If you were to walk into a Cornell Middle Eastern Mediterranean Ensemble concert you would see a group of people singing and playing the oud, kanoun, violin, doumbek, mandolin, etc. While you enjoy the music, you might not realize that there are extraordinary things happening, distances being bridged and generational animosities being contradicted. You would see a Turkish person singing next to an Armenian person and a Jewish song sung at Shabbat dinners, “Shalom Aleichem,” being played alongside a song associated with Ramadan in Turkey, “Yine Bir Gülnihal.” Through CUMEME music performances, a space is created where different people groups can come together, share and understand the similarities and differences between cultures. This kind of unity is needed now more than ever in light of recent events that have taken place internationally and on campus.
Armenia is a monocultural country surrounded by neighbors who share political tensions and a recent bloody history such as Turkey and Azerbaijan. In the beginning of April, Armenia was again at the cusp of war with its neighbor Azerbaijan. Armenia’s relationship with Turkey has not been fully reconciled ever since the Armenian Genocide of 1915 since Turkey’s refusal to recognize it as such. Despite the many Turkish people who are influenced by governmental propaganda to negate and refuse the genocide, there are many Turkish people who do recognize the Armenian genocide. The Armenian Genocide needs to be approached with a multicultural viewpoint, not a mono-cultural viewpoint. This engagement of history gives people the ability to think critically about the history they might have been initially taught about Turkey and Armenia. It is this historical reference and cultural framing that help students deconstruct the misconceptions and biases in their own minds. Thus, it becomes the responsibility to initiate intercultural dialogue, whatever the form it takes. Last spring, a member of The Armenian Student Organization reached out to the leadership of the Turkish Student Association to sit down to a Breaking Bread dinner, organized by The Center for Intercultural Dialogue, and discuss the relations between the two groups. Although a dialogue was started, hesitations led to a cancellation of the event. However, it is the hope that music and cultural performances can transcend many of the hesitations that exist between peoples of all cultures and create a non-confrontational setting for culture and knowledge sharing.
When Mané, one of the CUMEME performers, first joined the group, she hadn’t interacted with many people from Turkey, and when she did she would sometimes feel tense and wouldn’t know what to say. One time after performing “Karoun Karoun” in Armenian, a Turkish man came up to her and said, “You know we have the same melody but with Turkish words!” She became intrigued and started a conversation with him about this song. She believes that the open and celebratory place that is created when the group performs, is what enables one to get to know the people from other cultures that one would otherwise not know or feel animosity towards. The relationships she has formed through the group with Turkish people allowed her to understand Turkish people more and to go to more Turkish Student Association events. This Friday, April 29, at 8 p.m., CUMEME will perform music from the Middle East and Mediterranean with the Klezmer Ensemble at Watermargin Cooperative. It is in many ways fitting that this show takes place at Watermargin; the first university housing to break segregation and allow black students to live with white students. To this day Watermargin has kept its interracial and interdenominational founding principles, bringing speakers to campus such as Malcolm X, Eleanor Roosevelt and Langston Hughes through its Education Program. The purpose of the event is to bring music and peoples from all over the world together in one area.
Playing music and rehearsing with a diverse group makes one realize how similar cultures are that come from the Middle Eastern region. Not only does one feel the same deep strings plucked in one’s heart, but one also hears the same tune and melody translated to different languages. This is the case with the song “Karoun Karoun” (in Armenian) and “Fatoum Fatoum” (in Arabic). Oftentimes this sharing and translation to languages results in a bickering about which people were the originators. Trying to prove which country a song originated from and which country “stole it” can feel like a circular and childish argument at times. Mané says, “To me, I do not so much care to prove whether a song is originally from Armenia, I think I would never know for sure anyway. What I do love is that there is a beautiful song that is appreciated by many cultures and singing this in many languages often create a message of how intertwined and unified we are.” In fact this is what the ensemble often does, it sings songs such as “Sari Gelin” and “Karoun Karoun” in multiple languages, switching verse to verse.
If you bring people together who have separation and animosity and allow them to connect by offering something shared, then they will start to get to know and appreciate the other’s similarities and differences. Whether it is living in a place such as Watermargin or listening to music together with people from the different parts of the Middle East, this is one step in bringing ultimate reconciliation. Here at Cornell, it is simple for us to create our own little bubbles to shield ourselves from reality. It is easy for us to stay within our own communities, choose a friend group or organization on campus and stay there for our entire time during our four years. It is comfortable and maybe even subconscious for us to sit next to someone we perceive to be similar to us. However, it is impossible to think that these behaviors will help us bridge the gaps between our various communities. It will not help us grow and mature to our fullest potential staying in any single social circle. But perhaps it was the unknown author who wrote it best when they made the following statement,
“A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.”
Jeremiah Grant is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Mané Mehrabyan is a junior in the College of Human Ecology. Jeremiah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Gates & Ladders appears alternate Fridays this semester.