On an early May evening, it’s Penn’s turn to put out the welcome mat. A few of Muller’s students stand in front of the newly renovated Fisher-Bennett Hall, eagerly greeting anyone who looks like they might be there to attend their end-of-semester celebration.

Inside, nearly a hundred guests of all ages help themselves to a casual buffet, bringing their plates back to classroom desks lined up in rows. It’s an awkward space for dinner, but the main attractions are the students’ video presentations, which are about to begin.

Muller presents flowers to Sheri Halpern C’06, a graduating intern who had served as a helpful liaison between her class, the Center for Community Partnerships, and the Quba Institute. Another bouquet goes to Abdul Aziz. “I’m so happy that I’m about brought to tears,” she says. “This is [President Amy Gutmann’s] dream to bring Penn faculty, students, and community together with members of the community at large. Carol and her students have done an extraordinary job in seeing this happen in such a short period of time, and, God willing, they have laid the foundation [for more involvement], along with the rest of the Quba faculty.”

The first of the videos, created by Gavin Steingo and Roger Grant, spills over with cuteness and helps loosen things up. The school’s youngest stars—as well as the documentary makers—look into the camera and announce their birthdays. Then the children sing-shout a song about their five senses while their teacher expresses her belief that the fun of singing actually helps them prepare for the responsibility of Qur’anic recitation.

In Meyers’ documentary, Ibrahim interviews his own father, Sheikh Anwar, and asks what he thinks about young people like himself listening to hip hop. The imam focuses on the message of the music, and says, “I don’t think Islam comes to take away people’s cultural expression.”

Qaasim’s video comes at the end. It includes an interview with one of Quba’s teachers, who is a hip-hop artist, and new footage of some of the young women at the school discussing rap and performing poetry. “I just thought that what she did was brilliant,” Muller says a few weeks later. “I didn’t even know until [the night of the celebration] that there was even a video from her.”

“I felt pleased with it,” Qaasim says. “I wanted something I thought the students would enjoy … where I thought they were being themselves.”

“Incredible,” Abdul Aziz sums up the evening. “Incredible.”

By the end of the semester Muller’s students did more than work with Quba students on the technical aspects of documentary making. Sheri Halpern brought them to Penn’s admissions office for a peek at the college-application process.

“They talked to them about Penn. They took them by the Civic House and said, ‘You can come and do this.’ They took them for ice cream. They got to know the kids’ parents,” Abdul Aziz says. “They did all kinds of things to make a real relationship.”

“Carol is wonderful,” she adds. “She extends herself with her students and the community. She met with us innumerable times on her own personal time to set this program in place. And she personally committed herself in this process by bringing her family” to events at Quba.

That commitment continues as Muller and some of her students work with Quba this school year to help integrate its extracurricular activities around a central theme of loss, focusing, in part, on ways that artistic performance could be a force for healing. Quba students, in turn, may teach Jennifer Kyker’s undergraduate World Music class a few things about Qur’anic recitation—as well as what it’s like to be on both sides of the camera.

Muller was equally moved by Quba’s hospitality and the learning experience. “I came out believing in my discipline, and what we’re doing,” she says. “I think the fundamental shift forward is when you do this work in America—what does it mean for one citizen to go to another citizen? It’s not Ph.D.s going to high school or elementary students. We are equal citizens. We may have different skills and different knowledge that we bring to the table, but we each bring something to the table.”

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COVER STORY:
Music Lessons By Susan Frith

 

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/10/06