It was a warm and windless January night in Stone Town; the three of us nervously followed as our Zanzibari informant, a fashion designer named Faroque, led us down a series of dark and twisting alleys. Passing through a wooden doorway, camera equipment hanging from our necks, we entered a small room with blackboards on all the four walls and a solitary bulb providing weak fluorescent light.
"Though it's small, this is our community space," Faroque said, inviting us to take a seat on the woven mats covering the floor. "During the day, members of the clergy teach the Quran to schoolchildren. And you wouldn't guess — but in the evening, after their prayers, everyone comes here to sing and dance."
Fast-forward six months to this summer, when I interned at the Centre for International Heritage Activities (CIE), a non-profit organization in the field of cultural heritage, located in the sleepy town of Leiden, The Netherlands. I worked with the CIE team and some fellow NYUAD students on a project tentatively titled "the Heritage Emporium," which directly followed from our experiences during our January Term excursion to Zanzibar.
While in Stone Town, the variety and richness of the stories that emerged in the short span of a few days had inspired and humbled us. These were stories of a normal, everyday scale but embellished with specificities of the local culture: a community of musicians who play together after the Friday prayers; an artist who moonlights as a puppeteer; a fisherman who spends his free time pursuing his love for Taarab music; and so on.
Our J-Term class chose documentaries as the means by which we would enhance, and crystallize, our understanding of the Zanzibari cultural heritage. A recurring theme in the conversations soon cropped up: locals and authorities alike sought a wider connectivity within the global network of heritage. "We love to share our culture, but we want to learn from other cultures too," one tourist official told us. "It's important that we do so on our own terms."
The internship reminded me of the big picture, bringing me back to the elemental need for creating and sharing stories in the small and interrelated world that we live in.
My internship this summer centered on outlining a structure for a multimedia platform — a larger community space — through which individuals can tell and view "stories," learn from experts in the field of heritage, create collaborative projects, and watch confluence play out across a range of countries, cultures, and communities. The main idea? That culture is not competitive, but interactive and collaborative.
The challenges of designing such a platform are aplenty, such as how to moderate a high quality of discussion and encourage the free flow of ideas. To discuss these issues and finalize the look of the platform before the implementation phase, the internship culminated in a weekend conference with NYUAD team members, two of whom spent time in Zanzibar for additional fieldwork this summer.
Other projects during my time at the CIE included conducting research into the history of Indo-Dutch heritage cooperation and writing summary reports for the institute's website. Outside of the workplace, I spent many delightful hours visiting museums and, while the FIFA World Cup was in full swing, trying my hardest to camouflage myself among the Dutch locals (the color orange was key). On a more personal level, I sought to gain perspective on the steps forward once the surreal dream that is NYUAD draws to a close for me in less than a year.
This summer, I had the wonderful experience of working in the non-profit sector, on a project that will hopefully benefit many people and address the growing need for collaboration in heritage activities. But most importantly, the internship reminded me of the big picture, bringing me back to the elemental need for creating and sharing stories in the small and interrelated world that we live in. When everything else goes awry, storytelling — through words, music, and dance — can reach deep into the core of our shared experience and remind us of what it means to be human. All we really need to do is reach out, open our eyes, and listen.