Musicians Address Eastern and Western Cross-Cultural Understanding


“The more one is able to leave one’s cultural home, the more easily is one able to judge it…”




“The more one is able to leave one’s cultural home, the more easily is one able to judge it, and the whole world as well, with the spiritual detachment and generosity necessary for true vision.” - Edward Said

For decades, psychiatry has tried to address and redress cross-cultural understanding and misunderstanding between the clinician and patient, so that treatment is not imperiled. Perhaps most prominent and obvious has been the misdiagnosis of Black men as having paranoid schizophrenia and the more general overuse of medication rather than psychotherapy with them.1 Currently in society, that may be reflected in the police abuse of Black men, leading to the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”

A group of us from various religions and cultural backgrounds are working on a book titled, The Eastern Religions, Spirituality, and Psychiatry. This follows 3 prior volumes for Springer on the psychiatric aspects of Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism, and Christianity. In the process of developing the new volume, we have once again been challenged to respectfully agree on who should comment and decide on what as far as faith and interfaith understanding goes.

Last Wednesday night, I found similar cross-cultural challenges apparent in a musical program at Ravinia, the well-known summer music setting in the Chicago area. Put together by the tenor Karim Sulayman and guitarist Sean Shibe, as the in-house publication Ravinia Magazine conveys, they attempt to “bridge cultures through collaboration” in this program and compact disc release called “Broken Branches.”

As the musicians describe themselves, Shibe has a background of being half-Japanese in Scotland during the 1990s, while Sulayman is a second-generation Lebanese immigrant who grew up in Chicago. In a separate program of his called “Unholy Wars,” Sulayman describes how the historical Crusades were always on his parents minds, who left Lebanon during its Civil War. Lebanese individuals have great variety of skin tones and general appearance, with the parents’ explanation that it was handed down from raping and pillaging of the Crusades.

Ravinia’s musical program was designed to be enjoyable in itself, and it was, but also to have deeper messages. The compositions ranged in time and geography from so-called Western, Eastern, and Middle Eastern countries, dating from the 1500s to recently.

Using Edward Said’s landmark book Orientalism, the music and related connecting commentary outlines the false dichotomy between “West” and “East.” Said argued that the West, through imperialistic power, had just happened to gain the upper narrative hand, delegating the East to “the Other.”

The approach taken by these 2 musicians was to play on Western perception of the East. Rather than directly talk about cancel culture, they examine “what we see as problems now, leaning into these problems, and moving forward with a modern perspective.”

The process culminated in a set of songs by the modern British composer Benjamin Britain. The songs are based on poems translated by Arthur Waley, a prominent sinologist from a century ago, but translation that is now recognized for its inaccuracies and romanticizing of the time. The musicians decided the songs should be reconceptualized for our time rather than thrown out.

In a parallel process, psychiatry and our book are struggling with the same challenges and goals. Though every psychiatrist and patient has a specific cultural and religious identity, recognizing how these personal identities—often interlocked, intertwined, and inseparable—play out will likely enhance treatment outcomes.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.


1. Metzl J. The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease. Beacon Press; 2010.

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