Syrian-American musician talks politics, peace at ETHS event

Zoe Miller, Reporter

Syrian-American musician Omar Offendum performed at Evanston Township High School on Friday and discussed how he uses music to comment on current global events.

Offendum uses rap that combines Syrian and American culture to make songs with social and political commentary. The event was coordinated by the South Asian Middle Eastern Alliance — an organization started by ETHS students — and the Middle East and North African studies program at Northwestern.

Offendum said he raps in Arabic to spread a positive perception of Middle Eastern language and culture. He added that understanding people’s “basic humanity” is ever more important in a time when “fake news” seems to be the norm.

“Without beginning to understand each other’s culture and languages a little bit more deeply and with a similar nuance … we’re never going to be able to really solve these pressing issues that face us,” Offendum said.

Offendum’s music comments on current issues like climate change, social media and the Syrian civil war. One song, for example, encourages listeners not to despair in the face of global conflict and climate change.

Offendum said studying Arabic in the current political climate was a “revolutionary act.”

“When you take it upon yourself to start studying a language like Arabic in a time when people are working very hard to demonize this culture and this language, that … in itself is very much a revolutionary act and … a responsibility,“ he said.

The musician also incorporates American cultural references into his work. Some of his songs include translations of Arabic poetry into English or English poetry into Arabic. One song, for example, features a translation of The Damascene Poem by Nizar Qabbani, a 20th-century Syrian poet, as well as original lyrics by Offendum.

“I can tell you first-hand that (Arabic) is one of the deepest, richest, most beautiful languages on earth,” Offendum said. “I hope that what you hear tonight, my own version of it, blending it with the hip-hop culture that I know and love, can maybe start to tickle some of that fancy for you and maybe get you a little more curious.”

ETHS teacher Anita Thawani Bucio told The Daily the SAME Alliance at ETHS was started two years ago in response to students’ experiences of racism at school.

“(It was) started by students who were seeking a safe space because they were encountering a lot of racism in the school and outside of school,” Bucio said.

Northwestern’s MENA program reached out to Bucio and SAME Alliance to ask if they wanted to host an event with Offendum. Brian Edwards, MENA’s director, told The Daily he proposed the event because Offendum was already visiting Northwestern.

“We have often done other partnerships,” Edwards said. “I said, ‘Do you want to do something, because we might be able to bring (Offendum) over here,’ and (Bucio said) yes.”

Offendum told The Daily that he struggled with writing about Syria while living in the United States.

“I’m from this place that people don’t really know enough about and so I try my best to speak to that truthfully,” he said.

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