Reflecting on Morocco and Algeria

Throughout the month of July, I had an amazing opportunity to travel as a Cultural Envoy to perform, teach, and connect with artists in Morocco and Algeria. The U.S. State Department and U.S. Consulates and Embassies in Casablanca, Rabat, and Algiers sponsored the trip. The entire trip was a profound experience that allowed me to connect IMAN’s work with Hip Hop, the arts, and youth to thousands of people across the globe. In Morocco, husband and wife Hip Hop duo – The ReMINDers, B-Boy Super Inlight, and I travelled to six cities in two weeks. Our activities ranged from workshops and performances for over a thousand youth in summer camp to collaborative music sessions with recording artists. One thing was clear from our very first workshop; music, and the arts in general, really are universal in their ability to bring people together.

A couple of memories of the experience in Morocco stand out in particular. On our third day there, we traveled to a camp full of thousands of youth in tents in the desert. The entire camp embraced us warmly and, even with the little they had, made us feel at home and shared food with us. The young people as well as camp facilitators were extremely excited to meet Muslims from the U.S. and felt the need to recite Surah Fatihah with us or refer to artists such as Sami Yusuf. By the end of our performance, hundreds of youth were so energized that they started their own b-boy battle based on what they saw from Super Inlight. Although it was a long day, we left with smiles on our faces, touched by the young people that inspired our work that night.

The other experience was in the town of Safi, a port town known for its pottery and phosphate. There, we met with the group Tiraline and immediately bonded with this group of 5 young Moroccans who were deeply spiritual and easily blended traditional and modern styles of music. The group was extremely hospitable, taking us out to eat, giving us a tour of the medina (city), and making sure we had some homemade couscous before we left. We also spent hours with them in the studio working on a song that stresses our commonalities in faith and fuses the traditional Gnawa sound of Morocco with Hip Hop beats.

Going to Algeria had us a bit nervous. We had heard rumors that made us wonder what we were walking into, but the minute we landed, all the apprehensions were gone. On this part of the trip, FEW Collective members and IMAN regulars, B-Boy Bravemonk and MC D-Nick accompanied Super Inlight and me. It helped that our first night included a Tinariwen concert with a very young and energetic crowd. Having just presented Tinariwen at Takin’ It to the Streets less than a month prior made IMAN’s global connections even stronger. D-Nick also helped us out due to his hairstyle and Rasta colors… everyone wanted to take pictures with him and thought he had a spiritual connection to Bob Marley.

In Algeria, we spent ten days between two cities, working with the same group in both cities. This allowed us to deepen our relationships with them and really create a genuine friendship. After spending five days in Algiers, and five in Oran, we collaborated with our Algerian counterparts and performed in both cities for hundreds of people. In Oran, we met Hip Hop heads who reminded us of people back home. They were deeply into Hip Hop culture as a whole, and had learned most of their English from it. They were true b-boys, with Public Enemy shirts and all found in the thrift stores of Algeria. I think our bond is best expressed by the day of our performance when one of the b-boys took off his PE shirt, full of sweat, and handed it to me as a gift. I never thought I’d be that happy to receive another man’s sweaty shirt!

IMAN and JCUA: Partners in a Housing Initiative

IMAN, in partnership with the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA) and the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), is sowing the seeds of a dynamic housing and community development initiative on Chicago’s Southwest Side. Together with community leaders, residents, and other stakeholders, IMAN, JCUA and SWOP are endeavoring to take on a piece of the massive foreclosure crisis that has plagued this part of the city for a decade.

The relationship between JCUA and IMAN has been intentional and purposeful; for years, the two organizations have worked together on projects ranging from the arts to internal staff development. Furthermore, both JCUA and IMAN have a shared history in the Marquette Park neighborhood. It was once home to both a large Jewish community and a sizable Muslim population at varying times. In 1966, Rabbi Robert Marx, the founder of JCUA, was a member of the delegation that marched through Marquette Park with Dr. King, demanding equal housing rights for people of color. Though decades have passed since then and the neighborhood continues to change, it is no coincidence that even today the Marquette Park community is still fighting for the very same thing: equal housing opportunities and the right to live in a safe and prosperous community.

Now IMAN and JCUA, both organizations that already do work around housing and community development, have partnered with SWOP, an organization that has been working aggressively on housing and foreclosures in the area for over a decade. This emerging initiative adds another component to SWOP’s broader campaign, dealing particularly with the issue of vacant, vandalized, and foreclosed homes that often contribute to the decay and even violence that afflict these communities. The three organizations have been meeting with community leaders and stakeholders to make plans for this initiative that will enable residents on Chicago’s Southwest Side to reclaim their spaces and to take strong steps towards rebuilding and reuniting their communities.

This initiative is one that not only has the potential for Chicago Muslims, Jews, and Christians to come together to redefine/revolutionize the idea of space, but that also seeks to take a firm stand to restore the dignity of and justice for a community that holds such historic and intrinsic value to all of our communities.

Green Reentry Project – Progress Report

IMAN’s Green Reentry Project is an innovative social venture that showcases a multifaceted approach to addressing the entrenched and connected nature of issues facing urban communities. In particular, the Green Reentry Project recognizes that issues such as lack of decent housing, job skills, public safety, and effective reentry programs are all connected and that effective solutions to any of these challenges must address these connections.

The Green Reentry Project, funded by the City of Chicago, was launched at the beginning of 2010 and seeks to convert vacant/foreclosed and vandalized properties within the Chicago Lawn Community into vibrant, environmentally sound (green) transition housing. IMAN is using the renovation of these homes to provide on-the-job training for formerly incarcerated individuals and the completed homes to provide housing for individuals reentering society.

The Project envisions the complete and green renovation of four houses, one after the other. Work on the first house, secured with funding from the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), was started in spring. According to Ma’alam Abdullah, coordinator of the Green Reentry Project, this work is now nearing completion. “Some unforeseen challenges resulting from the innovative nature of this project have put us behind schedule,” says Abdullah, “but we are anticipating the first home’s renovation to be complete by January 31, 2011.”

Once the green renovation of the first home is complete, several of the Project Restore members who worked on the renovation will move into it. These men will, then, have a green home to live in, job skills that are in demand, and, most importantly, a sense of ownership and belongingness to their community. In other words, these men will become the assets to their community that they always had the potential to be. IMAN’s Project Restore is based on this deeply held idea that many within the formerly incarcerated community could, with resources and the right opportunity, restore a sense of self, family and community through a successful reentry effort.

“Helping lead this work has been fulfilling in a way I never could have anticipated,” reflects Abdullah. This is despite the many challenges that the project faced, not the least of which was funding. “This is a pilot project without a template or previous model to go from, which made unexpected issues that much more challenging. But this sense of fulfillment comes from both my own internal enrichment and through my observation of the many other individuals who are fully committed to the project.”

The plans to acquire the second property are already underway and renovation work should begin by early spring next year. Several options are under consideration, such as a larger property with more dwellings and commercial space, or another bungalow. Whatever the exact details of the second phase, it is sure to continue IMAN’s commitment to create innovative and effective solutions to the challenges of the inner-city.