Yasmeen Altaji performing with piano accompanist Daniel Szefer, Ronnie Malley on the oud, and Edward Hanna on percussion. Photo courtesy of Hannah Zhou / North by Northwestern

Gole sangam gole sangam (I am a stone flower)

Chibee gam az dele tangam (what to say from my longing heart like sun)

Mesle af tab agar barman (if you don’t shine on me)

Natabi sardoma bi rangam (I am cold and colorless)

These were the first four lines of the Gole Sangam, a Persian tradition performed by Yasmeen Altaji, mezzo-soprano singer and dual-degree Bienen and Medill fourth-year, at Music of MENA.

In the Galvin Recital Hall at Bienen, the background displayed behind the singer immediately catches the audience’s eyes. It is a collage of different photographs of Palestinian landscapes overlapping each other. Once the audience is settled in, we clap as Altaji, who is set to perform a myriad of Persian, Palestinian and Assyrian pieces, walks onto the stage.

Altaji’s event is one of the last events for Arab Heritage Month, where the Middle East and North African Student Association (MENA)  hosted several speakers, workshops and performances to celebrate Arab heritage and culture through April. 2023 is the first year that MSA is hosted and helped to fund the month.

Altaji is not only a musician, but also focuses on archival work. She is currently working with Main Library to build a catalog of Arab music that she performed, building the legacy of MENA music whilst solidifying her impact for the MENA community at Northwestern and the Evanston community at large. The archive will include a catalogue of the Arab music that she performed.

Notably, one of the pieces she performed was a song sung by Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons. To conceal what they were saying, the prisoners created different patterns of speech embedded within songs. Through these songs, the Palestinian prisoners resisted the occupation.

“Her work was beautifully put together and she tied in so many aspects of resistance and culture,” Ramzy Issa, Weinberg fourth-year and co-president of MENA, said.

Issa, who is Palestinian, joined the association last spring to connect with other students of Middle Eastern and North African descent.

“I really [wanted] to just meet more people who come from the same background as I do and who share a similar cultural experience,” he said.

This is the first year that Multicultural Student Affairs (MSA) has hosted Arab Heritage Month, but MENA has been working hard to represent and share their culture ever since its inception in 2021.

Last year, MENA painted the rock celebrating Arab heritage and hosted events similar to those this year during Arab Heritage Month. This year, with support from the club’s advisor, MSA Assistant Director Matthew Abtahi, MENA was able to collaborate with MSA and receive funding for Arab Heritage Month.

“There's so much energy and time put into just starting the foundations of everything, it gets exhausting,” Issa said. “More energy is put into formulating the foundations of the future for MENA and creating a sustainable organization.”

With the MSA funding, MENA was able to focus more on event planning. The main organizers Students for Justice in Palestine and the Northwestern Committee of Human Rights hosted Mohammad El-Kurd to speak about pro-Palestinian human rights with MENA as a co-sponser.

Issa believes it’s important that people see MENA as a huge and diverse community. Traditionally, the U.S. census does not offer the opportunity to mark one’s race as Middle Eastern or North African. The federal government officially categorizes these groups as white, according to census.gov. Issa said that this contributes to the erasure of people of MENA descent.

“In general, those who come from the Middle Eastern, North African region or those who are Arab, they're invisible in the census or in most of the demographic count because we're considered white in America,” Issa said.  

It is part of the reason why celebrating and recognizing events such as Arab Heritage Month is so important, and why the collaboration with MSA sets an important precedent.

According to Issa, MENA includes many different countries and not all MENA-identifying people are Arab because there are several different regions.

“You have your North African regions like Egypt, you have Morocco, Algeria and then you have the Levant region, which is Palestine, you have Jordan, you have Syria, Lebanon, you have all those countries,” Issa said.

With a collective of heritages from 20 plus countries, MENA has a strong presence of activists who are taking charge in making Arabic more accessible for Northwestern students to learn recognizing more of Arab culture.

Recently, MENA petitioned to have the Arabic minor added to Weinberg’s curriculum. Issa thinks a minor promotes accessibility.

“There's other languages that have minors as well. Why doesn't Arabic have one?” Issa said.

Students in MENA are working arduously to organize events that increase their visibility on campus.

“There's so much passion and pride that we don't mind putting in the extra effort and putting in the energy to make it, to make us visible and to make the change you wanna see,” Issa said.

Although the work is difficult, Issa believes that the end result is worth the frustration.

During Arab Heritage Month, he found it very uplifting and motivating that he could walk into the dining hall and eat his traditional food and dance with traditional dancers.

“The experience was just astounding to me,” he said. “I would never have thought I would have seen [it] inside Northwestern.”

Issa hopes MENA can get more funding in the future to host more events but, “this is just a very proud moment for all of us to really realize that we’re on campus,” Issa said. “We’re here to stay and we’re proud of our culture.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article stated that Northwestern offers an Arabic major. Northwestern does not offer an Arabic major, and we have corrected the article to reflect that. Instead, Weinberg fourth-year Ramzy Issa hopes for there to be an Arabic minor added to Weinberg's curriculum. NBN regrets the error.