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Meet the Hosts

Kunafa and Shay: Episode 1

Nabra Nelson: Salaam Alaikum. Welcome to Kunafa and Shay, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. Kunafa and Shay discusses and analyzes contemporary and historical Middle Eastern and North African, or MENA, theatre from across the region.

Marina J. Bergenstock: I'm Marina.

Nabra: And I'm Nabra.

Marina: And we're your hosts.

Nabra: This season, we will be focusing on twenty-first-century MENA theatre, highlighting contemporary MENA plays and playwrights, spotlighting international community-engaged work in the Arab world, and pondering the present and future of MENA theatre in the US. Our name, Kunafa and Shay, invites you into the discussion in the best way we know how, with complex and delicious sweets like kunafa, and perfectly warm tea, or in Arabic, shay.

Marina: Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and sometimes to engage with our differences. In each country in the Arab world, you'll find the kunafa made differently. In that way, we also lean into the diversity, complexity and robust flavors of MENA theatre. We bring our own perspectives, research and the special guests, in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.

Nabra: Yalla, grab your tea. The shay is just right.

Marina: This is the first episode of Kunafa and Shay. We should tell them about the name right, Nabra?

Nabra: Yes. So kunafa is a Middle Eastern dessert and it's made by pouring really thin streams of batter onto a rotating hot plate, and then collecting those strings together and mixing them up with nuts and sugar and honey, and sometimes cream to form a crunchy and delicious treat. That at least is how the Egyptians make it, but it is found all over the Arab world and has all types of variants. Some of which are completely different from what I just described. So, it's unique to the Middle East and North Africa, but it is in no way homogenous. So, we thought it was the perfect sweet to use as a metaphor for the blend of different cultures and tastes throughout the region.

And then shay just means tea. It's a word that a lot of people know, chai is a variant of that word. So, it's a drink that's really ubiquitous throughout the region, and of course the world. I drink it very strong with lots of milk and sugar, just like the Nubians do, but every person and place makes it differently. And Marina and I used to hang out over shay and kunafa at a Moroccan restaurant in Milwaukee when we both lived there and were working at the same regional theatre.

Marina: Yes, I loved hanging out with Nabra. And once I found out that she spoke Arabic, it became something that we talked about more. I had been to the Middle East twice by that point to both Lebanon and Palestine, but I really only knew some of the Shami, the Levantine dialects. Our schedules were tricky, but sitting down for a meal and to discuss the Arab world and Arabic became a highlight of my time in Milwaukee.

Nabra: And I remember, I used to attempt to teach you Arabic. Like I kind of forgot that's why we started hanging out at this Moroccan restaurant, but I was trying to teach you conversational Arabic and turns out, hanging out at a restaurant, eating and casually talking about Arabic is not the most rigorous way to learn a language. So Marina very smartly enrolled in actual classes after that. And then we ended up just talking about theatre and that's where I learned that we both had an interest in MENA theatre.

Marina: Which leads to the most random and fun memory of us. I was visiting Nabra in Milwaukee after I had moved away. And she said, "Oh, you should come to Egypt when I'm there this winter." And I did.

Nabra: Yeah, I was going back to Egypt for the first time actually, since I had moved back to the US eight years prior, and I was just going to visit family. And I love to invite people to join me. The more, the merrier. It's super Nubian. Nubians' houses are always open to people to visit any time. And I was so excited that Marina actually took me up on it and I was going to have a friend in Egypt and it was going to be awesome. And that's of course, where Marina learned what true kunafa and shay is. Which is of course Egyptian kunafa that I had described earlier, and true shay is Nubian tea, which is strong. It's like a cake in a glass. It's delicious. And that's the culture and background I'm bringing to the table.

Marina: Yes. And it's worth noting my favorite thing about Nabra is her very strong opinion about Arabic sweets. The kunafa I had in Egypt was very different than any other kunafa I had had before. And fun fact, I am allergic to tea. I'm not deathly allergic, but I struggled with that.

Nabra: Yeah, I literally do not know how you got through Egypt with my family being allergic to tea. What did you do... Nubians especially drink tea after every snack and every meal, how the heck did you get away with that?

Marina: So, I can have tea if it hasn't come from a tea leaf and try asking that in Arabic, when your Arabic is not strong. So, I literally, I had Nescafe packets in my purse sometimes, and I would make my own kunafa in the kitchen, but I also did just drink a bunch of tea because Arabs are known for hospitality. And so everyone was always offering me things and I didn't want to be rude nor did I really know how to explain my situation.

Nabra: It was very confusing. I actually do remember seeing you sneaking into my grandma's kitchen, making yourself Nescafe while everyone else is drinking tea, so that no one notices. Yeah. I like trying explain it to my family. And they're like, what? I didn't think that was real. I didn't know that tea allergy was a thing that exists. It's very sad. I'm so sorry for you.

Marina: I appreciate that. But why don't you introduce yourself some more, Nabra? Tell us more about you.

Nabra: Yeah, so obviously I have strong opinions about things because I'm Arab bam. But really I'm mixed race. So I'm Nubian—Egyptian and Euro-American. My mom's side is from the Fadija Nubian tribe, which is in the village of Abu Simbel in the South of Egypt. And my American side is actually Mormon and mostly comes from Northern Europe, mostly England, but my dad converted to Islam before he married my mom. So I grew up in a fully Muslim family. My first eight years of life were spent in LA where I was born. And then I moved to Cairo, Egypt, which is where I actually started doing theatre when I was nine years old. And I lived in Cairo until I was seventeen. When I moved back to the US for university, I went to the University of California, Santa Barbara and studied physics and theatre, and eventually ended up getting my major in directing and my minor in physics.

And then I went off and did some freelancing and internships in Denver, Santa Cruz, and then Milwaukee, where Marina and I met. And that's also where I was introduced to arts administration. And they had a brand-new community engagement department at the regional theatre we worked at. And that really became my career and a passion of mine. So since then, I've really gotten much more into playwriting in the past several years, I still direct. And my current full-time job is in engagement and education as the director of arts engagement at Seattle Rep.

So like so many of us, I have really dabbled in every area in theatre. And I really identify as a theatre creator and a community organizer because in the end, everything that I do is community engagement. I make theatre to build, strengthen and highlight community. And how I do that is secondary, whether it's directing or writing or dramaturgy or as a teaching artist or an administrator. So, a lot of my playwriting highlights my Nubian culture, and I'm also proud to have helped start two theatre companies. One of which is a MENA theatre company here in Seattle called Dunya Productions. And the other is a woman of color arts collective in Milwaukee called Heard Space. So, part of my work is really bringing attention to different POC identities and to the MENA canon. And that's why when Marina suggested this podcast, I was all about it. So Marina, how did this podcast idea come about?

Marina: To be honest, there are only a few podcasts that I really like. I found that sometimes the podcasts I'm drawn to are too unstructured for my taste and attention span. And I don't feel like I can ever find topics that really interest me, but I want to listen to podcasts. It just took me a while to realize the podcast I was looking for. It was about MENA theatre and that I couldn't find that if it existed. So I realized we could make that happen.

Nabra: Yeah. So Marina approached me and I thought that's a great idea. I hadn't yet heard of any MENA focused theatre podcasts either. And I also figured it was a really great way to just have a fun knowledge exchange among friends

Marina: In my mind, we're the perfect pairing for this too, because we are very similar in a lot of ways, but we balance each other out too. I'm sure that will become apparent as well, but this might be a good time for our, it's not a disclaimer, but it's worth mentioning, Nabra.

Nabra: We are speaking from our own experience. We don't claim to be experts on any one subject, whether it be a play or a culture or a theatrical form, we are not a one-stop shop of information on these topics. And we won't even have all the information, just our particular insights, research and opinions. We are here to start an in-depth dialogue and raise some questions for further consideration.

Marina: Yeah. So I wanted to do this, but I'm currently in a PhD program and I wondered, should I wait until I have my PhD? Should I wait until I'm fluent in Arabic? But this all made me think of the Anne Bogart quote that has "Do not wait" in it. Here's a piece of it: "Do not wait for what you assume is the appropriate stress-free environment in which to generate expression, do not wait until you are sure that you know what you're doing, what you do now, what you make of your present circumstances will determine the quality and scope of your future endeavors."

Nabra: It's really honestly impossible to be experts in everything when it comes to a region that's so rich and diverse, like the Middle East. I mean, I know a lot about Egyptian and Nubian culture, but even that I'm coming at it from a very specific point of view. And Lord knows, I don't know a lot of Egyptian playwrights even, or every art form in the thousands and thousands years history of Egypt. So there's so much to learn and we are here to just learn more and explore together. And Marina is the perfect person to learn with because she is literally a scholar of MENA theatre. You should introduce yourself Marina.

Marina: All right. So my family, the vibes of my family are very Russian. My dad is a Russian Orthodox priest and my grandpa was too. And there was a long time that I thought animals only spoke Russian because I really had only heard adults speak to them exclusively in Russian. So I talk to my cat a lot in Russian. My mom's Russian dancing is also on point, which is lovely. And I have fond memories of her coming to my kindergarten class to try to teach the class how to dance. But I grew up dancing and singing and acting. I identify as a director and an actor and a dramaturge now. At Penn state, I started directing and that's when I fell in love with that form of creating theatre. And I taught high school, English and theatre for a bit while I was freelance directing, I got my MFA at the University of Iowa where I was constantly work-shopping and directing new plays.

But my connection to the Arab world is obviously very different from Nabra's. My godmother is Lebanese and I grew up eating kunafa and shay with her. And obviously this kunafa is very different from the kunafa Nabra is talking about. My dad studied Middle Eastern history when he was an undergrad, one of his degrees and our conversations around the dinner table, always reflected that. I feel like I had to know a lot about Middle Eastern history growing up. In undergrad, one of my closest friends was Lebanese, which is how I ended up in Lebanon for a few weeks after graduation. Well, they aren't a theatre person per se. They were emphatic that I learned more about Arab theatre. And so later on, it was their voice in my head when I chose food as my MFA thesis play, which led me to Palestine to do research.

And really that research has never stopped. For a few years I was also a visiting assistant professor at a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. So, while I was there, I had the opportunity to create and teach an Arab theatre class, which was amazing. And the students were wonderful. Something I realized though when I was teaching that class was that some of the articles and plays that I wanted my students to read, they just weren't accessible in English or they hadn't really been written about yet. So that, and an amazing experience that I had working on Fouad Teymour’s play at Silk Road Rising propelled me to where I am now, which is at Stanford, getting my PhD in theatre and performance studies, focusing on Arab theatre. Did I miss anything?

Nabra: I don't know. Probably. It's so hard to capture everything about ourselves, but that's fine. Let's do a lightning round. Are you ready?

Marina: Yes.

Nabra: All right. What is your favorite place in the theatre?

Marina: Backstage. How about you?

Nabra: The green room.

Marina: What's your favorite place in Egypt?

Nabra: My grandma's apartment, which is in Mohandessin.

Marina: It's beautiful there. I would say maybe the corniche in Alexandria.

Nabra: Do you have a favorite Arab musician?

Marina: Alyana or everyone's favorite Muhammad Ramadan. How about you?

Nabra: For me, it's Hamza Alaa El Din or on the opposite end of the spectrum, Nancy Ajram.

Marina: What is your favorite parts of the theatrical process?

Nabra: Table work.

Marina: Amazing. Mine is the opposite, which is tech.

Nabra: Of course. What is your favorite word in Arabic?

Marina: I love how expressive Arabic is, especially with love. So like hayati, albi, habibi.

Nabra: Mine's literally the opposite. I love words with English curse words in them like secretly, but they're not actually curse words like makatabitch and fakkar.

Marina: What is your favorite Arab food?

Nabra: I love fata and mahshy coromb and, of course, basbousa.

Marina: Basbousa. I love basbousa, ma'amoul, and maybe for an actual food and not a sweet: foul.

Nabra: A classic. What is your favorite non domesticated animal?

Marina: Manatees.

Nabra: For me goats, because they are delicious.

Marina: Which is maybe also a different question. Who is your favorite Arab author?

Nabra: My grandpa.

Marina: What did he write?

Nabra: He wrote all types of books, but most of them are only published in Egypt. So I'm working on actually publishing his books in America.

Marina: Amazing. I would say for me Alaa-Al-Aswany.

Nabra: What did they write?

Marina: The Yacoubian Building, which actually— Your dad, I think, is the one who told me about that book.

Nabra: Yes, I love that book. He also referred me to that book as well, and I cannot, for the life of me find a copy of the movie. There is a movie and it is impossible to get anywhere.

Marina: Okay, well that's our new mission. We have to watch this movie.

Nabra: Yes, absolutely. What is your favorite memory of us?

Marina: So, it's maybe, I don't know. Anyway, you were...

Nabra: There are a lot of memories.

Marina: It's true. When you dance, you move your arms in this really specific way and it's very endearing, but I always associated that with you. And then we were at Mama Situ, Nabra's grandma's house and Mama Situ started dancing and she was doing the exact same gestures. It was amazing. And just very, very sweet to see.

Nabra: Oh, that's… that's lovely. I didn't even really notice that at all. So it was a revelation for me. Yeah.

Marina: Next time. I'll take a video. It's perfect.

Nabra: For me it was it was our really late-night shawarma on our last night in Cairo. I think we stayed up all night and it was the last time we were having these foods.

Marina: Ros bel-laban!

Nabra: Ros bel-laban and the shawarma that we ordered. Oh my gosh. It was so lovely.

Marina: That was amazing. Awesome. Very hard question. Who's your favorite Arab playwright?

Nabra: Yeah. This is an impossible question for me. I was just going to say like all of the women, the contemporary women playwrights that I've been discovering recently. I can't choose one right now. I'll have to decide as we continue to learn more about Arab playwrights in this podcast.

Marina: Okay. That's fair. I'm just going to give Betty Shamieh shout out because I'm currently rereading all of her plays right now and they're so great.

Nabra: Where does your family live?

Marina: East coast.

Nabra: West coast. And also all over the world, obviously. What is your happy place?

Marina: Okay. There's this place in Pennsylvania that is... I went there for summer camp growing up. It's a seminary and a monastery. And then apparently during the summer at camp, but that would be my happy place in South Canaan, Pennsylvania. How about you?

Nabra: Mine is any beach, just any beach in the world.

Marina: Tell us what your dog's name is.

Nabra: Her name is Ashriya, which means beautiful in Nubian. What is your cat's name?

Marina: Her name was Stella. Following the American tradition of naming your pet a human name.

Nabra: If you could travel anywhere in the world right now, where would you go?

Marina: I would go to Jordan. Let's have corona end please.

Nabra: Yes please.

Marina: How about you?

Nabra: I would go to Egypt to visit my family. I miss them a lot.

Marina: I bet.

Nabra: Yeah.

Marina: What is the hardest thing about the Arabic language?

Nabra: It's the different dialects and especially the fact that the speaking dialects are completely different from the reading and writing dialects. So my speaking is great, but it does not translate to reading and writing, which is a struggle.

Marina: That makes perfect sense. For me, the hardest and the easiest are very similar because the roots for me make reading and writing a little bit easier, but it also makes it really hard for me to speak or listen, because I hear the root and I get excited because I think, "Oh, it's this word." But obviously it can be this other word or these fifteen other words that are very similar. And so by the time I've sorted through that in my brain, the person is done talking to me and I really just missed everything they've said.

Nabra: That's so valid. That happens to me all the time as well. What is the most Arab thing you can think of?

Marina: Oh my gosh, the hospitality. We sort of talked about this earlier, but I feel like every time I walk into someone's home, there are sweets and there's tea or coffee that I'm being handed. And everyone is just very kind and loving. Also the hand gesture where you put all of your fingers together and your palm is facing you. It's very hard to explain number…. Nabra, can you talk more about it?

Nabra: It's like the wait gesture we use in Egypt. It's also like we use it to emphasize things. I've also heard that it's a crude gesture in Italy.

Marina: Oh no.

Nabra: So you got to be careful where you use this gesture.

Marina: Noted.

Nabra: For me, it's just like yelling really loud when you see someone you know, because you're so excited and we're always loud and then asking izayak and alma eh like a million times.

Marina: Yes. Okay. So you have other projects you're working on. Tell us about one of them.

Nabra: I am writing a TYA-like theatre for young audience plays based on Nubian folkloric stories from my tribe.

Marina: Amazing. We'll have to do an episode on that.

Nabra: Yes.

Marina: I'm currently workshopping a play with a theatre in Chicago with one of my favorite playwrights, Ryan Oliveira. And it's his play Bloop.

Nabra: That's fun name.

Marina: Yeah.

Nabra: What is your theatre dream?

Marina: Oh my goodness. To be able to actually translate plays from Arabic to English. Inshallah. How about you?

Nabra: Inshallah. Gosh. Lord, help you with that. I don't think I'll ever be able to do that.

Marina: It is a tall task.

Nabra: It really is. For me it's to have my plays done in spaces, in different communities, all over the world, in addition to theatres, but also in different community spaces.

Marina: Yes. Amazing. Okay. That was a lot, but so good. Also really great at emphasizing some of the differences between us.

Nabra: Yeah, for real.

Marina: Okay. Audience, you know us now. What can you expect when you tune into Kunafa and Shay?

Nabra: We are interested in anything from looking at the work of medieval shadow play poet, Ibn Daniyalto forum theatre and Ramallah Palestine to artists with hyphenated identities, making work in the United States. This podcast will seek to aluminate the MENA canon. Some episodes will feature interviews with contemporary MENA theatremakers, some will focus on a certain play. Some will be more historical and some will offer an analysis on the state of MENA theatre today. Just to note, before we conclude. We are using the term MENA or a Middle Eastern and North African in this podcast. We recognize however that the naming of the region is a huge topic of discussion among MENA theatremakers in the US right now. For now, we're following the lead of the MENA theatremakers Alliance, or MENATMA who is really leading the coalition building of MENA theatremakers in the US today.

And I know has been in very deep conversation about this topic for a long time. And I've been fortunate to be a part of some of those discussions. So I know that there's no easy answer. From MENATMA's website, they say, and we completely support this, the definition of MENA in our podcast and for our uses as well. Quote, "We define the Middle East and North Africa broadly and inclusively in order to embrace the multiplicity of ethnic and religious identities that span Southwest Asia, North Africa, central Asia, the caucuses parts of Mediterranean Europe and our diaspora communities." End quote. Middle Eastern and MENA are widely used and understood terms. And I argue that, with so many immigrants and non-English speakers in our region, and with this coalition just building mainstream momentum, it makes sense to stick with a known term for now, but I also very much recognize the need to decolonize our language.

Marina: I think Jamil Khoury sums up the issue and the need for change perfectly in his recent article. The article is American SWANA: A Progressive Theatre Movement Soars. Quote:

All of us in the American Middle Eastern and North African theatre movement know that Middle East and Middle Eastern as well as near East and near Eastern are problematic terms. They are rooted in colonial cartography and place England at the center of the world. Yet we've resigned ourselves to the fact that for now Middle East is widely understood. Whereas the geographically appropriate term, Southwest Asia or West Asia is not. In declaring ourselves to be Southwest Asian Americans, we reject Imperial naming rights, decolonize the language and get to name ourselves for once. If we commit to a practice of territorial renaming, iterate Southwest Asia every chance we get. Swap MENA for SWANA, eventually it will stick.

Nabra: We completely agree with Jamil and I really recommend this article. It says so much, and we could only capture a small amount. For now, however, we're sticking with MENA and we'll follow the guidance of the greater MENA theatre movement of which we are only a small part. Perhaps as this podcast gains steam, we can make a clear shift in language that aligns with movement builders and leaders nationally like the MENATMA steering coalition and Jamil and other amazing leaders in the national MENA movement. We encourage discussion on this matter and acknowledge that this is an evolving discussion and a space of learning for us as well.

Marina: Thank you so much for having tea with us. This has been another episode of Kunafa and Shay. We're your hosts, Marina and Nabra. This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you loved this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode, along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com.

Nabra: Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the commons.

Marina: We hope you tune in next time. Thanks for joining us on Kunafa and Shay. Yalla, bye!

Nabra: Yalla, bye!

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