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Performing in Schools During National Arab American Heritage Month

posted on: Apr 4, 2018

By: Karim Nagi/Arab America Contributing Writer

Two weeks after September 11, 2001, I was contacted by a friend. Stagnating at home, I was nervous to interact with American society. I was afraid of more terrorist attacks, like all Americans. But I was also wary of reprisals and backlash for being an Arab, worried that the general public would be afraid or suspicious of me. But my friend got me out of my paranoid hibernation.

She was a grade school teacher in a small suburb outside of Boston. She told me of one of her 4th-grade students from an Arab & Muslim immigrant family who was being harassed and taunted by other students. She was confident that those students were simply reflecting the angst of their parents and the general public climate.

But the young Arab child was afraid to return to school. The teacher, knowing I was a musician and folk dancer, asked me to come and do a presentation in her class on the performing arts of the Arab world, to help advocate for this harassed child. This became my very first “Arabiqa” school presentation.

In the eighteen years that followed, I have performed Arabiqa over 400 times, in a few hundred schools around the USA. I have developed a lot in those years. I learned ways of engaging students, tailoring my speech and delivery for the age groups from Kindergarten through High School.

The majority of my presentations were assemblies, with an average of 300 students in an auditorium, gymnasium or cafeteria. I learned how to keep them excited and involved, while maintaining order and behavior in these large groups. I also actively cultivated the best balance between performing and speaking, between the joy of the actual art and the messages of tolerance & inclusion.

In April, many communities and institutions around the USA celebrate National Arab American Heritage Month (NAAHM). Since 2002 I have been retained yearly to come to the Washington DC (DMV) area to perform Arabiqa. This April, I will be presenting “Arabiqa: Arab Music, Dance & Culture” in five public schools, two private schools, and a juvenile correctional facility.

Performing in Schools During National Arab American Heritage Month

This April I will teach and perform in several Ann Arbor Michigan schools, the public library, and an undergraduate class at the University of Michigan. Highly international areas like Washington DC, as well as highly Arab populated areas like Ann Arbor & Dearborn areas regularly observe NAAHM.

My program fits in well.

As a minority performer, presenting the culture of a misunderstood & feared group in America, I feel compelled to excel at my job. I do not simply want to be “the most interesting Arab” nor “most artistic Muslim” the schools have met. I want to be one of the top assembly performers and most dynamic artists they have ever witnessed.

Lorraine Brown, of Arts for Learning in Connecticut concurs, “During his tenure on the Arts for Learning Connecticut roster, Karim, performed over 200 well-received programs for student and family audiences. His program truly brought awareness of Arab culture to young people and families.”

My Arabiqa performance has many phases and segments. They usually last 45 to 60 minutes, depending on the time periods observed by the school. Over the years, throughout a range of demographics and ages, I see that the favorite segments of the students will vary.

Some enjoy the various ways I demonstrate tying the kufiya scarf, while others enjoy the acrobatic juggling on the Egyptian assays sticks. Many students get rowdy when I play the derbeke/tabla drum, yet get pensive & quiet when I play a taqsim on the buzuq lute.

For those who have never seen Arabic written, they exclaim in wonder as I write on the board from right to left. Despite this variety, the students in all 400+ shows are unanimously awed by the riqq, amazed at how many sounds can come from a seemingly simple tambourine.

“Karim is an enormously charismatic performer. Children of all ages and their teachers respond strongly to his openness, sense of mission and delight in performance.” says Jason Rabin, from Young Audiences of Massachusetts. “He is a master of several traditional folk instruments from the Arab world, and his program includes not only music but also dance, colorful costume, Arabic vocabulary and geographical context.”

Performing in Schools During National Arab American Heritage Month

The process of performing Arabiqa, whether during NAAHM, or on a regular school day in a rural town any other month, has been the richest experience of my artistic life. I have performed on prestigious stages around the world, with glorious professional lights and ticket-paying enlightened audiences. I am grateful for those. But Arabiqa occurs in a florescent lit gym, or sticky cafeteria, with hundreds of kids sitting on the floor, usually watching this art for the first time. It is early in the morning, I’m in a full galabaya costume, my tapestries are up. I have the attention of a generation.

These children will not see me as a political topic; they will enjoy me as a music-making and dancing human. Their memory of my drum will be louder than the media rhetoric. The next time they hear about the Muslim ban, or the Syrian Refugee Crisis, or the Daesh Terrorists, or 9/11, they will also know that there are people like Karim who share culture with love and that those people are the majority.

This is my privilege. These kids made me proud to be Arab, as I myself grew up.

“I want to be Arab when I grow up!”–Virginia 4th grader.

Karim Nagi is a teacher and performer of Arab music. You can learn more about him at