This past winter someone shared this wonderful event called Art Song Lab. It pairs composers and poets to create an art song together, with everyone coming to Vancouver for workshops and the premiere. It turned out to be one of the most magical experiences of my life. I was paired with Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, who eventually became one of my favorite poets alive, and also a dear friend. 

Our song came out of several conversations about post 9/11 racism, and what it’s like being a Middle Eastern person in the United States. It seems as if this project sort of came to us and was less of a product of our skills as artists and more of a message which we were fated to share.

This piece opens many conversations about who the piece is for. I still cannot answer it, but I know it’s not for white people, although it might be a good source of trying to understand their privilege. It’s not for any person of color because the issue must be firmly Middle Eastern, although this can be a great source of community building. This piece is not for my fellow Middle Eastern brethren, even though it may be a source of healing, as it was for me. The only person this piece may be for is Alan Kurdi, the boy with the red shoes, a victim of white sensationalism, whose photo was shared across the internet in a frenzy because somehow white people are ok with looking at the dead body of a beautiful brown boy. I hope that with this piece, it will help his soul rest.

It seems as though we are in the midst of a cultural shift where social issues are entering privileged spaces (the classical music world in this case) with more intensity than before.  There were many songs that were social justice related at Art Song Lab and the people were dedicated to creating a safe space. In Vancouver, where the festival took place, I found myself in a loving and supportive community right away, something I have to work really hard to find here in the US.

Yet, I also witnessed people reacting by refusing to listen to the voices of the oppressed. There is a strong desire to get away from an issue and stay neutral, especially in the art world. It is for that reason that white people will never understand this work.

White listener, it’s important to understand that we are angry, but a big reason why we are angry is that no one sees the love that is there among my own people. For my listeners who are people of color, I hope this piece will be a source of healing for you.

God bless Alan Kurdi and his family. May Allah look over him and support his loving family as they grieve and struggle to live in a world where they endure so much suffering. May God grant justice to those who have abused his name and bring comfort to those who grieve him.

for Alan Kurdi (2013-2015)

Written in Collaboration with the wonderful poet, Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, tenor William George and pianist Corey Hamm.

Performed at Song Launch, as part of the Queer Arts Festival 2016 for Art Song Lab 2016

Song for a Small Guest
Alan Kurdî (2013-2015)

Seaweed followed the law. It released you
to waves bussing your small body

down, down dark currents, silver
minnow tunnel. Your red shirt swallowed

the Aegean, billowed and swelled,
but your shoes stayed on. By them the sea

knew your refuge dream, restored you to shore
so your father Abdullah could find you,

a guest of the sea. Without guests
all houses would be a grave, the poet wrote

making a worm from mist, a bird from sand.
What prayer transforms this empty

castle guards watch, ignorant of the gift
to shelter each other? Who will help

close, open, close your velcro laces
for the journey your father dares

for your sake? You, a gift loved with milk
cake and honey. You, names altered

to keep you safe—not Mohammed, Jesus.
Not Muslim, Christian. Hush

don’t bother now as white tourists gather
multiplying your image on their little screens

to console each other. You are not their orphan
of beach foam, Alan flag bearer

watching from the lap of God.


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I strongly recommend listening to the recording before reading my notes. It’s very important to me that you, as a listener get the most personal experience with this piece, and let it establish a place for yourself before you start to explore it even more.

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Recently I had the wonderful opportunity to work with the Lawrence University Wind Ensemble on a reading. I want to thank Dr. Mast for arranging the session, and members of the LU Wind Ensemble for their artistry during this reading. You all brought so much life to this please, thank you.

This piece is special to me because it was written during a difficult time in my life where I felt extremely isolated and had an intense longing to leave where I was and start over. At those times, I turn to literature and poetry to find meaning somewhere away from reality. I thought about a work by the Lebanese poet, Khalil Gibran, a poetic epic that neatly ties his entire world view, and lays it bare for the world to witness; his book of poems, The Prophet. Orphalese is the setting of this tremendous work, where a prophet is stranded from their home in a distant place, waiting for a ship to take them back. Interestingly enough, Orphalese is not a place that exists, but it is a place where a prophet teaches, a place of holy insight far away from us.

Orphalese is only briefly mentioned in the beginning, but I was left imagining what this place would look like. Where, in this world, could exist such a place where the people can truly recognize the prophet among them and listen to what they have to say? When all around me I hear words of hatred, pettiness, and a refusal to hear what anyone has to offer. Where could exist such a place, where an immigrant could arrive at some unknown place and be welcome to such a loving community and given the resources to learn and teach the people of that place what they know? Certainly not here, where the message is consistently becoming clearer, outsiders are not welcome.

It seems like the current land of the prophet is going to be in danger for a long time. As people sit down reading this, contemplating whether or not the decedents of their own lord and savior can be trusted to enter the country. The art, culture, education, social progress all need to be halted so that perhaps one day the magic can return to the mountains. The current mountains where water was turned into wine is now under fire, and so I must take refuge in the mountains of Orphalese, perhaps I can still find meaning there.