Learning through storytelling

September 16, 2020

Center for Arab American Studies faculty received an Exploration Pilot Grant through the U-M Presidential Arts Initiative. Selected from among the more than 80 proposals submitted, their podcast project highlights Arab American authors.

UM-Dearborn Arab American writer podcast logo
UM-Dearborn Arab American writer podcast logo
Illustration by Fatima Al-Rasool

Ghassan Abou-Zeineddine teaches Arab American literature and fiction writing to UM-Dearborn students. When not teaching, the assistant professor works with Arab American writers, both novice and accomplished, and is co-editing a book of creative nonfiction essays to elevate their voices.

Center for Arab American Studies Director Sally Howell
Center for Arab American Studies Director Sally Howell
Center for Arab American Studies Director Sally Howell

So when Abou-Zeineddine and Center for Arab American Studies Director Sally Howell learned of a new University of Michigan grant focused on incorporating art into student experience while addressing societal issues, they saw an opportunity to expand their audience.

“Sharing an experience through an art form brings people together to have in-depth conversations about challenging topics,” Howell says. “We are sharing voices from Arab communities, but this is an opportunity for everyone to learn through storytelling.”

The U-M Presidential Arts Initiative jury awarded the duo $10,000 to create a series of events to promote understanding of Arab, Middle Eastern and Muslim communities through literary and cultural programming.

“We see the pilot projects as a way to enlist the expertise of people from across the university in testing ways for the arts to elevate the many kinds of work we do: research and creative practice, teaching and learning, advocacy and community engagement,” says Jonathan Massey, dean of the U-M Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and co-chair of the Arts Initiative.

Professor Ghassan Abou-Zeineddine
Professor Ghassan Abou-Zeineddine
Assistant Professor Ghassan Abou-Zeineddine

Abou-Zeineddine and Howell’s grant will help create podcasts where prominent local and national Arab American authors are introduced and interviewed; the authors also will read excerpts from their works.

“Hearing from a Arab American author — in their own words — is inspiring to students; they can see that someone who may share a similar experience can succeed,” Abou-Zeineddine says. “We also want this to go beyond the Arab community. Many people aren’t familiar with the Arab experience and we want to bring people together so we can learn about differences we have and see the common threads that we share.”

The project’s goal is to expand to publicly attended spoken word experiences on the UM-Dearborn campus once in-person activities can resume.

Howell often works to include arts and culture into the Center for Arab American Studies’ public-facing exhibits and events. Musicians, photographers, culinary artists, and designers have taken part in Halal Metropolis and Unsettled Lives. But she was looking for ways to bring in literature.

“There’s no place where Arab community has a chance to speak for themselves more than through their literature. They are writing about the way they see the world and how they imagine making it better,” says Howell, who shared that Ford Motor Company Community Fund and the Arab American National Museum are also project partners. “The Arab experience is an Important part of our society and many Americans really don’t know about it. So our job at the Center is to provide ways to educate the public. One of the best ways to do that is to provide a platform for people to share their stories.”

Abou-Zeineddine says the podcasts — they plan to do 12 — will be released later this fall on the Arab American National Museum and the Center for Arab American Studies websites. 

He said authors, who will be announced at a later date, are from different areas of descent like Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and others. And there will be diversity in writing styles, such as poetry, playwriting and fiction. The podcasts will be available for educators to use as a supplemental teaching tool.

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