Al-Bustan camp immerses Philly kids in Arabic language, culture and science

Listen 2:35

For some students, they may have to wait until college to study Arabic.

But at the Al-Bustan Camp, a cultural summer camp held at St. Peter’s School in Society Hill, children are learning about the Arabic language, music, history and science. 

One day this summer, the children learned the Arabic words for almond, walnut and banana. The instructions were given completely in Arabic — no English. 

Some of the students have connections to Arabic culture, but not all. 

Hazami Sayed, executive director of the Arab culture nonprofit Al-Bustan, said she created the camp in 2002 with her own three children in mind. 

“The idea was that they would have a space where they can learn Arabic and be comfortable with their Arab identity,” she said. 

Across the hall from the language learning programming, 11 children were reading sheet music and playing drums. The students learned that throughout different cultures, the drum is known by several different names. 

“Worldwide they know it as ‘Doumbek,’” Hafez Kotain, the percussion instructor, told the class. “Syria and Lebanon we say ‘Derbekkeh.’ Egypt they say ‘Tabla,’” Hafez Kotain, the percussion instructor, told the class. 

In another room, campers learn about the 11th-century Arabic mathematician, astronomer, and physicist Ibn Al-Haytham who has been called the father of modern optics. Campers replicated one of his experiments by covering the building’s windows with aluminum foil and letting in light through a tiny hole. They were able to see images of upside-down tree branches projected onto a piece of canvas.  

Layan Ahmad, 11, said camp feels like home, even though it’s her first time. She is Arab and encourages non-Arab kids to check out the camp. 

“If you’re not Arab and you come to this camp, my advice would be like don’t be afraid to ask people like how to pronounce a certain word, or how to read certain things,” Ahmad said. “Just don’t be afraid to ask.”  

This Friday, the kids will sing, drum and present all that they have learned during the camp.

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