Nabila: Focusing on the Arts Full Time to Fight for our Civil Rights


ICCNC: On December 4th, Ensemble and Aswat the Vukani Mawethu Choir  along with several other performing artists successfully completed their solidarity concert - Art Against All Odds: Black & Muslim Expressions of Love and Faith.The free event successfully drew an audience of over 600 people with hundreds more on the waiting list.  The response from the community was overwhelming and this is why we would like to take this show on the road.

The association and cooperation between different groups of nationalities and races, no doubt, is the result of Ms. Mango Nabila was trained in Library Science at Birzeit University in Palestine and at the State University of New York in Albany. She holds an MA and an ABD from the University of Pennsylvania in Middle Eastern Languages and Literature, and an MA in counseling from San Francisco State University. Nabila’s career includes teaching Arabic at the University of Pennsylvania and at various Bay Area colleges, and librarianship at Harvard University, U Penn, McGill University, and the University of Chicago. Nabila served as a board member and Vice President for the Arab American University Graduates and on the boards of US-OMEN, the Palestine Arab Fund, and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. She is an advocate in the San Francisco Tenderloin’s Arab/Muslim community, especially for the youth.

Ms. Nabila founded Aswat in 2000 and co-founded Zawaya with Haya Shawa Ben-Halim in 2003 to preserve and promote the Arab arts in the San Francisco Bay Area. Aswat, which predates Zawaya by three years, is Zawaya’s 15-year old flagship Arabic music and performance program and the Bay Area’s premier Arabic music ensemble. A member of school choirs in high school and college, Nabila never lost her passion for the performing arts. A single mother and an avid gardener, Nabila reads prolifically in politics, women’s affairs, languages, music history, and cultural issues and owns the largest library of Arabic music in the US. Following is an interview with Ms. Nabila:

Ms. Nabila! How do you still stay so  energetic and active at your age? Do you not need more rest?

You know, I am Arab, Palestinian  and Muslim, and my   three identities  have been under fire in the US since I arrived in 1965. I have no choice but to be active. Otherwise I cannot justify living in the US.

Allah plans my destiny every few  ten years or so. Since I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in 2010,  I am have focused  on the Arts full time to fight for our civil rights, maintain  our cultural identities and heritage and collaborate with Black and  Japanese people who have suffered the most.

My rest is in my garden, listening to music, sharing a simple meal  with my close friends and my daughter.

Community organizing is the source of my energy, ilhamdullilah.

Why did you create groups of Aswat(sounds)?

Due to the discrimination against all my identities and my values, I co-founded Aswat to create a multi-racial and multi-ethnic family to reach out to the diverse Bay Area community with folkloric, classical, contemporary and sacred Arabic music.

Aswat remains open to all who want to participate  in the exciting, enriching exchange between our Middle Eastern communities and other communities through  the universal language  of music.

How many times did you  attempt to create this group of sounds(Aswat) before you were successful?

I co-founded Aswat in 2000 and the non-profit Zawiya in 2003 . We have been  climbing the ladder slowly in the last  17 years, and we are not at the top of the ladder yet but inshallah in 5 more years.

What is your background with music?

I sang all my life in Christian choirs in the Catholic school and college . I love choir singing. My mom played oud to herself and my father was a fanatic fan of umm Kulthum . I attended her live in 1964 in Cairo and I got hooked to on classical Arab maqams .

Why do you think music is a good tool for communication between people and how does it help promote friendship between people?

Music is the language of the soul; music is my heavenly escape daily .Music is instrumental in civil rights movements, and cultural exchanges. If you indulge in the language of music  you are open minded, non-judgmental, and spiritual.

How  are you going to select  the combination of  music to include in the program at ICCNC on December 4? How did you first get the idea to do this?

The December 4 concert is a combination of Black American sacred music and Muslim sacred music. The Black and the Muslims people represent are two communities that are under fire in the US .We decided  to collaborate,  unite, resist, fight and present the sacred music of both communities. The Arabic , Persian, and Turkish sections will represent samples of the Muslim Sacred music . The spiritual, Gospel and civil rights will represent the Black music.

Six months ago, listening  to the racism, hatred, and bigotry against our communities, Allah inspired me to develop the idea more clearly, and it grew naturally and everyone responded with great enthusiasm and sincerity. Everyone is feeling we need to unite, and fight through the Arts.

Islamophobia is echoed everywhere in the world. In your opinion, how does the use of language, art, and music help increase understanding of Muslims culture and heritage?

Islamophobia or not, we live in a  racist society .We need to be creative in uniting, fighting, collaborating, etc. I personally believe in  the Arts in general--films, theater, music, singing. Visual Arts are the best, safest and most effective medium to increase appreciation, understanding , love, inter-faith relations, and spirituality . We do not need the empty mosques, more corrupt media, and corrupt leadership. We need to invest in our youth and foster their pride and identity through the Arts.

About two months ago, we saw a music concert from Iran in Sacramento that where Mr. Alizadeh (the famous Iranian Musician) and his Ensemble

performed. I'd like to know your feelings about this concert and Iranian music?

I love Iranian  and Turkish  classical music .  Mr. Alizadeh is a master of his instrument and musicianship.

You and I CCNC have cooperated on projects in recent years. Tell us about this partnership.

ICCNC is one of the most progressive Muslim organizations in the Bay Area. ICCNC welcomed Aswat  in 2000 and the building became our home and  our sacred space. Zawaya has collaborated with ICCNC in the last few years in fundraisers, and interfaith concerts. It has been a mutual, beneficial,  productive , amicable, respectful and friendly marriage.

Tell us  about your future plans?

Umm, (1) create a Muslim sacred ensemble; (2) Expand youth ensembles in three locations: San Jose, SF and the East Bay;

(3) Expand the music classes in oud, violin, percussion, and qanun in two locations, San Jose and East Bay, for youth and adults (4) assist you and the ICCNC  in creating a Persian ensemble applying our successful model.

By: Abolhassan Mokhtabad