Two framed photos: left, a black and white Palestinian scarf (keffiyeh); right, a glass head with paper tickets inside.
Al-Bustan’s 2020 gallery exhibit "Vision of Palestine," featuring works by internationally recognized Palestinian-American graphic designer, artist, and activist Rajie Cook. The exhibit explored the humanitarian crisis in Palestine through poster art and sculptural assemblages. Photo by Al-Bustan.

Spotlight on Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture

David Heayn-Menendez

Philadelphia is home to many civic and cultural organizations engaged in deeply impactful community-building activities. Through the Community Spotlight initiative, the Philadelphia Museum of Art aims to support some of these institutions by offering access to our collections, programming, and digital platforms. Our aim is to help advance each organization’s mission and to encourage our visitors and digital audiences to follow and support their work.

In 2022, we will be shining a light on Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, Asian Arts Initiative, and Broad Street Ministry. Check our social channels for updates and dedicated posts throughout the year.

What is it like to be without a home? To travel far for new opportunities and freedoms not readily available in your country of origin, only to lose your anchor, your true north? What if your destination was less welcoming, or at times outright hostile toward you and others like you? This is exactly the environment that has confronted the Arab American community throughout the 2000s­—the same period that has seen the Arab population in the United States double in size, expand in diversity, and set down new roots.

In 2002, Philadelphia architect Hazami Sayed established Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture in response to these cultural shifts. Sayed, who is an Arab American immigrant to the United States, believed that a better, more understanding world was possible for herself, her two young boys, and the community. “Al-Bustan” is an Arabic word for a garden or orchard. Through the arts, Al-Bustan cultivates pride in Arab culture within the community and, for new audiences, creates connections that embrace differences in language and culture instead of treating them as obstacles.

Photo of four musicians in performance.
A concert at Trinity Church in Philadelphia entitled Amaan! A Turkish-Arab Musical Dialogue, featuring the Istanbul Trio and Al-Bustan’s master percussionist Hafez Kotain, in fall 2019. Photo by Al-Bustan.

Arab Art in America

The arts of the global Arab community have always contributed to the fabric of American culture and to the canon of artistic tradition and contemporary art. Yet there is little recognition for these contributions. As a result, Arab and Arab-American artists and performers have largely been excluded from traditional cultural institutions such as museums, galleries, and concert halls. Painters who have been inspired by Arab and North African art, such as Picasso and Matisse, are universally celebrated, while Arab art is often relegated to an archaic past or dismissed as folk craft. This lack of recognition is not unique to the Arab experience, but it is amplified by the absence of a clear identity or shared community for Arabs in the United States.

Al-Bustan’s mission seeks to correct this disparity. Over the last twenty years, by introducing new audiences to both traditional and contemporary Arab visual art and performances, Al-Bustan has served as a cultural leader through support for a generation of Arab American artists. School programs, gallery exhibits, public art installations, film screenings, and concerts have provided venues for Arab artists. By working with musicians like Marcel Khalife and Sonia M’barek, poets like Naomi Shihab Nye and Suheir Hammad, and visual artists like eL Seed and Rajie Cook, Al-Bustan celebrates the unique Arab-American experience, creating community and a home for many in Philadelphia where none previously existed.

Photo of two people holding drums.
State Senator Sharif Street and Storyteller of Peace Nashid Ali leading a drum circle at a community park party at Palmer Park in May 2021. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Al-Bustan’s civic engagement events have brought together communities in various neighborhoods and provided resources related to vaccines, the upcoming election, the school district, and immigration. Photo by Amanda Hankerson.

The Impact of the Arts

The fruit of the cultural garden established by Hazami Sayed has provided a lifeline to Arab culture for thousands of recent Arab immigrants. For those of Arab heritage who arrived in previous generations, Al-Bustan has been an invaluable source of cultural connection. The most frequent and important refrain voiced by the Philadelphia community is that they wished there had been an organization like Al-Bustan when they were growing up, but they are happy there is a place for their children to remain connected to their language and heritage.

In 2008, my wife was studying at Villanova University, far from her home and family in Lebanon, and she found a community in the Al-Bustan community choir. I still have fond memories of watching her and so many others of all ages sing and perform at Al-Bustan concerts and events. As an aspiring academic learning Arabic for the first time, Al-Bustan provided me with a visceral and authentic experience of Arab culture not available in scholarly circles or the media. Al-Bustan has always been successful at demonstrating our connections and shared humanity to its participants and audiences. It was the passionate, mission-driven character of Al-Bustan that helped me transition from a traditional academic career at a university and re-ignite my own passion for the arts, which I hope to cultivate in my two young boys, Adam and Sam.

This past year was the first time Adam was old enough to attend the summer camp, and the first time he was able to connect to his Arab heritage with children like him. Since that experience, he has frequently asked how much longer it will be until camp begins again so he can see his friends, play the doumbak, and return to Bartram’s Garden, where camp will be held in 2022. This connection is vitally important to my wife and me, raising a mixed family.

Having begun as a summer camp, this small organization has grown into a resource for an entire generation of Philadelphians, Arab and non-Arab, through accessible public programming and school programs. Over the past twenty years, Al-Bustan has proved to be a dynamic, multifaceted, and trusted community resource. Our presence at more than twenty Philadelphia schools and frequent public events has highlighted the beauty and appeal of Arab and SWANA (Southwest Asia and North Africa) art and artists. Youth across Philadelphia have used lessons in the visual arts, music, and literature of the Arabic-speaking world to tell their own stories.

Photo of a mural artist eL Seed painting a wall on a cherry picker lift.
Artist eL Seed completing his Soul of the Black Bottom mural for Al-Bustan at the corner of Market and Preston Streets in West Philadelphia. eL Seed’s conversations with local community members inspired him to select this quote from W.E.B. Du Bois to write in Arabic on the walls: “I believe that all men, black and brown and white, are brothers, varying through time and opportunity, in form and gift and feature, but differing in no essential particular, and alike in soul and the possibility of infinite development.” Photo by Al-Bustan.
Photo of three children.
Participants of Al-Bustan’s twentieth Summer Camp in 2021, themed “Travel Along with Ibn Jubayr.” The two-week camp was held at Bartram’s Garden and taught children visual art, Arabic, percussion, and storytelling. Photo by Amanda Hankerson.

In recent years, Al-Bustan has deepened its connections and commitment to the community through civic engagement and community health and wellness programming. We are poised to expand further through the commissioning of new performance series and public art installations. The launch of our Arab arts and culture reportage platform will further expand our ability to highlight the work and contribution of Arab artists.

Al-Bustan’s initial focus on youth and education was a promise that through investing in Arab art and culture we would create a home in the United States for anyone who sought it in our garden. That core mission continues today with deep roots in our community but also with our commitment to educate the larger non-Arab community about Arab culture. By producing high-quality work by Arab artists we continue an important legacy. And by supporting and amplifying their contributions, we hope to celebrate and highlight the beauty of Arab art and culture for all to see, experience, and be inspired by.

David Heayn-Menendez, Al-Bustan’s Director of Education and Civic Engagement, is an educator and scholar of the socioreligious and cultural history of Southwest Asia and North Africa. He has an M.Phil. and is in progress towards his PhD from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Over the last twenty years, he has taught in elementary, high school, and college classrooms throughout Pennsylvania and in New York City. As an arts administrator, community organizer, and municipal elected official, Heayn-Menendez focuses on amplifying the voices of immigrant communities and providing important connections to health and wellness through the arts and education.