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What Our Students Are Saying About Us

One of our goals at the MENA Studies Centre is to promote student engagement. To this end, students from diverse backgrounds, life experiences, and majors have shared what they have learned from attending our events. This is also a valuable opportunity to showcase student writing beyond the classroom.

Hadi Milanloo, “From Exclusion to Conditional Inclusion: Women and Professional Musicianship in Tehran” March 31st, 2023

“In Iran, the state assumes control by holding the power that regulates women in public spaces. This is done by establishing female-only parks, demanding concert permits for female musicians, and setting rigid expectations for the instruments they can play. This often means that Iranian women need to forgo opportunities that they are otherwise entitled to, and their access to resources and status is heavily mediated. These are examples of Iran’s conditional inclusion, which is debilitating for talented and enterprising Iranian women. However, it is also a foot in the door for further changes in policies surrounding female musicianship; music acts as a way to break the boundaries placed on the female body.”

— Maryam Ahmed, 1st-Year Psychology student

“An insightful analysis into the politics of control, the context of fitting and (mis)fitting Iranian female musicians is an example of how what is considered to be acceptable cultural as well as societal norms is an intricate approach the Iranian government utilizes and how music making is assessed based on these gendered codes. It serves to expand our discussion on the persistence and dedication of particular individuals to be able to conduct their creative practices while also regulating this conditioned existence in a tightly controlled public sphere by a state that has as much capacity to remove the ability to exist as it can grant permissions to conceive music. This seminar raises the question of cultural codes that intersect with state authority in order to establish a societal control that detriments the very livelihood of these musicians who simply want to delve into their passion further.”

— Danylo Zdravic, 3rd-Year Professional Communication student

Farzaneh Hemmasi, “Here to Stay: Memorializing, Reviving and Interring Iranian Pop Singers in Southern Californian Exile,” March 10th, 2023

“I found Dr. Hemmasi’s talk insightful since I had no previous knowledge of this subject area and went in with a blank slate. I found it very interesting to see how singers like Hayedeh were still able to continue their music careers in California after the Iranian Revolution. Iranians created their own “little” Iran in California by moving to the same place, similar to what we see in Toronto as well. Even though the music of these pop artists had been outlawed in Iran, they still had a following in the country through the use of satellites. Overall I feel like I learned a lot about a subject I knew very little about.”  

—  Michael Harquail, 2nd-Year History student

"What a fantastic one-hour experience learning about diasporic Iranian pop musicians! Many of these artists were famous in pre-revolutionary Iran before emigrating to California. I was fascinated by the Vigen and Hayedeh monuments and how they were regarded as preeminent performers of this musical genre by the Iranian community in Los Angeles. In order to gain such status, these individuals were willing to make significant compromises.”

— Anojan Nandakumar, 2nd-Year History student

Dr. George Sawa and Suzanne Sawa, “Arabic Music Appreciation: A Seminar and Performance,” March 2nd, 2023

“Dr. George and Suzanne Sawa’s talk and performance were an enriching experience to attend. They discussed the qanun as well as the music theory that goes with it, and they shared stories of medieval Arabic music. The seminar was enlightening, as I did not know much about non-western music and instruments, as in school we only learn about western classical music theory. For example, I was unfamiliar with the 10/8 time signature, but Sawa explained it well while skillfully demonstrating the music. He also mentioned Sufi dances, which further sheds light on what we are learning about in my Mughal History course. Overall, I found the talk very interesting because it combined beautiful performances with humour.”

— Maryam Mohamed, 4th-Year RTA New Media student

“Dr. George’s presentation was very informative in explaining the history behind Middle Eastern music. Firstly, I found the concept of ornamentation to be very interesting. Specifically, ornamentation’s uniqueness prevents a piece from being replicated, even by the same artist. This increased my appreciation for the snippets played by Dr. George and the music in my culture. Furthermore, I was amazed to learn how developed al-Isfahani’s Book of Songs was, with 24 volumes and 10,000 pages. I remember hearing the name from my parents before, but I didn’t know who he was, so I appreciated this opportunity to learn about Arabic poetry. Dr. George’s explanation of the patronage culture for poetry in the Arab world was also insightful and helped me understand why Arabic poetry is so voluminous.”

— Noor Allahham, 3rd-Year Biomedical Sciences student

Dr. Irene Markoff, “Articulating Otherness in the Construction of Alevi-Bektashi Rituals and Ritual Space in Transnational Perspective,” November 25th, 2022

“The talk by Dr. Irene Markoff on the Alevi-Bektashi Rituals was fascinating. As an Iranian, it was very interesting to see Persian and Sufi words used by Alevis represent different meanings and traditions. For example, in Sufi culture, Sama or Semah, literally meaning “listening,” is a dance-focused ceremony performed as part of a meditation and prayer practice. The Alevi-Bektashi ritual Semah shown during the talk, however, while being a part of a religious ceremony, used distinctive gestures, costumes, and bodily movements. She also observed many similarities between Shi‘i symbolism and Sufi rituals. Many of the videos shown in the talk and the described culture practiced by Alevis reminded me of those performed in rural areas of Iran but looked down upon by urban residents. This conversation inspired me to look deeper into these connections and learn about the origins of shared words and traditions.”

— Nika Jalali, 4th-Year Performance Production student

From attending Dr. Irene Markoff’s talk, I learned that participation in rituals in sacred places is complex. In one of the videos, Dr. Markoff showed that when she attended such a ritual in Istanbul, people of all ages and genders participated. Children, women, and men danced in a circle and performed similar gestures. From young to old, it was clear everyone was ritually engaged in an important space. The presenter also shed light on the intimacy of these rituals: there was embracing and kissing, and, as she explained, a great sense of unity and oneness. The careful and deliberate architecture of some of the Alevi spaces in Istanbul demonstrates the devotion to creating spaces that allow such unity and oneness”.

— Rowan Flood-Dick, 2nd-Year Journalism student

“The Alevis follow a branch of Islam called Alevism, which is practiced in Turkey and the Balkans. In this form of religion, the Alevis carry out musical ceremonies with the ultimate goal of unity, oneness, and togetherness through the Dede, Rahber, and Zakir. The Dede is at the top of the hierarchy and conducts the liturgy with the assistance of the Rehber. Finally, the Zakir performs devotional songs and expresses poetic musical expressions called the Nafiseh, which stir up emotions and stimulate the senses.”

— Nadim al-Masri, 4th-Year International Economics & Finance student

Nadia Younan, “Intersections of Cultural Trauma, Collective Memory, and Resilience in Assyrian Popular Music,” October 25th, 2022

“Before attending today’s talk, I would say I had very little information on Assyrians. But today I learned many things. For example, I was not exactly sure where Assyrians were located; I thought it was mostly just in Iraq, but I then learned that they are located in northern Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran. They also have their own unique alphabet that uses neo-Aramaic writing. And just like other minority groups that do not have a homeland, such as the Kurds, Assyrians have also suffered a lot. For example, there was the 1915 Saypa Assyrian genocide, the 1933 Simele massacre, and recently, ISIS told them that they either had to convert to Islam or face death. Assyrians, therefore, have been ethnically cleansed in recent history. A way Assyrians try to connect with each other is through music. An Assyrian song mentioned today that I really liked was “ya nishra d’tkhoumeh,” which was written by Freydoun Atouraya. When Nadia interviewed different Assyrian people, this song meant different things to everyone in terms of connecting to their culture. This talk was very interesting, and it helped me learn a little more about a certain group of the Middle East that I was not too familiar with.”

— Farah Mouhareb, 3rd-Year Language and Intercultural Relations student

“In this presentation, I learned that Assyrians were subjected to ethnic cleansing and that, as a result of forced migration, they settled in various locations and have survived as a diaspora. I learned that the nationalist poem Nishra d'Tkhuma, set to music, brought Assyrians together. Music is an important aspect of culture that has allowed Assyrian history to live on to this day and help the younger generation remember their ancestors.”

— Theresa Obi, 1st-Year Politics and Governance student

“This talk provided a fantastic opportunity to learn about the importance of music for Assyrian identity and their unfortunate experiences with oppression. Nadia demonstrated that trauma from past struggles became manifested in collective memory, which is recollected through music. Coupled with this, Assyrian songs also contain a nationalistic component, which enables music to become a binding element in Assyrian community identity. For Assyrians, music was a means of resilience in the face of adversity.”

— Alex Lapsker, 4th-Year History student

Dr. Rob Simms, "Extended Family Reunions: Music of the Moors, Morocco and Us," September 30th, 2022

“The “Music of the Moors, Morocco and Us” talk given by Dr. Rob Simms was a really interesting presentation, organized by the MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) Studies Centre at Toronto Metropolitan University. In his presentation, Dr. Simms discussed various musicians and music styles of the aforementioned region, as well as the globalization of folk music and the effects of capitalistic enterprises. A very interesting discussion amongst the attendees brought up the topic of nationalism in relation to music. In response to this discussion, Dr. Simms said, “You cannot know anything until you know everything, they are all connected like a mosaic.” I personally connected with this statement very much and loved the analogy of music to mosaic art. As a South Asian, this talk really inspired me to understand and study the music of my people within the larger mosaic of global music. I think everyone should try and attend MENA Studies Centre talks regardless of their ethnicity, as there is a lot that can be learned about the world as we know it today through the study of the Middle East and North Africa.”

— Fareeha Zafar, 4th-Year Media Production student

“Music crosses borders. Muwashshah, also known as zajal, was developed in Al-Andalus and then transmitted to Morocco, Syria and Egypt. Andalusian music itself was an extension to the Abbasid music.”

— Amr Khalaf, 3rd-Year International Economics & Finance student