Groves of olive trees, Russian tanks, and radio broadcasts in Arabic—these are some of the things I think of when I think of “childhood,” but they're also things I think about everyday, even now, at 37.
I don’t believe in some sharp divide between “childhood” and “adulthood”—some cliff that, once surpassed, remains there, a permanent blockade between all the experiences of being “young” and the new experiences of being an “adult.”
I was born, seemingly, between three countries. Technically, I was born in Ajlun, Jordan. A small town—very close to being a village, where there are goats and olive fields and the remains of an old fortress built by Izz al-Din Usama in AD 1184–1185. My family was Arab-Christian in origin. My mother, however, came from Prague in the Czech Republic, though it was not known as a republic then. It was known as Czechoslovakia and my mother was there when it again was invaded by the countries of the Warsaw Pact in 1968. She still remembers the sound of the tanks.
Neither country seemed stable enough for the future my parents wanted for us so they agreed to move to America. My father came first, working as an auto worker for many years despite a Masters in Agricultural Engineering. My mother, my siblings, and I followed, as soon as my father was able to petition to get us out of a communist country.
Despite coming here speaking no English, my siblings and I quickly adjusted. I went on to attend the Indiana Academy for Science, Math, and Humanities as well as Smith College.
It was there, at Smith, most famous for writers such as Sylvia Plath and activists like Gloria Steinem, that I was infused with ideas. And as most writers and artists know, it is ideas that become the fertile fields of all sorts of botany.
I majored in government, spending a lot of time on political theorists like Plato and Rousseau and thinking about power and society. I signed up for courses on Eastern Europe and became most intrigued with Vaclav Havel, a Czech playright. He was an important part of the Velvet Revolution that took place in what became the Czech Republic. He talked about the importance of artists and intellectuals taking a more active role in society instead of remaining detached.
I began seriously publishing my last year at Smith and, during my twenties, went on to publish pieces in The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, and then moved onto fiction.
Despite writing primarily about social issues like immigration and women’s rights, I felt that there was more I could do—just writing about these issues was not enough.
I had won a travel grant to go the Middle East to work on my first novel. While researching for the novel, I began to read all sorts of books about the Middle East. One after another talked about rulers who came to power, many of whom, became or already were corrupt. I knew that this epidemic was not just applicable to the Middle East; many rulers in many countries come to power only to promote their own self-interests or those of their friends.
A couple of weeks later, I attended a lecture by a woman named Maha Nasser who was being honored. As she was speaking about how to impact the world, she said something that resonated with me: “Institutionalize your ideas.”
Yes, I thought to myself, that was it. I needed to institutionalize my ideas. I would start a not-for-profit that utilized artists and creativity to help solve social and environmental issues on a local, national, and international level. A friend of mine referred me to a lawyer, who told me to form a board. I got a board together, we started planning, and they liked the name I proposed: Global Alliance of Artists. Within a year, we were awarded 501(c)3 status.
Programming came quickly. The board also acted as the staff. We were all working full-time jobs, and did what we could to donate time to Global Alliance of Artists or “GAA” as we sometimes called it.
Andrea Harris, a Chicago-based artist, worked heavily on environmental programming. I worked with the other board members on the human rights side as well as infrastructure issues. We soon secured partnerships and supporters including Chicago Wilderness and the Federal Reserve’s Money Smart Week to help with our program focused on Arab Women and Financial Literacy.
As the organization grew, we featured our first international artist whom we felt captured the spirit of GAA: Shehzad Roy, a Pakistani musician focused on children and education in his country.
Catherine Game stepped in as our Environmental Program Director and launched Global Alliance of Artists’ Art + Environment Xchange, connecting Chicago artists interested in environmental issues with nonprofits such as The Nature Museum and The Field Museum.
The challenges for us have been mostly around time—we are not yet at the place where the staff can let go of their other, full-time jobs. It is hard to be at your regular job, when your body starts trembling with ideas on how GAA can fix poverty. We are now writing a business plan and looking at ways to make GAA sustainable.
The heart of Global Alliance of Artists is a membership of artists, cross-genre, who have declared a social cause and demonstrated some action towards it. Each time a new artist joins, I celebrate in that artist’s individuality, in that person’s talents and passion. Yet I also feel that in our growing number, we are getting that much stronger and that much more able to be a force of light and goodness in this world. We are sharing that might through our programming, but we are also sharing that might and that hope with the world by demonstrating that artists, too, have an important role in society. We are building an army of our own kind—an army of artists restoring, protecting, inventing.
Dina Rabadi was born in Jordan in 1974 to a Jordanian father and a Czech mother, and her family immigrated to the United States in 1978. She is now a U.S. citizen. Dina grew up in the Midwest and received her B.A. from Smith College. After graduating, she moved to Los Angeles and became part of the founding staff of DVDMAGS, a monthly DVD that featured short films and interviews by emerging and established artists, writers, musicians, and filmmakers. She has published essays, articles and short stories in more than 20 periodicals and is currently researching publishers and agents for a novella she completed that is set in Northern Montana and the Aleutian Islands. She is now at work on her first novel. Her awards include a fellowship at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, a creative writing grant from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, a grant from the Illinois Arts Council and a merit-based scholarship to attend The Squaw Valley Community of Writers’ Workshop in Fiction. Dina is currently working for Chicago Public Schools and is the Founder and Executive Director of The Global Alliance of Artists.
Written in Fall 2011.