Festival for New York, That Muslim City

June 4, 2009

Author: Felicia R. Lee

Source: The New York Times


The hookahs looked like exotic animals lurking in Hookahnuts, a shop for gifts and food in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. In various shades of red, blue and green, these water pipes, used to smoke flavored tobacco, were the most vivid sign of the shop’s Middle Eastern culture, presented among an eye-catching array that included intricate wooden trays, imported chocolates and delicate cups and saucers for Arabic coffee.

A colorful poster taped to the door advertised a souk, an outdoor market to be set up near the Brooklyn Academy of Music this weekend, offering food, crafts and music from various Muslim cultures. The souk is part of a bigger event: a 10-day festival of dance, art, theater and music called Muslim Voices: Arts & Ideas that begins on Friday night.

In this part of Brooklyn, with its low-slung buildings and leafy streets, Muslim culture can be seen in many of the stores along the bustling Fifth Avenue commercial spine, roughly between 65th and 85th Streets: bookstores, cafes, shops with halal meat and olive oil soap.

Bay Ridge, first settled in the 1600s, has been home to successive generations of Irish, Germans, Scandinavians and Italians, among others. These days, in its jumble of Greek and Chinese restaurants, churches, synagogues and mosques, the neighborhood is something of a small-town United Nations.

The Muslim Voices festival, which continues through June 14, will showcase the works of artists from countries like India and Indonesia, Egypt and Morocco. At a cost of $2.5 million and with participation from some of the major arts organizations in the city, the festival has everything from Arabic hip-hop to the Sardono Dance Theater, created by the Indonesian dancer and choreographer Sardono Kusumo, and will feature more than 100 artists, some local, some from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Not all are Muslim, but their work is rooted in places that have been influenced by Islam or where it is the predominant religion.

The three festival sponsors — the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Asia Society and the Center for Dialogues at New York University — hope to foster a greater understanding of Muslim culture at a time of tension and misunderstanding between Western and Islamic societies. The idea for the festival was set in motion several years ago with a conversation between Karen Brooks Hopkins, the president of the academy, and Mustapha Tlili, the director of the Center for Dialogues. (It comes at the same time as President Obama’s major speech to the Muslim world, on Thursday.)

See also: Islam, Civic, Arts/Media