Fulbright student embarks on musical odyssey

Malāk Hashem

Jan. 22, 2024 – DENTON – The journey that Malāk Hashem has taken to prepare for a career in music therapy has been twisting and long. Very long. More than a decade and almost 7,000 miles long.

Hashem began learning piano at age 8, but was interrupted when her Russian piano teacher moved away. She took up music again in high school, then studied music education at the Université Antonine in Lebanon, where she earned a bachelor's degree and was class valedictorian.

But at the suggestion of her sister, Fatima, who is a speech and language pathologist, Hashem turned to music therapy. At that same time, the first music therapy program in Lebanon opened.

In music therapy, Hashem found her calling, and pursued it almost halfway around the world to Texas Woman's University, where she is in her first year working toward a master's degree.

"I think it's because I love psychology," said Hashem, who arrived on the TWU campus one week before the 2023 fall semester began. "I became really interested in psychology and mental health in high school after one of my favorite singers committed suicide (Kim Jonghyun of the Korean band SHINee). So that was the turning point for me. I knew then that I wanted to use music in a different way than just teaching."

Hashem's heritage is steeped in music therapy, which historians trace back to ancient Egypt and Greece. On a wall in Thebes is a depiction of David playing music for King Saul to treat melancholia, and the Egyptian physician I-em hotep used musical therapy around 3500 B.C. Muslim physicians were treating mental illness with music therapy in Baghdad and Cairo in the eighth and ninth centuries.

"The Brethren of Purity practiced music therapy based on Arabic music," Hashem said of the society of Muslim philosophers in Iraq in the ninth and 10th centuries. At the same time, music was part of the treatment for mental and nervous problems by Turkish Islamic doctors.

That interest in psychology has combined in Hashem with a love of the arts imparted by her parents.

"My dad used to be an artist during his late teens," Hashem said. "He wanted to become an architect, but the situation in Lebanon at that time did not allow it. He is also a big enthusiast of films and movies, books, fashion and oriental Mashriq music. I miss watching Umm Kulthum and Abdel Halim's old recordings with him at night. As for my mom, she studied English literature, and that's how I was introduced to the works of Shakespeare, D.H. Lawrence and others. My parents are both readers, and we have a big collection of books at home."

While the Texas art scene doesn't have quite the multiple millennia history of the Middle East, Hashem was attracted to TWU's position as one of the leaders in music therapy education.

Hashem comes to TWU through the Fulbright Program, a United States cultural exchange program for international students wishing to study in America. As a Fulbright student, Hashem applied to four U.S. universities that offered music therapy before she joined the program at TWU, which was one of the first in the nation, one of only five in Texas, and is approved by the American Music Therapy Association.

Still you would expect a period of adjustment going from Lebanon to Texas.

Music, however, has not been a problem.

"I really like it," she said of Texas country music. "Especially when learning songs on the guitar. I love it."

Nor has language been a barrier.

"We study English in Lebanon," Hashem said. "You have the choice, either French as a second language or English. So my whole family is English. I started learning English in kindergarten. We start learning English at a very young age."

So where has the culture shock come from? The massive size of Texas compared to Lebanon? The dreadful heat of this last summer? Understanding Texan slang and dialects?

"I think it's the diversity here," Hashem said. "You have people from all the countries, from all over the world."

One semester into her time in the United States, there is the understandable homesickness, as well as a desire to hear the Arabic language.

"We have a Muslim student association," she said, though she's only met five Arabic speakers thus far. "I speak Arabic when I call my family. I call them every day."

After TWU, Hashem plans to return to Lebanon to private practice, possibly collaborating with non-governmental organizations.

Her journey, in other words, has a long way to go.

"Looking back at everything that has happened, all the doubt, stress and fear of the unknown, I can deeply feel that God has been blessing me in every step until I finally made it here, and He still does, everyday."

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Page last updated 9:01 AM, January 22, 2024