A couple of weeks ago, my wonderful brother and his equally wonderful wife were in town; Jon is producing a show about Middle Eastern music for PBS, and he brought several of the musicians to the States to perform at the Roxy Theater in Hollywood. It was an exciting, diverse program--everything from Lebanese hip hop to Egyptian street music to haunting Arabic ballads. We met several of the musicians, including Ilham Al Madfai, a guitarist whose family had to make a swift escape from Iraq after his teeange son became the target of Uday Hussein's wrath. It was very moving and humbling to hear the musicians' stories; it reminded me that sharing our tales, sharing our culture, our art, is such a beautiful and important way to build bridges, to realize the Other is not really other at all. Our culture, of course, has developed a nasty habit of demonizing anyone from the Middle East; just today, a group of Muslim clerics were asked to leave a plane because they made one of the other customers uncomfortable. Such intolerance has become frigteningly pandemic. I am grateful to my brother for bringing these musicians to an American audience, for reminding the American people that we're all humans sharing this planet.
After the concert, my family got into a van along with Lebanese singer/songwriter Tania Saleh and her band to head back to the hotel. A wildeyed man who looked a little bit like a dirty and disheveled Santa Claus had been hanging around the front of the theater, pushing his bicycle, chanting something about Death. My daughter was getting very freaked out by him as we stood on the sidewalk, and was relieved when the van arrived and we were able to get inside. The man, however, proceeded to get into a tussle with one of the musicians still standing outside, and ended up opening the van door right next to my daughter and lunging toward her with all his anti-Santa-Claus rage. She jumped across my lap, screaming--I've never seen her move so quickly before. Thankfully someone was able to pull the man away, and we shut and locked the door before he could get back in.
My daughter was deeply shaken, of course. I was so moved to see how this group of Lebanese musicians--men who might be mistaken for terrorists by ignorant Americans--worked to calm her down. One of the men asked her her name. When she said Hannah, he asked if she knew that it was an Arabic name. Hannah shook her head--we had only known it as a Hebrew name. Hannah means "happiness" in Arabic, he told her. "Be your name," he said with a gently teasing smile. He was able to get her to stop hyperventilating, get her to relax, even laugh.
It is direct experiences like this one that can really break down preconceptions and help us as human beings open our hearts to one another. We need more cultural dialogue like this, more avenues toward understanding. I am so glad my brother and his wife built this bridge of music; the show will probably air sometime in April--I will be sure to share the information when the time draws near.