Ithaca City of Asylum

CUMEME Benefit Concert

Thank you to everyone who attended the Cornell Middle Eastern Music Ensemble Concert at Cinemapolis on Thursday, February 9th.

This event had an outstanding turnout. We sold 99 tickets, and as the theater only sat 87 people, we had to bring in extra chairs! Thanks to this large audience, we raised about $1200 to go towards future ICOA projects. CUMEME played a wonderful selection of songs from the Middle East that delighted the crowd. In addition to the music, the audience enjoyed a variety of Middle Eastern sweets like baklava and Turkish delight. 

If you have any photos or video from the event that you would like to share with us, please send them to us on Twitter (@ICOAnews) or share them to our Facebook page.

Ithaca Times: Ithaca City of Asylum Benefit Concert


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.”

Bring Pakistan’s Missing Bloggers Home

Our resident writer, Raza Rumi, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times on January 20, 2017. Read it below or on the New York Times website 

Since Jan. 4, at least five bloggers and activists have disappeared in Pakistan. Perhaps the best known is Salman Haider, a poet and academic who has been a vocal opponent of religious extremism and the Pakistani authorities’ abuse of opposition activists. The others who have vanished had the courage to critique organized religion, the influence of clerics in Pakistan and the country’s powerful military on social media.

Throughout Pakistan’s history, dissent and free speech have been muzzled by a state that inherited a repressive legal framework from the British colonizers who ruled the Indian subcontinent until 1947. Journalists, poets, intellectuals and many politicians who questioned the state were labeled traitors, sometimes jailed or exiled, and on occasion killed. Almost every Pakistani government — military or civilian — has tried to control and manipulate the news media.

That kind of control has become more difficult as print and electronic media have expanded in the past decade and a half. Since the deregulation of electronic media in 2002, Pakistan has gone from three to 89 television channels. The state’s monopoly of the airwaves is over. Noisy talk shows regularly challenge the elected governments and their policies. But when it comes to the military, journalists and commentators are cautious, often indulging in self-censorship. Laws governing freedom of speech and the news media are vague, and their enforcement is arbitrary; critics are often accused of endangering national security.

The rise of social media and blogs has further expanded the space for dissent. Pakistanis can say on Facebook things they still could not get away with on television or in print. The missing activists, for example, were allegedly affiliated with satirical Facebook pages that ridiculed the hypocrisy of religious clerics and the flawed state policies of using jihad to further foreign policy goals.

Last year, the Parliament passed a draconian cybercrimes law curtailing digital freedoms. This law grants the government overarching powers to control and block information that state officials find offensive, examine and retain users’ data, and impose harsh penalties for a variety of offenses. The law builds on the narrow definition of freedom of speech that the Constitution guarantees in principle but with a number of exceptions that include “glory of Islam,” “the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan” and “public order, decency or morality,” among others. Such ambiguous terms are easily invoked to suppress dissent.

After the enactment of the cybercrime law, Pakistan’s intelligence agencies reportedly asked for legal cover to take pre-emptive “action” against people they believed were breaching national security. This demand was accepted. It is unclear whether the five bloggers and social media activists have disappeared under this arrangement. In fact, there is no information from any official source. But there is good reason to be worried.

In recent years, hundreds of suspected insurgents from the southwestern province of Baluchistan and religious militants from other parts of the country have allegedly been picked up by security agencies, never to be heard from again. A government commission is handling at least 1,129 cases of “missing” persons.

Even if the five activists reappear, they will face the wrath of zealots who want instant justice for blasphemers. In recent days, right-wing social media users and pundits have been smearing the missing men as blasphemers. In addition, they have been accused in absentia by conservative sections of the Pakistani media and right-wing trolls as pawns of foreign powers (read India, the eternal enemy) who are waging an information war against Pakistan.

The exact relationship between these right-wing loudmouths and the security services remains, as ever in Pakistan, murky. But these activists’ lives are most likely in danger. In 2011, a police guard killed Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab Province, because he had publicly defended a Christian woman sentenced to death under the blasphemy law, a law he said needed to be reformed.

By cracking down on people opining on social media, Pakistan joins Turkey, Bangladesh, China and other countries where journalists and activists are hounded by the state and by extremists. Pakistan’s elites, both civilian and military, frequently complain that their country has an image problem. Such disappearances certainly don’t help. Moreover, in an interconnected world, such moves are counterproductive. The elected government of Pakistan must be held accountable for such brazen curtailment of rights. The Parliament needs to review the scope of internet freedoms as well as reconsider the nebulous guarantee of free speech provided by the Constitution.

The international community should help, too. It can remind the Pakistani government of its obligations under the United Nations Convention against Torture and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to put an end to enforced disappearances. In its 2015 compliance report on the civil rights covenant, the government stated that it was “firmly committed to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” It is time to move beyond lip service. Upholding freedom of speech will only bolster Pakistan’s fragile democracy.

But most of all, these missing men should be returned home safely as soon as possible.

Raza Rumi, who teaches at Ithaca College and the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs, is a consulting editor for The Friday Times, a weekly in Pakistan, and the author of “The Fractious Path: Pakistan’s Democratic Transition.”

Middle Eastern Music Benefit Concert for ICOA

As a benefit for Ithaca City of Asylum, Cornell’s Middle Eastern Music Ensemble will perform a concert of music from Turkey, Greece, Egypt, and Iran at Cinemapolis on Thursday, February 9th at 7pm. Middle Eastern sweets will be served.

Tickets are $15.00. $7.50 for students. Tickets available at the door (price includes a pastry).

Your support of ICOA at this time is particularly valued as our prospective next writer is from one of the 7 countries that Trump has imposed a ban upon.

ICOA is not-for-profit project of the Center for Transformative Action. It provides refuge in Ithaca for dissident writers and promotes freedom of expression. Founded in 2001, ICOA is a member—one of only two in North America —of the International Cities of Refuge Network, a worldwide consortium of cities of asylum.

Cornell University’s Middle Eastern Music Ensemble was established in 2002 and in its various iterations, the group has been delighting audiences on and off the campus ever since. Under its current director, Joseph Prusch, students, faculty, and community members interested in the rich variety of music from the region can come join to study and perform.

Find more information on CUMEME on their website or Facebook page 



Join ICOA at Opera Ithaca’s production of Thumbprint

ICOA is pleased to invite you to attend Opera Ithaca’s production of Thumbprint, a contemporary opera inspired by the experiences of Mukhtar Mai, the first female victim of gang rape to bring her male attackers to justice in Pakistan. ICOA’s resident writer, Pakistani journalist Raza Rumi, will appear in a talkback panel after tonight’s 8 pm production at the Hangar Theatre. You can also see the opera on at 8pm on Saturday and 3 pm on Sunday. ICOA board members will be in the lobby at each show to share information about our work.

Raza Rumi on the Story Behind Thumbprint, the Opera





Rumi reads on November 1

Raza Rumi and Tyrone Shaw present

Creative Writing on Social Justice

Tues November 1, 5:30 pm,

Handwerker Gallery, Gannett Center, Ithaca College

Images from our 15th anniversary celebration

ICOA hosts breakfast for Svetlana Alexievich

Nobel Prize-winning author and former ICORN resident Svetlana Alexievich visited Cornell University in September to present a moving lecture on her work. ICOA board members hosted a breakfast for Ms. Alexievich.

Barbara with Alexevitch.jpg

ICOA Board Member Barbara Adams and Svetlana Alexievich

ICOA’s 15th Anniversary: ICTV

CPJ welcomes new probe into murder of Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickramatunga

Source: CPJ welcomes new probe into murder of Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickramatunga