Freedom of speech is a crucial part of the United States’ foundation. As citizens, we use and abuse it daily.
“Here in America, we sort of take it for granted,” says Joseph Prusch, the director of the Cornell University Middle Eastern Music Ensemble, CUMEME. “Serbia doesn’t believe in free speech and so many people have died because of that.”
In Turkey, learning about one’s own culture and history, outside of what’s taught in the classroom, can be dangerous. A professor at Istanbul University and Ithaca College’s own former visiting scholar, Vedat Demir along with many others were arrested in late July 2016 for being academics. Several other countries have similar issues and finding refuge is challenging.
For some, there’s Ithaca City of Asylum, ICOA.
“Ithaca City of Asylum brings writers whose work has placed them in danger to Ithaca,” says Gail Holst-Warhaft, an ICOA board member and adjunct professor in the department of Classics, Comparative Literature and Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University. “Ithaca and Pittsburgh are the only cities in America that offer this opportunity.” The visiting author stays with ICOA for two years and teaches at Ithaca College or Cornell University.
The current ICOA resident is Raza Rumi Ahmad, a policy analyst, journalist and author from Pakistan. He’s currently a scholar in residence at Ithaca College’s School of Humanities and Science, but, back home, his work brought him under government surveillance and made him the target of an assassination attempt.
Taking in refugees is a costly undertaking, so CUMEME will be performing a benefit concert for ICOA at Cinemapolis on February 9 at 7 p.m., with a cover charge of $7.50 for students and $15 for the general public. The proceeds from this concert will go towards airfare, legal expenses and the cost of living for ICOA writers and their family.
ICOA and CUMEME have collaborated before, since the forum for cross-cultural discussion CUMEME prides itself in complements ICOA’s mission. Despite being a Cornell University student organization, membership is open to the Ithaca community. Consisting of new and experienced performers, the ensemble performs both popular and classical music from the Middle East, or Near East, and from areas influenced by these cultures. They’ve been a resource for individuals to learn more about their own and their peers’ cultures as well as providing a sanctuary for Middle Eastern students.
“I come from Kashmir,” says Ahmad Rafiqi, a graduate student in the math department at Cornell University and percussionist in CUMEME, “and the music we play is very similar. I was drawn to the familiar melodies and just wanted to follow the group; I was amazed they would let me join without being able to play an instrument.”
“What I’ve enjoyed the most is performing songs from my childhood,” says Doga Tekin, an interdisciplinary studies major at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences as well as a singer and kanun player in CUMEME. “It’s nostalgic for me. Each performance is an opportunity to share my love for my home with the audience and others in the ensemble.”
Heavy research goes into each set ensuring the fit of each song for the performance and their reflection of current events.
“My intention with every program is to show the common thread of humanity that runs through all cultures and people,” says Prusch, “and to glorify the shared history of nobodies with the hope of preventing the ongoing dehumanization of people, especially refugees, but also women and minorities, regardless of nation.”
This set will consist of songs from Lebanon, Greece, Jordan, Algeria, and Turkey. Songs about foreign police brutality – like Marcel Khalife’s “Asfur” addresses issues in Palestine and the Algerian-inspired “Ya Rayah” about a man tortured under a dictatorship – are mixed with those about a young fisherman’s sad voyage (the Greek sea chanty “I Trata Mas Kourelou”), blooming flowers or feminine sexuality (the Turkish songs “Ayva Çiçek Açmi5” and “Bala Çiçek Acar Bahar Gelende”), and the story of a young woman who gains the attention of a shepherd at a water spring (“Ya Ayn Mawlayitan” by Lebanese singer Samira Tawfik). All of which the ensemble is excited to share.
“‘Yedikule’ and ‘Çadırımın Üstüne’ are my favorites,” says Tekin. “‘Yedikule’ has nice instrumentation and is fun to play and ‘Çadırımın Üstüne’ is a classic Turkish song with so much life and character to it.”
“I enjoy ‘I Trata Mas Kourelou,’” says Alicia Freedman, a longtime member of CUMEME as both a dancer and percussionist, “because of the simple chorus that makes me want to spin like the wind. ‘Ya Ayn Mawlayitan’ has an unusual rhythm with no downbeat, and that’s why I like to dance to that as well. It’s like you’re holding your breath, landing on each measure a beat later with more weight.”
“‘Ayva Cicek Acmis’ is definitely my favorite,” says Mathew Roth, a pianist and composer who plays mandolin, among other things, for CUMEME. “It’s fun to play, catchy, and outlines what I like so much about this group. It’s a song you can really lose yourself in.”
CUMEME will be playing these and more in hopes of helping make a change.
“It’s a matter of educating and reaching out across our political spectrum,” says Prusch. “Music is one of the key ways of doing that.”