Community outreach and engagement is a core responsibility of any museum. This is what helps us to bridge social and cultural divides, develop greater tolerance and understanding, facilitate new connections and relationships with one another and expand our way of seeing.
The Powerhouse Museum has a long tradition of working together with communities, from our collections and exhibitions (see for example, Beirut to Baghdad: communities, collecting and culture, Our new home Meie uus kodu: Estonian – Australian stories and Ties with Tradition: Macedonian Aprons, among many others) to public programs, affiliated societies, regional services and online presence. One of these communities I have been strongly involved with is the Arab and Lebanese community (especially in Sydney and Melbourne) for two important projects. The first is an upcoming exhibition on contemporary Islamic women’s fashion in Australia (more of which will be revealed in the coming months) and the second, which I would like to share with you in this blog post, is an independent external organisation, Mirath in Mind, of which I am a representative committee member for the Museum.
Mirath in Mind is a non-profit organisation committed to celebrating and promoting the art, heritage and culture of the Arab and Lebanese world in Australia. Founded in 2010, Mirath (which means “heritage” in classical Arabic) focuses on a different cultural or artistic legacy each year and in 2011 it is the legendary Lebanese singer, Fairuz.
In case you’ve never heard of Fairuz before, it might be easier to compare her with a mainstream western performer. I would say she has the celebrity status of Madonna in the Middle East, but the elegance, grace and poise of someone more like Celine Dion. In terms of her singing abilities, however, she is unparalleled.
Fairuz was born Nouhad Wadi Haddad on November 21, 1935 in Jabal al Arz, Lebanon. She started singing at an early age, initially hymns and other popular songs of the time for radio (like Ya Zahratan Fi Khayali by Farid al-Atrash and Mawwal by Asmahan), before singing her own songs composed not only, but most famously, by brothers Assi and Mansour Rahbani. Together, they wrote many of Fairuz’s best-loved songs (my personal favourite is “Nassam Alayna”). They also scripted several of her films, including “Bint el-Haras” and “Safar Barlek”.
Fairuz recently performed at the Holland Festival in Amsterdam and some colleagues and I from Mirath were lucky enough to have secured tickets. You see, the Carré Theatre only has a capacity of 1700 and tickets sold out within a day of being advertised! Many travelled from far and wide to Amsterdam just to see Fairuz in concert. They came from Morocco, Palestine, Belgium, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and…Australia! Even though Fairuz performed only a small selection of songs, most of which were from her more recent albums, it was a magical experience and the fervour of the crowd carried over into the streets of Amsterdam until well into the wee hours of the morning! You can get a taste of the atmosphere by having a look at some of the television media coverage here.
Since one of Mirath in Mind’s key objectives is to educate and inspire the younger generations (who have an Arabic background, but not exclusively so) about the cultural icons and legacies of their native past, Mirath has been running a number of educational activities about the life and work of Fairuz. These have been taking place in schools and universities in Sydney and Melbourne where Arabic is a spoken language, among which includes St Charbel’s College Punchbowl, the Holy Spirit College Lakemba, the Holy Saviour School Greenacre, the Antonine College Coburg, the University of Western Sydney and Deakin University.
This has involved almost 1000 quizzes with students on the previously mentioned films, “Bint el-Haras” (for primary students) and “Safr Barlek” (for high school students), as well as a variety of singing, multimedia, drama, arts and crafts projects more broadly linked to Fairuz’s expansive career. We’ve also been running an essay competition in Universities, as we noticed there is a significant gap in well-researched, academic writing on the topic of Fairuz and the Rahbani brothers. All of this hard work will culminate in an Awards Gala Day ceremony that will take place at the Powerhouse Museum on Monday 21st November (the date of Fairuz’s 76th birthday upon which we will also be launching ‘National Fairuz Day in Australia’). On this day, the top performing students in the quizzes and essays will be awarded while the finalists in the creative and performing arts competitions will compete before a panel of judges for prizes (we’re even staging a ‘Fairuz Idol’!).
If you’d like to find out more about the work of Mirath in Mind, please take a look at our website – www.mirath.org.au. Alternatively, you can contact me – firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note the Awards Day at the Museum is by invitation only.