Monday, March 9, 2009

Arabesque at the Kennedy Center

Wow, I hope your weather was as warm, inviting, and calming as ours was in metro DC. It was a weekend for being out and about. Although I had planned to spend the entire weekend held up inside the Kennedy Center at Arabesque, a festival of Arab culture, I hit the Capital Crescent trail on Saturday afternoon, hiking from Bethesda to Rosslyn, before heading over to the Kennedy Center to hear Suheir Hammad on Saturday night.

I took the time to tidy up a bit before heading to the Millennium Stage to hear Suheir Hammad read and perform poems, including some from Breaking Poems. Her performance was wonderful: a mixture of spoken word and "traditional" poetry; some performances from memorization and other poems read. Her father introduced her, and he was so fatherly: enthusiastic, louder than he probably knew he was, and proud of his daughter. Hammad read a poem in tribute to her father, and it brought tears to my eyes so touching were the images, so sonorous the rhythm, and so emotional her delivery.

Hammad blew me away when she opened Breaking Poems to a page bearing lines about Detroit, and looked up at me and said, "you're from Detroit." Serendipity? I don't think so. This caused me to reflect on my own upbringing and my relations with Arab Americans in Detroit during the 1970s and 1980s. While I knew only a handful of Arab American kids growing up, most of them were immigrants and had been segregated into Black communities, my relations with the Arab American community became more engaging when I returned to metro Detroit from 2001 to 2005. As an adult actively communicating with adult Arab Americans, my maturity enabled me to pose questions and receive responses for which I had always wanted an explanation. But the hysteria of post 9/11 tempered and informed a lot of our conversations. I was still an outsider. And there was reason for my Arab American friends to be suspicious of everyone, including me.

The special police and K-9 dogs were out in full force from Thursday to Sunday, respectively. Security was obviously beefed up. And I was concerned that attending Arabesque was perhaps an endangerment to my safety. I do not need to see a lot of special police to make me feel secure. In fact, I feel less secure when they are around. After seeing far too many K-9 dogs on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, and unmarked Fords all day Sunday around the Kennedy Center, I became very uncomfortable and suspicious. When a crowd of pretentiously heeled, mostly non-colored people, began to flood the Hall of Nations and Hall of States, it was apparent that something important was occurring. Perhaps not as important as Arabesque was to me, but something important enough to call out the "militia" in full force. One of the guards told me, "It's a celebration for Senator Kennedy's birthday, and the president is attending." Well, this made me feel a bit better, for I was contemplating what threat could a hall full of Arabs present in a cultural space like the Kennedy Center. But even the poet Suheir Hammad joked on Saturday night, "have you ever seen this many Arabs in one place besides a jail?" With K-9s roaming the premises, who of Arab descent was going to laugh at that question?

It was tempting to sit around and get a glimpse of the president, but I stopped being a cheerleader in the 12th grade; and I no longer crash parties. I left just when the president entered. The SUVs were nine deep in front of the Kennedy Center, and the police and secret service presence was so concentrated that it placed a damper on the atmosphere. It was time to go home. I boarded the shuttle to the metro station and made my way to northern Virginia.


E. said...

How amazing is it that all these different forces can cross patterns in the same location. I think education and affluence allow diversity of experience across so many lines.

I say this because a young African man from my neighborhood who was dating a lovely Arab woman was brutally and needlessly murdered in Detroit because men who where acquainted with her were intimidated by his beauty and potential.

I love it when people from different backgrounds can celebrate their differences together, African and Arab writers, the Kennedy family and a new President, the "elite" in community, the educated, and the working people.

Because too often, what could be celebrated is used violently to imprison people into small mindedness.

M.L. Simms said...

You are so right. Arabesque was quite good. I imagine that the program drew some criticism. But for the most part, the writers seemed to be cognizant of some of the major challenges facing Arab and African writers.