New Jersey Jewish News
Campus project builds cultural bridge between Arabs, Israelis at Princeton
Gesturing expansively, Bassem Khalil Frangieh filled the air of the small Princeton University auditorium with the exquisite longing of an Iraqi poem first in Arabic, then in his own expressive English translation.
“On the last day/ I kissed her hands/ Her eyes/ her lips,” he read, quoting “The Secret of Fire,” a poem by 20th-century Iraqi poet Abdul Wahab Al-Bayati. “I said to her: you are now/ Ripe like an apple/ Half of you: a woman/ The other half: impossible to describe.…”
Poetry is very important in the lives of the Arabs, said Frangieh, a senior lecturer in Arabic language and literature at Yale University. It is the essence and true substance of Arab culture.
Frangieh, a Palestinian born in Lebanon and raised in Syria, is one of several Arab and Israeli artists and scholars who have been invited to campus by Salaam/Shalom, an initiative launched by Esther Robbins, a lecturer in Hebrew language and literature at Princeton. Over the past three years, Robbins said, Salaam/Shalom programs have featured joint Arab/Israeli concerts, film screenings, lectures, and a program on the Arabic influences in modern Israeli music.
We are building cultural bridges between Arabs and Israelis music, film, dance, writers, said Robbins, a native of Zichron-Yaakov on Israels Mediterranean coast. Thats why its called Salaam/Shalom: Building Bridges Through Culture.
Ive always worked with Arabs, and Ive had wonderful relations on a human level, she said during a recent interview. I always looked for the common ground between Jews and Arabs. Its possible to meet on a human level. Emotionally, we are the same.
About two years ago, Robbins decided to formalize her cross-cultural activities by applying for a $5,000 Title 5 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to develop a Salaam/Shalom curriculum at Princeton. Out of this, $1,500 is allocated for cultural events, she said. This is one aspect bringing in scholars and cultural icons to explore the common ground between Arabs and Jews.
The other part of the grant, she explained, is funding her ongoing work to develop a Hebrew/Arabic curriculum that will explore the cultures, customs, and traditions of Arabs and Jews even as it highlights voices for peace and coexistence on each side.
I dont see that there is another choice except that we meet on a human level to explore the cultures, Robbins said. Im definitely more optimistic when I hear statements and messages that come from people of culture than from politicians. I dont have much power to change the world, but on a one-to-one level, I think Im very successful.
About 20 students and community members were on hand for Frangiehs March 14 lecture, Understanding Culture Through Literature: Poetry of the Arabs, a Salaam/Shalom event presented under the auspices of Princetons Department and Program in Near Eastern Studies.
Nothing could be more relevant to the work of Salaam/Shalom than the lecture by Frangieh, Robbins told the audience in Princetons Jones Hall. Salaam-Shaloms main objective is to bring Israeli and Arab scholars to promote a better understanding of the two cultures.
In his 75-minute talk, Frangieh stressed the central role poetry has played in Arab culture since the 500, a century before the creation of the Koran.
It was the Arab poet who taught the history of his people, recorded their genealogy, and celebrated their victories, he said. Poetry was the only art of the Arabs and their sole medium of literary expression. It was composed, transmitted, and preserved through the oral tradition. It falls like magic on the ears of the listener.
In the discussion period after Frangiehs talk, Mark Cohen, a professor of Jewish history in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, offered some comments in the spirit of Salaam/Shalom.
Can we say something about Hebrew poetry in the Arab world? Jews began to imitate the Arabs, perhaps in the ninth century. So this is an important thing, in the spirit of Salaam/Shalom, Cohen said. Not only did Arabs celebrate poetry as a major cultural vehicle, but also Jews did the same thing except they wrote in Hebrew, using the same metrics and thematics and rhyme schemes as the Muslims did. For Jews, this was a new thing and a new cultural expression they absorbed from the Arabs.
In an interview, Cohen called the Salaam/Shalom initiative a wonderful idea.
I would think it is unusual, and very, very much needed, he said. I study Jewish-Arab relations in the Middle Ages, when Jews and Muslims understood each other a lot more than they do today. Its extremely important to have this kind of mutual understanding. As a historian, I see it as very important.
Cohens colleague Ikram Masmoudi, a lecturer in Arabic, agreed. Its a wonderful idea, she said. The Salaam/Shalom initiative at Princeton University is very important to help promote a better understanding of the conflicts in the Middle East and dialogue between Arabs and Jews among the students but also within the community.
Asli Bali, a doctoral candidate in politics who is active with the student-led Princeton Committee on Palestine, also welcomed the work of Salaam/Shalom.
I think that Salaam/Shalom is an important initiative because it provides a forum to remind the Princeton community of the convergence and overlap between the Semitic cultures of the Middle East, both Arab and Hebrew, she said. The intercultural dialogue is a relatively unique opportunity to celebrate our commonalities without always having to be reminded of contemporary political differences.
Princeton sophomore Saed Shonnar also pointed to the importance of focusing on culture.
Arab and Jewish cultures are very similar, said Shonnar, a chemical engineering major from Ramallah. There were lots of collaborations between Jews and Arabs all the time. I believe its very, very smart to open the gate of culture and get the views closer together.
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