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Small Town, Global Stage: Farah Siraj Offers Up Artistic Exchange in Iowa

by Alana Horton

A vocalist in a colorful Jordanian robe flanked by a percussionist, guitarist, and choir of middle schoolers.
Photo Credit: Grace Richardson
Jordanian vocalist Farah Siraj performing with her band and the Oskaloosa Middle School choir.

How Jordan’s “Musical Ambassadress” teamed up with Oskaloosa’s local choir for a week of cultural exchange and learning.

It’s 8 a.m. on a Friday, and the Oskaloosa, Iowa middle school choir is practicing getting in alignment. The group does a body scan, loosening from their ankles to their shoulders. It’s important to get into the right headspace for today’s lesson – a rehearsal with acclaimed Jordanian vocalist and peace advocate Farah Siraj.

Tomorrow, the choir will join Siraj on stage for a public concert at the George Daily Community Auditorium, the main performing arts space in this town of 11,000. Until then, they’re working to perfect their harmonies and stage presence.

Despite the early hour, the singers jump into action. They’ve spent weeks learning three of Siraj’s songs, including one in Arabic (“Reedaha”). Their voices are soft at first but soon gain momentum.

“Bravo, bravo!” says Siraj. “You guys are fabulous!” She encourages the students to sing out into the space and offers tips on breath support. Class is dismissed with the promise of pizza before tomorrow’s show.

“Singing is very therapeutic. It’s an outlet of expression. And I think it’s very important for communities.”

A group of middle school students dressed in a formal choir black and white clothes dance on stage
Photo Credit: Grace Richardson
Oskaloosa’s middle school choir dances while singing Farah Siraj’s song Reedaha

Expression and Education

How did Farah Siraj find her way to central Iowa? Siraj is one of three artists participating in World Fest, an Arts Midwest program touring international musicians to small Midwestern communities, fostering global understanding and appreciation for uniqueness.

In February 2024, Siraj and her band immersed themselves in an in-depth community residency in Oskaloosa. During her stay, she surprised locals with a pop-up performance in a coffee shop, engaged in educational visits with preschoolers and high school students, and, of course, collaborated with the town’s choir for a final community show.

Choir director Christopher Ellerston says that he was impressed by how excited his students were to participate.

“After we had our first rehearsal, I told them I would email them the songs so that they could practice, and they were ready to practice right away,” says Ellerston “They were emailing me saying, ‘Can you send me the songs?’ They were super excited.”

A woman with medium light skin and honey hair sings into a microphone on stage with many onlookers watching
Photo Credit: Grace Richardson
Farah Siraj performs at Smokey Row coffee shop in downtown Oskaloosa, Iowa

Singing with choirs is close to Siraj’s heart. “I started off in a choir when I was three years old,” she explains. “Singing is very therapeutic. It’s an outlet of expression. And I think it’s very important for communities.”

Siraj sees working one-on-one with choirs as a perfect way to blend art and education about Jordan. “They’re singing in English, but also in Arabic and sometimes in Spanish. So they’re expanding their musical language and learning different lyrics,” she says. “It becomes a very personal experience. They walk away with something more than just having listened.”

Seventh grader Ezra Bock agrees. “I’m really happy that we, the students, have a chance instead of just watching to get to go on stage and be a part of it,” he says.

A Creative Community

An appreciation of art and music is deep in Oskaloosa’s DNA. The Oskaloosa Municipal Band began playing in the city square in 1864. The town has been called home by musical luminaries including Arthur Russell and Nathaniel “Tip” Lamberson, a creator of flutes so incredible that they’ve been compared to Stradivarius violins.

“I grew up in a very small Iowa town and my only goal when I was a kid was to no longer be in small-town Iowa,” says Ryan Jones, Technical Director at the George Daily Auditorium. “Oskaloosa broke that. It has all the charm of a small town, but things happen here.”

The George Daily, nestled between Oskaloosa’s middle school and high school, serves as a central hub for community events. The unique community space hosts up to a thousand events per year, ranging from college classes and bus driver trainings to bustling theater camps and Broadway musicals.

“We boil it down to putting curiosity and community life on stage,” says Allison McGuire, the George Daily’s Director of Community Engagement and Education. “Sometimes the programming might be a little different than what you would expect, but on the same stage, you’re going to see a dance recital or your kids’ band concert.”

As a World Fest community partner, the George Daily staff facilitated Farah Siraj’s residency, exploring creative connections to introduce “Osky” residents to Jordanian culture. This included a “Hummus and Happy Hour” workshop, where community members learned to make hummus with Siraj and heard about her experiences growing up in Jordan.

“[Oskaloosa] is a place where just unique things can happen because people maybe sometimes have the courage to say, why not? Let’s just give it a go and see what happens,” says Andy McGuire, Executive Director of the George Daily.

“I think this is one of the most outstanding opportunities for students of this age group … They get to learn about another culture, collaborate positively, and discover different ways of making music.”


Celebrating Shared Humanity

Farah Siraj, an advocate for peace, connection, and understanding, focuses on raising awareness about the consequences of war and violence in her work. “I come with a peaceful intention to get to know everybody and to share my musical heritage and to connect,” says Siraj. “I hope that it’s just a testament to how we’re all human.”

This intention leaves a lasting impact. After each show, the George Daily conducts a before-and-after survey. Their shows featuring World Fest artists have consistently led to broadened worldviews and a “deeper appreciation of people different from you” as reported by the audience.

For middle school students, engaging with Siraj’s message is an especially meaningful experience. “I think this is one of the most outstanding opportunities for students of this age group,” says director Christopher Ellerston. “They get to learn about another culture, collaborate positively, and discover different ways of making music.”

A woman performs with her band to an audience of onlookers of all ages at a public library's presentation room
Photo Credit: Grace Richardson
Farah Siraj performs for an all-ages audience at the Oskaloosa Public Library.

Sierra Chisolm, an eighth-grade choir student agrees. “I have learned to sing in different ways than I would usually do. Instead of my Slipknot kind of music, I’ve learned to sing in this Arabic kind of way. And it’s very pretty.”

Siraj’s residency and concert ended with the performance of “See the World,” backed by the middle school choir. “I want to see the world and discover / all the places I dreamed of,” she sang to an audience of Iowans, including some attendees who had driven over an hour from Des Moines.  

It’s this sense of curiosity and discovery that the staff of the George Daily hope continues after the end of Farah Siraj’s residency.

“I think it all comes down to the themes of that song,” says Allison McGuire.  “I hope this lights a fire that students want to go and see these places or explore in whatever way they can. Maybe it doesn’t mean they can travel all the time, but I hope that they’ll travel intellectually.”

A program of Arts Midwest, the 2024–2025 World Fest artist tours are generously supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. Arts Midwest is also generously supported by the Illinois Arts Council Agency, Indiana Arts Commission, Iowa Arts Council, Michigan Arts and Culture Council, Minnesota State Arts Board, North Dakota Council on the Arts, Ohio Arts Council, South Dakota Arts Council, Wisconsin Arts Board, 3M, and individual donors and partners.