Trump’s Travel Ban Closes the Door on Middle Eastern Artists


Rebecca Lauffenburger
Staff Writer

The ongoing programs, tour dates, and travel plans of countless Middle Eastern artists were ruined overnight in the wake of Trump’s seven-nation travel ban directed at the nations of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria.

As of Feb. 14, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the suspension of Trump’s ban; however, the future seems uncertain for many performing arts programmers, who are still wary of booking artists from the affected countries months in advance. The ban has had profound consequences in nearly every corner of the art world, as countless musicians, artists, and performers who have grown accustomed to touring the U.S. now face hostility during the present and uncertainty for the future.

Disappointment brought on by U.S. travel policies is nothing new for musician and refugee Ash Koosha, who, in an interview with Pitchfork via Skype, recounts the frustration of cancelled plans thanks to the pitfalls of the already convoluted and extensive process that is obtaining the appropriate visa needed for touring in the U.S. Now, what once served as both a personal struggle and shared experience for Koosha has become a more blatant, nationalized struggle.

In recognition of this, Koosha is determined to speak out: “It’s not about me anymore. It’s about the whole world going crazy.”

Affecting seven predominantly Muslim countries, the ban has led to widespread fear as programmers are left wondering which countries might be next.

Matthew Covey, an immigration lawyer and advocate for foreign artists, explains that “for the arts, it’s really not a resolution at all, because at least for performing arts programmers, the temporary restraining order is just that. We don’t know when or if it will disappear, and we’ll go back to the ban.”

“So if you’re running a performing arts organization here in the U.S.,” Covey said, “and you’re trying to figure out who to book for June, July, even for March — there are very few presenters who are going to risk contracting with an artist from one of the seven countries now for any point in the foreseeable future.”

If the ban is left in place, many artists who financially depend on touring will be left out in the cold. Iranian producer/composer Mahdyar Aghajani manages the hip-hop collective Moltafet, a group that is illegal under Iranian law, and therefore cannot legally profit from their music in their home country.

Consequently, Aghajani aspired to bring Moltafet to the U.S. in hopes that they would be able to reach the Iranian-American community, as well as tap into the hip-hop industry.

Despite this considerable setback, Aghajani is determined to push forward by whatever means necessary.

“The borders, they cannot stop us,” said Aghajani to an NPR reporter. “Right now, with all this technology, we don’t have to physically be there to do a show. I mean, you’ve got projection to hologram to augmented reality, virtual reality, all these streaming services.”

Among the numerous musicians whose plans have been trampled on is Syrian singer Omar Souleyman, who was planning to tour the U.S. to promote his newest album, Bahdeni Nami. Souleyman’s regularly tours in Western countries, and he had already arranged to perform in New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Arizona when the ban was enacted.

According to Souleyman’s manager Mina Toshi, a message on the U.S. embassy’s homepage reads, “If you already have an appointment scheduled, please DO NOT ATTEND.” To her, this sends the blatant, unmistakable message that foreigners are not welcome.

Musicians aren’t the only artists who’ve been affected by the ban. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a major institution in the art world, had been planning a collaborative exhibit entitled “The Field of Empty Days: The Intersection of Past and Present in Iranian Art,” set to open in March 2018. In the wake of the ban, however, it’s unclear whether the artists featured will be able to attend the exhibition unveiling, if at all.

Many in the art world have banded together in solidarity and condemnation of the ban, which has much larger implications beyond just frustrating fans, artists, and the institutions hosting them. It represents a grave threat to the spread of ideas between cultures, and the diversity that museums, festivals, and various organizations strive to preserve. Global collaboration is essential to human progress, and to limit this collaboration is a detriment to nearly every aspect of society, be it medicine, science, or the arts.

As it’s been stated many times before, the 2016 presidential election represented a monumental turning point in American history. For many Americans, Donald Trump’s presidency poses a very real threat to personal freedoms and liberty. It only confirms what so many movements, including Black Lives Matter and LGBT and feminist activist groups, have known to be true: America is not, and has never been, completely free for all of its citizens.

Despite the challenges Middle Eastern artists continue to face, many remain fiercely optimistic. For example, this latest setback has done little to dampen Aghajani’s spirit. He is resolved to keep spreading his music, and encourages other artists to do the same, especially since “there’s so many technologies right now that we have access to, that I think the artists should be creative, like they shouldn’t be scared or hopeless or anything like that.”

Despite the bleakness of the U.S.’s current political situation, Aghajani recalls the challenges Iranian citizens have had to face at the hands of politicians in the past, and the way they’ve overcome them nonetheless. With this is mind, he asserts that although Trump isn’t the most pleasant person, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was “way crazier.”

When I recall this past election season and the various movements and protests that have sparked up because of it, certain moments stick out clearly in my mind. And as Trump continues to push forward with his agenda and fulfill the promises so many have feared, I am reminded of the words Morrissey spoke at the Santa Barbara Bowl in early November. Only time will tell if Trump’s plans come to fruition, but until then, “The world is watching.”