Majid Alsayegh, board chairman of Mt. Airy-based Intercultural Journeys (IJ), is the son of a Christian mother from the U.S., and a Muslim father from Iraq. Growing up in a house of two faiths Alsayegh said he “recognized the good in both, and also the potential for misunderstanding and harm.”
A milestone for a life-long passion
Alsayegh is celebrating the 10th anniversary of Intercultural Journeys — a project to promote interfaith, interracial and intercultural understanding through music and the arts. Alsayegh started up the group with the help of co-founders Udi Bar-David (an Israeli-born cellist with the Philadelphia Orchestra), activist and philanthropist Carole Haas Gravagno and Sheldon Thompson, a former senior vice president at Sunoco.
After holding almost 150 events in ten years, with artists like Chinese erhu virtuoso Jiebing Chen, violinist Diane Monroe, Native American flute player R. Carlos Nakai and world-renowned Palestinian-American musician Simon Shaheen, IJ welcomed Broadway and Homeland star Mandy Patinkin for a concert in March.
Alsayegh said that the March concert at William Penn Charter School, which featured sounds from all over the world, “epitomized what we are about, and what we are trying to do.”
Iraq and America, Islam and Christianity
Alsayegh grew up in Iraq and moved to the U.S. to work and attend graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. He noted that while he met people of many faiths and ethnic backgrounds in Iraq, he didn’t know any Jewish people until he came to Philadelphia and met an Iraqi Jewish family who “adopted” him.
“I thought it was so sad that Arabs and Jews seemed to be in conflict when they could get along,” and get to know each other “as individuals, not as stereotypes,” he said.
In 1998, these feelings drew Alsayegh to a concert at a Main Line synagogue featuring Udi Bar-David alongside a Palestinian musician. Alsayegh and Bar-David shook hands and agreed there was more they could do to promote intercultural peace through the arts.
Intercultural Journeys was born.
Does anyone ever object to the collaborations Alsayegh fosters?
“Absolutely,” he said, admitting to misgivings “on both sides.” He explained that Bar-David, IJ’s part-time artistic director, has received complaints from members of the Jewish community asking, “why are you doing this with Arab musicians?”
Meanwhile, “I’ve had people from the Arab community say, ‘why don’t you just support Arab musicians?'”
He added that he has lost friendships over the issue.
Alsayegh added that the suffering that comes from the Arab-Israeli conflict “is what motivates me to try to look for a more peaceful world…I know it’s possible, because of the friendships I have.”
An intercultural future
Alsayegh hinted that a growing circle of attention is putting IJ on the map throughout the world. The group is looking to triple its annual programming.
Though he won’t give any names yet, Alsayegh confirmed that he’s in discussions with “two major world-renowned musicians” who are interested in taking to the IJ stage.
Alsayegh sees an urgent and continued need for intercultural dialogue through the arts.
People don’t “get to know each other in a human sense,” he said, choosing to instead “demonize the other side.”
He added that after IJ concerts like the one last March, “I hope and I think people left with the motivation to do something about promoting a more peaceful world.”