Maryan Captan wears a tattoo just below her elbow.
“either&or,” it reads.
“It’s sort of this gentle reminder that, like, you can never be one thing or the other,” said Captan, a 2011 English language and literature alumna.
The subtle inscription serves as a symbol of Captan’s identity. Now a Philadelphia-based poet, she still remembers her first home in Cairo.
”I’ll never be either Egyptian or American, I’ll always be both, but there is no binary identity,” she added.
On Saturday, Captan participated in YallaPunk, a three-day festival that showcased artists of MENA — Middle Eastern and North African — descent. Shrouded in red light, Captan recited her poetry, touching upon memory, family and heritage.
“My handwriting resembles my mama’s more and more every day / My English bears the curves of Arabic, though I didn’t learn the Arabic alphabet until I was 20,” Captan read to a silenced crowd at The Barbary on Frankford Avenue and East Allen Street.
“I inherit her scribbles,” she added several lines later.
Rana Fayez, an Arab-American writer, organized YallaPunk to refute negative stereotypes surrounding people of MENA descent. Instead, YallaPunk aims to celebrate the community’s artistic achievements.
Captan remembers encountering those stereotypes after 9/11 when she was a teenager— hearing comments that her parents were capable of bombing people.
“It just mattered that my parents spoke Arabic, and that was, like, menacing,” she said.
Captan, who left Egypt when she was 5, said migration can be deeply difficult.
“Depending on where you’re from, coming to small-town Pennsylvania from one of the most insane cities in the world like Cairo, that’s not just a culture shock but it’s like, it’s like going from Earth to Mars,” she said.
At YallaPunk, she said she hoped to meet people with back stories similar to her own.
The festival was comprised of creative and educational events, ranging from conferences to concerts to comedy sets.
Jake Al-Dookhi, a 2017 advertising and media studies and production alumnus from Kuwait, found out about YallaPunk online.
“I’m Arab so I was like, ‘Yeah, this is a really cool idea,’” Al-Dookhi said.
He reached out to tell his older sister, only to discover that Alyssa Al-Dookhi, a Philly-based comedian, was already planning to perform.
Laughter and applause rang throughout The Barbary as Alyssa Al-Dookhi, described her life as a Kuwaiti woman. She talked about life in her native country, recounted the mispronunciations of her last name and poked fun at mainstream stereotypes.
“It’s amazing how often I will tell someone that I’m Arab, and their first response is, ‘Oh my god, shut up. I love hummus,’” Alyssa Al-Dookhi said.
“Oh really, ‘Kelli with an i?’ Do you hear me complimenting the mayonnaise of your people?” she added.
Fueled with quick punchlines and theatrical impressions, Alyssa Al-Dookhi performed minutes after Captan, who silenced the room with her reading.
“It was amazing,” Alyssa Al-Dookhi said. “I never really get to see spoken word like that and certainly not from people who I identify with.”
Hours before reciting her poetry, Captan taught a creative writing workshop at the Crane Arts Center on Master and American streets. The workshop focused on the writer’s ability to paint memories.
Captan’s memories of her own hometown are scattered — an earthquake that shattered her family’s apartment complex, candy in her grandmother’s pockets, cousins teaching her to belly dance.
“This is the beauty of memories, that it will always fail you,” she said.
After her father completed a visa process that took eight years, her family migrated to Pennsylvania. Captan still remembers boarding the plane a month after turning five years old. She thought the trip to America was a birthday gift.
The culture shock was jarring: Captan, whose young childhood was spent in the desert, had never seen grass before. She remembers not yet speaking English in her kindergarten class. Her teacher held her hand at recess and practiced the language with her.
While shifting from speaking Arabic to English, she became fixated on written and spoken word. In 2008, she transferred from Penn State to Temple, taking as many writing classes as she could.
As a writer, Captan has traveled to Vietnam and Portugal. She regularly works with Philadelphia youth. But before YallaPunk, she had never participated in a MENA-specific arts event. She had never heard of one.
“It’s the first time that I’ve done a festival where I feel like I can just completely be myself,” Captan said.