Crossing Boundaries, Creating Intersections: Jamil Khoury Does Both with Precious Stones / by R. Sheth

February 1, 2005
By Sura Faraj

If you were to climb the stairs to the upper floors of Jamil Khoury’s thoughts, you might find yourself out of breath.

If you took the elevator, you might get dizzy.

But let Jamil transport you there on his voice, and you’ll be happy to go for the ride.

I spoke to the playwright of Precious Stones in February and found him to be articulate, passionate and a pleasure to interview. A complex thinker, every topic he touched meant weaving in other threads. Indeed, his identity is hard to pin down.

An Arab American, a playwright activist, a queer feminist, he wears many hats. Even in the process of being interviewed, he often turned the questions back to me asking, "Do you agree with that?" and at one point even said, "Maybe I’m just talking too much about myself."

A feminist, indeed.

Khoury's play, Precious Stones, is about two women, Andrea, who is Jewish, and Leila, who is Palestinian. They form a Jewish/Arab dialogue group and end up falling in love. True to his own complexity, Khoury has only two actors portraying all six characters. The play explores issues of sexuality, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and class. While this may seem like too full a plate for your average theatrical meal, it’s easy to see, after speaking with Khoury, how this came about. Khoury based his play on issues he himself has struggled with.

Background

Precious Stones takes place in 1989 in Chicago, during the first intifada. Khoury was in Palestine in 1989 and 1990. He says, "Today there’s hopelessness and despair, whereas when I was there, there was a great sense of hope, and although terrible things were happening, there was this idea that the conflict was going to be resolved, and Palestinians would get independence."

Jamil Khoury was born in Chicago to an American mother and a Syrian father. Like many mixed-blood Arabs, Khoury knew some spoken Arabic but didn’t know how to read or write it. While studying Arabic as an undergrad, he decided that he needed immersion in the language, took a year off and went to study in Damascus, spending a total of five years in various places in the Middle East.

He got a job as a refugee affairs officer in the West Bank, living in Jerusalem and working in the refugee camps.

Khoury brought his many-sided self with him. "I think people like us, you know -- mixed-blood -- we bring a lot of our own complexity and baggage when we go to the Arab world." Khoury says he wrote Precious Stones because he wanted to share those experiences in a creative manner.

The name "Precious Stones" evolved from images of what stones represent, from stones as tools of liberation during the intifada to stones used for building, the holy Ka’aba stone, the Dome of the Rock, or the Jewish tradition of putting stones on graves. The significance of stones touches on gay history too, he says. "Among other things, stones were thrown during the Stonewall uprising in New York City."

Clearly, Precious Stones is not one-faceted. National, sexual and class politics were all things that Khoury and people around him were grappling with, and he includes them in the play. "We don’t function in compartments. There are many facets to our personalities and our realities, and why do they need to necessarily be separated?"

While Khoury defines himself as "a much more driven activist at the time," he says, "Now that I’m producing theater, I’ve shifted. I think this Silk Road Theater project is just a different type of activism."

Queer and Feminist

Khoury is gay. He and his partner, Malik Gillani, who is Pakistani, have been together eight and a half years and run the theater together.

However, his identity isn’t limited to just being queer. Because of his partner, Khoury says, "I live in the South Asian community, probably more than I do in the Arab-American community."

He also hasn’t limited his political identity. "From a young age I was very influenced by feminism and as a teenager started identifying as a feminist."

He says of this growing awareness, "I had a consciousness that there was something wrong with the gendered arrangements in American culture. There were all these messages that I received about being a boy that I felt didn’t make sense, and simultaneously there were all these messages about what a girl was that I didn’t buy."

"When I heard about a women’s movement and I would see women protesting, and then simultaneously a gay movement, it was all really attractive to me. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I’m part of that.’ So when I came to terms with the fact that I was gay, around 12 or 13, I realized this was the puzzle piece that was missing.

"I was really hungry for some way of understanding, so I spent a lot of time at the library. There were tons of feminist and gay books, and I would just sit and devour things."

Before queer theory emerged, Khoury says that the politics of gay liberation fell short for him, and feminism became the complement. "I always thought feminism was a godsend. It was an analysis of gender, and I just ran with it. It was extraordinarily liberating. To me, the gay male identity and the feminist identity always went hand in hand."

Indeed, referring to Precious Stones, Khoury continues, "When you read feminist books, you’re exposed to strong, powerful women. Those are the characters I’ve written."

He adds, "If I’m going to label myself, I would say ‘queer feminist.’"

Inherited Memory, Inherited Identity

That label doesn’t include his Arab identity, but Khoury grappled with it when writing his characters. "I was raised on a steady diet of the Arab-Israeli conflict and still felt a lot of anger towards Israel and toward Jewish activists on behalf of Israel. For a lot of Arabs, the issue of Jewish suffering and the holocaust become really difficult to confront because the idea is that it’s used by Zionists to justify Palestinian suffering or Israel’s crimes.

"I wanted to be able to look at some of the emotional catalysts for the behavior on both sides, the whole issue of inherited memory, inherited identity, what’s passed along to us."

And yet Khoury is able to portray Jewish characters sympathetically. "This play was a long tough journey," he says. "I wanted to create Jewish characters who were three-dimensional, who were likable. I wanted to be respectful to them. I did not want to write ‘good Palestinian, bad Jew.’ I thought that was too easy, and it was a copout."

"But giving the best airing to both sides would make the play more relevant, would allow the play to reach more people, would create a forum for making Jews and Arabs hear some things they don’t want to hear, and make them grapple with that.

"So I had to really look at the history of persecution of Jews. I immersed myself for a period of time in reading Jewish history, particularly Eastern European history because the character, Andrea -- her parents come from Poland. It is a very painful, sad history."

The effect of that investigation is evident. Khoury says, "I've always had Jewish people in my life, but there's always been this issue that would be a huge wedge between us. I've been able to let go a lot and just look at this as a human tragedy that has a solution, that can be resolved. Both peoples are really victims of a tragic past."

This is carried into the play. Apart from two chairs, the only prop in Precious Stones is a 12-foot by 8-foot, combined Palestinian and Israeli flag. "They sort of bleed into each other," Khoury says, initially unaware of the irony of his words.

Portraying the Conflict

Khoury goes to the extent of creating one character as a right-wing Zionist. "I wanted to write her in a way that was respectful. I don’t agree, but those are views that a lot of people have." His characters display multiple perspectives. "It’s kind of the intra-Jewish debate that is portrayed. You see this ‘back and forth’ between the characters."

His audience is appreciative. "A lot of Jews have thanked me for that, saying, ‘I have those arguments all the time -- that’s my mother’ or ‘that’s my boss.’

"I hope it has the effect of not demonizing one side while removing any blemish from the other, because there’s definitely the intra-Arab debates taking place, and introspection and self-criticism. Leila’s husband is very critical of the Arab governments, and that was also important for me, that people see that amongst Arabs there are these debates and divisions and self-criticism."

His art remains respectful after the fact. "I’d like the audience to take this information and do what they want, maybe study more, research more, come out on one side or the other. I don’t like heavy-handed theater. You see some plays and you almost feel insulted by the playwright. I wanted to assume the audience was intelligent and can sort things through and arrive at their own conclusions."

Khoury chose to write about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the context of a relationship between two women. "So many of my primary influences around the issue of Israel/Palestine have been women activists and women writers who have done so much courageous, interesting work. There are a lot of examples of Jewish and Palestinian women reaching out to each other and working together in a way that defies the militaristic discourse of the conflict which marginalizes women all the more."

Class Not Dismissed

Khoury also brings class issues into the play because he recognized, "There’s a certain façade that goes up with middle-class, suburban existence in terms of how you behave and things that aren’t acknowledged or discussed."

He realized that his parents had to do a lot to achieve even the appearance of a certain status. He started exploring class.

"Then in the Arab world," Khoury says, "I’d find myself existing in all these distinct class milieus because as a Westerner I have all this privilege. When I had a job with the U.N., on the one hand I was interfacing with the upper middle-class Palestinians and some Israelis, and, on the other hand, working with really impoverished people, all in one day. I would go from these camps where there was running sewage, and 10 to 12 people were living in one room under really trying conditions, and then go to restaurants in Tel Aviv."

He sums it up, "I was able to cross, with relative ease, all these boundaries that they could not, and go into a world that would look down upon, and have nothing to do with, people in camps. Whereas I was in awe of them because of the intifada and all their incredible courage. So it [class] was kind of hard for me to ignore."

In the play, Leila comes from an upper-class background, and Andrea is the daughter of holocaust survivors from a working-class background. "I wanted to flip the class paradigm, you know, ‘rich Jew, poor Palestinian,’ and I feel it works. It forces the audience to look at some of their stereotypes."

Regarding stereotypes of Palestinians, Khoury says, "A lot of American perceptions tend to be very negative, and rooted in this -- people in camps, terrorists, savages. Leila is sort of an amalgamation of a number of women I knew, very committed to the Palestinian cause, very worldly, educated, sophisticated. It’s giving a window into experiences which Americans don’t probably have."

Interestingly, Khoury, who has a master’s degree in religious studies, didn’t write religious conflict into "Precious Stones." Neither of his characters is particularly religious, though both are respectful of their traditions.

Conversely, there is difference in the composition of viewers. Audiences have been predominantly more Jewish than Arab and more lesbian that gay male. "During our first run, which was seven weeks, we would often say that ‘lesbians and Jews are our bread and butter.’ They filled our houses."