PHOTOS BY CHRISTOPHER BOOTH
By Maureen Hossbacher
A song in Gaelic was the fitting start to a special IAW&A Salon with an immigration theme. Dubliner Ailbhe Fitzpatrick charmed the audience with a sweet, a cappella version of “Baidín Fhéilimi,” an old Irish song about a boat that goes out to sea never to return, which her mother used to sing to young Ailbhe at bedtime.
The salon was curated and hosted by IAW&A Board Members Brendan Costello and Karen Daly who put together an amazing evening in keeping with the expansive goals expressed in IAW&A’s mission statement, which in part defines the organization as “a force for inter-ethnic and interracial solidarity, understanding and active cooperation.”
Our understanding of the complexities of West African immigration to the U.S. was greatly enhanced by the fascinating presentation of Lawrence Harding, a Sierra Leonean from Freetown who, aided by storyboards and some mood music provided by host/DJ Brendan, used his family history as illustration. Harding, a physical therapist, is also an accomplished dancer with the Brooklyn-based Fist and Heel Company, whose works draw from the traditions of Africa and its diaspora.
Akram Alkatreb has worked as an art critic and journalist, contributing to many major newspapers in Lebanon, London and Syria. He was born and raised in Salamiah, Syria, a city renowned for its poets, and has published six collections of poetry in Arabic. The poignant work he shared at the Salon spoke of war, love, and yearning for what has been lost:
Maybe we can meet, by chance, in a history book
that praises the kings of the Stone Age.
You’re losing birds, soul, trees
and mother tongue.
Do you know how much we love you?
More than a year since his last reading at our Salon, IAW&A board member Sean Carlson returned to the Cell Theatre fresh off a 2016-2017 fellowship at the Writers' Institute at the City University of New York. Reading from the manuscript of his first book, a yet-untitled nonfictional narrative of departure and arrival, Carlson shared a humorous and moving excerpt that explored the role of groceries in the immigrant experience: the day Aunt Eileen boiled the watermelon in the turkey roasting pan.
After providing some unobtrusive but atmospheric noodling on his guitar as background music for the last two readers, the gifted young musician from Buenos Aires, Omar Haddad, took center stage and morphed into his rock n’ roll persona to perform “Downside Up,” a rousing song of his own composition. A guitarist, singer-songwriter, violinist and front man for his band THIS, Haddad’s influences include jazz, rock, pop, Latin and classical - and he can do it all!
After a break for a little imbibing and socializing, Ailbhe Fitzpatrick returned to kick off the second half of the Salon with her stirring interpretation of the well-known Irish love song, “Raglan Road.” The versatile Fitzpatrick is also a music producer, pianist and award-winning documentary filmmaker.
Poet William Leo Coakley prefaced his performance by reminding us that the song we just heard was written by Patrick Kavanagh, whose masterpiece was the epic poem “The Great Hunger,” and by commenting that our nation of immigrants now has a government liable to harm rather than help refugees. His poems focused on their plight: the perilous voyage of Syrians to the island of Lesbos; the trauma of Palestinians, refugees in their own illegally occupied country. His final poem, which appears in the current issue of the Irish magazine Cyphers, was about our exiled ancestors, who rarely returned to the homeland except for a visit. A Bostonian and now also an Irish citizen, Coakley recently returned from London, where he read at a Poetry Society benefit for Doctors Without Borders.
Next up was Virginia Vasquez, a Puerto Rican writer and artist based in New York City who performed "Seeing Red," a lyrical essay inspired by the 2016 presidential election. The piece, which expounds on the painful implications of racism in America, forewarns: “The truth was televised and is coming for all of us.” Vasquez is completing an MFA in Creative Writing at CCNY, where she also serves as Vice President of the MFA Reading Series.
Maryam Alikhani’s magnetic presentation of several of her poems intertwined words from other languages with English, like patterns woven from colorful strings into Persian rugs. One recalled the “heart of science” of her homeland, Iran; another the significance of trees in our lives. All reminded us that languages can be bridges instead of barriers. Alikhani teaches English at CCNY and is a doctoral candidate at Teachers College of Columbia University.
To bring the evening to a close, guitarist Omar Haddad, who had generously provided background music for most presenters, served up a virtuoso interpretation of “Danny Boy.” His dexterity and impeccable technique made his performance a treat to watch as much as listen to – a stunning finale!
As the crowd happily dawdled before dispersing, the joy and fellowship in the air was palpable. Reflecting on the evening, first-time presenter Lawrence Harding commented in a post-salon email: “Our stories, while different, really brought home to me the confirmation that the drive that brought us to America is real and cannot be diminished by a political manipulation, xenophobia or “isms” of any kind.”
The next IAW&A Salon will be at Bar Thalia at Symphony Space at 2537 Broadway (at West 95th Street), tomorrow Thursday, beginning at 7 p.m.