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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Arabs Used To Say

Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture Presents: Naomi Shihab Nye
A Review by Sojourner Ahebee 

Poet Naomi Shihab Nye w/ Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble
Photo by Danielle Nowak

Red Brocade
Naomi Shihab Nye's collection of poems on the Middle East
A Poem by Naomi Shihab Nye

The Arabs used to say, 
when a stranger appears at your door,                                   
feed him for three days 
before asking who he is, 
where he’s come from, 
where he’s headed. 
That way, he’ll have strength 
enough to answer. 
Or, by then you’ll be 
such good friends 
you don’t care. 

Let’s go back to that. 
Rice? Pine nuts? 
Here, take the red brocade pillow. 
My child will serve water
 to your horse. 

No, I was not busy when you came! 
I was not preparing to be busy. 
That’s the armor everyone put on
to pretend they had a purpose 
in the world. 

I refuse to be claimed. 
Your plate is waiting. 
We will snip fresh mint 
into your tea.

Back in December, before the new year came rushing through, I had the extreme joy and honor of having the words of beloved poet, Naomi Shihab Nye, wash right over me. At 22nd and Spruce Streets, in the middle of a cold Philadelphian winter, Ms. Nye read us poems aloud while accompanied by the Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble(directed by Hanna Khoury), a group of esteemed musicians who have dedicated their craft to Arab music. 

Namoi Shihab Nye and I

Ms. Nye is an accomplished Palestinian-American poet, and her poems are saturated in her allegiance to themes of place, home, and the world around her. Born to a Palestinian father and an American mother, and having grown up in places like St. Louis, Jerusalem, and San Antonio, she has developed a sharp eye, and her poems serve as little acts of preservation, an attempt to document all that she has seen and heard. Throughout the evening of poetry and music, Ms. Nye would recount her stories to us, poem by poem. In one story, she speaks of her father, her memory of his singing in the shower, “first in Arabic, rivery ripples of song carrying him back to his first beloved land, then in English, where his repertoire was short”( From "What Kind of Fool Am I"- 19 Varieties of Gazelle). She also spoke of her father’s figtree, his love for the fruit tree, his desire for one. And in his wanting, the poem allowed us, the audience, to sense his want for home:

At age six I ate a dried fig and shrugged.
“That’s not what I’m talking about,” he said,
“I’m talking about a fig straight from the earth --
Gift of Allah! -- On a branch so heavy
it touches the ground.
I’m talking about picking the largest, fattest,
sweetest fig
in the world and putting it in my mouth.”
(Here he’d stop and close his eyes.)

-From "My Father and the Figtree"( 19 Varieties of Gazelle)

As Ms. Nye spoke of Arabic, the Middle East, themes of leaving and displacement, a red brocade, girls who would go on to write the story of their generation, of fathers, of coffee and Palestinians, the music from the ensemble would mix into her words, serving not as backdrop, but as a second way to hear the poem. The violin, the qanun, the percussion, and even the cello had much to say about each poem, and as each musician played their part, Ms. Nye’s poems began to tell new stories. The energy in the space was almost tangible. You wanted to fall right into it.

Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture is dedicated to presenting and teaching Arab culture through the arts and language.

“Al-Bustan,” Arabic for “The Garden,” offers structured exposure to the language, art, music, dance, literature, and natural environment of the Arab world. Al-Bustan promotes cross-cultural understanding among youth and adults of all ethnic, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds through artistic and educational programs. Al-Bustan supports the pursuit and affirmation of Arab American cultural identity, while playing a constructive civic role within broader American society.

Visit their website to learn more:

How To Get Involved:

In Fall 2009, Al-Bustan formed the Philadelphia Arab Music Ensemble, open to youth and adults of diverse backgrounds interesting in learning to play and sing the classical and traditional repertoire of Arab music. Led by Music Director Hanna Khoury, this community ensemble meets once a week for 3 hours at St. Mary’s Parish Hall located at UPenn campus. The music of the major artist invited each year by Al-Bustan defines the repertoire learned by the Ensemble. In 2010, acclaimed Palestinian musician and composer Simon Shahaeen was the guest artist, and in 2011, acclaimed Lebanese musician, composer and singer Marcel Khalife.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Help My Mom Make Some Really Relevant Poetry-Support Her Indiegogo Campaign

Writer Octavia McBride-Ahebee

My mother, writer Octavia McBride-Ahebee, has been selected to participate in the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, which will be held this fall in London. Callaloo, a Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters based in Texas A&M University, is ranked as one of the top literary journals in the United States and is edited by the Charles Henry Rowell. 

The workshop facilitators include novelist, essayist and Princeton Lecturer Maaza Mengiste, whose book Beneath the Lion’s Gaze is an international bestseller, and famed poet and Columbia University teaching fellow Gregory Pardlo.
My mom is currently working on a series of poems addressing the current Ebola crisis and the human stories behind this global failure. She would love the opportunity to workshop these poems with the dedicated and experienced Callaloo facilitators. She has started a Indiegogo campaign to raise funds to cover the costs of this trip. Please support this effort.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The 2014 Young Heroes Award by Sojourner Ahebee

     Hey all! I know it’s been a while, but I wanted to take a few moments to give a shout out to a very special organization. A few years ago I was given the honor of being named a Young Hero by the National Liberty Museum. It was so inspiring to be recognized, at such a young age, for my efforts within my community, so I encourage young people all over the country to look into this fabulous opportunity. Please read the following information, and visit the link at the end for more context. Thank you all!

For 13 years the National Liberty Museum has recognized young people who have championed freedom and liberty through their actions. All too often the efforts of our young people to make a positive impact gets overlooked. Through our Young Heroes Award we are able to recognize young people who have taken action where liberty is lacking to promote positive social change. Students have done this through their civic engagement, encouraging peaceful resolutions to conflict, promoting tolerance and diversity and demonstrating leadership.

                                              "Flame of Liberty" by Dale Chihuly.

     We are currently accepting nominations for the 2014 Young Heroes Award sponsored by TD Bank now through June 30th, 2014.

     To download a nomination form or to submit a nomination through our online form, please go to

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

National Student Poet Sojourner Ahebee Meets Mighty Writers

Sojourner Ahebee standing in front of the Mighty Writers location in West Philadelphia.

This past Tuesday, I had the opportunity to visit the Mighty Writers in West Philadelphia and meet some amazing young writers and the adults who mentor and inspire them.  Mighty Writers is an organization dedicated to helping students think and write clearly and using these skills to find success in school and life.  

Mighty Writers Teen Scholars

I  shared with these teen scholars, who come to Mighty Writers afterschool, my journey as a writer, information about the  Scholastic Art and Writing  Awards    and the National Student Poets Program  I also read some of my poetry and answered questions.  But the best part of the evening for me was talking one on one with these talented students and reading some of their work.  

Sojourner reading from NSPP chapbook
I have to give a huge shout-out to Annette John-Hall, the highly lauded former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, who is now the director of the Mighty Writers West Philadelphia site.  She organized my visit and I was so warmly received.
Here is a great link to Ms. John-Hall and some teen scholars in action:

National Student Poet Sojourner Ahebee and Annette John-Hall,  Program Director of Mighty Writers West 
Again, I want to thank the entire staff of Mighty Writers for not only welcoming me, but for the important work that they do with young people.  To learn more about the Mighty Writers program, which has two locations, click here:

Monday, March 17, 2014

I Wish You A Poem For Your Troubles: Alzheimer's Poetry Workshop by Sojourner Ahebee

National Student Poet, Sojourner Ahebee
About a month ago I had the chance to reconnect with old memories. How, you ask? Alzheimer’s poetry workshop, I say. On a cold February afternoon, the time of year the snow takes over in Northern Michigan, the time of year you stop believing in magic, Mickayla Noel and Eleanor Rudnitsky-Brown, my fellow writers, and I visited a nursing home ten minutes away from my school to facilitate a poetry workshop with the residents. On our ride to the home, all of our stomachs were bursting with butterflies. We were going into unknown territory, and that scared us. 

When we arrived, some of the residents were already situated in the common area, with the February light pouring into the room as I and my group members unpacked our poems. Some of the residents were being pushed in on wheel chairs as well, their faces searching our eyes like you would a stranger. I then proceeded to walk into the middle of the room and introduce myself. We then went around the room and asked the residents to say their names for us. A woman on the far right in a blue pullover told us her name was Irene. I responded with “that’s a beautiful name. I have a friend named Irene.” Her smile illuminated the very room we stood in. As we continued around the room with introductions, it was evident that these residents were in different stages of the disease. The early-stage patients were able to make eye contact and respond to questions quite quickly. Some of the later-stage patients had their heads down to the point that I couldn't even see their eyes. One woman in particular had her head drooping into her lap, but when I went over and held her hand while asking her name, she focused her eyes on me and smiled, whispering her name softly.

I started the workshop with Billy Collins’ poem entitled “Forgetfulness”. This involved a call-and-response technique. I would read a line of the poem and then ask the residents to repeat the line back as a means for them to both play with language and to exercise memory. This exercise got off to a rocky start. The residents were shy and had trouble jumping in. But, as we progressed through the poem and they became more familiar with their poetic voices, they were more readily able to feed the lines back to me. In no time the residents were reciting not only the Collins' poem but the poems of Robert Hayden and Wilfred Owen . Some did so quietly in hushed whispers, while others filled the room loudly with the words of these poets. 

This experience was so powerful. Not only because of the memory aspect, but because we were working together to uncover language, to uncover narrative, and most importantly, to uncover the power of the human voice. This was an exchange in which both the residents and my group and I were making a conscious attempt to understand each other.

After the reading and reciting  about five poems, my group and I moved on to our final exercise: the writing of a collaborative poem. I assigned Mickayla the job of being the scribe for this exercise. When we were ready to start, Mickayla collected her huge white pad and sharpie and proceeded to position herself in the middle of the common room so she could better listen to what the residents would have to say. I then explained to the patients that we were going to attempt to write a “Where I’m From” poem. The task appeared daunting at first, but they went along. I started with simple questions like “where was your first home?” and “what was your hometown known for?” As the dialogue progressed, together we began to uncover the history and narratives that the residents had carried with them for quite some time. As we went along, they told me the names of their childhood dogs, their favorite plants, family traditions, people they were very close to, lovers, their favorite meals as children etc. As the residents took turns answering the questions, Mickayla, the scribe, would write all of the details down onto the pad where the poem was growing into this magnificent living thing. Soon everyone was engaged in discussion with each other, and there was no stopping. It almost felt as if time didn’t matter. This was more than the making of a poem. This was memory emanating from our very mouths.

My short time spent at the nursing home was special because the residents were makers, they were poets for a quick hour. As they shouted bits of Dickinson through the air, or gave me sensory details about the interiors of their homes, I was forced to think of my grandmother, who, too, was afflicted with Alzheimer's. I was forced to remember the resilience in her wrinkles as she recited Langston Hughes on her death bed.  All I could do was smile as the residents learned to take control of their world with the power of words. I know my grandmother would be proud, and because of that, I can’t ask for anything more. 

Left to Right: Mickayla, Eleanor, and Sojourner
But you might ask, why poetry? What can poems do for the forgetful? Well, poets and doctors alike are starting to make connections between poetry, memory, and the human mind. Apparently a special part of your brain lights up when you encounter a poem, especially one you have encountered before. While creating my proposal for this very workshop, I purposely included poems that the residents may have come upon while in school or during their youth so the workshop would really engage them on a memory level. A big shout out goes to Gary Glazner and the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project for providing me with workshop techniques and much needed insight on the Alzheimer’s disease itself. Also, a huge thank you to the National Student Poets Program for helping me make this project a reality, Suwan Kim for documenting this project with her gorgeous photography, as well as the nursing home that hosted us. 

I came into the nursing home expecting to change the residents, but in the end they really changed me. They allowed me to see the significance language can play in our lives at different stages of life, and for that, I thank them with all my heart.

Monday, November 25, 2013

I Am in Such Great Company ; My Friends Are My Estate

Rob Casper, Head of the Poetry and Literature Center at Library of Congress and NSPP Juror hosted the 2013 National Student Poets in the stunning Poetry Room this past September. Poets Dean Young and Matthea Harvey read their poetry and traded collections with the 2013 National Student Poets. Download your copy of the National Student Poets Program chapbook here: 

(from left: Institute of Museum and Library ServicesDirector Susan Hildreth; President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities Director of Program Initiatives Kimber Craine; Matthea Harvey; Sojourner Ahebee; Nathan Cummings; Louis Lafair; Aline Dolinh; Michaela Coplen; Rob Casper; Dean Young and Executive Director of the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, Virginia McEnerney).

* Photo- NSPP Facebook Page
* My Friends Are My Estate-Emily Dickinson

Opportunities for Young Writers: 

A Literary Sailing Adventure for Teens 13-17!
Black Dog Tall Ships --Writers' Week

National Student Poet Sojourner Ahebee and Poet Billy Collins Read Poetry at White House

First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden hosted a poetry recital in honor of Kalsoom Nawaz Sharif, wife of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in the Blue Room of the White House, on Oct. 23, 2013. Poems were read by Billy Collins, an American poet, and myself, Sojourner Ahebee, a student poet.

First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden host a tea and poetry recital in honor of Kalsoom Nawaz Sharif.

The formidable and popular poet and former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins read some of his poetry for this occasion. 

First Lady Michelle Obama, Student Poet Sojourner Ahebee, and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice-President Joe Biden. This was Sojourner's second visit to the White House.

Rachel Goslins, Executive Director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, National Student Poet Sojourner Ahebee, Poet Billy Collins and Olivia Morgan, founder of the National Student Poets Program and PCAH member. 
*Photos- by Amanda Lucidon 


Opportunities for Young People in the Creative Arts: 
The Anthony Quinn Foundation Scholarship

Organized as a vehicle to perpetuate Anthony Quinn’s vision for an art conscious society, the Anthony Quinn Foundation Scholarship Program raises and distributes funds for arts education. The Scholarship Program focuses on the Visual Arts & Design, Performing Arts, Media Arts, and Literary Arts for young adults in high school. Scholarship recipients can apply Foundation funds to any recognized pre-college, summer or after-school arts education program. Funds awarded will be sent directly to the pre-college, summer or after-school arts education program designated by the student. The Anthony Quinn Foundation Scholarship cannot be used for secondary school or college tuition. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sojourner Ahebee's Interview in Winter Tangerine Review

Art is 'The Dark Days Are Done' by Pierre Chaumont.

Sojourner Ahebee: Shedding Infinite Light

Sojourner Ahebee writes poetry that haunts. Her writing explores the dynamic between immigrants and Americans, with the latter painted as blind to the struggles the former endures. Sojourner writes to inform and to wake up the people who pretend that there is no corruption or abuse in the relationship between foreigners and their new homes. She sheds light where most cast darkness, and it has been a pleasure reading her work, and learning more about her artistic process.

To Read the Interview, Click Here:

To purchase issues of Winter Tangerine Review or to subscribe, click here:

*Young Writers Opportunity:  Scholastic Art and Writing Awards

The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards has an impressive legacy dating back to 1923. Over the years, the Awards have grown to become the longest-running, most prestigious recognition program for creative teens in the U.S., and the nation’s largest source of scholarships for creative young artists and writers. A noteworthy roster of past winners includes Andy Warhol, Sylvia Plath, Truman Capote, Richard Avedon, Robert Redford, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, John Updike, and many more.  To learn how to enter, click here:

Photographs of the 2013 National Student Poets in Washington, D.C.

2013 National Student Poets at their  Appointment Ceremony in Washington, D.C. with the wonderful representatives of the sponsoring organizations of the NSPP/ Sept. 2013 
2013 National Student Poets with writer Joyce Carol Oates at the National Book Festival /Sept, 2013

2013 National Student Poets with U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey at an event at the Library of Congress/Sept. 2013

Ted McBride, my uncle, me and Octavia McBride-Ahebee, my mother, while we waited in the Yellow Room of the White House for  the arrival of  Michelle Obama / Sept. 2013

2103 National Student Poets  in the Poetry Room of the Library of Congress/ Sept. 2013
* Photos- David Cummings

Writing Opportunity for Young Writers:  

The Patricia Grodd Poetry Prize for Young Writers

The Patricia Grodd Poetry Prize for Young Writers recognizes outstanding young poets and is open to high school sophomores and juniors throughout the world. The contest winner receives a full scholarship to the Kenyon Review Young Writers workshop. In addition, the winning poem and the poems of the two runners-up will be published in The Kenyon Review, one of the country’s most widely read literary magazines.  To learn more, click here:

Saturday, November 23, 2013

2013 National Student Poets

First Lady Michelle Obama with the 2013 National Student Poets (from left: Michaela Coplen; Sojourner Ahebee, Nathan Cummings, Louis Lafair, and Aline Dolinh) in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, Sept. 20, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson.)
It has been a few months since I last posted.  It is my senior year and there are lots of demands, but I am back.  I wanted to share some great news.  I was selected this year as one of the five National Student Poets.  The other gifted poets include Michaela Coplen, Nathan Cummings, Aline Dolinh and Louis Lafair.  We were received by First Lady Michelle Obama, with our families, in the White House in late September.  Mrs. Obama is the honorary chair of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, which is one of the sponsoring organizations of the National Student Poets Program.  To learn more about the program, its other sponsors, and the application process for becoming a National Student Poet, click here:
       The National Student Poets Appointment Ceremony in Washington, D.C. . Sept. 2013

The jurors this year were poets  Richard Blanco , Robert Casper( poet and  Head of Poetry and Literature Center, Library of Congress), Andrea Gibson Hahn , Joy Harjo , Terrance Haye , David Lynn (Editor, Kenyon Review  , Alice Quinn(  Former Poetry Editor at the New Yorker and currently  Executive Director of the Poetry Society of America ) and Rose Styron  (  
The 2013 National Student Poets  at the Library of Congress

I plan, throughout the course of my year of service, as a National Student Poet to not only share with you the incredible opportunities I have had so far and will have, but to also share opportunities for young writers.