Basma, a second year Masters violinist in Juilliard’s Music Division, has been a student worker in our office for a little over a year now. I have become increasingly intrigued by her story of constant travel and relocation. Below is an excerpt from a much more detailed interview of this captivating young woman.
Why did you choose to play a stringed instrument?
Well, I didn’t really choose it! My mom and dad saw that when I was a kid I would hum things and sing, before I could even speak. They felt I had a good ear and wanted to nurture this talent. When I was four my parents saw an advertisement for a new violin program at the Cairo Opera House. So, I went there and took the exam, and I got in.
Tell us about your native Cairo.
Cairo is a very busy and modern city, with layers of culture. When I would go to my lessons I would pass by the pyramids, which were right next to me. There’s this unique experience of living in a mix between the new and the old. The people are very friendly and warm, and there is more of a community base. Part of the culture is that you really have to know and interact with your neighbors. As Muslims (or even Christians) in Islam, the Prophet said “You should be very good to your neighbors and take care of them. They are family.” This a very important part of the religion. The United States is a more independent culture.
Tell us about your unique upbringing.
My father is a diplomat and as the daughter of a diplomat, we traveled a lot because he works in each country for four years and goes back to Egypt for two years, and then the cycle repeats. It was kind of like a gypsy life. I was born in Washington D.C. but don’t have the citizenship because I was the daughter of a diplomat. I lived in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, and later in Syria. Syria was a very safe place compared to what you see now. It was very friendly and clean with hospitable, beautiful people, wonderful food, and the same sense of community as in Egypt. I moved to New Jersey while my father worked for the Egyptian mission in the United Nations. I moved to New York so that I could be close to school, and stayed to continue my education and all that!
Do you have any favorites among the places that you lived?
They’re all wonderful places, but I would definitely choose Egypt and the United States as my favorites because Egypt is where I’m from, my roots, and is in my blood and who I am. The United States is where I’ve matured and developed, both personally and musically. I came here when I was sixteen. And now I’m turning 24 in February.
How do you feel that moving around so often has impacted you?
This community-based culture (from Egypt) isn’t so strong anymore… not thinking “Oh, I know my neighbors” and that they’re going to back you and help you. I think as a person who’s traveled a lot you are open to ideas, and you gain knowledge of other people, other cultures, and how to depend on yourself if you’re from another country.
People have a fear of difference, but I think diversity is what makes this world a rich place. If we’re all the same – dress the same, talk the same, the world would be very boring.
How has moving around so much affected your musical training?
I’ve had very influential teachers in Egypt and in Syria who introduced me to different approaches. This is surely beneficial, but consistency just was not there because of the constant travel. It is when I came to the United States that I had the consistency and the real, foundational training that would really prepare me to be a professional musician. I listen to a lot of Eastern music (Turkish, Arabic, whatever) and my teachers feel that in my playing. They feel a certain flavor. They say, “Whatever you play, it just sounds so different.” Being in different countries definitely influenced the way I present myself as a musician.
You became engaged moments before we met and were recently married. How do you think that these life events are celebrated differently in Egypt?
An engagement here is basically where the guy asks “Will you marry me?,” presents the ring, and that’s it. But for us, no. An engagement is basically a wedding. You get the band and the diamond ring, but you wear it on your right hand. During the wedding, the groom takes off the ring from your right hand and puts it on your left hand. Also, we get engaged and then there is something in the middle. You’re basically married, but there’s a religious ceremony/reception that takes place. Then you have the actual wedding where you wear the white gown. There are three stages.
What would you say is the most common misconception of Egypt?
That Egyptians live in the past. Egypt contributes so much to the world today. In the 20th century, you have Nobel Prize winners in ‘78 (Anwar al-Sadat), ’88 (Naguib Mahfouz), and ‘99 (Ahmed Zewail). A personal misconception for me is that I’ve had an arranged marriage. This is kind of offensive because the person assumes that you are less educated than them, that you are an oppressed woman that is forced into a certain marriage, that I don’t love my husband. I am just as educated as they are, I am at Juilliard, they are at Juilliard; we are equals. People should never assume with stereotypes. People should do their research and know about the country and visit and see.
What aspect of Egypt do you miss the most?
I miss walking in these layers of history, the unique experience of feeling I am walking on the same road people were walking on three thousand years ago. I miss the friendly people, the food, and family for sure. My grandma, who recently passed, was a very elegant lady, from a big well known family in the very eastern part of Egypt. When I was a kid, she would open her jewelry box and show me her vintage things, old and beautiful. That’s where my love for jewelry comes from.
When you reflect on your experience in the United States, what are the first three words that come to mind?
Waleed, my husband, whom I fell in love with here. Music, because I’ll always remember the United States for giving me this very strong musical education – one of the best in the world. And San Francisco. San Francisco is where I’m going to build my family and my future.