A modern Silk Road of diverse cultures is being paved along the country roads and main streets throughout America. Caravans of new faces, singing songs in unfamiliar languages, playing beautiful instruments from far-away lands, are traversing these routes as ambassadors of peace. In one Minnesota community, the warm light generated by the human connection of shared creative experiences shines like the North Star safely guiding the travelers’ way.
Caravanserai: A place where cultures meet is a groundbreaking cultural engagement initiative produced by Minneapolis-based arts nonprofit Arts Midwest which engages American communities in immersive residency experiences with Muslim artists. Since 2010, towns like Grand Rapids, MN, Jamestown, ND, and Crockett, TX have hosted Pakistani qawwali singers, Moroccan gnawa bands, Malaysian shadow puppet troupes and a myriad of new Muslim creative voices in their community spaces and performance venues.
Caravanserai envisions American audiences exploring contemporary Muslim cultural expressions as a pathway to shared discovery and enhanced mutual understanding. It is a challenging cultural engagement endeavor in a post 9-11, post-Charlie Hebdo, post-San Bernardino present-tense world where ISIS and the global refugee crisis weigh on our collective consciousness. Reactionary rhetoric fomented by misplaced fear and suspicion creates dangerous tensions that simmer with anti-Muslim vitriol. Too often these tensions boil over into confusing, regrettable interactions and shameful violence.
Can the sharing of culture and creative expression play a meaningful role in combating all of this? Can cultural engagement make positive change? The resounding answer for us is “yes.”
Just ask Fergus Falls.
A north-central Minnesota town of about 15,000, Fergus Falls has not experienced an influx of Muslim immigrants like St. Cloud or Austin. The first Muslim family to reside within the city limits arrived in the last year. Their children are the first Muslim students to attend Fergus Falls public schools. There is no mosque in the city limits.
Yet, there was palpable community tension when it came to light that Fergus Falls’ arts presenter, A Center for the Arts, would be hosting two Caravanserai residencies in early 2016. The Fergus Falls School Board, suspicious of Caravanserai’s intent, had their misgivings amplified by a phone campaign from concerned parents demanding that Muslim artists be barred from performing in the public schools. A Center for the Arts board and staff members were initially unsettled, concerned that the project was too controversial and potentially detrimental to the organization’s reputation in the community.
But a brave arts presenter, believing that Fergus Falls could and should be a safe space for this creative dialogue, put his professional credibility on the line. Key local business partners and community organizations backed him and opened their doors for residency events. The Fergus Falls Schools’ superintendent scrutinized Caravanserai’s extensive contextual materials, concluding correctly that the project would not proselytize or communicate a pro-Islamic message in any way. He challenged the School Board and the artists were allowed to conduct on-site workshops with all band and choir students in grades 8-12.
In late January, Palestinian-American Sufi rocker Ronnie Malley and Indian-American “brown-skin soul” singer Zeshan Bagewadi brought a musical caravan to Fergus Falls. They packed a downtown venue for a raucous late night jam session with local musicians. They got haircuts from the town barber, frequented the downtown restaurants, and played pool with the locals at the hotel bar. When Zeshan Bagewadi let his classically trained operatic voice rip for a stirring rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the Kiwanis luncheon, there were smiles on faces moist with patriotic tears.
Ronnie and Zeshan’s concert at A Center for the Arts became a communal convergence in a small town on a snowy Minnesota Saturday night. That Muslim family (the only Muslim family) attended and were welcomed with open arms. They said it was the first time they felt like they were truly a part of Fergus Falls. An audience packed with familiar faces gave this travelling caravan a prolonged standing ovation and greeted them warmly in the lobby after the show.
The creative peace-making in Fergus Falls is just beginning. This April, Muslim-American hip-hop artists will be spreading their soulful sunshine all over town with another Caravanserai residency taking place on Saturday, April 16 at A Center for the Arts.
Silhouettes of caravan travelers dot the prairie horizon in a sleepy Minnesota town.
Learn more at caravanserai-arts.org.