Artists from Middle Eastern cultures find new home, new life in the Twin Cities

When watching the news it’s not uncommon to come across stories reporting on “the Islamic world” or “the Middle East;” such terms lump together an amazing array of diverse cultures and identities.

Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with artists who offer a window into that rich diversity. Gathered together were people from Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. They talked about both their gratitude for the life they’ve found in the United States, but also about their frustration at how little Americans really know about the religious, political and economic forces at play in their home countries.

"Facebook" by Hend Al Mansour (Image courtesy of the artist)

Maryam Yusefzadeh was born in Tehran, Iran, and knew when she came to the U.S. in 1975 to attend college that she would stay. Although she is known for her performances of Middle Eastern music, she’s also a jazz musician.

“I’m not sure if people realize just how many Iranians live in the state of Minnesota,” said Yusefzadeh. “If you take a look at the community – the number of students at the U of M studying science, engineering – there are thousands of them, and many have brought their families with, especially since the revolution. So there is a large community of Iranians – Iranian born – living in the state.”

But Yusefzadeh says the Iran she remembers from her youth is completely different from the Iran that today’s immigrants were raised in.

“I grew up on mini skirts and platforms, and the idea of covering yourself as a woman is unspeakable to me. Consequently I haven’t been there since 1977. What they’ve tolerated during the last 30 years … much of it I can’t relate to at all. It doesn’t mean we don’t get along – but there’s a difference. Even to the point that at times when they speak, they say things that I simply don’t understand, because it’s a different language – it’s very influenced by Arabic.”

Yusefzadeh is Christian. She says it disturbs her how few people seem to understand that Iran is home to Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians – not just Muslims.

Sculptor Fawzia Khan is the child of Pakistani parents, but was born in Nigeria and moved to the United States when she was just twelve. She and her husband moved to Minneapolis in 2003 to be closer to his family. She says for her community is intertwined with religion, which is why she doesn’t know many Pakistanis in the Twin Cities.

“Because although I was raised Muslim, I’m a Unitarian Universalist now, and a proud one,” said Khan. “My husband is a white American, of Norwegian-Swedish descent. It’s kind of a tricky thing to talk about with Pakistanis because their first question is ‘who is your husband and what does he do?’ Then when they find out he’s white, they respond ‘Oh, has he converted?’ That’s question number two, always.”

While she now belongs to a Unitarian Universalist church, Khan still worries about how Islam is portrayed — and understood — here in the U.S.

“When I hear things that happen around the world, for example the whole thing with Malala Yousafzai and the Taliban saying they don’t want girl schools to be open because girls shouldn’t be educated. I have yet to hear anywhere in the media that in the Koran it says ‘educate your women’ – no one has pointed out that that is NOT Islam.

“We all sort of allude to it – the Taliban are fanatics, extremists – but I think a lot of the American public doesn’t know that. They think they’re basing it on something in there that they’re blowing up for their own ends. But it says clearly that you should educate all people, including the women.”

Khan says she would love to see moderate Islamic scholars brought into news coverage to help people distinguish between religion, politics and other forces at work.

Detail of "Safer" by Fawzia Khan (Image courtesy of the artist)

Hend Al Mansour was born in raised in Saudi Arabia. While the country is known for its strict treatment of women, Al Mansour was trained as a physician and worked for many years as a cardiologist before immigrating to the United States.

“When I was in Saudi Arabia, I didn’t feel completely at home, and that’s why I left,” explained Al Mansour. I felt I could understand the culture, aesthetic and values, but I felt they didn’t understand me.”

Al Mansour decided to take the first opportunity to leave the country. She came to America in 1997 for a fellowship at the Mayo Clinic.

“I was struck by the community in Rochester. I had an illness, and there was a lot of help and care, and I felt like those people were family and I fell in love with the place and the people and so I decided to stay.”

Al Mansour decided to drop medicine to make art, which was always her first love. She got an Master of Fine Arts degree from the from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 2002. She does silk screen printing on large swaths of fabric, and uses the cloth to make houses or shrines for women.

“Again I am on the margin of the culture – but at least here I can express myself, I can make my art,” she said. “My art is about women of Saudi Arabia and about celebrating the power of those women and the sacred feminine in all of us.”

Sadly, the people Al Mansour would like most to see her art are on the other side of the world.

Like Maryam Yusefzadeh, Leili Tajadod Pritschet is a native of Iran. Her career started early in life as a dancer, and she studied at the London College of Dance and Drama. As a ballerina with the National Iranian Ballet Company, she gained the recognition and admiration of the Shah and his third wife. She hosted a children’s show on television. But her popularity changed suddenly.

“After the Iranian revolution in 1979 I was imprisoned, tortured, disabled … all for performing dance in public, she said. “This became a pivotal event in my life. I escaped from Iran and sought asylum in the U.S. Since then I have been working to reclaim the sense of self that my captors tried to erase.”

Here in Minnesota Pritschet has performed with Intermedia Arts, VSA and Voices of Sepharad. She both dances and paints. Despite her traumatic experiences, she regularly gives thanks.

“Whatever I do as an immigrant is thanks to you Americans, and Minnesotans most of all,” she said. “When we were rich, the whole world wanted us, when we were down, there was nowhere to go. You were the only people who opened your arms, hugged us in, gave us love, brought us up from the dungeons. You gave so much love to me, that whatever I give is nothing. You gave me life! You gave my spirit back. You gave me freedom.”