Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture rose to two major challenges in 2021—change in its leadership for the first time in the organization’s history and the pervasive and potent effects of COVID-19, not least on an organization such as ours engaged in arts performance, education, and civic engagement. We would like to think that we did mighty well; our team stood and delivered even if often from behind computer screens.
Not surprisingly, delivery of Al-Bustan’s After-School Arab Arts program was interrupted by the pandemic’s required shift from in-person to remote learning. Teaching artists had to shift their instruction methodology and our staff were restricted to remote communication and management. Once past the initial interruption, however, we managed to turn remoteness into a logistical advantage by increasing capacity to manage and teach in more places in a week, expanding our service from 2 Philadelphia public schools to 13, and increasing year-to-year enrollment from 58 to 127 students.
As we continued to offer Arabic language courses for youth, Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture introduced Arabic language courses for adults, in 2021. By scheduling remote, evening classes and securing expert instruction, courses enrolled well throughout the year. In 2022, we plan to add to the two introductory courses already offered two intermediate courses employing robust and responsive curricula. Al-Bustan resumed its offering English language learning (ELL) classes to native Arabic speakers in 2021, programming two levels of classes led by bilingual teachers.
Early in the year, concern over an accelerated spread of the pandemic in winter prompted us to program arts events that would well be served by remote attendance and presentation on a screen—movies. We programmed a sneak preview 1982 and a US premiere Last Visit. Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture followed these screenings with an integrated movie series dubbed Ten Years Since Tahrir, whose seven films dealt with the 2011 Egyptian Revolution topically.
Al-Bustan’s concerts were also delivered remotely as was the music festival that Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture sponsored, dubbed Hiya Live, a 10-hour music marathon featuring over twenty SWANA women artists from four continents. Our concerts were recorded in Al-Bustan’s offices (the Hub) then broadcast to remote audiences as well: Crossing Genres 2, Irtijaliya, and The Songs We Carry. Our end of year Musings and Music: Al-Bustan’s Homey Holiday Show conjoining musical performances and readings was similarly broadcast remotely to impressive effect.
Not all of our programming in 2021 was remote, however. Al-Bustan’s longest standing, signature program, its summer camp, resumed its in-person engagement, having gone remote in 2020. The ten-day camp enrolled students from a variety of backgrounds and was held in the stupendous grounds of Bartram’s Garden, a partnership we hope to maintain for many summers to come!
When weather permitted us to open the Hub’s doors to increase air circulation and audience capacity, Al-Bustan held three varied exhibitions, that attracted substantial audience and interaction: Creative Quarantine: Artworks from Al-Bustan’s After-School Arabs Arts Program, ARTist–Reframed: Works by Tamara Hijazi, and Romance, Dance, and Happenstance: Egyptian Movie Posters over 50 years.
In a year burdened with the effects of COVID-19, we put the arts to creative use in extending relief and support to our community. We held seven vaccine clinics in various locations, including the Hub and at some of the six block (park) parties that Al-Bustan also held in 2021. Enabling voter education and registration, the largest of these parties, dubbed Arab Community Day, attracted about a thousand guests.
In 2021, Al-Bustan’s work directly connected to its community at fifty-five Philadelphia locations, despite the impact of COVID-19. Al-Bustan’s staff (which grew by one to five in 2021) could not have performed this expansive work on its own. We were vitally backed by Al-Bustan’s teaching and performing artists and aided by contractors, interns, and volunteers. Al-Bustan’s stellar year was made possible by our funders and donors, including public and private foundations, funds, and collectives—Asian Mosaic Fund, Bread and Roses Community Fund, the Center for Arab American Philanthropy, the Ford Foundation, Independence Foundation, Independence Public Media Foundation, the National Network for Arab American Communities, the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, Philanthropy Network Greater Philadelphia, PNC Arts Alive, the Samuel F. Fels Fund, the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition, the Stockton Rush Bartol Foundation, and the William Penn Foundation—as well as federal, state, and local government entities—the Philadelphia Council on the Arts, the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, and the US Small Business Administration.
Thanks to the above institutional funders and to individual donors whose support has long sustained Al-Bustan with care and commitment, we are bound to continue growing and serving, in 2022. We wish you a safe and splendid New Year and look forward to connecting with you soon!