Pair Who Dare to Venture Down the Silk Road / by R. Sheth

September 28, 2004
BY JONATHAN ABARBANEL

A chance meeting on the street, a love affair and the aftermath of 9/11 seem like odd catalysts for a theater company, but that's the genesis of the Silk Road Theatre Project, a four-year-old troupe on the political cutting edge of the arts in Chicago.

The founders of Silk Road seem equally unlikely at first glance: a big blond and a smaller brunette with the wrong looks and names to be leaders of a theater company. Smaller, darker Malik Gillani is South Asian, but everyone knows Asians don't start theaters in Chicago. Big blond Jamil Khoury is an Arab, but Arabs don't look like that. They're a private-life couple of nine years who came out in the face of opposition from their families and-most assuredly-their cultures.

The way they met was ordinary enough: they cruised each other on the street. "I was doing a 28-block nightly walk and Malik was coming back late from work," Khoury recounts. Gillani said hello, and after some lingering glances, they struck up a conversation and exchanged phone numbers. "I didn't even know he was gay," Gillani says. "I'm not one to start flirting with strange guys on the street."

Even more, Gillani thought the European-looking Khoury was trying to score with a fake Arabic name. "I did not believe him. I thought he was making something up. I thought it was a pick-up thing," Gillani admits. But Khoury proved his cultural authenticity. He detected that Gillani not only was Muslim, but also Ismailian, a small offshoot of Shia Islam. Gillani cannot read the Koran in Arabic, so Khoury reads it to him; another surprise given that Khoury is Christian.

A Christian Arab? There are more than most people realize. Jamil Khoury, 39, is the son of a Syrian father and an American-born mother of Polish-Slavic heritage. Khoury's father came to the United States as a student at 19 and raised his children (Jamil has two siblings) in the Syrian Orthodox Church. His American birth and Orthodox upbringing notwithstanding, Khoury both reads and writes Arabic and lived in Syria-where he still has family-for five years.

Malik Gillani, 35, lived in Pakistan until he was seven, the youngest of six children of mixed Indian and Persian heritage. He came to the United States in 1978. Well educated and a natural linguist, Gillani speaks and reads not only Urdu and Hindi but also classical Greek and French.

That's four languages with four different alphabets and scripts. In choosing repertory for the Silk Road Theatre Project, the two of them can read almost any play in the original language ... until they reach China, Japan and other nations of the Far East, Khoury points out. The Silk Road mission does, indeed, extend that far, presenting stories that reflect the heritage of peoples of Asian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures encountered along the ancient Silk Road. The mission isn't dedicated to history but to present-day issues of cultural assimilation and education, focusing heavily on the diaspora-the immigrants and their children-of the Silk Road communities. Both Gillani and Khoury consider themselves part of that diaspora.

This is where 9/11 comes in. Gillani and Khoury observed the suspicion and hatred that flared following 9/11 towards anyone perceived as being Islamic, Middle Eastern or even vaguely un-American. Given their contrasting looks, they could experience at first-hand the different way people were treated when judged by appearance alone or by speech (Gillani has a slight accent, Khoury none).

Always politically engaged, they saw theater as an active agent of understanding, good will and healing. A good play can help dispel ignorance, says Gillani. "They don't know about us and we don't know about them. Theater is a medium that is non-threatening and entertaining."

Gillani and Khoury had neither formal theater training nor much experience before starting Silk Road, although Khoury had taken playwriting courses with Claudia Allen at Victory Gardens, and had written several plays as an outlet for his political and social beliefs. "I supported Jamil's work as a playwright," Gillani says. "I thought I was a huge theater-goer before I met him. You know, I went to one show a year," he laughs.

Professionally, Gillani had spent a decade managing technology service divisions for small and medium-sized businesses in the legal, manufacturing, consulting, and construction industries. Highly successful and with a diverse clientele, he receive a 2003 Business and Technology Award from IBM and Windy City Times. Khoury, with degrees in international relations and religious studies, had served as a Refugee Affairs Officer for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Jerusalem and the West Bank. More recently, he's been an international relocations/cross-cultural and diversity consultant for Fortune 500 clients, and a part-time instructor in Middle East Studies for The University of Chicago Graham School.

The events of 9/11 drew Gillani and Khoury into intense private discussion and analysis of the cultural chasms that 9/11 revealed. Soon after, Khoury submitted his full-length play, Precious Stones, to the Chicago Cultural Center, which said they'd like to present it, but an outside production company would be needed. Gillani and Khoury decided to produce it themselves, incorporating the nonprofit Silk Road Theatre Project with Gillani as executive director and Khoury as artistic director.

Silk Road's work resonated instantly with audiences. Precious Stones became an extended hit (and was remounted as a college tour), as did the troupe's second show, Tea, also staged at the Cultural Center. Meanwhile, the company's institutional development went from 0 to 60 in seconds, tapping into passionate and often-marginalized cultural communities, and appealing to adventurous theater regulars as well. By 2003, Silk Road had become theater-in-residence at the historic Chicago Temple in The Loop, and had launched a play reading series, Al Kasida Staged Readings. True to who Gillani and Khoury are, Silk Road has tapped into issues of being gay or lesbian from cultures that make such self-definition difficult. Their next play, Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith, is typical of Silk Road's atypical fare. It will be performed Oct. 22- Dec. 30 at The Chicago Temple, 77 West Washington St.

Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith is a world premiere, written in English by Egyptian-American author Yussef El Guindi, dealing with assimilation in the United States for a Middle Eastern Islamic family. Khoury says the play explores the tensions of "sexual culture, permissiveness and the lure of individualism. Eight of the play's 10 characters are Muslim, and one of the sons is gay. We've had some resistance from some members of the community. There are still people who say there's no such thing as a gay Arab."

Both men have wrestled with this one themselves. "I had my first boyfriend at 14," Gillani says. "I didn't even call myself gay; I didn't know what that meant," he adds, expressing the denial that still dominates Islamic cultures.

Gillani was outed to his family some years later by one of his brothers. "My brother tried to talk me out of it. He said, 'How do you know? You've never slept with a woman.' It was a fight for me, but my family has been very supportive. Once they accepted that I was gay, they even started looking for a partner for me." They tried to find him a rich, successful soul mate from a good family, Gillani laughs.

Khoury came out at 17. "It was a struggle. My family didn't accept it. I was never disowned, but there was a lot of denial." It wasn't just cultural homophobia, "but also typical American suburban conservatism." His family long ago came to terms with who he is, and with Gillani. "I think seeing us as a couple has really turned them around."

Both families support Silk Road financially, backing Gillani and Khoury's investment of sweat equity and dollars. They supported the company substantially out of their own pockets for two years, but now box office income and contributions are growing. Silk Road expects to double its budget next year from $140,000 to over $250,000 as the company completes a 99-seat black box theater in the Chicago Temple, where shows will run for 12 weeks vs. the standard Off-Loop four-to-six weeks. Silk Road will produce a three-play subscription season for 2006-2007, expanding to four plays by 2008.

That's a fast growth curve for Silk Road, where Khoury now considers himself a full-time employee (although he continues his profitable consulting work) . Gillani, too, is devoting more time to Silk Road. In just four years, they've put the pieces in place for a remarkable future. Now it's up to Chicago ticket buyers-gay, straight and of all cultures-to coalesce as a melting pot audience for the multi-cultural tales of the diaspora told by the Silk Road Theatre Project.