October 5, 2005
By Rummana Hussain
In the Silk Road Theatre Project's upcoming play, a devout Muslim-American family's seemingly uneventful life quickly skids off the road and slams into a brick wall -- hard.
One son decides he doesn't believe in God.
Another has a homosexual tryst.
And the suburban California clan's only daughter suddenly isn't sure she wants to go through with an arranged marriage to an Egyptian man she hardly knows.
The world premiere of "Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith," which is being touted as the "Muslim 'Fiddler on the Roof' without the music," comes four years after 9/11 and in the middle of the holy month of Ramadan, which most Muslims begin formally observing today. The show, which was shunned by other cities because it's controversial, opens this month in Chicago.
The theater's founders think the play, incidentally set during Ramadan, is groundbreaking because it centers on a loving Muslim-American family and doesn't cater to the usual stereotypes of harems, belly dancers, terrorists and sinister despots. The entire production, framed in a set of wood panels containing the 99 names of God in Arabic, ends with a soliloquy on what makes Ramadan special.
"'Ten Acrobats' is unique in that it's a Muslim-American family drama steeped in both Muslim identity and the American experience. It shows that being Muslim and American is not some oxymoron, but rather a perfect fit," said Malik Gillani, the theater's executive director.
While many local Muslim groups welcome the artistic effort, they aren't exactly warming up to the atheist and gay elements of the production, because leaving the faith and same-sex relationships are regarded as sins in Islam.
"Of course, as artists, they are free to tackle what they want, but I think it becomes unfair when a play with a subject matter that is distant from the classic struggles of the American-Muslim community, and is moreover not endorsed by it, uses the 'Muslim bridge-building' card to market itself," said Ahmed Rehab, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Chicago.
Seattle-based playwright Yussef El Guindi, also a Muslim, understands why some might be offended by the play. But the comedy-drama illustrates how Muslims are like everyone else, he said.
"The whole point of humanizing a group, whether ethnic or religious, is to show them as three-dimensional, struggling individuals -- with warts and all," El Guindi said.
The Silk Road Theatre Project, which is housed in the Chicago Temple at 77 W. Washington, was founded by Gillani and his partner, Jamil Khoury, in 2002 as a response to the growing anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment after 9/11. The Asian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean-focused theater is expected to open its permanent $1.3 million set in the church early next year.
'An inside peek'
Gillani said some Muslim organizations have requested a rewrite of the more controversial elements of the script. But he thinks the play actually presents Islam as a religion of tolerance.
When the head of the household realizes his children aren't perfect, he doesn't push them away. And the character of "Huwaida," the daughter who wears a "hijab" or head scarf, is strong-willed and independent.
"The play allows a non-Muslim audience an inside peek at a Muslim-American family and see them as real people facing real challenges. They're not angels. They're not demons. What they are is enormously likable," Gillani said.