Aswat – Belonging to Arab and Muslim Culture Through Voices and Music

Aswat – Belonging to Arab and Muslim Culture Through Voices and Music

There are some special people in this world who have phenomenal impact far greater than what is usual for one lifetime. Their drive, passion and success are all divine gifts of a Most Generous God. Nabila Mango, who co-founded and operates Zawaya, an organization formed to give the Arab-American community a voice, is one of these special souls.

Nabila and her co-founder, Haya Shawwa Ben Halim, began Aswat in January of 2000 and then, in 2003, as an umbrella organization for all Aswat ensembles, established the non-profit organization, Zawaya. Aswat evolved into a few different yet equally thriving ensembles. Each season, Aswat introduces a different theme for their productions. This current season, Aswat's Arabic music ensemble is focused on the music of Sudan and Nubia.

Four years ago, when I visited the Bay Area in California, I remember seeing Nabila on stage when my friend took me to a self-presented Aswat concert. It was a delightful and warm evening of beautiful music, paying tribute to Abdel Halim Hafez, considered one of the greatest Egyptian singers, whom is fondly nicknamed, “the Olive-Skinned Nightingale” or “Al-Andaleeb Al-Asmar,” in Arabic. At the time, I heard the respect and admiration for Nabila and I thought about what a wonderful and well-sustained contribution this woman has single-handedly lead in this community, Ma’sha Allah!

Fast forward three years, I had started the Bint Battuta Diaries Blog, which has brought my life immense inspiration, growth and joy. I was in the Bay Area again and I found myself inspired while listening to a dear friend speak highly of Nabila and her community work. In the same conversation, I was deeply saddened to learn that Nabila was experiencing health complications due to her Stage IV cancer and receiving corresponding surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments. This news left my heart heavy as there is no other way to receive such information about another soul, knowing what is involved in the fight for life. I asked if I could meet Nabila and interview her for my blog.

Graciously, Nabila accepted, on the condition that we meet socially first; so, off my friend and I went to Nabila's lovely, artsy home. The front of the house faces the street with a huge bay window viewing onto the world. The backyard is just as charming, bursting with nature and the care Nabila puts into tending to her beloved plants, flowers and trees. The force that you encounter in being in Nabila’s presence is something to behold, Ma’sha Allah. Nabila's presence is a potent mix of openness, directness, sharp well-read and informed wit, tinged with humor and charm; and you love Nabila. Let me tell you, souls, like Nabila, who have passed their seventh decade of life and act and live with such acceptance, gratitude and zest, beyond inspire me and with them the future looks so bright!

The start of a friendship is a Kodak moment
The start of a friendship is a Kodak moment
Gorgeous traditional dresses for Aswat events
Gorgeous traditional dresses for Aswat events
An impressive Arabic music collection
An impressive Arabic music collection
An organized mind accomplishes so much
An organized mind accomplishes so much
Yemeni old homes
Yemeni old homes
Palestine in the heart
Palestine in the heart
And such gracious Arabic hospitality
And such gracious Arabic hospitality

We took a tour of the house and garden then settled down for a chat, drinking Nabila's preferred drink of hot water with lemon. Nabila moved me deeply by sharing her personal life story with us. She would stop here and there to indicate what parts of her story she would rather wasn’t shared. In my respect for Nabila, I want to honor her privacy and her trust by sharing only the outline of her incredible life.

A tour of the garden
A tour of the garden
Worth a closer look
Worth a closer look

Nabila is originally from Jaffa, Palestine and is deeply patriotic and proud to be an indigenous Palestinian. In her own words, social justice is one of her deepest drives. Nabila's love and connection to Palestine is evident in everything about her; and, this coming year, 2020, to celebrate twenty years of Aswat, this love is further reflected in Palestine being the theme of all of Aswat's productions. Nabila's 2020 Palestine vision, for Aswat's productions, is enthusiastically supported by all Aswat Ensembles’ members, as all strongly desire to honor Nabila and her long and rich contribution to the community by honoring Nabila's olive tree roots. The current plan is to present twenty different culture-based events throughout the Bay Area and San Francisco, all focused on Palestine. Nabila’s joyous excitement is palpable whenever she mentions the celebration to come and it’s contagious!

After her family was forced out of their home in Jaffa, Nabila grew up in Jordan. Nabila comes from a family of six siblings and is deeply connected to her late mother and her sisters. She studied in Catholic schools and with that came her exposure to Christian Arabic choirs and music which she continued to be a part of until she left for the US to study to become a librarian, eventually, becoming the Arabic librarian at Harvard University. It is this early and consistent exposure to culture and music that would later bloom as Aswat. She went on to get her ABD at the University of Penn and she fondly remembers her professor, George Makdisi, who treated her like a daughter. For many years, Nabila taught Arabic to adults and youth and she has an impressive library on teaching the Arabic language.

In 1980, Nabila got married and then divorced in 1992. In 1981, her world expanded when she gave birth to her daughter, Bisan; named after a small village in Northern Palestine. I loved hearing Nabila speak about Bisan, of Bisan's beauty, intelligence and how Bisan loves to read and learn, just like her mother; such real and deep motherly love is always so life-affirming to witness.

Nabila worked for ten years with San Francisco’s Tenderloin Mental Health Clinic, as a therapist and social worker, where she counseled members of the surrounding Muslim community and, especially, Arab speakers, who almost had no one to speak for them. Of all her clients, struggling Arab and Muslim women struck a deep chord in her and Nabila put her efforts into educating them on their rights and helping them live with dignity. Then she had her first fight with cancer in October 2010 and won. In the nature of life, Nabila reached a point where she had to let go of her role at the Tenderloin Clinic and start on a new path. However, Nabila continues to champion the needy and destitute who somehow find their way to her. For example, I was interviewing her when she got the happy news that a young man she was helping seek asylum, in the States, had received it. This was just one of many calls I was around to hear about Nabila showing up for people by being of service and making a difference in the world.

In the winter of 2019, it was a joy to attend the two concerts presented by Aswat. I got to meet the ensemble members and all I heard from them is how incredible Nabila is and her achievement in bringing together a family where everyone felt comfortable and able to focus on the joy of music and singing. This great celebration of music, culture and identity is only possible through the vision, guardianship and dedication of Nabila; she continuously makes sure things are done with ihsan/excellence.  

Pre-concert lunch and warm ups
Pre-concert lunch and warm ups
And new friendships
And new friendships
Essa the talented 23 year old conductor
Essa the talented 23 year old conductor
Dinner afterwards at a Palestinian pizzeria
Dinner afterwards at a Palestinian pizzeria
The ensemble quick photo before starting
The ensemble quick photo before starting
The youngest Aswat musician Muhammad on Oud
The youngest Aswat musician Muhammad on Oud
Nabila busy making sure all is on plan
Nabila busy making sure all is on plan
Welcoming Nabila onto the stage
Welcoming Nabila onto the stage

I attended the rehearsal for the Sudanese concert coming up on April 27, 2019 and what a joyful afternoon that was, especially with the Sudanese singer, Salma el-Assal, filling the hall with her gorgeous voice and attitude. What was truly delightful was watching the female conductor, Basma, a graduate of Julliard in NY, lead the ensemble so skillfully and earnestly; yet another example of Nabila being true to her word of creating leaders and empowering women. Basma is Egyptian, therefore, aside from her superb technical skills, she has a deep love and appreciation of Sudanese culture and music. Of course, Nabila knew this would be a winning combination.

How gorgeous is this space
How gorgeous is this space
Delightful colored glass and Arabic calligraphy
Delightful colored glass and Arabic calligraphy
Such vibrant happy focused energy
Such vibrant happy focused energy
Loved every minute!
Loved every minute!
Conductor Basma & program developer Khaled from Sudan
Conductor Basma & program developer Khaled from Sudan
Nabila still for a moment enjoying too
Nabila still for a moment enjoying too
Jalal El-Din a master Qanun musician
Jalal El-Din a master Qanun musician
Syrel sings in the Oakland lead gospel too
Syrel sings in the Oakland lead gospel too

The parents of the youth in the Aswat Youth Ensemble shared with me many similar stories  of how their children have learned Arabic and, now, feel increasing pride in their heritage. Newly empowered, the children can now share their culture and heritage in their US classrooms; which is no easy feat to achieve in today’s world where Arabic and Muslim translates to the distrusted and inferior. In the magic that is Nabila and Aswat Ensembles, through music hearts are opened, connected and won over.

By meeting Nabila, my Bay Area stay was transformed into a fabulous adventure of visits to nearby areas to attend wonderful cultural events and sit with talented, committed and like-hearted souls. I have enjoyed watching Nabila in action and being her buddy in supporting and immersing ourselves in beauty, deeply-rooted in Arab and Muslim culture. Some of the posts that are on Bint Battuta diaries are the result of this precious time spent with Nabila and her generosity in inviting me along and keeping me in the know.

Nabila and I at Bix
Nabila and I at Bix
To hear George a lead musician in Aswat play jazz
To hear George a lead musician in Aswat play jazz

This woman really knows how to live... between reading four hours a day, exercising, serving the truly needy in the community through a small organization, running Aswat, spending time with loved ones, traveling and gardening. Nabila is making the best of what God blessed her with and not stopping to feel sorry for herself but rather marching on busy (so busy); giving, receiving and galvanizing a whole lot of people to sing, play music and do good in the world. We love you, Nabila, and we are so grateful for the beauty and meaning you bring into our lives. God Bless you with good health and may the path of love and good fortune always open up to meet you.  

Goodnight precious home where so much good happens
Goodnight precious home where so much good happens

DISCOVER Aswat Arab Music Ensemble

Aswat Grey Box Logo

The musical voice of Arab America in the Bay Area is ASWAT, the Arab Music Ensemble sponsored by Zawaya. True to Zawaya’s commitment to pluralism and inclusion, Aswat is a multi-ethnic and multi-racial music ensemble that reaches out to the diverse Bay Area community with folkloric, classical, and contemporary Arab music. Aswat’s doors remain open to all who want to participate in the exciting, enriching exchange between Arab Americans and other communities through the universal language of music. For more information about Aswat, please visit www.zawaya.org.visit

LISTEN to Al-Andaleeb Al-Asmar and enjoy the charm of white and black Egyptian cinema

EXPLORE Zawaya

zawaya-logo-new

Zawaya is a non-profit organization that seeks to contribute to the multicultural discourse of the Bay Area with the Arab Arts. Zawaya means “aspects” or “corners”, suggesting the many art forms to be discovered and enjoyed in Arab culture. It was founded in 2003 by Nabila Mango and Haya Shawwa Ben-Halim, two Arab-American women who recognized that the challenges faced by the Arab-American community in the Bay Area requires a creative response. With Zawaya, they sought to give the Arab community a voice, including a musical one. Aiming to address stereotypes and misconceptions, Zawaya offers a genuine image of Arab Americans and their rich civilization, which can only be a source of strength for American society.

Zawaya is the umbrella organization for the music group Aswat composed of approximately 40 musicians and singers. Zawaya aspires to expand its future programming to all other Arabic art forms, such as dance, theatre, poetry recitations, calligraphy, needle point crafts, and photography.

Zawaya is a tax-exempt, tax-deductible organization with 501(c)(3) status. Zawaya’s value system is pluralism. The board, the musicians, the singers and the audience are diverse both by intention and because of the people Zawaya attracts from a spectrum of cultural, ethnic and racial backgrounds.

Zawaya has grown and continues to thrive thanks to your participation and financial support.

VISIT Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California

iccnc-logo-new

Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California (ICCNC) is an independent, non-profit, community-based, religious 501(c)(3) organization. ICCNC provides a dynamic space that cultivates an exchange of ideas about Islam through art, culture, and education programs. The rehearsals of the adult and of the women Aswat ensemble are held at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California. Aswat concerts are also often held there too.

OTHER Details

Listen to Frank play Jazz at Bix

bixrestaurant.com

56 Gold St, San Francisco, CA

94133, USA

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9 thoughts on “Aswat – Belonging to Arab and Muslim Culture Through Voices and Music

  1. Chou helou! Thank you Hala for this beautifully written essay on a remarkable human being. I am lucky I get to meet with her and love her! Nabila is truly an exceptional inspiring Arab Woman!

    RD

    • Thank you so much Dear Rouba 🙂 as you can see I totally agree with you.. We are so blessed to know, love and be inspired by remarkable Nabila!

  2. George is the Aswat musician who is the music director at Bix not Frank. George will forgive us.
    I received amazing comments through email and Facebook about how much the friends, Aswat members , and family members loved your piece , your style, your pictures and your humor. I should gather them and share them here. Thanks so so much . We wish you are here on 4/27.
    Nabila Mango

    • Habibtie Nabila, what an honor and a pleasure it was to meet you, be charmed and inspired and be able to write about your incredible life and how much you managed to make a difference in so many lives. We love you Nabila!
      and Dear George, huge apology.. please forgive my lapse 🙂 The error has been corrected. I will make it up to you with another visit to hear your magnificent playing and be at the receiving end of your kind and warm hospitality and welcome next time I am in town.
      I so wish I was with you tomorrow for the fabulous concert celebrating Sudanese music that is soso dear to my own heart! Can’t wait to see it online and will be with you in heart and spirit. Here’s to another amazing eve of Aswat magic!

    • Ps. Oh and I am not surprised about the comments for the virtue how loved you are Nabila habibtie. So gracious of you to pass on news of the kind and positive comments. Much appreciated! My warmest salams to Aswat members, ensembles and their fans!

    • Thank you Dana – it was such a joy to write about Nabila and her uplifting work. A truly special gem.

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