In Conflict: Precious Stones Explores Struggles of the Heart and the Homeland / by R. Sheth

January 22, 2003

Playwright Jamil Khoury is not afraid of jumping into the middle of emotionally charged situations-in real life or on stage. After graduating from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in 1987, he sought a job working for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in the refugee camps of the West Bank in Israel/Palestine. This placed him right in the middle of the 1987-1993 Palestinian Intifada surrounded by Molotov cocktails, stone-throwing Palestinians, Israeli police beating Palestinians and breaking their arms and legs, gunshots and tear gas. "The only place I wanted to be was the West Bank," Khoury says. "Being there gave me exposure to so many things: hospitals, prisons, military compounds. I witnessed so many things, in retrospect, I almost wish I hadn't. I saw it up close. We were literally between rocks and bullets."

Despite how it looked, people believed the Intifada would bring them freedom. It was about hope and settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for good, Khoury says.

After five years in the Middle East working and studying in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, Khoury, who grew up in Mt. Prospect, returned to Chicago and attended divinity school. His plans changed when he decided to tell stories that represent the people of the Middle East, particularly Arabs. He and his partner, Malik Gillani, founded the Silk Road Theatre Project and Precious Stones is his first play.

The play tells the story of two women-one Arab, one Jew-living in Chicago in 1989, as the Intifada rages in their homeland. As they attempt to form a women's dialogue group, Leila and Andrea find themselves attracted to each other and navigating the emotionally charged issues of their ethnic identities, opposing politics, differing economic classes and social pressure from their respective communities. The play also educates by including the history of the region, family and community oral histories and arguments for how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It's rare for lesbians to be considered in relation to the conflict, but Khoury believes exploring it through a lesbian relationship provides a new perspective. "It's a truly masculine conflict. It has this powerful, macho, militaristic discourse and women are marginalized within it, which I think gives them a manuevering space that men do not have," he says.

"The play felt lesbian to me from the beginning. I sat with the idea of two men, but it didn't work. The heterosexual configuration also didn't work-there's a negotiation of power in heterosexual relationship and that would just be too much. It's a woman's story."

GAY AND LESBIAN ARABS

In Precious Stones Leila's marriage to a closeted Arab man exposes some of the social pressures gay and lesbian Arabs experience, something Khoury has felt in his own life.

"There is more homosexuality in the Arab world than there is in the West, but fewer people calling themselves homosexuals," he says. "I remember in my father's village in Syria, as a child, as a teenager, being swept up in this world where men held hands with men, women held hands with women, and it was just normal. And as an adult I've had relationships with Arab men who are married with kids, but for them to say, 'I'm gay,' would entail such a loss of respect."

"The issue of being out in the Arab world is complicated enormously by the lack of democracy in the Arab world," he says. "Also, social constraints and pressures in a collective society, as opposed to an individualistic society like here, are much greater. The fact that I can say at 18, 'I'm gay, deal with it,' is a very American statement."

Khoury's family story is a truly American one: His father is an immigrant from Syria and his mother is American-born of Polish/Slovak ancestry. Khoury calls himself "mixed-blood Arab American."

When Khoury came out to his parents at 18, he faced some of those cultural constraints. "I was raised in the Syrian Orthodox Church, a very conservative, traditional community. It's where the discourse about homosexuality is, it's not a good thing, but there's a blanket denial that it's our issue. It's an American thing, a Western thing," he says. "I feel a certain animosity from the Arab community, but at the same time it's not a blanket indictment. Some people are supportive, but it depends on things like how long you've known someone, class, education level."

Accepting Khoury's sexuality was a difficult process for his parents and it took them time to come around, he says. "But now I've been in a relationship for almost seven years and my parents like him a lot. We've become this stable entity in their eyes and that helps."

A SAFE PLACE FOR BOTH SIDES

As an Arab activist and playwright, Khoury worked hard to make sure he didn't demonize the Jewish perspective in ""Precious Stones"." The character of Andrea is a struggling Jewish activist and out lesbian who does most of the soul-searching in the play, as she wrestles with Israel's policies toward the Palestinians while defending her commitment to a Jewish state.

"Leila is not a dissenting voice. She's very much in sync with her community. Andrea is the risk taker. It's not easy to be a dissenter," Khoury says. "She's a character I like a lot and she's intense and wears a lot of armor. Political armor. Rhetorical armor. I've known women and lesbians, in particular, like that."

With the complex and emotional storyline, Khoury acknowledges that the actresses had some difficult political moments during the rehearsal process. Roxane Assaf, who plays Leila, is an Arab activist, while Nicole Pitman is Jewish, "but not an activist and not terribly religious. She felt at a disadvantage sometimes," Khoury says.

The director, Michael Najjar, is also an Arab American, so they made an effort to make a comfortable, safe space for Pitman, Khoury says. He also wants Jewish audiences to feel safe in seeing the play.

"We don't want this to be alienating or dismissed as propaganda. I want Jews to see this play," Khoury says. He also wants Arab audiences to see the play, but he admits that will be a difficult challenge. "The Arab community doesn't really go to the theatre. They aren't as much a part of American pop culture." He also admits there is some resistance to what some in his community see as "airing its dirty laundry" in public.

THE FUTURE

Also figuring into Khoury's politics and his play are ideas for how the Arab and Jewish American Diaspora communities can positively influence the increasingly bleak Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"America has the largest Jewish community in the world, even larger than in Israel, and they wield a great deal of influence over the behavior of the Israeli government and the U.S. policies," Khoury says. "And I'd like to see the Arab community here press for a more even-handed position of the U.S. I'd also like us to play a role in promoting democratization in the Arab world. In many respects we are the freest Arabs in the world, even more than in Europe, where Arabs are ghettoized. We're fortunate and it should come as no surprise that Arab activists, gay and straight and gay Muslim organizing is taking off here. It can't in the Arab world at this point."

There's a scene in ""Precious Stones"" where Leila and Andrea lounge in bed, dreaming of the day they will walk down the streets of Jerusalem together, Arab and Jew, woman and woman, living side by side, free, at peace and in love. They have hope for the future.

But it's a bittersweet moment where art and reality collide.

"No one imagined the situation would be worse fifteen years later," Khoury says. "It's reached a different level today. F-16s bombing villages, tanks, suicide bombers. It's been heartbreaking and profoundly discouraging. My optimism has died."