Follow the Silk Road: Chicago Theater Aims to Dispel Misconceptions and Bridge Cultural Differences / by R. Sheth

October 2005
By Tiffany Breyne

On Sept. 10, 2001, Muslim-Americans were perceived as foreign and mysterious. By Sept. 12, they were seen as scary, maybe even life-threatening.

The founders of the nonprofit Silk Road Theater Project in Chicago are on a mission to break all of these misconceptions of Muslim-Americans and other cultures from Asian, Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean backgrounds. Their latest production, "Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith," which opened Oct. 22 at The First United Methodist Church, 77 West Washington St., shoots directly at that goal.

"Ten Acrobats," directed by Stuart Carden, is about a Muslim-American family trying to find a place in American society while juggling its own culture?s faith and values. 

Inspired by the attacks of Sept. 11, founders and life-partners Jamil Khoury and Malik Gillani decided it was important to somehow make that day a memorable one for less obvious reasons.

"9/11 was a very life-defining event, and you want to take something that's really horrible and find some kind of positive response to it," Khoury said. "I?m half Arab and Malik is from Pakistan, so we were really concerned about the Arab and Muslim communities. And there was a great deal of misunderstanding from all sides about one another. We thought that theater is such a wonderful bridge, a way to bring stories and perspective and experiences in a forum that is safe and engaging."

Before starting the theater company, Khoury was a cross-cultural and diversity teacher and Gillani was an IT consultant. Though still at their day jobs, both men also work non-stop to run the theater company. With four other productions already behind them and one coming up in the spring, the theater has managed to find stories it believes convey the message of finding similarities in cultural differences.

Khoury said that while spending months to come up with a way to spread their message, the men came up with ideas along the educational route such as lectures or educational theories, but decided that theater would reach a wider audience. Both men realized that there were many minority groups not represented on Chicago stages, and they hope to be the voice for the Middle-Eastern community.

Regina Wellner, Columbia teacher and faculty advisor for MOSAIC, a Columbia organization focused on studying Middle Eastern culture, said that Silk Road and other institutions in the city are a great way to bridge cultural differences. Wellner mentions organizations such as CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an international group with the vision to help enhance understanding of Middle Eastern cultures and provide mutual understanding.

Wellner also credits Chicago specifically for organizations such as Silk Road and the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago.

"[They're] trying to find ways to breach the differences and I think it?s good, that maybe when we look at the news we somehow are left with the impression that Muslim American aren?t like us, even though they're Americans, too," Wellner said. "So plays like [Silk Road's] help to say that everybody?s still worried about their kid going to school and getting good grades, paying the mortgage, all [those] kind of things, and we can connect individually."

While the theater company does focus heavily on the Silk Road aspect, Khouriy believes that anyone can relate to the "Ten Acrobats" characters.

He hopes that the play will dispel any ideas that Muslim-Americans are different or exotic. Khoury said the family in the production is a normal, conflicted family; parents and children bicker and deal with issues of gender and sexuality.

"We've had people see the previews and they're like, 'Oh my god that's an Italian family,' or 'That?s an African-American family,'" Khoury said. "They can see the parallel particularly when you're somehow stigmatized, when you?re somehow bad or dangerous."

Though "Ten Acrobats" does dip into finding similarities between cultures, it also portrays a cultural theme not often brought to the public eye before 9/11. Khoury said feedback from all the productions has been positive, with audience members thanking them for opening their eyes to new perspectives and ideas.

Wellner believes that 9/11 was the spark people needed seek out other cultures.

"One wants to hope that this isn?t only coming out of 9/11, that we would have sooner or later started to recognize the need to make those connections," Wellner said. "I think in light of the heightened emotions that are associated with 9/11 that this really is important."

No matter what the inspiration is to see "Ten Acrobats" or other Silk Road productions, Khoury hopes to see some kind of effect on the audience and their perception of family and culture.

"[The play's] entertaining, but we want it to also challenge," Khoury said. "If it doesn't challenge, then we're not really interested in it. Even if it makes you uncomfortable, I think there's something to be said about being uncomfortable. But I think places like Chicago, you're gonna find people who have a curiosity or a desire to know [these things.]"