Middle East Film Festival exposes students to culture, not politics

GVL / Hannah Mico. Dena El Saffar, the founder of the music group Salaam, plays her original compositions of North African and Middle Eastern music on Tuesday night in the Cook-Dewitt Center.

GVL / Hannah Mico. Dena El Saffar, the founder of the music group Salaam, plays her original compositions of North African and Middle Eastern music on Tuesday night in the Cook-Dewitt Center.

Mary Mattingly

Between the War on Terror and the current debate to go to war with Syria, some Americans have skewed ideas of what Middle Eastern culture is actually like. On Oct. 8, Grand Valley State University played host to the Middle East Film Festival, an event meant to attract students from all backgrounds and educate the community on Middle Eastern culture.

“It’s always good for students to be exposed to different cultures,” said Coeli Fitzpatrick, Middle East studies coordinator. “The festival is not political; it emphasizes the cultural aspects that don’t make the news. It puts a human face to Middle Eastern culture. (Middle Eastern culture) is important to understand because we are so involved in it.”

The annual festival is not new to GVSU, having first been organized several years ago by the then-director of the Middle East Studies program, professor Majd Al-Mallah. The night was co-sponsored by the Arab Culture Club, which brought in the always-popular band Salaam to the festival.

Though the festival is typically held over a three-day period, this year it was condensed into one night. The evening started with a showing of the Lebanese film, Where Do We Go Now?, which was then followed by music from the band Salaam.

“We chose (this film) because we thought it would be appealing,” Fitzpatrick said. “Usually, the Middle East is portrayed as one of the three Bs: belly dancing, bombers or billionaires. This film makes light of certain current events but doesn’t make them into a comedy. And women are the stars (of the film), which is always appealing.”

Over the years, the festival has attracted both members of the GVSU community as well as the surrounding area.

“The festival has been popular, particularly when we bring the band,” Fitzpatrick said. “Members from the community (of Arab-American or Muslim-American heritage) will come in to hear the band—they like the music. We’ve had a large population of Saudi students studying English in years past that have flocked to see the band.”

The event has cast a wide net in the students it has attracted over the years. From Middle Eastern international students to those studying anthropology and cultural psychology, the festival is applicable to many fields.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” Fitzpatrick said before the festival. “I hope students learn a bit about the culture.”

The band Salaam has been playing at the festival for several years now.

“It’s a tradition now,” said Dena El Saffar, multi-instrumentalist of Salaam. “It’s always fun to come back to the same place; you get to know the people.”

This year, GVSU marked the first stop in a CD-release tour for the band, highlighting new compositions as well as several classics. After GVSU, the band continues on its tour winding through the Midwest and will be making stops in both New York City and Washington, D.C. The band, whose members hail from a variety of backgrounds, played predominantly Egyptian, Iraqi and Turkish original music.

“We’re really hoping for a good turnout,” El Saffar said before the festival. “Obviously, we don’t have much control over that. We’re hoping that everyone has a good time and the audience feels engaged and walks away feeling like they learned something.”

Shorouq Almallah of Grand Rapids works at the Richard M. and Helen DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation as the operations manager and was one of the night’s attendees.

“We came for the band, for the music,” Almallah said. “It was great. This is a wonderful event that highlights classical Arabic music. It’s neat that they also incorporate other musical traditions such as jazz.”

Salaam uses both traditional and American instruments. El Saffar, a classical violinist, also plays the joza, an Iraqi spike fiddle. Her brother Amir El Saffar plays the santur, an Iranian hammered dulcimer, as well as the trumpet. The percussion however, played by El Saffar’s husband Tim Moore, is traditional Middle Eastern instrumentation and includes drums such as the dumbek.

“The name of the band, Salaam, means ‘peace,’” Almallah said. “That’s one way to spread awareness about music and art.”