MEET DENA EL SAFFAR
Dena El Saffar, leader of the Bloomington-based band Salaam, grew up the daughter of an American mother and an Iraqi father in the Chicago suburbs.
“My dad was the youngest of a large family and he was the only one to leave Iraq,” Saffar says. “So it was kind of a big deal, and it was all just due to his very high grades in school. He got scholarships and was able to go abroad”
“He loves the United States like he is so proud to be an American citizen,” Dena says of her father. “I think he felt like things were very limited in Iraq for him and that here the sky was the limit. So he has a real pride for this country… he’s of course proud of being an Iraqi too, but he was like sort of happy to leave.”
Dena’s parents exposed her to many cultures as she grew up. She showed a talent for music, and started to play violin when she was five years old.
“I got into high school and it was a fantastic music high school, and it was public, but it had a really great Orchestra program. We went on a tour in Europe with the high school orchestra – to Germany and Austria. Oh and I was also a part of orchestras in Chicago: the Chicago youth Symphony, and another youth Symphony. So, I was very much steeped in classical music. Then, I go to these Iraqi parties and hear this music of the Arab world! But I didn’t really put it together until I was almost finished with high school and we went to Iraq and I heard the music and thought “I can do that! I can hear those notes and I can play them!” And that was the beginning of me playing Arabic music.
DISCOVERING THE WORLD OF MIDDLE EASTERN MUSIC
Dena started playing Middle Eastern music one night at a party in Iraq, when her family urged her to play Arabic music on her violin instead of Mozart and Bach. From that night, she was hooked.
“It was a whole different like an emotional connection,” Saffar remembers. “I love classical music but it was always like I had to train my mind for classical music … but with Arabic music it was almost an instant emotional connection and I just felt incredibly inspired.”
“And eventually I moved to Bloomington which is a place that really Embraces multiculturalism,” Dena says, excitedly. “And I found like-hearted musicians and I was like “do you want to start a band? We’ll play Arabic music!” and they were like “yeah!” So it happened when I was in the school of music, which is now called the Jacobs School.”
These willing and curious friends, together with Dena, started what would become Salaam.
DEALING WITH DISCRIMINATION
Iraq is one of the countries affected by the travel ban recently signed by President Trump. Although this it saddens Dena to see, seeing her home country once again acting on theirout of fear of her father’s culture culture–which also her own — she says she’s almost used to it.
“It’s so heartbreaking but I’m a bit toughened up to it,” Dena admits. “It’s just like nothing surprises me anymore. I also feel this huge responsibility because I am like a bridge between two cultures that are kind of at war with each other, and I really have no choice but to be that bridge. It’s interesting because my brothers are the same like we all three feel this mission … that was maybe forced on us by current events … but [this mission] to show a fairly decent face of this culture that is maligned so showing that “Hey, we are Iraqi, we are American, we are cool, we are nice, we are productive members of society, we pay taxes.””
Dena’s sense of responsibility for those affected by the ban compelled her to find a way to help.
NO LOST GENERATION
After the Executive Order on Immigration slashed their federal funding for Catholic Charities and the Exodus Refugee Organization, Indiana University’s No Lost Generation Student Organization threw a fundraiser for the agencies.
Dena’s band Salaam provided musical entertainment at this fund- and awareness-raising event a local cafe in early March.
Marine Brichard is the fundraiser for No Lost Generation, the Student Organization from Indiana University that organized the fundraiser.
In addition to fundraising, the student organization focuses on the children affected by the Syrian crisis
“We try to raise awareness about the possible loss of a generation of children affected by violence and displacement,” Brichard says.
The group seeks to gain traction beyond the campus walls as well.
“The idea is to educate not only the students here at IU but the whole Bloomington Community about refugees, supporting refugees, raising funds, like today, funds from this event go to Exodus which is a part of Catholic Charities in Indianapolis,” Bilal Khan, the co-president of No Lost Generation, says.
In organizing the event, Bilal quickly found support for their mission within the community.
“We reached out to a bunch of restaurants,” Bilal says, “but these ones especially they had a real interest, they were fully supportive, fully behind us, really involved about the idea. For example Anatolia and Falafel, as soon as we asked them for help they were like “yes we got you! How much do you need? [We’ll get you] anything you need!” They were really behind the idea, so we were really thankful for them.”
CAN ART CHANGE THE WORLD?
“My heart really goes out to the refugees from Syria but they’re also from Iraq, from Afghanistan, all these places,” Dena says. “And I think Americans can’t even imagine what these people have gone through and why they have traveled so far to find a new place to live. I mean it’s so hard to even read the daily articles. And so I just see if I can help with my music, and that makes me feel really satisfied because like… I don’t have a lot of money… it’s not like I can just go send $1,000 to these organizations. But, if I can help raise $1,000 with my music then that makes me feel really happy.”
There is an opinion among artists that art – whether visual, musical, or performative – can shape our world, and change things for the better.
Dena has a complicated relationship to this idea.
“I mean I go back and forth on that,” she says, “because sometimes I feel like all the big decisions are not really being made by artists; they’re being made by these power-hungry people that are the farthest thing from art that you can imagine in terms of what they saying, their approach to things. I don’t know I’m a little torn about it because I’m doing what I do but for one thing I haven’t been able to make the world a better place it’s less safe than what it was when I started. Salam started in 1993 which was after the first Gulf War and when the second Gulf War started and then 911 and all these other things it just makes me feel so helpless and frustrated. I don’t know.”
She laughs, and pauses. “I’m being honest with you. I do what I can, but it feels like, you know, my level of effect on the culture is very limited.”
Nonetheless, Dena participates in one form of musical activism she that she’s convinced will help Middle Eastern people make strides towards equity. That is, to normalize Middle Eastern music as a musical genre in America.
“What I mean about [Middle Eastern music] infiltrating in this kind of subtle way is like [artists might say] ‘Hey that made my song sell like a million copies, because I put that little Arabic string section in there!’” she says.
“I actually do get hired to do things like that,” she says. “You know, there’s a lot of recording studios around Bloomington, and I have been a guest artist on people’s albums where they’re just like “do your thing!” and I’m just like “okay you’re giving me free rein”, and I know that they want an Arabic sound, like they’re not Arabic at all they are singer-songwriters with guitars, but they just want something outside of what they can create themselves. And I don’t know… I see that happening more and more with Arabic musicians that I know. They’re doing more collaborations, and that’s really cool!”
FINDING A REASON TO HOPE
Although she’s enthused by the cultural mingling she sees in the studio, Dena was heartbroken by the Executive Order on Immigration was for Dena yet another heart break, Still, what she saw Americans doing for their fellow man afterwards really moved her.
“I think it was the last weekend in January people showed up at all those airports like LAX and JFK,” Dena recalls. “That really touched my heart because I’ve never seen people so activated and also speaking up for the people that don’t have a voice. I feel like if we see more of that we can help shape this world into a more humanitarian place and it really is to me kind of a numbers game… like I just want to see throngs of people come out and say that they have a higher conscience, that they want to help people that need help and not turn their backs on them. So these are things that have really actually encouraged me lately and I just hope to see more people keep that up. I feel like that’s really the only way to counter this other very powerful group that are trying to oppress or suppress these downtrodden people.”
“I think there are about 80 students who are affected by this executive order at IU,” Marine Brichard says. “And they have been looking for families host families here in Bloomington that would be willing to welcome them over spring break, over summer break for example.
“I also know that the department of Middle Eastern languages had some applicants withdraw their applications just because they were afraid to come to the U.S. to study,” Brichard notes.
Neither Catholic Charities, nor Exodus Refugee Organization responded to requests for interview for this piece. As long as No Lost Generation is around, though, they’ll have a team of student fundraisers in their court.
“You know at the end of the day we are all humans if we turn our backs on each other who else do we have?” Bilal Khan muses, when asked why he thinks it’s important we help refugees in crisis.
“You show people love,” Khan says. “You show people respect. You show people the basic human rights they deserve because that’s what’s entitled to them. I don’t think we have any right to tell people they’re not welcome here. If you look at the history of the United States, you know, everyone at one time in their lifetime, their ancestor has been an immigrant or Refugee. Welcoming people with open arms… it’s just something that we need to be more open about.”