By Jordan Elgrably
It’s May 15, 2019 and we’re standing on the steps to the lobby entrance of the beautiful and palatial new cultural center and museum for the Middle East and North Africa, known as The Markaz, designed by world-class architects.
Standing with me to welcome visitors are dozens of like-minded friends, who for the past three years have labored in our Markaz Dreamers and Builders Circles* to make this facility a reality. We come from every imaginable country and cultural background, as Southern California has the largest population of citizens from the greater Middle East in the nation. Here at The Markaz, arts and humanities give voice to our dreams for peace.
The Markaz is the word for “center” in Arabic, as well as in Persian, Turkish, Hebrew and Urdu. After many years, we have achieved our dream, which began as the seed of an idea in the year 1999, opened to the public in June 2001 as the Levantine Cultural Center, and was renamed The Markaz on July 1, 2015.
It’s our Grand Opening and throngs of people are lined up around the block as we open our doors to the general public.
Inside at the early opening reception are many Hollywood movers and shakers who have in the past expressed more than a passing interest in the Middle East—George Clooney with his Lebanese wife, Amal Alamuddin Clooney; Salma Hayek-Pinault and her husband, François-Henri Pinault; Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt; Sean Penn; Steven Spielberg and his wife, Kate Capshaw; Ben Affleck and his wife, Jennifer Garner; Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson; Jennifer Anniston; director Peter Berg, who made The Kingdom; and too many more to name. The President of the United States and the Mayor of Los Angeles are also inside, along with the 1,000 other special guests who form the first wave of Grand Opening attendees. The Markaz Dreamers and Builders Circle team has had an opportunity to meet all of these folks and shake hands, before coming back outside to witness these lines around the block.
Another 9,000 people are expected to pass through the doors of The Markaz before we close tonight.
OUR GREAT DIVERSITY
The Markaz is a cultural arts center and museum that pays tribute to the intellectual and creative bounty of people from the greater Middle East, which stretches as far east as Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and in Africa, as far south as Sudan and Somalia, and east to the Persian Gulf region, including Bahrain, the Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
The Levantine countries and cultures are a centerpiece, highlighting Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the cultures of the Israeli and Palestinian people equally. Iraq has a special place at The Markaz, particularly celebrating its millennial history and more recent literary importance in the Arab world.
In the Mediterranean region, Turkey, Greece and the Balkans are represented and in Central Asia, cultures as far-flung as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and the Uyghurs of China.
The North African countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt are highlighted, along with their native Amazigh, Kabyle and Tuareg cultures.
The venerable Armenian, Assyrian, Azeri, Bedouin, Chaldean, Druze, Kurdish and Sephardic cultures, and so many other minority groups, are also reflected at The Markaz.
Our staff, advisors and artists represent an eclectic collection of people of many backgrounds, including Arab, Iranian, Jewish, Latino, Native American, European, Central and South Asian, and people of multiple mixed identities.
TAKE THE TOUR
As you enter The Markaz campus, you find a large internal lobby with many high windows emphasizing the beautiful Southern California light. On the right is a café that serves as many people outdoors as inside, and outside there is a small stage for live poetry and music performances. Walking past the café, one finds an amazing bookstore and gift shop offering books in English as well as Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Hebrew, Armenian and other languages; DVD movies from all over the world; a vast collection of music CDs; an unframed movie poster collection so you can choose posters of your favorite films whether from Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, the United States or Europe and have them framed.
The gift shop offers a brilliant array of artisan works from all over the Arab/Muslim world, including Palestinian embroidery, Moroccan design, Afghan jewelry, tapestries and an eclectic selection of fine art.
Across the way from the bookstore and gift shop is the resource library containing more than 25,000 volumes and a bank of computers and study rooms, with a complete children’s section and play space. The library also has many windows, which look onto the campus gardens with topiaries that are reminiscent of the gardens of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. At the center of The Markaz campus is a very large and stunning fountain such that wherever you find yourself in the gardens, you can hear the soothing sounds of water falling.
From the lobby, off to your left, is our state-of-the-art indoor amphitheatre that seats 500, and further down the way, our theatre-theatre especially designed for comedy, spoken word and theatrical performances, seating 199. Beyond the theatre-theatre is our conference and ballroom, where our 1,000 early guests are congregated, enjoying live performances and a fabulous buffet lunch.
There is also our outdoor amphitheater, which accommodates up to 1,200 audience members.
On the other side of the Markaz campus you find a spacious Middle Eastern-style hammam and spa, next door to the dance & yoga studios, the prayer & meditation room, and the kids’ Playland, where friendly minders are available to engage children throughout our opening hours. Adjacent to the dance & yoga studios are the museum galleries where you’ll find our permanent collections and new exhibits of art and photography. Further along past the museum galleries and gardens, there are several classrooms where we offer language classes for both adults and kids, in different dialects of Arabic, as well as Persian, Turkish, Armenian and Hebrew. There’s even a beginning Amazigh (Berber) class, and we will offer a new course in Kurdish in the fall.
Our Markaz offices include not only space for our team, but a number of additional offices occupied by participating member organizations, which will be mentioned below.
With the gardens, parking structure, library and other facilities, The Markaz campus takes up nearly an entire city block, and we anticipate serving upwards of 1,000 people a day during the week, and as many as 2,500 people a day on Fridays and Saturdays for an average weekly number served of 10,000. By the end of 2019, The Markaz will have brought together more than 300,000 people, both locals and international tourists, as well as visitors from across the United States. The Markaz is on course to become one of the premiere attractions of greater Los Angeles, on par with the Getty, the Skirball, the Hammer, LACMA and MOCA.
In addition to being a cultural arts center and museum that celebrates the Middle East and North Africa, The Markaz has become a central resource for collecting the oral histories of refugees and immigrants of the MENA. We also have a strong Fellows program for graduate students, and an Internship program for undergrads, providing training and job opportunities for students interested in the nonprofit world as well as conflict resolution studies.
Early on, our Markaz Dreamers and Builders Circle members subscribed to our core principles and signed our constitution, which emphasizes our strong support for human rights as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our constitution also places emphasis on The Markaz being a safe space, free of invective, blame, or superstition, where we can share our stories, and converse on the complex issues facing the Middle East, North Africa and our populations in diaspora—whether in the U.S., Europe, or elsewhere. We insist on the core values of the arts, and support independent voices. We eschew violence in all its forms, because The Markaz always stands behind dialogue and democratic solutions to political conflict. Our constitution insists on the need to protect the rights of children and women, and to condemn racism and discrimination in all its forms.
The Markaz has already created an operating manual that it makes available to other cultural centers, groups and associations around the country and abroad, who wish to emulate our model.
We are members of and/or maintain many partnerships with a broad range of nonprofits and NGOs, including the United Religions Initiative at the UN, the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, Open Society Foundation, Edutopia/The George Lucas Educational Foundation, Muslims for Progressive Values, the Institute du Monde Arabe in Paris, the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, the National Network for Arab American Communities, the Farhang Foundation and others.
The Markaz also maintains an exclusive membership circle for local like-minded nonprofit groups and associations who are able to enjoy special discounts and usage rates of our facilities. Some of the groups have offices at The Markaz. These include many smaller MENA groups such as the Arab American Historical Foundation, Al Jadid Magazine, the Egyptian American Organization, Jordanian American Association of California, the Moroccan American Association of California, the Syrian American Women’s Association, the Palestinian American Women’s Association, the Hollywood Iranian Filmmakers Association, the Arab American Film Festival, the Noor Iranian Film Festival, ARPA International Film Festival, the Los Angeles Turkish American Association and many others.
We are extremely proud of the fact that The Markaz is designed to be a cultural center known for the spirit of our peace and conflict resolution activities, be they cultural events, conferences, festivals, oral history projects, videos or podcasts.
The Markaz is a cultural arts center, museum and community space that welcomes all Americans and visitors from the around the world. Our hope is to inspire replications of this center wherever it is most needed, to address the many challenges that face the Arab/Muslim/Middle Eastern communities.
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* The new Markaz will be created with the incredible leadership and support of three circles, as follows:
• Markaz Dreamers and Builders PLATINUM Circle—we’ll each raise and/or contribute a minimum of $100,000 per year for the new Markaz;
• Markaz Dreamers and Builders DIRECTORS Circle—we’ll each raise and/or contribute a minimum of $10,000 a year for the new Markaz;
• Markaz Dreamers and Builders FRIENDS Circle—we’ll each raise and/or contribute a minimum of $1,000 a year for the new Markaz.
If you would like to join one of these circles, kindly contact Jordan Elgrably at 310.402.8866 or jordan-at-themarkaz.org.