“Yaar ko humney jaa baja dekha, kahin zaahir, kahin chhupa dekha” sang the first grade class at an elementary school in Helena, Montana.Qawwal Najmuddin Saifuddin and Brothers: School workshop. -Image: Lindajoy Fenley
Their voices rang out as the chorus for Qawwal Najmuddin Saifuddin and Brothers. The qawwal brothers, Mohammad Najmuddin, Saifuddin, Mughisuddin, Zameeruddin, and Ehtisham, were astonished at their quick grasp of the late 18th century Sufi Shah Niaz Ahmed’s Urdu verse.
At a different elementary school, a day later, 3rd grade students followed Lahori Ustad Tari Khan’s flying fingers as he created rhythmic tabla patterns. He invited them to sit beside him one by one and repeat the rhythmic patterns out loud. When some stumbled over the syllables, he murmured encouragement. For others who followed along perfectly, he flashed a quick, appreciative smile.Ustad Tari Khan’s workshop with elementary school children in Helena, Montana. -Image: Lindajoy Fenley
A little later, the same class watched wide eyed as Abid Hussain and Abdul Rasheed, beat out complex rhythms on dhols and Abid whirled and drummed, lightning fast, without missing a beat. As the dholis were leaving the school, two nine-year-olds marched up to them and one announced with assurance, “You boys were really good!” Surprised, Abid looked down at the small blond girl. Smiling shyly he said, “Thank you.”
The musicians were unanimous in their reasons for participating in the project – they wanted to share their culture and art forms hoping it would humanise Pakistanis and Muslims for Americans despite, feeling uncertain about the reception they might receive. Most had never been to the US before. Their knowledge of Americans came from news stories. As dholi Abid Hussain, put it, “We took a leap of faith with you [to participate in this project].” There was much to this statement as there were many unknowns both for Americans in Caravanserai’s participating communities and for the Pakistani artists.
After the first public program at the Myrna Loy Theater, a group of librarians came up to the musicians and thanked them. One visibly moved woman said, “Things are changing so fast inside me (about perceptions of Pakistanis) that it’s hard to keep my equilibrium.” They were deeply touched by the performances and warmth of the musicians.Qawwal Najmuddin Saifuddin and Brothers in concert. -Image: Ehsun Mirza
Another striking moment that evening involved another audience member, a young man who had obviously never met Pakistanis or known the culture. He was so affected that, as the musicians stood on the sidewalk outside the theater, he stepped out of the theater and began talking out loud to the sky, sharing his feelings about how transformed he was by the experience. Another, who answered the survey for the project’s impact study created to gauge audience reactions, wrote that he hated Muslims after the 9/11 attacks and challenged himself to attend the concert after he saw an advertisement in the local newspaper. He wrote that it transformed him and that he realised not only that the musicians were not unlike him but that he also loved their music. He wished that his brother-in-law could have joined him because he too had become prejudiced against Muslims after 9/11.
Of her experiences during the film program of the tour, filmmaker Ayesha Khan blogged about the sessions in Providence, Rhode Island. At the Trinity Academy For the Performing Arts, “I was a little worried as this was the youngest audience I had ever spoken to. I literally could not keep up with the little hands up in the air followed with questions.Ayesha Khan speaking to Central Falls High School students, Rhode Island. -Image: FirstWorks
The comments ranged from “I have changed my mind about Pakistanis” to “I really liked the fashion showed in the film.”
Later, at the Learning Center in Central Falls, she spoke to middle school children aged six to nine and was struck by the thoughtfulness of the students.” Her blog continued, “What an experience… The kids sat in a circle and it was a deeply contemplative session. From the kids: “You know after 9/11, Muslims have really got a bad rap in this country and I feel really bad about it.”, “When you talk about stereotypes – I think of how one person does something bad in Central Falls and they say we are all bad in Central Falls and its just not true” … What was remarkable to me was how the kids took our discussion to a whole other visceral level making connections to their own lives… asked for a solution – how to stop negative stereotyping of religions, cultures, people … they replied “yes, it starts with us… ”