Weaving through the claustrophobic streets of Lower Manhattan, with the towering skyscrapers of the Financial District that loom overhead getting seemingly closer and closer, the journey to the headquarters of Alwan for the Arts, the Middle East arts-and-culture organization, is a comforting reminder of New York’s interminable possibilities. Housed on the forth floor of Sixteen Beaver Street, Alwan’s very location stands testament to the city’s continued duality as both a financial and cultural hub. The large loft space — still a work in progress — always seems to bubble with energy and enthusiasm.
The brainchild of Alex Khalil, Alwan was first conceived in Houston where Khalil was based. When he relocated to New York in 1997, so too did the nonprofit organization established to promote arts from the Arab world and Iran. It was here that partner Ahmed Issawi came on board and, for a while, the two ran the operation from a small space in Midtown.
The primary focus during the early days was on film; the duo organized a number of film series and larger festivals at New York University’s Cantor Film Center, which showcased what the Middle East had to offer on the big screen. Such events represented one of the earliest conscious attempts to expose the city’s cinemagoers to work from this region. Alwan’s efforts were met with significant success.
Khalil and Issawi had clearly identified a larger interest group whose curiosity in the Middle East and its cultural output was not being catered for. They began to branch out and explore possibilities beyond the screen including music, literature and visual arts. Consequently, the initial space could simply no longer contain the organization and its growing potential, and in June 2003 Alwan took up residence in its current location.
With this move came a shift in focus, one in which film continued to play a role but not the definitive one it once did. Now the program includes language classes, concerts, poetry readings, lectures, art exhibitions — and this list is by no means exhaustive. Recently, Alwan has hosted the likes of Marcel Khalife, Michel Khleifi and Tariq Ali. Poetry readings — in which the verses are recited in the original language as fragments are translated into several others to the accompaniment of music — have been a surprising success. Even audiences who don’t understand Arabic attend. “They give people the opportunity to enjoy the lyrical quality of Arabic,” says Issawi. “Most people are only exposed to the language in political or religious rhetoric. This allows them a different experience of the language.”
Despite the fact that much of the work they show is politically or religiously loaded, Alwan tries as much as possible to take a backseat. “We are not ADC (American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee). As much as possible, we try not to take overtly political stances,” says Issawi.
With the ever-growing strength of Alwan one is almost in awe to find out that this project is the effort of so few and runs solely on the donations of supporters. The question of sustainability is an important one, and something that Alwan’s board is well aware. Despite being well connected in the various echelons of New York’s culture scene, the organization is very much one of the most dedicated at promoting Arab arts in the United States.
Alwan’s scope has broadened geographically as well as in terms of medium; audiences are being exposed more and more to production from South Asia and Africa, both for the sake of variety and in the hope of drawing in a wider audience. The organization’s public is not confined to the physical realm but also inhabits a virtual one — in the form of a list serve through which its own, and numerous other events across the city, are advertised. Sign on to their mailing list and you will be almost overwhelmed with news of the constant array of events which hit your mailbox. With much the same spirit, the physical space is offered to groups for fundraising and other activity.
It seems that if Khalil and Issawi have succeeded in doing something, they first and foremost created a community which brings together people from diverse cultural backgrounds and encourages the possibility of dialogue and exchange which, in the light of international events and the current political climate in the United States, is more crucial than ever; it makes facing the onslaught that little bit easier.