Arab Fest celebrates diversity, showcases Middle Eastern cultures

Over the weekend, the Arab American Club of Knoxville and the Religious Studies department at the University of Tennessee held its fourth annual Arab Fest on pedestrian walkway.

The two day festival showcased food, dancing, crafts and various demonstrations of Arab and Middle Eastern cultures.

Erin Darby, assistant professor in the Religious Studies department at UT, is the co-coordinator of the event.

“It began when my students came back from their study abroad tour [in Jordan] in 2013, and they were frustrated that they didn’t have the ability to share their experience with the rest of the UT community,” Darby said. “So, between UT and the Arab American Club of Knoxville, what was a tiny, little baby idea sort of jumped forth into this crazy festival, and it’s gotten bigger every year.”

“It’s basically a way to share the best of Arab culture, not just with UT students but the whole community,” Darby said.

There were several booths lining the circle of pedestrian walkway. Authentic Middle Eastern food from Yassin’s Falafel House, Mirage and other individuals were available to attendees. People could also smoke hookah, get a henna tattoo or purchase authentic beaded home decor and clothes.

In the middle of all of the vendors was a stage for people to sing, dance and play Arab music. On Friday, there was a musician playing a doumbek, which is a style of Middle Eastern drum. Students were encouraged to come up and learn the Arab group folk dance dabke. There were plenty of smiles in the chain of individuals dancing around to the music both days of the festival.

Among guests at the event was the City of Knoxville Mayor, Madeline Rogero. When speaking to the attendees of the festival, Mayor Rogero admitted to this being her first year attending the festival.

“I love coming to our ethnic festivals in our city,” Rogero said. “Thanks to UT, and Tennessee Valley Authority, and Oak Ridge National Lab and a lot of our businesses here we are a very diverse city and I think it’s really important that we celebrate the diversity we have here.”

Some students like junior Jasmine Parks attended the event as a volunteer for extra credit.

“I just love cultural things,” Jasmine said. “Professor Darby asked that we all come out, and I did, and it is a lot of fun.”

For future Arab Fests, Darby would like to see more people come out and learn about Arab and Middle Eastern cultures.

If you have any interest in being involved with or helping plan future Arab Fests, you can email Darby at

Featured image by Nima Kasraie, obtained through Creative Commons

Edited by Kaitlin Flippo

Hindu films’ religious undertones play important role in religious education

Nithi Clicks

Hindi films are a unique and accessible way to learn about Indian and Hindi faith, according to professor of Indian Cultures, Rachel Dwyer.

“What’s interesting with these films is that they are only loosely defined as religious, but have clearly defined Hindu practices,” said Dwyer.

As a professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at the University of London, Dwyer supervises PhD research on Indian Cinema. Her focus is Hindi Cinema.

One of the films touched on was “PK”, a satirical Indian sci-fi film. It is the highest-grossing Indian film of all time, and received critical acclaim as a Hindi film. “…the plot covers an alien trying to untangle Indian-Muslim relations in contemporary India, and it featured a super-star Aamir Khan in the title role. Aamir Khan is recognized as a social activist.” said Dwyer. “PK” was also directed by one of India’s most successful directors.

The importance of the film was its stance on Hindu-Muslim relations, which remains a relatively sore topic of discussion. “What films like this do is talk about things that people don’t necessarily want to hear about, but in the context of humor and light conversation,” said Dwyer.

These films were presented as an example of how Indian popular culture can show differences in religion from film to film. “These films reflect our country as a whole, as we have an obviously Hindu nationalist government. It is a guide to the history of Indian culture, and the history of how religion impacts India,” explained Dwyer.

After the lecture, David Boyd, majoring in economics, said “I think it’s important to understand the impact these films can have. Relating to my major, it’s important to know that consumers are interested in consuming media from other cultures and countries.”

Dwyer’s other research includes the Asian elephant in India, and its appearances in cinema, religion, and literature. Her written works include: “Picture abhi baaki hai: Bollywood as a guide to modern India,” “Filming the Gods: Religion and Indian Cinema” and “100 Bollywood Films.”

More information on Rachel Dwyer can be found here.

More information on “PK” and Hindu Cinema can be found in Dwyer’s article.


Edited by McKenzie Manning

Featured image by Nithi Clicks via 



Long Night of Churches works to attract crowd, end propaganda

In Prague, tourists will notice the city dotted with historical Gothic and Baroque churches and cathedrals, some dating back to the tenth century. While the Czech Republic’s history is rich with religious reformations, Czechs today choose to seldom exercise their spiritual faith.

On May 23, local churches in Prague hosted Long Night of Churches, a project aimed at reintroducing locals to religion.

The Long Night of Churches project consists of multiple places of worship. Each site opened its doors to the public from 6:45-11:45 p.m. allowing visitors to enjoy cultural and architectural aspect of the churches, chapels and synagogues.

A crowd gathers at St. Nicholas Church in Prague for the Long Night of Churches.
A crowd gathers at St. Nicholas Church in Prague for the Long Night of Churches.

The project started in Vienna, Austria, in 2003, as a mission to end anti-church propaganda and expand membership along the way.

Religious communities almost ceased to exist during the communist era. After over 20 years of religious oppression, the churches have yet to rebound in attendance.

“It’s really hard to reestablish the church,” says Martina Kopecka, a deacon of Prague’s St. Nicholas church in Old Town Square.

With a national population of 10 .5 million, Kopecka said St. Nicholas maintains 600 members.
Dalibor Vik, also a deacon at St. Nicholas, said the anti-church propaganda is more prevalent among older generations, who can still remember when religious indifference was the expected norm during the communist years.

“We hope to change it by events like this,” Vik said. “Maybe they [can] find out that there’s nothing bad about the church.”

“It’s not about gaining new members. It’s mostly about inviting people. We think it’s better when they feel welcomed here.”

Citizens have largely abstained from religious involvement since their years under the Communism regime. From 1948-1989, the communist government outlawed religious practices, making atheism the dominant belief system. Many Czechs continue to abstain from a spiritual belief structure, making them one of the most non-religious countries in the world.  Nearly 60 percent of Czechs claim to be undeclared or nonreligious.

According to Zaboj Horak, author of “Religion and the Secular State in the Czech Republic,” under communistic rule, church properties were seized by the state; church schools and seminaries were abolished; monasteries emptied out to make room for military activities, and almost all bishops were imprisoned.

“I can hardly blame them for being agnostic,” said Ryan Beavers, director of worship and media arts for Ooletwah United Methodist Church. “The Czech Republic has really just been in the wrong place at the wrong time through much of church history.”

Beavers travelled to the Czech Republic in 2012 for mission work with his church.

“The church has their work cut out for them,” said Beavers.

A Catholic shrine to the Virgin Mary at a cathedral in Old Town Square.
A Catholic shrine to the Virgin Mary stands at a cathedral in Old Town Square.

Beavers says that many Czechs believed that Communism was in bed with Catholcism and have deep rooted trust issues regarding the church.

A statue of Jan Hus, a religious revolutionary from the 1500s, can be found in the center of Old Town Square. Hus was burned at the stake in Rome even after the Catholic Church promised his safety.

“For me, Jan Hus seems like a martyr who was fighting for a more true faith,” said Beavers. “For the Czech people, that’s just one more guy that the religious people did wrong.”

Although the majority of Czechs continue to remain agnostic towards religion, Beavers said younger generations are becoming increasingly more interested in spirituality.

“It almost seems like they’re still coming into their own, and they’re still gaining confidence on their own,” Beavers said of a youth conference for Methodist worshippers in Plzen, Czech Republic. “They were just so happy to be there in a way I haven’t seen in America.”

 Edited by Maggie Jones

Celebrated scholar speaks on religious tolerance, political fear

Internationally acclaimed philosopher and political theorist Martha Nussbaum spoke at the University Center ballroom on Monday afternoon to deliver a lecture entitled, “The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear.”

Her lecture was the first installation of the new Humanities Center’s four-part series, “The Sacred and the Secular: Conflict and the Creation of a Moral World.”

Screen shot 2013-09-17 at 1.58.42 PMNussbaum focused primarily on the de facto “climate of fear and suspicion” towards those who are seen as different from the majority – particularly seen in today’s intolerance of Muslim culture.

Standing before an overflowing auditorium of onlookers, Nussbaum declared, “We need curious and mobile imaginations so that we become increasingly able through our educations to look at different people as not just shapes but as fellow citizens.

Nussbaum’s lecture centered around the headdress that Muslim women wear – the burka – and its banishment in numerous European countries.

“I think talking to someone with the burka is just as difficult as talking to someone who is blind, but unfortunately we still feel the fault is with the woman wearing the burka,” Nussbaum said.

Jed Longeway, a freshman at UT, believes that the benefits of having such a prestigious speaker on campus are twofold.

“I think that hopefully the people listening learned to be more accepting and less judgmental of people that don’t look like them or believe what they do,” said Longeway. “It also really helps UT to have such a famous scholar on campus.”

Martha Nussbaum has taught at Brown, Harvard, and currently is a Law and Ethics professor at the University of Chicago. She has written over 20 books (and over four-hundred essays) and her newest, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, will be published sometime this fall. She has over 45 honorary degrees from universities worldwide. Most recently, she was awarded the Prince of Austurias Award in Spain for her exceptional achievements in Social Sciences.

Edited by: Jessica Carr