Saturday 27 May 2017

How to forge new friendships with new neighbours

Modern Ireland is throwing together new neighbours from completely different cultures - but how do you forge friendships? Start with 'cultural tea cups'

Nor Nasib and Ann Madden at the Culture Connects Exhibition in The Chester Beatty Library. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Nor Nasib and Ann Madden at the Culture Connects Exhibition in The Chester Beatty Library. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Batik detail. Photo: Fergal Phillips
The women's art supplies.
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

How do you bring communities together in an age when we no longer know our next-door neighbours by name? That was the question Dublin City Council asked when they came up with Dublin's Culture Connects - a city-wide initiative that is designed to use culture as a tool to break down barriers and help neighbourhoods integrate.

The ambitious project was born out of extensive research that Dublin City Council conducted among 250 groups across the city - 7,000 people in total. "We spoke to thousands of people about the things that are going on in their community, or the things that are concerning them in their community," explains project director Iseult Byrne.

"It wasn't so much 'I wish there was a gate on that park' but 'I feel isolated because I can never get to that place, or I don't go there because I've lost a connection with it'. Those values became the themes of these projects."

Thirty projects - specific to each community's need - were identified. The groups were then introduced to an artist and partnered with a national cultural institution such as the Chester Beatty Library or the National Concert Hall.

Nor Nasib and Ann Madden standing in front of the 99 Names of Allah at the Chester Beatty Library. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Nor Nasib and Ann Madden standing in front of the 99 Names of Allah at the Chester Beatty Library. Photo: Fergal Phillips

"The idea is to use the tools of culture - the arts, music, theatre, storytelling - to reconnect people, communities or neighbours to each other," explains Iseult.

During their research, Dublin City Council spoke to the Amal Women's Group, part of the Islamic Foundation of Ireland mosque on the South Circular Road. They soon discovered that the women there wanted to connect with the broader community - in particular other women and mothers - but they didn't know how.

"I was excited when they picked us to join," says Malaysian-born Nor Nasib, who works as an assistant administrator at the mosque and has lived in Ireland for 17 years.

"I want to educate people and give positive information to the community and show them that we are friendly and welcoming. We want you to come and visit the mosque and we want to be your friends.

Connecting: From left, artist Helen Barry, artist, Punctuation, Nor Nasib, Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin Rebecca Moynihan and Sabina Higgins at the exhibition. Photo Chris Bellew / Fennell Photography
Connecting: From left, artist Helen Barry, artist, Punctuation, Nor Nasib, Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin Rebecca Moynihan and Sabina Higgins at the exhibition. Photo Chris Bellew / Fennell Photography

"People see terrorism in the media and they think that is us but we would like people to get to know us before they make judgements," she continues. "This was a way for us to say, 'Okay, we are part of the community.'"

The project resonated with Nor, who has always tried to help the local community better understand Islam. During Ramadam, for instance, she sends out letters to the mosque's neighbours, explaining that they break their fast at 10pm.

"We tell them that it might be a bit noisy outside because that is the time that we all pray together in the mosque and eat together - so, to say thank you to them for putting up with us, we give them cakes."

Dublin's Culture Connects approached the F2 Women's Group in Rialto next. They didn't go to them with an idea as such, rather an invitation to participate, says Iseult. "We asked, 'Do you want to be in a project that is for you to shape with an artist?'"

With the F2 women on board, there was some back and forth before the Amal women suggested using the concept of speed-dating to help the two groups build up a rapport quickly and easily.

"It was a funny idea because my knowledge of their religion is that speed-dating wouldn't be appropriate," says Iseult, "but they just wanted to get to know something about a person so that they could make a connection."

Under the guidance of artist Helen Barry - and after drinking countless cups of tea - this idea soon evolved into what they now call 'cultural tea cups'.

"The idea is that you write a little bit about yourself on your cup so that when you're having a cup of tea with someone you don't know, you can read the cup and discover their interests," explains Iseult. "That kind of becomes like speed-dating as you can both chat about the thing you're interested in."

"We can stand at a bus stop and talk to somebody about the weather and then spend the next hour talking about it," adds Helen, "but in other cultures it's considered quite offensive to start conversation."

Meanwhile, the women of the Amal group began working on an elaborate 8ft embroidered batik containing the 99 names of Allah. It's depicted in the form of a tree, on which each leaf is etched with a name.

"Initially, I brought in an old-fashioned printing press to show them some of the things they could do on it, but they had no interest whatsoever," explains Helen. "They couldn't see why you would do something like that. I had brought it to many other places and everyone wanted to give it a go."

"We do art for enjoyment and relaxation; for them, art has to be functional," she adds. "Even though a lot of them would have huge skill and they invest a lot of time in making, it has to serve a functional reason. It is not done for ornamentation - it is to show Allah that they can do something."

Some of the women from the F2 visited the Amal group while they were working on the batik. The mosque is open to the public for coffee mornings, but most of the women, including mother-of-five Ann Madden, had never before visited. "We could ask questions, we were given information and we were treated royally," she says. While some of the communication between the two groups of women was lost in translation, there were other times when the universal language was more than enough.

"There were a few moments when someone raised an eyebrow and everyone just understood and erupted with laugher," remembers Helen.

As the women exchanged their skills of sewing, knitting and crocheting, they also began to ask questions about each other's daily lives. Nor remembers one of the F2 women asking why some of the women at the mosque were wearing hijabs and burqas.

"They asked us why we wear the scarf and we explained to them that it is our choice and it is between the woman and God," she says.

"If you choose to wear it, it is your choice. If you don't want to wear it, it is your choice. We have to have a right to wear whatever we want to wear. It is a basic human right."

The conversation continued when the Amal group visited the F2 group on International Women's Day. The EU hijab workplace ban was brought up and somebody pointed out the parallels between the ban and the days when Catholic women were required to cover their heads before they entered a church.

"The [Amal] women felt that if they weren't allowed to wear it, it would further alienate them," says Helen. "Somebody else pointed out that surely a Sikh man should be asked to remove his turban."

The workshop concluded with the women from both groups adding their wishes for the future to a Tree of Hope. Nor noticed that the women's wishes transcended religion and culture. "We know now that if they have problems, they come to us. If we have problems, we can go to them. There is a trust there," she says.

"I see the ladies on and off now and we just know each other," adds Ann. "We haven't built up personal friendships as such but just knowing each other and being able to talk is enough.

"I think it's for the betterment of the whole of society to accept people as they are," she continues. "Likewise, they live here so they accept us. In this day and age, it is so important to educate our children to accept other cultures and learn about them."

Nor agrees: "Intercultural education is very important. Ireland is a very diverse country. There are a lot of other cultures living here. They had their kids here - their kids are Irish - and we need to be able to get the children to know the culture."

The work that the women created is now part of an exhibition, Punctuation, which is currently showing at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin Castle, and includes the contributions of storyteller Xanthe Gresham and documentary maker Hanan Dirya.

Iseult is confident that the project has planted a seed. Whether it grows or not is up to the women themselves. "It's a start of something, as opposed to a completion, as I don't think that type of work is ever completed," she says.

"It's about starting conversations between people that hopefully they will continue with each other."

'Punctuation' will run at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin Castle, until Monday, April 17. Admission is free; see dublinscultureconnects.ie

We must recognise the value of solidity - that we are all in this small, vulnerable planet together and we are all related

By Sabina Higgins

It was a great pleasure to have been invited to speak at the opening of Punctuation. This inspiring showcase of work reflects a unique partnership between the F2 women’s group and the Islamic Foundation Amal Coffee Morning Group, who had come together over a number of months in a sharing of culture and heritage.

The wonderful exhibition I viewed of the 8ft embroidered hanging contained the 99 names of Allah, and the tea cups with texts highlighted what both community and culture mean to the women. 

iw DublinsCult.jpg
Connecting: From left, artist Helen Barry, artist, Punctuation, Nor Nasib, Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin Rebecca Moynihan and Sabina Higgins at the exhibition. Photo Chris Bellew / Fennell Photography

It was so impressive to witness the connection that had been made and the film about connections between two groups of women working to make their neighbourhood a place where each can share the same space, which in itself can become a place of welcome for performance, for example the children’s theatrical dance. This for me seemed such a good example of what connecting community through culture means.

I met neighbours, friends and members of the South Circular Road community who emphasised how much they shared in common, as they created a sense of place for themselves and for their families. For some of them, it may be the place where they grew up and first learnt the meaning of the word ‘community’ and experienced that all-important sense of belonging, of identifying with the place one regards as ‘home’.

Others amongst them may have come here from other parts of Dublin or Ireland, setting up new homes and forging new friendships. Others still may have travelled from much further afield and found amongst the residents of the South Circular Road a welcoming community, into which they have become a part and an active participant.

Whatever their different stories, their different journeys, the South Circular Road has become an important chapter in their personal and family stories; creating an unbreakable link and a connection that they will always share wherever life may bring them in future years.

I was delighted to pay tribute to Dublin City Council, which had great vision in deciding to follow through with the proposal it had put forward for the Capital of Culture and bring it to fruition. The events and new museums commemorating 1916 were a great achievement culturally and the aspiration to keep that creative energy continuing on into the future is very inspiring. I was happy to congratulate all concerned in this project and the vision of recognising the central importance of culture in all aspects of people’s lives.

The development of the policies of Dublin’s Culture Connects is a wonderful undertaking and The National Neighbourhood project will, I am sure, prove successful in fostering positive connections, not only now, but into the future.

I am sure that Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin, Cllr Rebecca Moynihan, must have been really pleased with Dublin City Council’s success with this Punctuation exhibition and the other projects, and with the city’s plans to bring communities and cultural institutions together in partnership to promote a wide community involvement in creating a living arts city. That this exhibition is taking place in the exotic and beautiful Chester Beatty Library is truly exciting.

This initiative is timely: its significance does not end with its success here. It is  vital when we live in a globalised world where the survival of the planet itself depends on recognising the interdependence of the local and global. As we learn to take responsibility for what is local, we become more conscious of our global responsibility for the survival of our shared vulnerable planet and all its people.

To achieve the 17 great United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and Climate Change Justice, these are its building blocks from the bottom up we can be proud to put in place.

Cllr Moynihan made a valuable contribution on conflicts worldwide that are threatening all of our lives. In the past, expanding empires gave rise to conflict and war; now the conflicts are often about resources, culture and cultural dominations. We have been so lucky here in Ireland that we haven’t had any far-right wing political parties giving rise to a politics of fear, like what is happening in Europe and America. This is such a good thing but we mustn’t take it for granted: we really do have to work hard to make sure that we keep it that way.

We must ensure people are informed and wise and educated, that they recognise the value of a multi-cultural society. We must recognise the value of solidity and that we are all in this small vulnerable planet together and we are all related.

We know that, at the very heart of any functioning community, there must exist a real will to constantly work together to bring about positive change; to craft an inclusive citizenship that enables every member to participate and be treated with respect and feel welcome.

A community in its truest sense cannot exist where its residents occupy parallel exclusive societies separated from each other. While different cultures, languages and traditions are an important part of heritage, they must not be allowed to create separate spaces of ‘them’ and ‘us’. For a community to thrive and flourish and have enjoyment, its members must be made welcome in each other’s homes, sit alongside each other in the classroom, play together on the sports field and work in solidarity as they embrace the pluralism of a modern, dynamic Ireland.

It is particularly important that education be accommodating of plurality and multi-cultural realities. Much great work is being done by so many excellent teachers in so many schools now. The Educate Together integrated schools — and schools that are multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-faith — have developed a wonderful ethos of inclusion and celebration of difference, indeed to the point of it being the norm. On visits to the schools with the President, it is a joy to see the children understand and celebrate each other’s culture. They are having the opportunity of experiencing the benefit of a rich creative environment.

A true community is one which has the vision to see beyond the false barriers we so often erect between ourselves and others, and the imagination to understand how different cultures and traditions enrich our society and broaden our perspective. Such vision and imagination must be built on tolerance and empathy, and rooted in a real understanding of the heritage and traditions that have shaped both ourselves and those with whom we share our community.

This exhibition I spoke at in the Chester Beatty Library was a great celebration of such vision and understanding. Through art, design, performance and storytelling, we were reminded that cultures that remain inspiring and relevant are those that are open and accommodating to new influences; not afraid to come together and weave new patterns that reflect the multi-cultural dimension of modern societies. Artistic creations — our art, our music, our literature and our dance — must be allowed to evolve in a changing society. Our communities too must continue to grow and develop, becoming places where different strands of heritage merge without ceding one identity to another.

All of those present were working with great generosity and commitment to create such a community. I would like to thank Dublin’s Culture Connects and commend the members of the F2 women’s group and the Islamic Foundation Amal Coffee Morning Group for their generous spirit of social and cultural solidarity. I would also like to pay tribute to the artists whose work I saw — Helen Barry, Xanthe Gresham and Hanan Dirya. Theirs was an invaluable contribution.

Irish Independent

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