A 20-Year Retrospective on Arts and Activism in Southern California

By Jordan Elgrably

For more than 20 years, I brought a wealth of public programs to Southern California. As I prepare to turn 60 in what has been a rich and rewarding life, here is a look back, from 1996 to 2017.

jews-arabs-not-enemies-gaza.jpgJordan Elgrably in 2014, protesting the bombing of Gaza

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SOME YEARS AGO, at the tail end of a painful divorce, I was working as a journalist and feature writer in Los Angeles, when the Washington Post asked me to profile an author named Victor Perera. I hadn’t previously been familiar with his work and began to prepare for our interview by reading his most recent book, a family memoir entitled The Cross and
the Pear Tree, A Sephardic Journey.

Perera’s story of generations of Spanish and Turkish Jews picking up and moving to flee persecution or seek economic opportunity resonated with me. My paternal grandparents had left Morocco after World War I, looking for a better life in France, where my father and most of his siblings were born and raised. My father later emigrated to America, to get away from poverty in post-WWII Europe and Morocco. And according to family rumors, the Elgrabys had once lived in Spain and Palestine.

This was a time in my life when I began to explore my own sense of belonging, particularly with respect to Arab and Jewish identity.

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I remembered something my father’s twin brother Elie said to me when we last saw each other in Lyon, before he was ravaged by liver cancer. “I was a thug, a criminal,” he said. “I ruined my life. Anytime somebody tossed off a racist remark here or there, in a bar or in the street, sale arabe or sale juif, fists would fly, and I would land in jail.”

My uncle, who spent eight years in French prisons, considered himself both Moroccan and French, Jewish and Arab, and that was a striking thing to contemplate in a world that relentlessly pits Jews and Arabs against each other.

Moreover, I had been struck by a memory of my father’s, of a time when he and most of his siblings and my grandmother Hassibah had narrowly escaped death. The episode began when they sought to flee the German occupation of Paris. The year was 1941. As a family they had been happy in the French capital since their move from Lyon to the Bastille district in 1938. Suddenly they planned to uproot themselves again—Hassibah would take the kids back to Casablanca and wait out the war. Eight of them boarded a southbound train at the Gare de Lyon, but they only got as far as Dijon before the SS stopped the train, combing the cars for Jews, communists and other “enemies of the state.” My father and his brothers and sisters and his mother, however, were mistaken by the Nazis for Moroccan Muslims, and made it through the eye of the needle.

When I first heard this story, I marveled at their close call, knowing the lot of them might have been sent to a death camp instead of spending the war years in Casablanca. But gradually I realized it meant that there was very little difference between Moroccan Muslims and Jews, and that the divisive ideas people form about each other only serve to deform the truth, which is that we are all just human beings.

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In 1996 I befriended Victor Perera. He was a Guatemalan-born Sephardic Jew who had come to New York as a teenager. Perera became a model for me as a progressive writer and thinker who, back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, had written sympathetic things about Palestinians, when almost no one dared to call Palestinians anything but terrorists. Perera introduced me to other Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jews who were critical thinkers—writers, poets, academics and artists. We soon formed a close-knit group of like-minded activists, and some of us referred to ourselves as Arab Jews.

Working with these friends who like me seemed to break the Jewish mold, I launched a national association of eastern or Mizrahi Jews, called Ivri-NASAWI. We were in solidarity with Arab and Muslim causes, we celebrated cultures of North Africa and the Middle East, and ultimately this work led me to propose the creation of a cultural arts center for the vast region that stretches from Afghanistan-Pakistan westward toward Morocco, which some call “the greater Middle East.”

With a handful of friends, I launched the Levantine Cultural Center during the summer of 2001, in June. This was immediately on the heels of a rather large and persuasive international conference, The Israeli-Palestinian Crisis: New Conversations for a Pluralist Future, which I coproduced at UCLA in May 2001, as then co-director of Open Tent Middle East Coalition.

Three months after we opened the Levantine Cultural Center, the country was engulfed in the events of September 11th, 2001. We all watched the towers fall with trepidation. Suddenly we had no idea how the relationship between Arabs/Muslims and America would play out. To our surprise, there was an immediate surge of interest in our work.

me-and-javier-bardem400.jpgJordan Elgrably with actor Javier Bardem at a special director's screening of the Julian Schnabel film Miral based on the novel by Rula Jebreal

In December 2001 we presented several short plays, poems and performances at the Beyond Baroque Theatre in Venice. Don Shirley from the Los Angeles Times was there and wrote about what he saw: "The New Millennium Project: Responses to September 11, 2001 was presented by Levantine Cultural Center, a fledgling organization that is trying to create a place where musicians, dancers, poets, filmmakers and other artists will specifically address Middle Eastern subjects. Part of the group’s mission is to create a spirit of coexistence among the region’s often clashing ethnicities.”

Shirley was only partially right—it was not our mission to emphasize the ways that people from the greater Middle East conflict with one another, but rather, celebrate what binds us together, which is something that mainstream western media has rarely been interested in reporting. Most Middle East media coverage remains sensational—“if it bleeds, it leads.” High drama, death and destruction is how the western press prefers to characterize the Arab/Muslim world—usually without accounting for the U.S. empire’s role in that chaos.

Soon it became apparent to Los Angeles visitors that the Levantine Cultural Center had a strong vision of what coexistence would look like, and a 2002 article by Mary Rourke in the Los Angeles Times conveyed our message:

The wide cultural diversity the Levantine Center's monthly calendar represents helps to explain its vision. "We want to build up a crossroads sensibility in Los Angeles," says Elgrably, who is director of the center. As an Arab Jew of mixed ancestry who was raised in Echo Park, he considers himself a good example of the ethnic diversity the center represents. 

"I saw disparate arts and cultural groups around Los Angeles with no official address," says Elgrably, whose home office in West Hollywood is decorated with textiles from Yemen, an Egyptian mirror and an Iranian carpet. "From the beginning, my proposal was to look at the similarities between these cultures and at the same time put each of them into a larger cultural context."

reza-aslan-jordan2.jpgReza Aslan presenting his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Over we time we grew our following as we increased our offerings. While the center remained grassroots in terms of size, our annual budget slowly grew from $5,000 in 2001 to $250,000 in 2011. We had many flagship programs, including our innovative multiethnic interfaith comedy show, the Sultans of Satire, which launched in 2005 and ran for more than a decade. In 2007 the LA Times wrote about the show and made it possible for us to sell out a major performance at USC’s Bovard Auditorium. In 2009, we brought the show to the nation’s capital for a performance to celebrate the first inauguration of Barack Obama.

Other flagship initiatives I created were the years-long project Gaza Surf Relief; the five year series New Voices in Middle Eastern cinema (funded by grants from the Golden Globes’ HFPA Foundation and others); a new theatre company, Freedom Theatre West, that produced the hit play Sarah’s War in 2012; the annual series Arabs, Blacks & Jews: The Art of Resistance that brought together those disparate communities in challenging new ways; and the Inside/Outside Art Gallery which presented many exciting new exhibitions over several years—a few are mentioned below, in particular Local/Not Local: Arab and Iranian Typography, curated in 2014 for the Levantine Cultural Center by the talented Maece Seirafi and Pouya Jahanshahi.

In 2015 I created our Ask A Muslim series, produced that year and in 2016 with the organization Muslims for Progressive Values. We received funding from the A & A Fund and the Hilals among others. As I noted then, “In this country, we don’t talk about race, religion, politics, with great depth–we need safe places for public conversations...We need to peel away our onion layers with each other and talk honestly about our fears and confusion.” Among our programs was a painful, vital discussion of the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting in which 49 people lost their lives, and 58 were injured.

In October 2015, I presented the Soup for Syria Food and Arts Festival to raise money for Syrian refugees. That month I also had the honor of being recognized with the Rachel Corrie Conscience and Courage Award from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. During the summer of 2016, I was a Fellow with the Ariane de Rothschild Foundation's annual program at Cambridge, where an interfaith cohort of activists brainstormed together on ways to strengthen international dialogue and cooperation.

While I stepped down at the end of 2016 to turn my attention research and writing, I’ve continued to support the original vision of the Levantine Cultural Center that is The Markaz. It remains my wish to find major funding, to re-open a center that can be a beacon in Southern California.

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To get a sense of the many events produced over the years from our small storefront location on W. Pico Blvd, one has simply to glance back at the long list of programs on our web site. I find the diversity and richness of these programs heartwarming. Below are a number of comments received from people who participated in those programs.

Over the years I’ve had the immense privilege and pleasure to work with over a thousand fine artists, writers, academics and activists. Here are just a few names that immediately come to mind:

Filmmakers Hany Abu-Assad, Nabil Ayouch, Rachid Bouchareb, Abdellatif Kechiche, Shirin Neshat, Denis Villeneuve

Authors/Playwrights Rabih Alameddine, Ammiel Alcalay, Tamim Ansary, Reza Aslan, Ruth Behar, Kai Bird, Sami Shalom Chetrit, Leslie Cockburn, Juan Cole, Valerie Dillman, Yussef El Guindi, Aris Janigian, Mark LeVine, David, Shasha, Ella Shohat, Janet Sternburg, Joyce Zonana

Actors: Shohreh Aghdashloo, Javier Bardem, Terry Davis, Lindsay Ginter, Omar Metwally, Felix Pire, Shiva Rose, Will Rothhaar, Richard Schiff, Roger Guenveur Smith, Waleed Zuaiter

Artists: Faris Al-Saffar, Sama Alshaibi, Vahé Berberian, Huguette Caland, Adnan Charara, Ramsey Chahine, Dorit Cypis, Kinda Hibrawi, Maece Seirafi, Nouha Sinno

Comedians: Ahmed Ahmed, Mike Batayeh, Omid Djalili, Noël Elgrably, Elham Jazab, Maz Jobrani, Aron Kader, Russell Peters, Mona Shaikh, Melissa Shoshahi, Lory Tatoulian, Tehran, Angelo Tsarouchas

Poets: Peter Cole, Sesshu Foster, Natalie Handal, Dima Hilal, Mohja Kahf, Sholeh Wolpé

Academics: Lia Brozgal, Michael Datcher, Richard Falk, Norman Finkelstein, Olivia Harrison, Amir Hussain, Rachid Khalidi, Edward Said

Musicians: Mira Awad, Souren Baronian, Bedouin X Democratoz, Sussan Deyhim, Omar Faruk Tekbilek, Richard Horowitz, Jaffa Road, Alfred Madain, Naser Musa, (the late) Zane Musa, Ali Jihad Racy, Rowan Storm

This brief overview cannot possibly do justice to the last 20 years I’ve worked in Los Angeles to help create coexistence and understanding between our many diverse communities, including Armenians, Arabs, Blacks, Iranians, Jews, Mexicans, Muslims, Turks and others. And in spite of everything I’ve been able to achieve, I continue to feel that I’ve only just scratched the surface of what is needed, what is possible, and what we must do to change our divisive world.

Jordan Elgrably, February 20, 2018

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Testimonials

"Jordan Elgrably is a miracle worker.  By dint of vision, imagination, intelligence and passionate commitment, he built the Levantine Cultural Center/The Markaz into a compelling institution. He is totally fair minded in his treatment of the cultures and conflicts of the regions. I can attest personally that the programming he originated expanded my understanding and appreciation of the diverse cultures of the Levant." —Steven D Lavine, President Emeritus, California Institute of the Arts

"I met a couple from Lebanon years ago at one of your events, both whom I am not only in touch with to this day, but have met in not just Beirut but Bahrain, as well! Thank you." —Paul Alan Smith, Equitable Artists

"Passionate, multi talented, multi-dimensional, deep love and commitment, dog with a bone, community builder, community nurturer, cultural wizard, lover of people and life." —Jodie Evans, cofounder CODEPINK Women for Peace

"Jordan, you changed many people's lives. You brought so many people together. Many friendships and couples met through you and the LCC. Many collaborations between artists and writers came about because of you and your work at the LCC.  Personally you affected my life. I met many people, found fulfillment in volunteering with LCC, learned a great deal, began writing fiction again, enjoyed evenings and events at the LCC...You mounted dozens of amazing shows and events with just a shoe string budget and they were splendid events." —Dr. Nile Regina El Wardani

“The Markaz plays an important role in countering media bias and stereotyping against the Arab and Muslim community both in the US and overseas.  By exposing its predominantly western audience to well-curated performances and cultural events that showcase the beauty and diversity of the Muslim world, the center is effective at building local community as well as changing minds and perceptions.” —Ibrahim Alhusseini, venture capitalist

“Jordan has taken on a very important responsibility. He has relentlessly pursued bridging the gap between various cultures of the Middle East and North Africa. His background and experience coupled with his ability to organize, promote and produce has resulted in numerous very successful events at The Markaz. He is a pioneer in the area of grassroots social and cultural activities involving first and second generation for immigrants. Jordan is an asset to the community at large.” —Ali Derakhshan, NBC Universal

"The Markaz, on Pico near Crescent Heights, is an important community institution where all the religious, ethnic and national groups from the Middle East and North Africa can come together through art, culture current events." —Dick Platkin, Los Angeles city planner

“I have been a part of many programs at The Markaz. I appreciate the experience and love the meaning. To me, The Markaz is more than just an organization.  It symbolizes hope and augurs well for the future. It welcomes different religions, cultures, and ethnicities that share the same vision.  It means peace in the Middle East. It means home.” —Tehran Von Ghasri, television host and comedian

“Jordan is a visionary. He has worked tirelessly to promote understanding between people and promote a better world and worldview. He has also supported many fascinating and important cultural initiatives.” —Laurie Frank, owner, Frank Pictures Gallery


  • 1997, 1998, 1999—Creator and co-producer of the Sephardic Arts Festival at the Skirball Cultural Center and Museum
    Each summer, I curated a selection of musical performances, art exhibits and other cultural offerings for festivals serving 4,000-8,000 attendees. Review of the first festival in 1997. "There's the sense that Sephardic culture has largely been underrepresented and misunderstood."

  • 1998—Innovator of the 1998 National Sephardi Literary Contest, funded by the Maurice Amado Foundation
    Selected judges, received literary submissions and processed prizes and awards to winners, with public ceremonies in New York and Los Angeles.

  • 1999, 2002, 2005—Music producer with the World Festival of Sacred Music 
    Beginning in 1999, as the co-director of Open Tent Middle East Coalition, I worked with UCLA under the auspices of the Dalai Lama, and organized bicultural concerts featuring Arab, Iranian, Jewish and other diverse artists, including 2005's The Poetry of Peace with performers Sheva and Omar Faruk Tekbilek at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre

  • 1999 & 2001—Film festival producer, creator of the Middle East Film Festival: A Cultural Conversation
    Coproduced two editions of the festival with member organizations of Open Tent Middle East Coalition, which I co-directed with Munir Shaikh

  • 2001—Founded the Levantine Cultural Center which for fifteen years became the primary engine in Los Angeles for experiencing art and cultures of the greater Middle East, a place in the spirit of friendship and exploration.

  • 2005-2016—Creator and producer of the stand-up comedy show Sultans of Satire: Middle East Comic Relief
    Organized the first multicultural Middle Eastern stand-up comedy show of young men and women of Arab, Afghan, Iranian, Armenian, Pakistani, Indian and Sephardic heritage, toured the show nationally and for 11 years presented regular monthly shows at the Laugh Factory, the Hollywood Improv, the Levantine Cultural Center and The Markaz.

  • 2007—Created and cofounded Gaza Surf Relief with Sev Sztalkoper for the Levantine Cultural Center
    Raised funds and in-kind donations of surf boards and surfing paraphernalia shipped to Gaza, from Southern California and around the world, linking up with Surfing for Peace activists.

  • 2008—Received the Local Hero Award at UCLA from the World Foundatation of Arts and Cultures. Featured in LA Weekly's People of the Year.

  • 2006-2016—Curated and/or produced many individual and group art exhibits at the Levantine Cultural Center
    These included A Child's View of Gaza group exhibition; Baghdadism, an exhibition by Iraqi artist Faris Al-Saffar; Wafaa Bilal's Shoot An Iraqi; the group exhibit Inside/Outside & Other Oxymorons with paintings and sculptures by Sama Alshaibi, Vahé Berberian and Adnan Charara; East-West Convergences with Nouha Balaa-Sinno and Kinda Hibrawi; The Poison is the Cure, Ramsey Chahine; Dorood: Building Bridges Art Exchange with work of young Iranian artists from Tehran, curated by Marjan Vayghan; and Local/Not Local, Arab and Iranian Typography Made in California curated by Maece Seirafi and Pouya Jahanshahi.

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