The Arab Student Organization and the University Programs Council collaborated to host their first event together — A Trip to the Middle East — Thursday from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m in 1515, a commonly frequented student hub on the Corner. Students gathered together for a lively and educational celebration of Middle Eastern culture and a catered dinner from Sultan Kebab.
1515 was transformed into both a vibrant performance space with colorful table cloths and hanging lights around a makeshift stage that set the mood for various artistic performances. Every performance was dedicated to showcasing various Middle Eastern traditions, from a fashion show featuring clothes from different regions to the dance performance featuring a traditional Levantine dance called Dabke. In addition, the second floor was converted into an interactive gallery with various rooms dedicated to different cultural displays including a henna booth and a demonstration of Persian calligraphy.
For Miriam Leila, director of UPC cultural connections, executive director of ASO and fourth-year College student, this event was meant to illustrate the diversity of Middle Eastern Culture to both Middle Eastern students and the University community at large.
“I think they [University students] group every single one of the 25 countries into one,” Leila said. “I would love to show that we have many different languages, many different cultures, different skin colors and people — we're very, very diverse out there.”
In an attempt to highlight the ASO and Middle Eastern culture, Leila brought the idea for A Trip to the Middle East to both UPC and ASO. Leila hoped that ASO could utilize UPC’s larger funding and wider network to widen their reach. She noted in her time at the University so far, she hadn’t known of an event focused on the Middle East.
“I don't think at least like within my years as a member…[if] there was some sort of event like this before that was specifically related to the Middle East,” Leila said. “This is my culture. This is my heritage. So, I was like ‘let me showcase it.’”
Bhavya Sri Suggula, UPC cultural connections committee member and second-year College student, also notes the disparity in resources between UPC and other smaller cultural organizations. She comments on the importance of UPC’s capacity to amplify the voices of smaller organizations through events like A Trip to the Middle East.
“We get so much funding and a lot of other culture organizations don't get that same funding or platform,” Suggula said. “I'm hoping with UPC, we can give them a voice, or at least give them a place where they can be like, ‘we matter, we want to showcase ourselves’ — especially at a PWI.”
In addition to a general presentation of Middle Eastern culture, ASO and UPC also hoped that Middle Eastern students would walk away with a clearer picture of both their own culture and neighboring cultures.
Second-year College student Lea Blevins discusses how she felt she didn’t know much about her own family background and how the event helped her connect with her heritage.
“This event has been really informative and has been good to open up discussion about where my family's from,” Blevins said. “We had a good discussion about my family. They're more than likely Saudi Arabia, because they speak Farsi. That's why I'm glad to be here because I know almost nothing. And I can come back and be like I’m educated.”
Adriana Hashem, secretary of ASO and second year College student, ran one of the exhibits on the second floor. She taught various attendees about the significance and artistry of Palestinian clothing through her various examples from her own closet.
“I'm wearing my traditional Palestinian clothes and I represented that in the fashion show… and we also brought some of our own personal clothes and Palestinian items just for people to ask [questions] and showcase different types of embroidery that we have from Palestine.”
Alongside magnifying ASO within the University, multiple members hoped this event would play a part in dispelling common Western misconceptions about Middle Eastern culture. Hashem discussed how prejudices — portrayed in the media or otherwise — skewed Western understanding of the Middle East.
“We're hoping that they can see the other side of it from us that's not slandered in the media,” Hashem said. “We just wanted to show that it was not just political, that we have a really rich and beautiful culture that we want to represent to everyone.”
ASO hosts numerous events throughout the year like Mornings with Fairuz earlier this month, which featured Fairuz, an esteemed Lebanese vocalist, tea and Zaatar — endeavoring to spread awareness about Middle Eastern news, politics, and people.
Jenine Hamdan, President of ASO and fourth-year College student, describes ASO as a supportive community for Arab students at the University, as well as for anyone interested in Arabic and Middle Eastern culture.
“It's really just a place to provide a home away from home,” Hamdan said.