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.
From 2007 through 2017, Building Bridges allocated $20.4 million in grants ranging from about $15,000 to more than $1 million. In many cases, it chose to serve as one among several sources funding a project, creating opportunities for alliances within communities.
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.”
“One-shot events, one-shot activities, one-shot experiences tend not to be sufficient,” says cultural historian Jack Tchen of the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University (nyu). Effective educational cultural programs are “always about a process,” and it is important that funders “acknowledge the time and labor, and care that’s needed.” Zeyba Rahman of Building Bridges would agree: “Sustained activity does create measurable impact, but the key word is sustained.” It is a quality Building Bridges looks for in grant applications.
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.
The challenges for Lizzy Martin, director of exhibit development for the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, were to represent a range of cultures that identify with Islam and then engage kids from a range of backgrounds. She and her team started with familiar things—a truck, a boat, a shop. With input from art experts and historians, they “layered on culture.” Voilà—a Pakistani jingle truck, an Omani dhow and an Indonesian fruit stand (complete with smelly durian fruits).
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.
Multiculturalism alone, says Tchen, “oftentimes doesn’t do much.” Adults, he explains, need to help children connect new experiences with things or people they already know. Conversations about similarities and differences, he says, are what later enable us to learn to see through stereotypes.
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.
Micah Spratt doubts that at four, her son Jonah is “making the connection to Islamic culture.” But, she adds, “I think on some level he’s taking in that these things are different—their looks, their sounds. Next time he sees things like these, they’ll be familiar.” Nearby, watching his daughter, four-year-old Kate, Stephen Reznak says his family lives in “a New Jersey town that’s pretty homogeneous.” The exhibit “gives my kids a greater appreciation for the larger world.”
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.”
Rahman thinks “America to Zanzibar” is “a very important player” for Building Bridges. Why? “Being comfortable with our identity and being comfortable with those of others” is crucial for future generations who will “have to be concerned about being global citizens.”
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.
A Four-Story Mural
As the us census counts, metropolitan “Greater Houston” covers more land than the state of New Jersey. It is home to more than 6 million people who altogether speak more than 90 languages. Still, as diverse as Houston is, says Karen Farber, director of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at the University of Houston, “we’re not always forced to deal with each other.” One reason she championed eL Seed’s mural project, painted in the spring of 2016, was “to provoke a dialogue.”
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.
Andrew Bayliss at the University of East Anglia’s Psychology Department found that when two people are reacting positively to something they are looking at together, they tend to deem the other person “more trustworthy and more pleasant.” Researchers are now exploring whether this “joint attention” phenomenon applies similarly in social media and other virtual spaces.
But if organizers expected the mural might provoke contentious conversations, it largely hasn't, says Emran El-Badawi, who heads the university’s Middle Eastern Studies Program. The artwork has, in fact, very quickly blended in on a campus that is so comfortable in its diversity, and that has so much public art, that people, he says, “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” marked a step outside the comfort zone for Building Bridges, says Rahman. But she and her team liked its deeper message and its potential to reach so many people.
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.”
The Perception Institute showed 2,344 viewers “Halal in the Family” and an excerpt from a narrative documentary about Islamophobia called “Truth Over Fear.” The institute found the documentary slightly more effective in getting people to question assumptions, but then they looked at how many people each one reached online. The film had attracted 10,000 views, while “Halal in the Family” had racked up 620,000, plus 18,000 Facebook “likes” and 2.5 million posts.
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.
Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran says laughter evolved from a signal our very distant ancestors used to broadcast that all was okay. Imagine this: A man spots something moving in the shadows. He tenses. A kitten mews. He laughs. Hearing him, the others relax. This is effective, wordless vocal communication. Grace Aneiza Ali, who teaches art and policy at nyu, believes comedy can look at a specific, difficult situation—say, the tension between two immigrant parents and their locally born children—and universalize it so that everyone, laughing, connects with it.
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.
Some 60,000 people of Somali origin live in Minnesota, comprising the most recent of the many groups of immigrants—among them Scandinavians, East Europeans, Asians and Latinos—that have settled the state that was for centuries home to Dakota Sioux and Ojibwa tribes.
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.
Minnesota may be the “land of 10,000 lakes,” but Somalia, says guide Abdi-rahman Hassan, is “the land of 1,000 poets.” He works at the Somali Museum of Minnesota, which opened in 2013. “Somalia is a very musical culture,” Hassan says, pointing to a display of instruments. “So some people will listen to songs as long as they’re Somali or as long as they’re positive.”
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.”
A first-year student at the College of Saint Benedict, Julia Pedron exudes curiosity and hope. “There are a lot of misconceptions about Somalis’ culture and religion,” she says. “I wish everybody could have the experience we had of actually getting to meet with Waayaha Cusub, getting to experience a little bit of their culture.” When Shiine talked about being shot, she adds, “it was like I was speaking to a piece of history.”
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.”
No matter their background, students “have a fuzzy understanding of the Somali experience,” says Darlene St. Clair, director of the St. Cloud State University Multicultural Resource Center. But “music is especially engaging,” and they come away from Midnimo classes with a sharper sense of “what it’s like being a refugee, the extra pressures, anxieties and fears.”
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.”
Tchen uses the example of musicians to illustrate the crucial role played by pleasure and emotion. Because musicians love their own instruments, it is easy for them to appreciate the way instruments from another culture are played and the sounds they produce. To have that kind of experience, Tchen believes, is a key to appreciating difference “and not to just simply want to subsume it, dominate it, eradicate it or disavow it.”
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.
The local Somali community generally likes Midnimo, says Amano Dube, director of the Brian Coyle Community Center. But it is divided over Waayaha Cusub’s anti-militant messages. Some feel these inadvertently reinforce anti-Somali and even anti-Muslim sentiments by implying Somalis are “more susceptible to having children turn bad.” Others, however, believe the frank talk helps steer young people in good directions.
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.
Scientists have confirmed what we have always suspected: Interacting with people who are different from us alters the way we think about them. Researchers term this “intergroup contact,” and study after study has shown that sharing a positive experience reduces prejudice primarily by reducing anxiety and increasing empathy.
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.”
The Cedar Cultural Center invited Mohamed Sallam to evaluate Midnimo. I meet him as he observes a class. Midnimo isn’t just about art, he explains. “It’s also about artists’ narratives,” he says, and how these come across is extremely important. He is on the lookout for signs that audiences might interpret individual personal stories as representing all Somalis, or even all Muslims in diaspora. Instead, he sees Midnimo preempting this by hosting a succession of different artists, all of whom are coached on how best to present their personal stories in Minnesota. As a result, Midnimo works, he says, because it “complicates the notion of what it means to be Muslim.”
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.”
Making Sense of It All
“We’re overriding negative perceptions by showing the diversity of Muslim cultures, the breadth, the depth of them, the richness,” says Rahman. Building Bridges programs also encourage “the younger Muslim population to really get a look at their cultures and take pride.”
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.