Center Shines Its Art Through Clouds of War

Directors hope performances will help Americans better understand viewpoints of the Middle East

September 26, 2002  |  Los Angeles Times  | Mary Rourke

In a bright yellow rehearsal room at a new arts center in Century City, a troupe of eight actors and dancers practices a play about a mythic Persian hero named Arash. The decor suggests eclectic tastes. An African sculpture and an Indian porcelain elephant are tucked into the corners. Chinese and Moroccan lanterns light the evening.

The part of the world these objects represent may seem remote to some Westerners, but not to the artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers who will present their work here. For them, the eastern Mediterranean is the heart of the world.

Shida Pegahi, director of this new Pacific Arts Center, opened it this summer as a school for children and adults. From the beginning, she wanted to attract not only students but also working artists and performers, and she offered to make the space available to the Levantine Cultural Center, a group of arts activists she helped found.

Since it began two years ago, the Levantine Center has been a state of mind more than an actual place. It has sponsored performances held in various spaces around the city, featuring artists from the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Starting this month, the Pacific Arts and Levantine Cultural centers will share a home address.

"When you don't have a lot of funds, you have to pool resources," says Pegahi, who was born in Iran, educated in England and has been teaching ballet and modern dance in Los Angeles for 18 years. "More than ever in America," she says, "people want to know what the Middle East and the Levantine area are all about. This city is very open to new ideas."

The term "Levant" was first applied to Syria and Lebanon in the '20s when the French governed them. Lever, to rise, suggests the East, where the sun comes up. A looser definition came to include all the countries on the eastern Mediterranean shore, from Greece through Turkey and Lebanon to Israel into Egypt.

Now, even as the Levantine Center sets down roots, it is again broadening the definition of the territory. Its board of directors includes Los Angeles residents with family ties in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Morocco, Iran and Egypt.<

Pegahi got involved with the Levantine Center when she met Jordan Elgrably, a Los Angeles native whose father was raised in Morocco. Elgrably has traveled the world as a freelance journalist. "Jordan had an idea for a cultural center, and he had a name in mind," Pegahi says. "We both wanted to see a gathering place where people from the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean cultures could meet."

The center's fall lineup, which can be found at, lists plenty of opportunities. A Turkish author, Syrian dervishes, and an evening of Jewish music from Turkey, Greece and Jerusalem are among the planned events. A number of them are promoted by the Levantine Center but funded and hosted by major arts institutions, including the Getty Center, Skirball Cultural Center and the Armand Hammer Museum. Others are joint efforts with the Richard Riordan Public Library and Beyond Baroque Literary/Arts Center in Venice.<

Frederick Dewey, Beyond Baroque's artistic director, met Elgrably when he stopped in to the Venice bookstore more than a year ago. They discovered they think alike. "If there is one thing we can say about this time in American history," Dewey says, "it is that narrow-mindedness is a very dangerous position. The Levantine initiative combats that position. They create ways to promote dialogue between groups that might not otherwise have a voice. They focus on culture, not politics, which so often falls into irresolvable conflict."

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.

"Levantine is a metaphor for an immigrant and American identity," he says. "It is to be Turkish and Armenian and American, for example. Or, Arab and Christian with an Israeli passport and a U.S. green card."

It has taken two years of working nights from home offices, building an international board of directors and hosting music, literature and dance events in borrowed or rented spaces, to reach this point.

"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."

Many of the countries the center includes have been at war for generations. That, says Elgrably, is all the more reason to bring them together in Los Angeles. "We won't let war keep us apart because we will insist that the arts become part of the conversation," he says. "We'll talk about politics and other issues through the arts."

Some of the events he is proudest of so far include an evening of Arab female poets from around the world, held at Beyond Baroque last fall, and an evening with Amiel Alcalay in July. Alcalay is a poet and essayist with family roots in the Balkans, Greece and Turkey, who lives in Massachusetts. He developed the idea of a Levantine culture that Elgrably uses as his guide. "For me," Alcalay said during his visit to Los Angeles this summer, "Levantine has come to represent more than geography. It is a melting pot and a particularly rich mix because of the many cultures it represents."

The Persian play in rehearsals at the center tells the story of Arash, a shepherd chosen to shoot the arrow that will mark one border of the Persian empire. Famous archers have declined the challenge for fear their arrows might fall short. Arash accepts the challenge and sends his arrow farther than anyone dreamed it could go. In an unusual twist, Arash is played by a woman in this version

If the idea for a cultural center that promotes education through the arts sounds right, the funding has been limited. The Levantine Center relies on grants, the board of directors and the $60 annual dues from its 400 or so members for its main financial support. Members receive free tickets to all the events the center sponsors, including a monthly book group. "Half the members are Americans who are curious about that part of the world; the rest have heritage there," Elgrably says.

Jawad Ali, who was born in Pakistan and now teaches English composition at Irvine Valley College, joined the Levantine Center board to help bring attention to playwrights and novelists from western Asia. "We can be a forum for discussing issues through the arts," he says. "It is imperative that we in this country get better informed about that part of the world."

A photo exhibit on the Levantine Web site this month is the sort of discussion starter that Ali calls "emancipatory." The exhibit, "A 9/11 Gallery," looks at the terror attacks of last September from a wide range of perspectives. One image shows an art gallery where a Muslim man wearing ethnic dress sits inside a fenced cage. It is titled "Cultural Isolation."

Ali says that to air ethnic and political tensions through the arts is part of the work of the Levantine Center. "If we humanize the people involved and show that we're not just talking about stick figures, we can help bring about peace," he says. "We all can get along."

After the attack on the World Trade Center, Ali's friends advised him to change his name. "That's not right," he says. "We need to feel free to talk about what concerns us."