Representation 101: Trends of Contemporary MENA Theatre in the US
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: 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 an 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 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: In today’s episode, we will be analyzing the theatre scene from our own experiences and perspectives to try to grasp a very general understanding of popular MENA theatre in the US, since 9/11.
Nabra: First we wanted to talk about the general effect on MENA people in the US after 9/11 and what that incident meant for Middle Eastern Arab North African people, and even Brown people in general, folks that are associated with the region or adjacent to the region. I mean, it had really a wide-reaching effect on our people and a lot of other folks. There was just a huge shift in the United States after September 11, 2001. Ramy, the television show, give us a really great example and I think image of what it was like post 9/11.
The day after 9/11, Ramy’s family puts up a big American flag on the front of their front porch and their neighbors are looking suspiciously at them and things like that. Then Ramy’s friends ask him if his family are terrorists and there’s just like.... It captures this confusion and paranoia, and this just this really racism that was really infused into everyday life all of a sudden, starting on September 12 for Arab folks in the United States. It’s continued, and it continues to today in some ways but I think film and TV are really the most blatant displays of post 9/11 racism.
You can check out this documentary that’s available actually on YouTube, called Reel Bad Arabs—R-E-E-L—that goes deeply into how Hollywood TV movies really created and fostered intensified Arab stereotypes outside of the theatre, within the film industry. In Reel Bad Arabs, Dr. Jack Shaheen says, “There’s a dangerously consistent pattern of hateful Arab stereotypes, stereotypes that rob an entire people of their humanity. All aspects of our culture project the Arab as villain, that is a given. There is no deviation. We have taken a few structured images and repeated them over and over again.”
That is really strongly worded, but it’s true. Basically, all the Arabs that you see post 9/11 in film, in popular culture, are villains of some sort or stereotypes of some sort. Some of those stereotypes that are just repeated over and over again are Arabs as terrorists, warlords, violent martyrs, or maybe exotic and sexy women, or impoverished forlorn citizens of war-torn countries that have no prospects and are doomed to live these terrible lives and in terrible countries allegedly. Or the rich and evil prince, or the oppressed women of every description, dumb and uncivilized henchmen, and basically just all types of villain or the “other.”
Marina: Nabra, you also mentioned Ramy earlier, and there’s a sort of image that comes with Ramy too. Can you talk about that?
Nabra: Yeah. There’s also a stereotype that I think has developed post 9/11 in efforts to humanize Arabs, that is the cool era that drinks and eats pork. It’s just real cool and super Westernized. It feels, I think for some writers or whoever makes films and makes these decisions, that that’s safe. We can have an Arab in this film and nobody’s going to feel intimidated by them. They’re going to be cool like us. But in some ways, that also doesn’t really show or celebrate aspects of the culture that we see especially in Muslim-majority and Arab-majority countries.
Places where those cultures are actually from versus what we’re seeing in the US with a lot of the lived experiences of Westernized Muslims or folks who are either by choice or feeling forced to assimilate. That is a real lived experience, but there’s still this stereotype that we’re seeing that isn’t paying homage to Arabs I think in the way that we want them to.
Marina: Yeah. Thank you. A few quick other notes on Reel Bad Arabs, and also on chronology because I think this is super interesting. Dr. Shaheen worked to shatter demeaning stereotypes of Arabs and he was talking about the “Bs.” You already listed some really great ones, but the Bs were billionaires, bombers, belly dancers, and boisterous bargainers. That’s what he saw a lot of. He was a Christian son of Lebanese immigrants, and he first started this lobbying campaign against xenophobia and Hollywood films and on TV in 1974.
This was after his six-year-old son and five-year-old daughter interrupted their cartoon viewing on a Saturday morning to complain, “Daddy. Daddy, they’ve got bad Arabs on.” Even at this early age, they recognize the problem. This began a lifelong commitment to documenting and mitigating negative depictions of Arabs and Muslims. His analysis found that about a thousand films with Arab or Muslim characters were made between 1896 and the year 2000, and only twelve portrayed them positively. He wrote three books, Most Notably, Reel Bad Arabs, How Hollywood Vilifies the People, which was published in 2001 and established a lot of scholarship for Arab Americans studying journalism and communication.
Everything that he then researched was donated to NYU, which includes audio and video recordings, cartoons, posters, toys. As Dr. Shaheen saw it, Americans began demonizing Arabs and Muslims after the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors in 1967. The perception of Arabs worsened with the 1973 oil embargo by Middle Eastern petroleum producers, and then even more after the Cold War ended.
Since the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Dr. Shaheen said in a 2015 interview, “It’s gotten much worse because now Arab Americans, as well as American Muslims, are being projected as villains.” Definitely worth checking out because of when Nabra and I were both born and how we’ve lived in the United States, I think 9/11 is such a big shift and something that we can see really clearly, but it’s interesting to hear Dr. Shaheen talk about these other things that produced changes too.
Nabra: This had a really legitimate and ongoing effect on all Arab people. I think there’s an element of that [inaudible 00:09:04] and consciousness that all of us have to carry in some form or another if we’re in the US. In the preface to Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes, which is just a great name for a play, Egyptian American playwright Yussef El Guindi says, “Suddenly—I say suddenly though this has been happening for most of my politically conscious life—I find myself having to account for a group of extremists I would never ever consider hanging out with. Somehow I’m responsible for these strange violent idiots.”
This is a great encapsulation of this idea that the stereotypes really become what any Arab has to account for or answer to. Either we’re commenting on it in some way, or exploring it in some way, which maybe that’s, as we’ll talk about later, is that adding to the canon of stereotypes that are portrayed on stage. Or we’re not trying to purposely not talk about that and then we’re avoiding the important politics of our cultures. There’s really no winning in the end. Really in the end, any era playwright is immediately going to have a more nuanced portrayal, the non-Arabs are people and cultures adjacent to ours.
We’re going to go into some of the ways that we’ve seen trends in plays, especially focusing on Arab playwrights, but these are just our own opinions and views. Some of the traps that we—and I say deliberately “we” because I’m an Arab writer and theatremaker—some of the traps that we fall into are because of internalized racism or it’s just because there’s no winning in a culture where your very being is politicized whether you want it to be or not. Keep in mind that within cultures that have been villainized and stereotyped so, so heavily and deeply for the past twenty years, it’s really, really just difficult to navigate what you’re going to put on stage as a writer.
But we’re going to talk about it anyways. We’ve broken up some of the trends that we’ve seen post 9/11 in Arab theatre in the US into general topics. One of those is plays that portrays stereotypes. We can imagine that the most successful MENA plays post 9/11 or during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom—which were the military operations happening in Afghanistan in Iraq, after 9/11—the most successful plays were those that showcased terrorism or centered war, because that is what the general public, the American white-majority public, wanted to see. That was what was exciting and interesting.
Marina: It makes sense in some ways because we think of the origin of the word “theatre,” which comes from “theatron” from the Greek, meaning a scene place. We talk about theatres as holding up a mirror to the world. In this instance, the United States had just had this terrorist attack and we’re trying to make sense of that. In some ways, it makes sense that if this is what’s on the public consciousness, that’s what the plays then are. But it produces lots of problems that stem from that, especially if from 2001 till now, twenty years later, we see a lot of the same trends. If we don’t see growth and progression, then what’s really happening there? That’s something we’ll continue to look at throughout the episode.
Nabra: One example that I think about by Arab playwright or actually a South Asian playwright, who’s very very prominent in the US—he won a Pulitzer—is Ayad Akhtar’s Invisible Hand, which actually is a really, in my opinion, well-written play. But it’s about a group of Pakistani terrorist organization that kidnaps a white man, I think he’s American, and hold him hostage and he teaches them about the economy and stocks and how to in some ways manipulate the economy for their economic benefit. Then they use terrorist actions to go further with those principles and really manipulate the invisible hand of the marketplace.
In this play, there are really nuanced portrayals of Pakistani people, but all the Pakistani people that you see are terrorists and they do horrendous violent acts. But you’re made to partially sympathize with these different people and their different motivations to be a part of a terrorist organization. It’s worth mentioning that it still centers on a white man. This is an example of a play by a Pakistani playwright who is wildly successful because he has explored elements of his identity in really a much more nuanced way than non-Arab or Middle Eastern or South Asian writers are doing, but we’re still seeing a play like Invisible Hand that is showing only terrorists.
The only Brown people you see are terrorists, you have to think what is the... Is that adding to the overabundance of this portrayal of Brown folks as terrorists, or is it worth the complicating that he does have that stereotype within that structure? It’s complicated. There’s no clear answer. Another example, that’s by a non-MENA playwright is Oslo by J.T. Rogers, which was written in 2016. This is a play that is about the Oslo Accords, which centers on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Again, it centers white people. It centers the Norwegians who negotiated those accords, and all of the Arab characters in that are throwaway characters or their stereotypes, or they’re in the background. Again, it’s focusing on this popular conflict that everyone wants to learn about in a problematic way that just continues to portray stereotypes.
Marina: Yeah. Another thing about Oslo that I think is interesting is this is based on a true story. So J.T. Rogers did interviews with the Norwegians. There are a lot of characters who are portrayed in the play who were not tapped for interviews, which I think is equally important to note, but I’ve had people say to me, “Well, you can take issue with the fact that white people are centered in this play, but it’s based on a true backchannel negotiation that happened,” and that’s fair. But it’s a failed peace agreement.
What do we gain by putting a failed peace agreement that centers white people onstage when there are more nuanced stories that can be told about both Palestinians and Israelis who were working towards peace now in other ways. I think as Nabra had said before, it’s complicated. We’re not saying that this play is canceled. We’re not calling for cancel culture things. But we are saying that just because this play checks these boxes—and I think that’s what we’re largely getting at, is that checking boxes for representation—it’s not that simple. It’s actually a much more complicated discussion than that.
That leads us to this next play, which is Guillermo Calderon’s play Kiss. Kiss—some spoilers here—it’s a three-act play structure. The first act has these non-Middle Eastern actors who are very excited because they found a text that is written by a Syrian playwright and they’re really excited to put this play on. They feel like they found a soap opera. They’re putting on this really melodramatic piece and there’s all of this coughing and there’s this love, and they think that this person is actually dying of love in one of the moments.
Then in act two, the director, who’s an actor in the play—the character is the director—they come out and they say, “We have great news, audience. We’re going to now Skype with the playwright who is in a refugee camp in Lebanon.” On this screen, you have an interpreter, someone who is interpreting the Arabic, and then you have this playwright. The actors are asking all of these questions of the playwright. The playwright’s essentially saying, “No, everything that you…. They’re coughing because of the tear gas. You’re not understanding the context of this play.”
The actors are realizing that they have done a great disservice to it because they didn’t understand the context that surrounds everything. Then the third act is them trying to do it right. I think this play is super interesting. I saw it. It was done at the college where I used to teach, and it was a really great production. It was a great way to incorporate a lot of student actors. We don’t have a lot of Middle Eastern actors, and so this play really suited the student body in this way. But there are a few problems with it as well.
The Arabic text that’s spoken is actually just written in English with a parenthetical that says that this text is unspoken in Arabic, which means that there is the labor that is asked of Arabic-speaking actors who then have to translate this text and then put it on stage, which I know a lot of theatres don’t always have that line item where we can pay additional people. That’s not in the budget always. But in this way, this actor has to translate this Arabic and then speak the Arabic onstage.
Two, if you want to do a play that deals with the Syrian civil war, which is what this is getting at, this can be great. But I’ve also seen this play done in large cities where there are a lot of MENA actors and where it feels like, Oh, there’s a play that’s about the Middle East that’s still centering non-Middle Eastern actors, and what can we do about that? Just another example of really trying to have that complicated conversation when we’re choosing these plays that we’re putting on.
Nabra: All the examples that we’ve given so far, they still center white characters as Marina was pointing out. Most of the plays that would fit into this kind of category of portraying stereotypes would be by non-MENA folks. But as we said before, there are still MENA folks who are trying to explore these stereotypes or bring nuance or complicate the stereotypes. But by putting those on stage is it still adding to the problem of the overrepresentation of the stereotypes in our theatre canon, period, and popular media canon really?
But one of the red flags you might want to look out for as an audience member is: Does this play that is about a MENA topic center white characters? That might be a red flag. Any POC-centered play, really, it’s good to check, is this written by a person of that cultural identity or someone that is very close to that cultural identity? Does it center those POC characters or does it center white characters? That might give you a bit of insight into whether you should support this play or whether it will be giving you a nuanced and interesting opinion, or maybe just portraying stereotypes?
Marina: Yeah. In addition to what’s happening on stage, there are lots of ways that we can engage the community into nuanced conversations in other ways. This is something that Nabra does very well. This is Nabra’s specialty, if you will. But here I’m thinking of use of El Guindi’s play Back of the Throat. We’ve already talked about the use of El Guindi. But this play, Back of the Throat, deals with this young Arab American, his name’s Khalid, and he’s confined to his home by two government agents. Then he’s questioned throughout the play. Every item in his apartment is used against him as a potential source of suspicion.
It’s revealed that his girlfriend has reported him for being suspicious in light of recent attacks that have occurred in the context of the play. This was done in 2005 in Chicago at Silk Road Rising, which we’ll talk a little bit more about soon—Silk Road Rising as a company. Something that I think that they did that was so interesting was that they were strengthening links to current FBI procedures and actual fears of Arab Americans. They had discussions with real-life FBI agents, as well as victims of accusations and discrimination, and also part of the rehearsal process. Then for their post-show discussions, they had ten retired FBI agents who attended them.
They talked about the play’s plot and depiction, and they compared that with their own experiences and FBI interrogation methods. It’s especially important because the FBI agent, Bartlett, in the play, underlines that the US is an immigrant nation that transcends issues of ethnicity. But at the same time, he says this line, “One more thing, at no time should you think this is an ethnic thing. Your ethnicity has nothing to do with it. Other than the fact that your background happens to be the place where most of this crap is coming from. Naturally, the focus is going to be on you. It’s not profiling, it’s deduction.” With this FBI agent who says these lines, and then the way that they were engaging these post-show discussions, it adds layers of nuance to what is already a nuanced play.
Nabra: That’s an incredibly important thing to keep in mind is the community-engagement aspect of really, in my opinion, any play, but especially places that are dealing with MENA cultures because of the inundation of misinformation or bad information or deliberate propaganda that we especially here in the United States have been fed about MENA cultures and people. I am a community-engagement practitioner, that’s my job, and so that’s what I’m thinking about every day.
But that’s a way to take a really complex play, like Back of the Throat, and interrogate those stereotypes that might be being put on stage more than we want to, tie the play to direct action in your community or nationally. In this case, bringing the FBI agents into the conversation is so powerful and can really make legitimate change through the act of seeing and conversating and discussing this art.
Marina: Yes. Additionally, it helps build bridges between communities, especially communities that haven’t always been really invited or welcomed to the theatre, and they don’t mean that literally that someone wasn’t... that was making theatre a foreboding place. But when you don’t see people like you represented on stage, it’s not necessarily saying, “Hey, this is for you, right?” It says, “You can come, but it’s not about you.”
What can we do to really build these bridges, and community engagement is one of those ways. The next play that I want to mention is Samir Younis’s Browntown. This play is just one of the funniest plays I’ve ever read. I haven’t gotten to see it yet, so please produce it. I would love to see it. It’s hilarious and addresses a problem that’s still very much exists, which is casting, which could be a whole separate podcast. We could really talk—
Nabra: Oh yeah. We can talk forever about casting.
Marina: We really could. Maybe we will at some point. But anyway, in this play we have Malek and Omar, who have arrived to audition for a new movie, which is entitled the Color of Terror. Both of these guys are really desperate for work, but they’re having difficulty reconciling their careers with their heritage. They’re tormented by this other actor whose name is Vijay. He’s an Indian American actor, and he, Vijay, gets cast very frequently in terrorist roles. Omar has recently played the lead in a production of Indian Ink, and so we have in this way this exchange of these actors playing roles outside of their cultures and sometimes getting paid an exorbitant amount of money to do it.
These three guys are auditioning for a really clueless casting director who asks them to embody really outrageous and insensitive qualities. She is completely unable to discern the difference between Indian and Arab accents. She assigns them to these stereotypical motivations. It produces a lot of really interesting conversations that I think apply to a lot of the things people of color are actually asked to do in auditions. Again, we could talk about that at length. But what is really fun about this play is that it leans into the stereotypes and through this absurdity, it really shows some of the things that need to be continually addressed in the field of theatre.
There are lots of people continuing to talk about this, and we’re just really doing a representation one-on-one here with adding some of our thoughts to it. But I would love to quote a few people that we know and love and really admire and respect, who have also talked about this at length. The first is Jamil Khoury who is the founding artistic director of Silk Road Rising. He has talked about allowing playwrights to define themselves on their own terms instead of always being on the defensive. That’s something that Silk Road Rising really does beautifully.
He also talks about how there’s a problem where sometimes people treat tragedy as a cultural characteristic, as something that’s inevitable for people of MENA descends. Pirronne Yousefzadeh has said, “These are not the given circumstances born of our genetics. Most of them are actually a result of American meddling.” And to quote Ayad Akhtar who never had talked about a little bit earlier, “To the extent that we continue to try to define ourselves by saying we are not what you say about us, we’re still allowing someone else to have the dominant voice in the discourse.”
Nabra: Yeah. All brilliant quotes. I just want to give a special shout out especially to Arab women who are breaking the mold and really bringing nuance to tragedy and have been basically doing that forever, but especially post 9/11 in all of our culture, to be honest. But especially when it comes to MENA perspectives, they’re very male-focused, through a male lens. By virtue of introducing the female lens in a truthful way, that is immediately bringing some nuance to what we’re seeing happening abroad and in the US with MENA folks. Nine Parts of Desire by Heather Raffo is a great example of this.
It’s still in this clearly post-9/11 category talking about war and tragedy through the perspective of a woman character, but it’s obviously meant to fight back against the stereotypes that we’re seeing in other media. Another example that I love is The Black Eyed by Betty Shamieh, which portrays women in our tragedy, but also in sexuality and comradery and differences, is how she encapsulates what she’s doing with The Black Eyed, which is almost monologues in some way, poetic monologues with a Greek chorus of Palestinian women talking about their different experiences within the context of martyrdom and the struggles that they go through in their cultures.
In the preface to the play, Betty Shamieh says:
The Black Eyed is a work in which I tried to capture the complexity of being a Palestinian-American woman living in New York in the wake of September 11. I began working on The Black Eyed right after September 11, because it’s an extremely political and nonlinear play written in free verse with a chorus. I have believed I would never find a major producer willing to take it on, and that freed me to write in a way I had not attempted to write before.
Of course, I always also knew that if I produced my plays that dealt with my ethnicity first, I would have to talk about my personal and family history, which has been very much shaped by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Why tackle a subject as polarizing and controversial as the modern Middle East, especially if you enjoy being well-liked as much as I do? The answer, of course, is that you absolutely should not, unless you have to.
That brilliantly captured the no-winning situation that Arab writers are in, especially post 9/11, by portraying truth and by bringing in a new perspective.
It’s immediately bringing a bit of nuance to that conversation, especially the ways in which Arab women are exploring tragedy in a way that doesn’t exacerbate tragedy or stereotypes of tragedy. We did talk about Silk Road Rising a bit before. It was also formed in response directly to 9/11. On their website, it says:
Founded in 2002 by husbands Malik Gillani and Jamil Khoury, Silk Road Rising (originally Silk Road Theatre Project) began as an intentional and creative response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. We recognized that the consequences of that catastrophic day would vibrate for years to come, posing unique and urgent challenges for artists of all backgrounds. It would, moreover, underscore our commitment to educating, to promoting dialogue, and to healing rifts via the transformative power of storytelling.
Harnessing that power, we set out to challenge the ideology and hatred that fueled the 9/11 attacks and the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim backlash that immediately followed. Our vision was to counter negative images and stereotypes of Middle Eastern and Muslim peoples with representation grounded in authentic, multi-faceted, and patently human experiences. We’d center politics that were anti-racist, anti-colonial, and pro-feminist, and tell stories that were by us, about us, and for all.
Marina: Yes. I love Silk Road Rising. Something else that’s worth adding is that in 2012, the company expanded their vision and reach by incorporating non-traditional theatrical expressions with a focus on online audiences. If you look at their website, you can check out some of the things that they’ve done to fulfill their vision of civic engagement and incorporating wider audiences into these urgent discussions with pressing political and cultural issues. You can see that in works like Not Quite White, The Four Hijabs, and Mosque Alert. Those are all available on their website. You can see the championing Arab American representations.
Nabra: It’s very much worth mentioning that Golden Thread Productions, which was the first American theatre company devoted to the Middle East, was founded in 1996. Obviously, there was a need for better and increased representation before 2001.
Marina: Yes. I’m so sorry, because Golden Thread is here in California where I am, and Silk Road Rising is in Chicago. Just giving you some geography for where they are.
Nabra: Very good points. There are a lot of amazing theatres in New York to represent that coast, but Noor Theatre is the other theatre that I think is one of the pillars of MENA theatre to give you some geographical idea of MENA theatre in the United States.
Marina: Yes. Noor Theatre was established in 2012, and they have so many great things. They just did a really great reading series that I think you can keep your eyes out for future pieces from them as well.
Nabra: We talked about this bucket of stereotyping Arabs, whether that’s inadvertently, which is the worst type of stereotyping of course. Actually, I guess blatant stereotyping would be the worst type, but we’re talking about MENA plays that are focusing on the culture. But plays that accidentally are portraying stereotypes or plays that are exploring stereotypes, but in that exploration still portraying them and adding to that canon. The next category we’ll be talking about is plays that humanize Arabs. These are plays that try to correct misconceptions and fight back against the dehumanization of MENA people, which is very important. This, especially post 9/11… I think playwrights felt like there was a perhaps responsibility to rehumanize MENA folks who have been dehumanized by popular culture and popular media.
The one thing that I would like to throw into the mix to complicate this bucket is that I’ve read a lot of plays that the lesson of the play ends up being Arabs are human, and that lesson, although unfortunately is needed in especially the US, is just not interesting in my opinion. I still have a little bit of a bone to pick with plays that are just purely about humanizing Arabs and not about having full characters with arcs and deep inner lives and a high standard of storytelling. If the point of the play is Arabs are human too, it’s important, but it’s also underwhelming to me, especially as an Arab reader of those plays or audience member.
Marina: For sure. Nabra and I have been talking about this a lot and it made me realize that, okay, humanizing is a thing that we want to move past and beyond, especially because other plays are held to higher standards of storytelling, right? The other plays aren’t like, “White people are humans.” But it made me think a lot about dehumanization. I’m reading Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste, which I recommend, and in it she talks about when you dehumanize the group, you’ve completed the work of dehumanizing any single person within it. Dehumanize the group, and you’ve quarantined them from the masses you choose to elevate and programmed everyone, even some of the targets of dehumanization, to no longer believe what their eyes can see, to no longer trust their own thoughts.
I think this is really important because, first of all, it shows why the need for humanization exists, but then also it talks about how it’s the ultimate gaslighting, right? Where it can gaslight everyone to think, “Oh, okay. Well, yeah, great. They’re human, and I realize that now,” and that is a win. Then she talks at length—and we won’t need to talk about this right now—about experiments where participants didn’t actually have to be ordered to harm anyone. They just needed to be delivered dehumanizing messages about them, referring to people as animals, et cetera, and how they were willing to harm these people with electrical shocks. So famous experiment in Stanford, 1975. But that’s for a different time, just worth noting that yes, we need to humanize people. Then we need to take that seventeen steps further and really tell stories.
Marina: In “Finding Our Own Voice: The Politics of the Personal in Arab American Theatre,” playwright and performer Leila Buck, who is someone that Nabra and I both adore, I think. Right, Nabra?
Nabra: She’s amazing. Yeah, of course.
Marina: Yes. She reaffirms the statement of Arab American filmmaker, Vicky Moufawad-Paul, that says, “The political is the personal,” and thereby speaks for a large number of Arab American theatre artists that are producing character-driven and deeply personal plays. Later in this essay, Buck poses questions that are decisive for the reception, as well as the self-conception of Arab American theatre since 9/11: “Is it political to simply present an Arab woman in a hijab speaking her mind or a Palestinian character doing anything but a terrorist act? Does our work have to address politics directly in order to be considered political or to shape the politics of our world?”
Nabra: That’s a really important aspect, the politicization of MENA cultures and MENA bodies and the fact that we can’t run away from that even if we want to. She talks about Yussef El Guindi as well in this, and says:
Even though El Guindi immediately addresses current politics in the US, the aspects that mark has worked as “political” would rather be the humanization of Arab American characters on stage at a time when enemy combatants are deprived of their civil rights and the questioning of the generation of meaning and the construction of identity.
El Guindi, as well as Ayad Akhtar, both have said that they shy away from calling their pieces political. They don’t want to be politicized but I think at the same time recognize that they’re living in this politicized environment. That’s how I think we all have to approach these plays both with that mind of, Can we separate this politicization from how we’re viewing these plays?, as well as, How can we view these plays in the context of the very political atmosphere that we’re living in?
The next category we’ll talk about is new perspectives. These are really... I put them into two categories.
Marina: I added a third category actually. Nabra, I’m going to jump in with this other category first. Nabra is going to talk about, in a minute, plays that do not center war and tragedy, and I’m going to jump in really quickly with plays that help us to see war and tragedy in different ways. Two plays that come to mind here are The Prophet by Hassan Abdulrazzak, which is about the Egyptian revolution, and Oh My Sweet Lands by Amir Nizar Zuabi, which is about the Syrian civil war. These plays, while they focus on conflict, they also help—especially Western audiences—see these conflict in different ways, especially ways that are just more nuanced and more holistic than media representations, of course.
Nabra: Yes. I love that. I think that totally lives within this new perspectives bucket as well, in some ways.
Marina: Oh good.
Nabra: Yeah. Yeah, but then there’s this whole other category of what about plays that don’t deal with war and tragedy that just have different stories like, “Whoa, we can actually do that?” I think after 9/11 especially, it was like so much of the popular media was about war, in some way or another. Whether it was nuanced, whether it was a different way to approach that, it was still about that. I split this into two different categories, which is either A) they have MENA characters and focus on MENA identities, but the characters really have full arcs that go beyond, “Look, they’re human too.” There are so many plays that do this, but just a few to talk about very quickly. Mosque for Mosque by Omer Abbas Salem is about a queer Arab man and his interactions with his family. This is Who I Am by Amir Nazir Zuabi, which is a conversation between a Palestinian father and son. It’s really about their family and their relationship. You have—
Marina: Yeah, perfect. Eyesight by Leila Buck talks about a woman’s perspective, all of these different things that shaped her identity, Betty Shamieh’s Roar is about a MENA family, but has these really complicated arcs and especially complicated feelings about being immigrants, and the generational feelings too are so interesting there. Sevan Greene’s plays I think can really fall into this category.
Nabra: As well as Language of Wild Berries, which is an audio play produced by Golden Thread Productions by Naghmeh Samini, translated by Torange Yeghiazarian. Then the other portion of these new perspectives is… There’s A) having many characters that focus on MENA identities, but there’s these full arcs and full human beings, and the B) MENA characters who are not completely defined by their MENA culture. This honestly, personally, is my favorite category of MENA plays. Examples include The Ants by Ramiz Monsef, who is Iranian American, and it’s a horror play that’s really about class disparity, but two of the main characters happen to be Iranian American.
Their culture isn’t ignored. It’s a part of the conversation like it would be for anybody, casually, as they interact with other characters that they’re close to. But it’s not about MENA culture specifically at all. It’s about this overtaking of a mansion by people without money who are occupying mansions. I think about it that a lot, especially living in Seattle, which is a place where you can really see the class disparity really starkly. Yeah, I think about it a lot in my everyday life, walking around Seattle and walking by mansions that are right next to encampments of folks experiencing homelessness.
Then another example is A Degree from Nature by Anna Michael, who is Lebanese. It’s actually somewhat complex play but the main character is a mixed-race MENA woman. Again, it’s an element of the story, as she explores her heritage, as she tries to think about what her legacy is in the world, but it’s not the entirety of that character and it’s not what the play is really about. The play is more about legacy and where we’ll be in the future when it comes to our identity and our heritage and our legacies. Then I have a couple of honorable mentions, which, first of all: plays about immigration.
There are so many plays about immigration. Immigration is a really important part of a lot of MENA folks’ lives. My mom is an immigrant to America, and it’s just an important part of our cultures and our experiences, especially as MENA folks in the US. Especially during the Trump administration, I think there were a lot more plays about immigration for perhaps obvious reasons because of the Muslim ban and all of the issues of immigration that he created. Although they’re about current events that affect MENA people, they offer a more nuanced and humanized perspective than a lot of post 9/11 media.
Some examples of that are American Dreams by Leila Buck, which is this amazing interactive play where you get to choose… It’s a game show where the audience gets to choose who gets to immigrate to America. It’s heart-wrenching to be in the audience of that play. Language Rooms by Yussef El Guindi is an example, and Dishwasher Dreams by Alaudin Ullah, which is really like a one-person show that typifies, I think in some ways, the MENA immigrant story. Then another honorable mention is: plays that preserve MENA folktales.
This is really close to my heart. I’m doing this as well in my playwriting, preserving Nubian folk tales that were passed down through the matrilineal lineage of my family. These are plays, really, that bring classical Arab stories into the canon in a unique way. They recognize the ancient heritage of theatre in the Middle East. Some other examples are Leila Buck and Evren Odcikin’s 1001 Nights adaptation and Torange Yeghiazarian’s Leila’s Quest for Flight.
Marina: The work you’re doing, Nabra, can you say a little bit more about it?
Nabra: Yeah. The play that I wrote that lives within this world is Nubian Stories that I co-wrote with my mom about her story, which I guess is also in some ways like an immigration story. But throughout the play, her life story infused with Nubian folktales that she grew up with that she translated into English from the original Nubian. Then I’m also working on converting some of these folktales into a theatre for young audience play, which I’m very excited about as well.
Marina: So exciting.
Nabra: Why does representation matter? I guess that’s the thing that we want to leave you with. Marina was talking to me about this really amazing event that she attended that shares some Indigenous American knowledge that I think is really relevant to this conversation.
Marina: Yeah. Mary Kathryn Nagle is an Indigenous lawyer and playwright. She came to speak, of course right now via Zoom, but there were two anecdotes that really stuck with me, because I think people innately understand that representation matters. I think everyone can find stories in their life where they saw themselves being represented in a way that felt really great. But in these stories, the first one was when she was talking about the play, Metamora, which was on Broadway when Andrew Jackson was running his anti-Indigenous campaign, which led to him getting into the role of president and how this play deals with the really pretty terrible story of the “noble savage” who becomes an angry savage and then kills a lot of people.
This play was on Broadway when Andrew Jackson was working to harm Indigenous folks. Dr. Bethany Hughes is an Indigenous scholar and she was talking about how it was no surprise to her that Andrew Jackson was able to get into the presidency saying the hateful things he was saying because that play was on people’s consciousness at the time, and how the redface at that play exhibited and how also subsequent examples of blackface have made it easier to be racist and to really dehumanize other groups of people throughout time.
The second anecdote that she said was when... She has a play that deals with the sovereignty and safety of Indigenous women, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg saw it, when she was still alive, and wrote Mary Kathryn Nagle this really nice note about it and also comments that it was the first time that she’d seen an Indigenous story on stage. Less than a year later, RBG was authoring legislation that helped and named Indigenous women specifically. We can see direct effects here. These aren’t the only examples that exist.
I also have been thinking a lot about the inauguration in January, and how I saw so many stories of young girls looking at Vice President Kamala Harris, and saying things like, “That can be me,” right? Just another example of that.
We’d love to hear your stories of representation and times that it has really either been very apparent to you or where the lack of representation has been an issue too. That’s something you can feel free to leave us in the comments, because we know these stories are really important.
Nabra: Those are just great examples of ways that we can trace art -making, theatremaking, to legislative change. It’s rare that we get a clear tie to how representation changes our world. But it’s obviously happening constantly. I mean, that’s why we make art, we as theatremakers obviously believe that. It’s really just exciting to hear examples of that, where you can find that tie really clearly. Honestly, myself as a writer, part of why I started writing plays was because I wasn’t seeing myself and my complex identities represented on stage. The more honestly I saw bad representations of MENA folks and Muslim folks, the more I was like, “Oh my God, I need to write.”
And so I guess a lot of my writing came from righteous indignation, but also this personal fuel to increase representation. In conclusion, we really have a disproportionate history of negative representation, especially in the United States, of MENA folks, which makes truthful storytelling difficult when Arab playwrights are trying to make up for preconceptions that people are coming with right from the start. That’s why more Arab plays on the American stage is important. More than that, however, we are just so excited about the nuance portrayals that we are seeing on the American stage.
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.
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Nabra: We hope you tune in next time. Thanks for joining us on Kunafa and Shay.
Marina: Yalla, bye!
Nabra: Yalla, bye!