Politicizing Artistic Expression Versus Expressing Political Art

Malek Jandali Performance

Written By Laci Barrow
Edited By Mehrunisa Qayyum

Two weeks ago, the American Arab-Anti Discrimination Committee’s (ADC) decision to recall a performance invitation to Syrian pianist, Malek Jandali, at their 31st annual convention rippled through Facebook and Twitter channels as the controversy made national news. Jandali claimed that the ADC had invited him, objected to one of his songs (Watani Ana), and the then disinvited him when he insisted on performing the song. Ironically, the ADC held a panel, “Social Networking in a Changing Media”, used the Jandali controversy as a case study. As Will Youmans, Joyce C. York and Dean Obeidallah weighed in on the political, activist and public relations aspects, I considered the controversy from an artist’s platform.

While I knew that the ADC maintained relationships with several Arab authoritarian regimes, I seriously questioned the validity of these unprecedented reports. But, if they were true, how could I, a politically active musician myself, volunteer to sing the National Anthem, or any other song, on the same stage as those accused of artistic censorship.

I sought out answers. I reviewed the official ADC statement; it was vague and unrepentant. I listened to Jandali’s song:
“I am my homeland, and my homeland is me. The fire in my heart burns with love for you! Oh my homeland, when will I see you free? When the sun of virtue rises in your sky, when the pen writes of loyalty and love. When the land is watered with the blood of martyrs and the brave, and all people shout: Freedom to mankind! Freedom to mankind! Oh my homeland, cradle of humanity, we pray to the heavenly God, to lift calamities from my country, my people andall mankind!”

Awaiting Malek’s friendship on Facebook, I called people I knew in ADC. The best I got from a trusted source was that Malek was blowing the incident out of proportion. Then, I read the ADC press release again and caught something I didn’t notice the first time around:
“Mr. Jandali’s participation at the banquet was intended to be, in his professional capacity, as a musical performer. As for the expression of personal political views, ADC provides ample opportunity for discussion and debate throughout the convention.”

Clear as day, the ADC had made a unilateral decision that music and politics, or at least certain kinds of politics, would be very separate this year. According to this principle, I wondered if I should be singing the National Anthem with its ‘free people bursting bombs in the air.’ I felt awful: angry, disappointed, and worse, hopeless, like many who had been holding on to ADC, acknowledging its flaws and potential, as the center of Arab-American (or American Arab) national political action. How could I perform?

On Friday night I attended ADC’s evening events—including the New York Arabic Orchestra—and wondered if they struggled with the same questions. When I returned home, I thought about the people in Syria being shot dead by their own army. I listened to Wantani Ana and memorized my favorite three lines: I am my homeland, and my homeland is me. The fire in my heart burns with love for you! Oh my homeland, when will I see you free?

According to my moral compass, I had three options for singing the National Anthem.
1) I could not show:
2) I could make a statement before I sang; or
3) I could tack on my favorite three lines of Watani Ana at the end of the National Anthem.

I grappled with each option as new media and public relations developments unfolded during the convention. Will Youman’s article in Kabobfest inspired me resist boycotting because of the rich and proud part of ADC’s history and its relative institutional strength as a member-based organization. At lunch on Saturday, the ADC announced that it would play Wantani Ana at the evening Gala that night. Thus, singing part of the song might have resulted in unintended confusion. Most importantly, I decided not to make a statement because of the sweeping echoes of reform I heard throughout the convention’s halls on Saturday.

The ADC did not need another speaker at the podium; Arab-Americans do not need more organizations. We need to unite around one national organization and revitalize its grassroots nature (for those of us who accuse it of not being so). The ADC is that vehicle. I encourage anyone who experienced a similar mental and emotional exercise this convention, or is just ready for a serious national Arab-American political effort, to act upon a commitment to grassroots reform within the ADC. Political activism or artistic performance, they are both forms of grassroots expression.

Petition pledging membership: http://www.petitionbuzz.com/petitions/adc

Petition pledging support: https://spreadsheets.google.com/spreadsheet/viewform?formkey=dEtTTzQ2UjUzWE5fT19jVVF2UDZhLUE6MQ

Lacy Barrow is a Masters of Arts Candidate in the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies program at Georgetown University. She is also a singer/actor from the Washington, DC area and has performed at Madam’s Organ, HR 57, and Playbill as well as several musicals. She continues to study acting and musical theatre at the Studio Theatre Conservatory.

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