Whether it is to learn, laugh or be challenged, to share discovery or wonder, art brings people together. And whether by stimulating appreciation or controversy, art helps people understand each other. This sounds straightforward enough, but is it true? Does art really do this and, if so, how? Those were my questions as I set out to write about the Building Bridges Program, which since 2007 has backed arts initiatives in the us through a total of 138 grants, all of them focused on Arab and Islamic cultures.

Building Bridges is one of the arms of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, which in turn is part of the larger, New York-based Doris Duke Charitable Foundation that also funds global wellness for children as well as environmental and medical research. Building Bridges exists, to quote its website, “to advance relationships, increase understanding and reduce bias between Muslim and non-Muslim communities nationwide.”

Art connects people because “art opens us up,” says Zeyba Rahman, senior program officer for Building Bridges. “Makes us consider and reconsider positions. Provokes us to think more deeply.”

Rahman unabashedly aims to “move the needle for people.” The problem, she acknowledges, is that nobody has devised a foolproof way to identify, much less quantify, just what makes us change our mind about others. Researchers can measure changes in people’s intrinsic biases, but they don’t agree on which tools to use. It is also hard to tease out the active ingredients in a program and correlate these to outcomes. Ask anyone who has filled out a grant request. They sigh. They often have more anecdotes than data. They know things in their gut but can’t prove them. 

So what is it they think they know? How does art change us? I set out to find out by taking a close look at four Building Bridges-supported programs, each centered on a different approach: play, laughter, visual appeal and performance. 

children’s museum of manhattan
Using a touchscreen, children play the sounds of musical instruments in a display at “America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far” at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan. “The play of the exhibit is nothing new to kids,” says Lizzy Martin, the museum’s director of exhibit development. “It’s the uniqueness of how we layer the cultures onto what they are playing with.”

First stop

Kid Zone 

Walking into “America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far” at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan in New York is like stepping into a miniature city. Adults notice its plaza, with a fountain and tilework, its row of colorful market stalls and the prow of a boat that fills a corner of the room. Kids see games, props for dress-up and things to climb.

Four-year-old Jonah has been a regular lately. His mom, Micah Spratt, brings him several times a week. Today a long console with pictures of musical instruments catches his attention. As Micah reads the names—“ney, ‘ud (kind of like a guitar, right?), ebana, ghijak, tabla (looks like drums), kora”—Jonah is figuring out the game. He taps “ney,” and a flute sounds. Taps it again—silence. On. Off. Pretty soon, he’s layering melodies of ney with ‘ud and ghijak, and then tapping the tabla on–off–on–off–on, causing bursts of drumbeat to erupt beneath the melody. Jonah smiles. Then runs off to climb the dhow.

The market area, meanwhile, is buzzing. Six-year-old Luke catches and sells fish in Zanzibar. Three-year-old Fallon fusses with a Senegalese cloth on a tailor’s dummy—when she’s created a full skirt, she declares, “Looks like a tutu now.” And four-year-old Kate, in a red dress dotted with cartoon puppies, stands amid a pile of Moroccan throw rugs with zingy patterns. One she dubs “my bed.” Another, “my yoga mat.” Then, plopping down on a purple-and-white one, she wraps her legs in the red, yellow and black stripes of the other. When she leans back, hands behind her head, she forms a new, dazzling pattern. And she, beaming, knows it.

Elsewhere, in a dark viewing room, teenagers manipulate the controls of a console to project 3-D images of mosques onto a curved wall. One moment they’re standing inside New York’s modern mosque at 96th Street. Next, they’re gliding, eyes wide, under eighth-century arches in Córdoba, Spain. 

Samin Rafiq looks on. Rafiq is British, Muslim, and recently moved to the us. She came to the museum to give her four-year-old daughter Zoya an outing, and “America to Zanzibar” was an unexpected find. She says she’s delighted to see American teens “having their own reactions to what they see, independent of politics.” As for Zoya, she says, playing in this setting “helps build associations with Islam.” 

Native New Yorker Nicolle Newby, on the other hand, sought out the exhibition. While her kids, six-year-old Chance and four-year-old Couture, avidly explore, she follows, taking photos of everything from the Tunisian tiles to home-like settings, decorated with photographs, books and mementos of New York Muslim families. There is also a table where Chance and Couture hunch over tablets learning to say and write “My name is …” in Arabic, Bengali, Hausa and more. “I like taking them to a variety of places,” Newby says, “because if kids don’t get out, then they don’t make friends easily with people from other ethnic groups, backgrounds, skin tones.” They also don’t develop a curiosity about themselves—back home, they pepper her with questions about their own Christian heritage.

Johnny Hanson
As students make their way across the University of Houston campus, “calligraffiti” artist eL Seed finishes his building-size mural on a wall of the Graduate College of Social Work. The mural is an Arabic translation of a quote from the city of Houston’s namesake, Sam Houston: “Knowledge is the food of genius, and my son, let no opportunity escape you to treasure up knowledge.”

Second stop

A Four-Story Mural 

On the campus of the University of Houston, the internationally renowned “calligrafitti” artist eL Seed climbs onto the platform of a cherry picker, paint can in hand. For several days, this becomes his studio, and the brick wall of the Graduate College of Social Work his canvas. 

The can rattles as he shakes it, hisses as he sprays. Black lines loop and crisscross. As the hours pass, the spaces in between fill with yellow, turquoise, orange. 

On the wall, eL Seed is writing an Arabic translation of a quote from the city’s namesake, Texas hero Sam Houston: “Knowledge is the food of genius, and my son, let no opportunity escape you to treasure up knowledge.” Not that anyone can read his highly abstracted calligraffiti.

Arabic “calligrafitti,” eLSeed believes, has a power to elicit emotion by form alone

That’s fine, he says. He’s seen people around the world warm to the mere form of Arabic calligraphy, which, he believes, has a power to elicit emotion by form alone. That emotion, he hopes, will challenge biases, “because we live in a time when we have the wrong perception of everybody. Even me. When the university reached me two years ago, I was like, ‘I don’t want to go to Texas!’ You create this drama in your head.”

He—and his mural—were welcomed. No criticism. No protests. Whether in conversations or in social-media posts, people seemed excited that a star of the art world created a site-specific work at their university. The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, which invited eL Seed, staged programs around the mural. Classes discussed it.

Organizers envisioned the artwork sparking impromptu conversations across faiths and among Muslims themselves; however, that hasn’t happened, says Emran El-Badawi, who heads the university’s Middle Eastern Studies Program. Maybe it was unrealistic to expect it would. He says the campus is so comfortable in its diversity and has so much public art that people “take this mural and initiative for granted.” Its presence here does not challenge how people see themselves: It confirms it.

Yet, having an Arabic mural be no big deal might just be the big deal. It says that Arabic is an accepted part of an ever-growing American fabric. That’s a powerful theme, and El-Badawi says colleagues at other institutions have contacted him to pick his brain as they contemplate similar initiatives. 

“Halal in the Family” started as a segment on “The Daily Show” and turned into a sitcom web series that challenges stereotypes and misunderstandings through the eyes and foibles of a us Muslim family. It can be found at halalinthefamily.tv or on the “Funny or Die” channel on YouTube.

Third stop


I log onto halalinthefamily.tv and hit “play,” launching the web-tv comedy series about a fictional Pakistani Muslim family living in a generic white-majority suburb. With four episodes that each runs five to six minutes, it’s a compact immersion that takes aim at religion-based bullying, fear-mongering, stereotyping, profiling … you name it. From all sides. Originally intended to be a Muslim parody of the “The Cosby Show,” it ends up closer to “All in the Family” with the main character, named Qu’osby, as blinkered and cringe-inducing as Archie Bunker ever was—and sometimes worse.

Lillian LaSalle is founder and director of Sweet 180, which produced the series. “There are people on our advisory board who said, ‘You can’t say that,’” she says, referring to any number of jokes in the script. But co-creators Aasif Mandvi and Miles Khan, formerly of “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart, held firm. “To do parody and satire properly, we’re going to say some things that are going to offend people.”

And they do. For example, to fit his benighted notions of American identity, Qu’osby makes an embarrassing show of liking foods Islam forbids. And when a girl bullies his daughter over her religion on Facebook, Qu’osby doesn’t give the bully a moral lesson; rather, he upbraids the offender to “get her stereotypes right!”

In another episode Qu’osby meets his kids’ math teacher, who is white, and played by Jordan Klepper. It’s instant bromance as they bond over a “’68 Mustang fastback with a 302 two-barrel V8” and other memes of Americana. When the teacher mentions he needs to go because he’s heading over to the mosque, Qu’osby discovers his new friend’s name isn’t “Wally” but Waleed. He feels duped, and he jumps to the ridiculous conclusion that Waleed is faking his identity to spy on Qu’osby. This makes Qu’osby react so weirdly that Waleed then suspects him of reporting to the fbi. The scene resolves with them all laughing at the absurdity of thinking they were spying on each other—a shot filmed through binoculars by someone peering from outside the window.

Every episode is over the top. Some gags don’t hit my laugh button. But they always make me roll my eyes at the inanity of the prejudices they pillory. “Halal” intends to be funny and activist: Right under the video, the site provides statistics and information about problems Muslims face, along with links to find out more. LaSalle says nobody has tracked yet how many viewers have followed up, but one thing’s certain: the industry has. The series won a Peabody-Facebook Futures of Media Award, and Turner Broadcasting System (tbs) commissioned a pilot script for an animated adaptation. Though tbs did not pick it up, the production team is shopping it around. It won’t be parody or satire, LaSalle says, but a warmer comedy about a Muslim family trying to fit into in a small Arkansas town. If produced, television viewers too might soon be laughing with Muslim neighbors—and sometimes at them—because, after all, the characters are bound to have plenty of blind spots, too.

Fourth stop

On Stage

I head west and north to Minneapolis, where the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood is known—by its residents and outsiders—as “Little Mogadishu.” More emigrés from Somalia live here than in any other single place in the us. Arriving, I look for the marquée of the Cedar Cultural Center across from Al-Karama Mall on Cedar Avenue. For close to 30 years, it has hosted musicians from around the world. More recently, it has also developed into an important meeting point for Somali and non-Somali communities. 

What changed? In 2014 The Cedar (as people refer to it) teamed up with Augsburg University, a Lutheran institution with a music department that had been working with local Somali singers. Together they launched a series of month-long residencies for Somali performers. They named it Mid-nimo, which in Somali means “unity.” 

When I visit in the fall of 2016, before visas became almost impossible to obtain, Midnimo is in its seventh cycle of residencies. Four hip-hop artists are visiting from Europe, Shiine Akhyaar Ali, Dalmar Yare, Lihle Muhidin Nur and Digriyow Abdi. In 2002 they were all refugees in Kenya. The youngest was 11, the oldest 17. They had seen pals join the militias tearing their homeland apart. Bored and scared, they started rapping for peace and against extremism. They called themselves Waayaha Cusub, “New Era.”

I also meet four local non-Somali instrumentalists: keyboardist deVon Gray, drummer Joey Van Phillips, bassist Jim Anton and guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker. The organizers have brought them in to play backup for Waayaha Cusub. On a Thursday morning I join them in a red-brick building on Augsburg’s campus. In a large classroom, the musicians all sit with their backs to the blackboard as students, all music majors, trickle in. Helped by an interpreter, the Somalis introduce themselves. When the class starts, the students are attentive, but there’s no feeling of chemistry. Then Joey taps out a tempo. Shiine motions the class to stand. They’re going to help him sing a song.

It doesn’t take long before Waayaha Cusub is calling out verses and students are belting the refrain.

The refrain Shiine teaches the students is “watch out for your people / watch out for your land.”

The students mangle the Somali lyrics, laugh, and try again. It doesn’t take long before Waayaha Cusub is calling out verses, students are belting the refrain, and everyone is jamming.

Back in their seats, conversation now flows. Students speak about music as something they love, study and dissect. Waayaha Cusub members talk about their hip hop as mission: They sing to keep Somali youth from falling prey to militants. Death threats, an assassination attempt, the disorientation of refugee life—nothing has deterred them. The students want to know about the Somali kids Waayaha Cusub reaches; the Somali singers want to hear about the students’ goals as future teachers and musicians.

By residency’s end the singers have run 16 college classes, conducted seven workshops for youth and worked with pupils at four public schools. In many cases, they see the same audiences for two or three sessions. Then, in a few months, another group of artists will come, and with them new music and new stories. 

With school-age kids, the jamming segues into writing, and they come up with their own lyrics and perform for their mates, some from long-settled Minnesota families and some newbies. They rap about likes and dislikes, aspirations and fears. Some wriggle and giggle and, first time around, take a pass; others dive right in. As one Somali-born kid struts his stuff, Shiine whispers: “If they do not see they’re talented, they can join gangs.”

“When we’re playing music together, we feel we know each other.”

What I see is a building of trust—East African kids discovering they have something to say. College students learning from Somali singers and vice versa—local Somali youths attending a Waayaha Cusub performance in a venue they’ve never been in with white neighbors they’ve never met. Trust also grows between the Somali visitors and their American backups. At first, deVon says, they rehearsed in a kind of “awkward dance.” Joey remembers worrying they couldn’t get “the nuances the Somalis are looking for.” So they listened, tried something else, watched for reactions, tweaked, tried again. Gradually, everyone grew more comfortable, and the Americans even started to find ways “to bring our own voices into it,” deVon says. Case in point: At rehearsal one morning, Digriyow asks Jeremy to free-style the beginning of the next song. By this time Jeremy has spent hours listening and experimenting. When he moves to center stage, he lets his fingers fly. Heads keep time, faces smile. “We don’t speak English too well,” Shiine later says, “so we don’t talk about a lot of things. But when we’re playing music together, we feel we know each other.”

Last stop

Making Sense of It All

Each of the projects that Building Bridges supported drew non-Muslims and Muslims alike, and in different ways each offered multiple experiences. I saw art engage people mentally and emotionally, then deliver information, foster camaraderie, engender trust, stimulate curiosity and bolster identity. As time went on, it became like watching a cloth being woven, threads—sometimes similar, sometimes wildly different—crisscrossing to create ever-varying designs.

We know from the news that, all around the globe, the need keeps growing. For Building Bridges’ 2018 grants competition, the number of applications doubled, says Rahman. And we now know enough about laughter, mutual attention, play and the evolution of cultures to begin to understand how art programs can make a real difference.

“Sometimes,” says Jack Tchen, a cultural historian at the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, “we talk about otherness as if it’s a bad thing,” as if the world would be easier if everybody were “like ourselves. And that’s impossible.” What is possible, though, is discovering who others are. Who we are. And what more fun and energizing way than through art which, as Rahman says, leads us to “consider and reconsider our positions” by inviting us to cross a bridge to—let’s go find out.