Artists to bridge gap for Muslim, Arab cultures

In the years since 9/11, the media has portrayed the Middle East, Arabs and Muslims in a particular light — a light that Andrea Assaf said lumps a diverse group of people into a negative stereotype based on war and conflict.

Assaf, a USF artist-in-residence and artistic director of Art2Action Inc., aims to expand what many in the U.S. consider Middle Eastern society by using comedy, poetry, dance and other art to broaden awareness and understanding of Arab and Muslim cultures.

“I think the generations of folks that have grown up with that post 9/11 imagery have been fed by mainstream media a mainstream monolithic concept of who people are in the Middle East and what a Muslim is, or who Arabs are,” she said.

This year, members of USF received an $189,200 grant, one of six awards nationwide, to fund a two-year artist series focused on “Building Bridges.” Funded by Art2Action Inc., Assaf is leading a project called “This Bridge” to bridge the gap between American and Middle Eastern cultures.

Assaf said USF’s project will specifically use the art of Muslim and Arab women, the first of which was this weekend when TED Fellow Negin Farsad hosted a comedy show in the Marshall Student Center titled “The Muslims Are Coming!” to open the dialogue about Middle Eastern cultures and U.S. policy.

“Tampa is a very unique community,” Assaf said. “We have very large Arab and Muslim populations in the Tampa Bay area and central Florida. We also have one of the largest military communities in the country … I think this combination offers a unique opportunity to engage in community-wide dialogues about U.S. policy and engage veterans in those conversations as well.”

Assaf herself, as a Lebanese American artist and poet, will host a Spoken Word performance featuring musician Aida Shahghasemi in Barness Recital Hall on Monday.

As the events continue throughout the year, the project will showcase work such as a dance performance by Donna Mejia and a piece by Egyptian graffiti artist Aya Tarek.

“What we’re interested in doing with this project is really helping people understand the incredible diversity within Arab, Middle Eastern and Muslim cultures,” Assaf said.

Assaf said she will work with students and faculty from various departments around campus to create not only engaging performances, but also educational discussions to help broaden the community’s view on global cultures.

Salwa Mansour, a recent USF graduate working on the project, said she hopes the project will expose more people to art and culture. She said one of the biggest misconceptions most people have about Muslims and Arabs is that they are one in the same.

“Not all Muslims are Arabs, and all Arabs are not Muslims …,” she said. “Becoming a citizen of the world isn’t something you learn through a textbook … You learn cultures through coming in contact with different people and through the arts,” Mansour said.

A full list of the project’s events throughout the year can be found at Students who participate in online research surveys can also receive free tickets to all the events.