Egyptian musician Karim Nagi does not talk about politics or religion, using music and dance to bring understanding of Arab culture.
Karim Nagi sat in a chair, his back straight as a board, and stretched one of his lanky arms toward the furthest strings on his Arab instrument, a long-neck lute, also known as a buzuq.
The twang from the stringed instrument was straight out of Arabia, but perfectly in tune with: “Oh say can you see…”
Nagi continued to play, strumming in harmony with “by the dawn’s early light…what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming.”
Nagi’s rendition of what he calls the Arab-American National Anthem was a moving moment in his part presentation, part musical performance, on the campus of Brown University Thursday night.
A guest of Brown’s Arabic language studies program, Nagi put on his standard presentation, a piece of outreach that employs traditional Arab musical instruments and dance to develop greater cultural familiarity.
It deliberately emphasizes music, dance and art — not religion or politics — as reference points for establishing cross-cultural exchange.
Nagi developed this formula in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The era that followed was one in which two U.S. presidents avoided public messages that were likely to be seen as anti-Muslim and asserted that the country’s war against terrorism was not a war against Islam.
Nagi’s performance on Thursday came a day after President Donald Trump shared videos that purportedly showed Muslims committing acts of violence and were widely criticized as inflammatory.
He didn’t make any major changes.
“I don’t change my performance for anybody,” he said. “I perform the exact same thing.”
The event drew mostly students, taking about half of the seats in the large auditorium in Salomon Center.
“This is a great way to get people to be excited about your culture, music and dance,” Nagi told them.
One of Nagi’s performances was a song that he presented in the style of a rap-artist, to the beat of a tabla drum.
He told the story of a friend who came to the United States expecting streets paved with gold but found snow instead and also learned that he lacked credentials for the type of job he wanted. The man returned to Egypt after two years.
During Nagi’s performance, a Brown medical student, Ron Akiki, who grew up in Beirut, happened upon the presentation as he sought a study spot on the campus.
He sat down in the auditorium.
“This brought so many memories from home,” he said, “which was very nice.”