On Jan. 29, Syrian-American Hip-Hop artist and poet, Omar Offendum, shared his talents and story with students, staff and faculty of CSUSB during Syrianamericana: A Nation-State of Mind in the Santos Manuel Student Union. The event stood to be equal parts presentation and conversation, Offendum was on a mission to share his abilities to transform Hip-Hop and Arabic poetry into a discussion that focuses on hybridized identities, immigration, refugee crisis and his passion for equality, his family and the culture of Syria.
“You allow people to see the humanity in you and you in them through art,” said Offendum, when asked about how his work in hip-hop allows his audience to connect with his central message of the complexity of his Arab-American identity.
Offendum began by taking the stage and sharing one of his most adored poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, by Langston Hughes. Often inspired by the works of poets, Offendum shares his passion for the art of poetry and its ability to communicate culture and experience.
The audience began to learn more about Offendum’s upbringing and childhood when he shared a translated version of the Arab poem, “Damascene Poem”, by Nizar Qabbani. The crowd discovered the world of Damascus, Syria—the oldest inhabited city in the world.
Offendum continued to discuss the unfortunate issues that currently surround Syria. He explained a simple google search of Syria eight years ago would not mirror what one would find on the web today.
The discussion of xenophobia continued as Offendum reminded the audience of the story of Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old boy who was arrested after sharing with his teacher a digital clock that he created; Mohamed, who dreamt of being an engineer, was thrilled to share an accomplishment with his instructor. However, the instructor feared it was an explosive.
Offendum went on to perform his poem, “Mother Earth,” in which he discussed the situation of Mohamed and the everlasting legacy of Earth after society leaves behind its pride and arrogance.
“Art, at its best, seeks to be honest about people’s experiences,” said Offendum. “It’s a way for people to get a window into this part of the world or culture that is being unfortunately, for the most part, demonized and facing a lot of xenophobia.”
As the media coverage and conflict that surrounds Middle Eastern culture have continuously created a xenophobic environment within society, Offendum explained the historical background of the Arabic culture misrepresentation by reading headlines from articles that were published in the New York Times during the 19th century as many Arab- Americans began to reside in the small town of Little Syria.
“Arabs Unwilling to go Home,” stated one headline, while another stated there was a “motley crew of Arabs” residing in the state.
As the night concluded, Offendum shared that his greatest goal was to leave a positive and sincere impact on those he educates through his art. He stated that his offerings come from his truth and experiences—making it difficult from him to represent an entire culture himself.
Nonetheless, Offendum encouraged the audience to remain curious about the Middle Eastern world and its culture by taking courses or befriending someone of Arab heritage. He explained there is not one single message that can be shared about an entire society other than the fact that it is simply complex.
During his finale, Offendum shared his newest song, “Close My Eyes,” that shared his reflection on the loss of his father, Syria and his relatively new introduction into fatherhood himself.
“He definitely opened a lot of eyes—especially those who have may not have been exposed to the concepts and culture of the middle east,” said student and event organizer, Rama Al-Shreteh. “He’s definitely made a lot of impact with his work. He shows a lot of passion and dedication to what he does.