Al-Bustan: Sowing the Seeds of Culture

Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture celebrated the last day of its summer camp on July 19 after providing local children in kindergarten through eighth grade with the chance to learn more about Arab art, language and culture. With fifty campers enrolled in the program, the camp began on July 8 and was held at St. Peter’s School, located at 3rd and Lombard in Philadelphia. Campers this year explored the theme of Al-Andalus, which combined the idea of co-existence (ta’ayush) with the art, stories, music, dance, and science of the culture that dominated the Iberian Peninsula from the 8th century to the 15th century. 

In particular, the camp’s final day celebration featured performances that showcased what campers had been learning about over the past two weeks, including singing, storytelling, and dancing. Beginning by singing traditional Arabic songs, the campers moved into live tableaus of historical art that told a traditional Arabic story of unrequited lovers from different social classes, complete with costumes and elaborate props. After this, the children performed in a dance showcase, where they had fun breaking away from the careful choreography by improvising their own dance moves.  They began with the Samah, a court dance from Syria that emphasizes a spiritual movement of the body, before switching to the flamenco, which synthesized moves from Arab, Spanish, Gypsy and Jewish cultures. By teaching campers about the blend of different cultural traditions from across the globe in a fun and exciting way, Al-Bustan more than showed its value to the Philadelphia community. 

This welcoming message of cultural acceptance was not lost on the audience. While the children were performing, a clipboard was passed around the room that had a statement of solidarity with immigrants and refugees, especially in the face of the current political climate. Audience members were welcomed to sign their names or add a statement of their own, which they gladly did in hopes of raising the voices of immigrants and refugees across the United States. This was especially relevant to Al-Bustan’s work because part of what the camp did was provide a reminder of the homes and culture that some Arabs left behind by coming to the U.S.

Following the tragedy of September 11, 2001, Al-Bustan was formed to challenge the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim environment the attacks created. The founder, Hazami Sayed, wanted a place where her children could connect with their Arab identity outside of what the media perpetuated and portrayed. Although this remained relevant, Al-Bustan Camp expanded to connect both Arab and non-Arab children to Arab culture. Some parents viewed the camp as an opportunity for their children to learn more about diversity. For example, David Heayn-Menendez, Al-Bustan’s director of public education, believes the program helps non-Arab campers by providing them with “exposure to cultures that are not like their own, and that engenders that level of empathy that children need cultivated within.” Heayn-Menendez continued to explain that Al-Bustan uses art, language and culture to help everyone in “exploring their identity as individuals and as part of a larger identity group.” Through this work, children of all backgrounds, from immigrants who came to America only months before to children who had very little exposure to Arabic outside of camp, learned and had fun in an inclusive community. 


Article written by Sophia Becker on behalf of Global Philadelphia Association