadelphia, and it is a growing theme in our city: We want to talk about home. Home is where the heart is. Home is where I lay my hat. And home is elusive. Gentrification and conflict make many homes impermanent and transient.
An Immigrant Alphabet gave teens at Northeast High the opportunity to explore their own immigrant identities on a public platform. The results were intimate portraits, and friendships. Hazami explained: “This project with Wendy [Ewald] happened over the course of four weeks, and gave these teens a circle of friends, in a school with 3,500 students, to bond with. They would have otherwise not met or had the context to connect.” She urged: “We need to surround ourselves with positivity.”
(DIS)PLACED Philadelphia engaged artists, storytellers, and neighbors with perspectives on displacement for 18 months. Twelve city-folk were interviewed about their experiences of displacement, the Al-Bustan website has a public form where anyone can submit their descriptions of home, and four artists were tasked with making culminating works.
We were listening to music commissioned for (DIS)PLACED Philadelphia’s first concert, composed by Kinan Abou-afach, as we spoke. On the project’s website, Kinan writes, “Mosques and churches playing simultaneously: that sweet sound was my first lesson in polyphony and harmony.” I asked how participating in the project has changed his practice as an artist:
“I would like to say it didn’t. But it did. I was complaining to myself that the majority of my work in the past 7 years were influenced by war, displacement, exodus, refugees. And it felt for me like a dead-end road. After I tackled this project, specifically, I did feel a huge need for hope. We need hope. Even if only imaginary.”
“I do hope,” he added, “this music will be heard by anyone, but especially people who like to acknowledge and feel the stories of displacement that’s happening nowadays. More than just a storytelling set of music, this work has a very critical message too.”
Hazami describes the peak achievement of Al-Bustan’s educational programming: “When [youth say to me], ‘It’s cool to be an Arab,’ in a post-911 world, that’s when you’ve navigated your place in American society, how others view you, and how you view yourself.”
Quotes have been lightly edited for readability.