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New York Arts Festival Aims To Dispel Misconceptions About Islam

The Tarab ensemble performs at the Muslim Voices festival in New York.
The Tarab ensemble performs at the Muslim Voices festival in New York.
NEW YORK -- Just outside the richly decorated facade of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), visitors are enjoying delicate Turkish pastries while watching lessons in Arabic calligraphy or listening to Tarab, a New-York based Arab music ensemble.

BAM President Karen Brooks Hopkins is one of the organizers behind the market -- or "souq," as it is known in Arabic -- part of a 10-day festival called Muslim Voices: Arts And Ideas, which ends June 14.

Hopkins says the idea for a Muslim arts festival in New York was first raised several years ago. But with painful memories still lingering from the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, she says it was difficult to interest people in a festival supporting a better understanding of Islamic culture.

But talk about the festival became serious during the height of the 2006 Danish cartoon controversy, when many Muslims around the world were angered by publication of drawings mocking the Prophet Muhammad.

Hopkins says the festival, which will host events at several sites in the New York City area, can help alleviate such negativity:

“What we can do is create more common ground for discussion and more common ground for understanding and just less hostility," Hopkins says. "I think that if we can just bring down the whole level of hostility, then it’s more possible to have a reasonable interaction.”

'Open To New Stuff'

The festival features some 300 Muslim artists, performers, craftspeople, and scholars, including Senegalese performer Youssou N'Dour and Shirin Neshat, a leading contemporary artist from Iran.

A calligraphy class at the Muslim Voices festival
The program also includes a host of lesser-known acts based in the West or their home countries. These include Egyptian Celebration, a Brooklyn dance company featuring performers from Egypt, Tunisia, and Lebanon, whose lively jigs and powerful jumps draw enthusiastic applause at the BAM souk.

Yasser Khalifa, the company's founder, says while the troupe performs in a contemporary style, it is the performers' mutual love of traditional Arab dances that keeps them together -- and keeps American audiences coming back for more.

“They love it," Khalifa says. "American people are really open to any kind of new stuff, and because we are so mixed here in this country, when you see someone -- you just accept their culture. That’s what’s happening.

"Right now it’s like more people are getting to understand our culture more, because we have lots of events happening for the Muslim community. And instead of saying that Muslims are terrorists, now we are artists -- we are showing them our arts, our ideas, our culture."

Lucky Coincidence

The festival comes at a time of heightened awareness and concerns in the United States about the Muslim world.

Vishakha Desai is the president of the New York-based Asia Society, which together with BAM and New York University are the main organizers of the Muslim Voices festival.

Yasser Khalifa (left), the founder of Egyptian Celebration, poses with a dancer from the company.
She says it is a lucky coincidence that the opening of the festival came just a day after U.S. President Barack Obama's speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, and adds that culture and arts are some of the most effective ways to promote public diplomacy.

“The first thing that such an event does is to begin to open up American minds -- which has to do with a misperception," Desai says. "All signs indicate that today most Americans think that Islam is a religion that doesn’t believe in good things.”

Desai expressed regret that there are no performers from Central Asia at the festival and only one Central Asian scholar -- from Uzbekistan -- attending a related academic conference on bridging the divide between the United States and the Muslim world.

Central Asian artists also appear only infrequently at the Asia Society itself, which is a major hub for Asian culture in New York.

'Ski Iraq'

Desai says she would love to bring more Central Asian artists to New York, but is hampered by lack of funding.

"We’ve done work in Central Asia, but we haven’t done enough with Central Asian stuff coming to America. But part of it is financial," Desai says. "One of the things that we would love to figure out is if we can get some support and build the audiences' [interest]. We have done musical performances from Bukhara, from Kazakhstan, and that we will continue to do.”

The Muslim Voices festival is not limited to arts and entertainment. Dangerous Breed, a clothing company based in Brooklyn, is another participant. While T-shirts bearing humorous slogans like "Ski Iraq," or "Tehran Savings and Loan Association" may not be to everyone's taste, the Dangerous Breed kiosk is doing a brisk business.

The company's founder, Jim Morrison, says the T-shirts are growing in popularity among New York's urban and educated Muslim population. He defends his fashions as an original way to fight prejudice and religious intolerance.

“What we’re trying to do is make a political T-shirt that is a little bit different than most political T-shirts. Most political T-shirts are a conclusion and they tell people what to think. Maybe it’s got [former U.S. Vice President] Dick Cheney’s face and it’s crossed out or it says 'No Blood For Oil,' " Morrison says.

"To us, that kind of political T-shirt is shouting at the viewer. And what we are trying to do is to have something political that looks beautiful but also creates a conversation.”

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