Wednesday, August 22, 2007


HAMSA-Fest breaks down cultural barriers through inter-ethnic celebration of the arts

by Anthonia Akitunde

The United States is known as the melting pot of the world, and few cities represent that concept as well as Chicago. Our streets and neighborhoods are teeming with the people, the languages, the food, the art—the culture—of nations from around the world. While we're home to many an ethnic street fair during the summer months, this week's HAMSA-Fest in Lincoln Park goes beyond the typical fare by asking, “Can cross-cultural artistic collaboration serve as a catalyst for inter-ethnic dialogue and global understanding?"

Dr. Wendy Sternberg, founder and executive director of the festival, asked herself this very question in February 1999. She says she created Genesis at the Crossroads (GATC—the non-profit organization which puts on HAMSA-Fest) in the hopes of “bridging cultures in conflict through arts to foster awareness, appreciation and celebration of cultural diversity, while breaking down unnecessary cultural barriers." Focusing on Middle Eastern and North African cultures, GATC had three successful half-day events at the Chicago Cultural Center before approaching Mayor Richard M. Daley to make HAMSA-Fest Chicago's first “outdoor ethnic celebration of the Middle East."

From the mix of performances and foods, down to its name, the festival is about collaboration. HAMSA is a reference to the Hamsa symbol, a five-fingered hand “used to import good luck and ward off evil [that originated] during the [fifth] century in Byzantine Greece," Sternberg explains. “Its meaning is exactly the same in the Arab, Jewish and Persian communities. We think it is the consummate symbol uniting human beings through their common ground."

HAMSA-Fest promises great food (“Kabobs, falafel and spicy Moroccan fare") and ethnic wares. You might even find the next big thing in Middle Eastern music: The festival has become “the preeminent Middle Eastern festival [known] to launch some artists' careers."

Sternberg hopes that HAMSA-Fest will address the problem of ignorance that allows a society to label another as evil or backward. “In the mainstream media, the cultures of the Middle East and North Africa are often portrayed as sinister, yet they boast a tremendously rich heritage. We wanted to make these cultures accessible to the public, so often bombarded with so much negative imagery, and gather an audience that brought ethnic groups together and encouraged conversations among them."

2007 HAMSA-Fest will be held Aug. 25-26 in Lincoln Park, just south of the Farm in the Zoo;