Group Teaches Young about Middle Eastern Traditions, Culture

by Donna Milmore
The Boston Globe
February 1, 1998

Despite an increasing emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism, American children have little exposure to the rich traditions of Arab and Islamic culture, according to the founders of a school enrichment program designed to address the void.

An engineer by training, Wafaa' Salman founded Cambridge-based Zannobiya Productions to bring traditions of the Middle East into Greater Boston classrooms, libraries, and community centers. Using drama, music, storytelling and humor, the Zannobiya theater troup educates and entertains audiences from fifth grade through high school.

Fans of the production company say Zannobiya is an important "first" for the Arabic and Islamic communities as well as for the general public. While there is no shortage of resources for adults, Salman and others say they are unaware of a similar cultural program designed specifically for children.

Celebrating its second anniversary this month, Zannobiya offers public performances, along with classes and workshops in Islam, Arabic language, music, storytelling, poetry, cuisine, and calligraphy. Salman says they use the magic and mythology of Arabian customs and characters as a teaching tool.

"The Arabic culture has had a tremendous impact on our world," says Salman, a West Roxbury resident. For example, "Many American children do not know the Arabic origin of such words as cotton, algebra, sugar and alchemy."

A native of Iraq, Salman, 37, settled in the Boston area to study civil engineering at Northeastern University. She graduated in 1986, returning to earn a political science degree in 1990. As an Arab and Muslim, she says, she is particularly sensitive to media messages about that part of the world. At the same time, Salman's love of music, art and drama make her acutely aware of the many positive aspects of Middle Eastern culture that she believes are not known in the United States.

Salman suggests that politics and stereotyping interfere with appreciation of Middle Eastern culture. Independent "learning and research" led of Boston's Middle Eastern community and, in particular, her leadership with the Institute of Near Eastern & African Studies. The institute sponsors Zannobiya Productions, as well as a lecture series, a quarterly newsletter, and a radio show. Salman hosts the Sunday radio show (90.3 FM) featuring guests and music from 3 to 4 PM.

Salman named theater troupe in honor of an ancient Arabian queen known for her ruthless ambition as well as her beauty. With the determination of the legendary Zannobiya, who once led Arabian soldiers to defeat a Roman army, Salman has worked untiringly to write scripts, recruit volunteers and professionals, and seek funding and engagements for the company.

The group has developed three performances: "Arabian Stallions," which features Arabic songs, storytelling, and oud (lute) playing; "Baghdad Cafe," highlighting Arabic cuisine; and "Thousand and One Nights," combining traditional and contemporary Arabic storytelling and poetry, language, music and calligraphy. A videotape of Zannobiya's First Night performance is available for schools and libraries.

"I've never seen anything like it," says Dr. Sandrine Launois of Arlington, a physician at Beth Israel Hospital who applauded a recent presentation of "Arabian Stallions" at the Newton Public Library. "There are lots of opportunities (in Arabic culture) for adults, but nothing for children," says Launois, a Parisian married to a Moroccan engineer.

In the Newton production, Salman was featured along with Michael Nurse, a storyteller and professional actor, and Said Khoory, an oud player. Their performance impressed Chelsea Gordon, 7, who came with her mother after a library announcement piqued their curiosity.

"I loved the story," Chelsea says. "And, I learned about a new instrument [the oud]." The experience prompted her to write a special entry in a "weekend adventure" journal for her second-grade class at the Franklin School in Newton.

Ellis Donabed agrees. A substitute teachers in Milton, Donabed says she is recommending Zannobiya to parents and teachers. From her own experience as an Iraqi native, she reports that students are usually curious about her background.

It's been a challenge keeping her heritage alive with her own sons, now teenagers, says Donabed.

Salman reports she has tried unsuccessfully to win public funding for Zannobiya and that she was disappointed to learn recently that an Anenberg Challenge Grant was declined, eliminating an eight-week educational series that had been proposed for the R. G. Shaw Middle School in West Roxbury.

"We need more support," says Salman, adding that there is nothing like Zannobiya available in the United States at this time. "This is a unique product. We're going to evolve and expand."

Her efforts, Salman says, will increase Americans' appreciation for the culture and customs of the Middle East. Whether an introduction or a reminder of one's heritage, Zannobiya Productions promises to entertain and educate.


Comments and Corrections by INEAS

* When the article was published, the radio program, sponsored by the
Institute of Near Eastern & African Studies (INEAS), aired from 3 to 5 PM and not 3 to 4 PM.

* A wrong statement indicating that there are co-founders for the
Zannobiya Productions was omitted because it was untrue.