Silk Road Explores Conflict In Middle East / by R. Sheth

Silk Road Explores Conflict in Middle East

January 24, 2003

"Salam and Shalom."

That's how Syrian-American playwright Jamil Khoury signs off on a postcard advertising his world-premiere play, ""Precious Stones"," opening Saturday at the Chicago Cultural Center's Studio Theater. The work is set in 1989 Chicago and involves the growing romantic relationship between Andrea and Leila, a Jewish and a Palestinian woman organizing an Arab-Jewish dialogue group. And it marks the first production of the Silk Road Theatre Project, established by Khoury, the creative mind, and his Pakistani-born partner Malik Gillani, the business mind, in conjunction with ""Precious Stones"."

Khoury, a native Chicagoan who studied playwriting at Victory Gardens Theater, created the Silk Road Theatre Project as a forum for exploring diverse ideologies and a showcase for playwrights of Asian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean heritage.

The company's name comes from the original Silk Road, the great trade route that stretched from China to the Middle East and into Europe--a catalyst, if there ever was one, for cross-cultural exchange.

For ""Precious Stones"," a two-actor play, Khoury teamed up with 30-year-old Los Angeles-based Lebanese-American director Michael Najjar, Jewish-American actor Nicole Pitman (who portrays Andrea) and Palestinian-American actor Roxane Assaf (who portrays Leila). The artistic team alone could serve as a case study in peaceful co-existence.

In ""Precious Stones"," which takes place during the time of the 1989 Palestinian intifadah (uprising) in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is explored through the eyes of Andrea, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and Leila, the daughter of Palestinian refugees who relocated to Beirut.

"The play's protagonists are the inheritors of their peoples' tragedies," notes Khoury, who based this drama on his own experiences as a Refugee Affairs Officer for the United Nations Relief Works Agency in Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1989. Khoury's mandate was, in his words, "to provide passive protection" for the area.

"In the West Bank," Khoury says, "I was literally between rocks and bullets. I witnessed a lot of violence, but I also came to terms with the other sides of the equation--especially the intense Palestinian and Israeli attachment to the land."

So instead of limiting the play to only his perspective, Khoury weaves in other characters--played by the same actors--who represent multiple voices: Jews from Arab countries like Syria and Morocco, Jews who support Palestinian rights, Palestinians who support Jewish rights, and Jews and Arabs living in the United States.

"While the play consciously challenges American perceptions and stereotypes, it is ultimately about exploring the symbiotic relationship that binds Arabs and Jews together [and] to convey the powerful attachments Jews and Palestinians ascribe to the same piece of land."

"Jamil took the kitchen-sink approach ideologically," says Assaf, 39, who in 1999 lived in Jerusalem and Bethlehem and wrote for "The Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs." "Everyone has a perspective, and they're all in this play."

To underscore the play's multitiered examination of Arab-Israeli issues, various local organizations will display literature at the Cultural Center as audiences are encouraged to learn more about Middle East politics.

For Pitman, 38, who grew up in a fairly secular Jewish household in California, this role has been an educational and emotional journey. She finds herself defending her heritage and addressing a deep-seated cultural "fear of extermination," yet questions the actions of both parties in the conflict. She also acknowledges the open-mindedness of her fellow artists and believes this production can make a difference.

"Maybe some people will wake up and look at the news differently," Pitman says. "Like any good theater, they will be troubled by what they see and will want to do something about it."

"Apathy," adds Najjar, "would be failure."

Najjar also talks about how the play is "book-ended" by two slide presentations: the first illustrates images of hope--like peace rallies and post-intifadah Arab-Israeli cooperation; the second shows images of the violence and suffering Israelis and Palestinians have faced for decades.

"We've been very careful to present a balance of suffering and triumph from both sides," Khoury says. "Yet we're also aware of perceptions. One person's terrorist may be another's freedom fighter; stones may be deadly weapons or symbols for a struggle toward liberation."