Writing from the Hyphen: Arab-American Playwrights Struggle with Identity in the Post-9/11 World / by R. Sheth

Writing from the Hyphen:
Arab-American Playwrights Struggle with Identity in the Post-9/11 World

September 2004
BY MICHAEL NAJJAR

What does it mean to grow up as an Arab American? This is the question at the center of Arab-American playwrights' work. Born in the United States to one or both Arab immigrant parents, these playwrights attempt to navigate the complicated waters of politics, gender, sexuality, and most recently, the post-9/11 world. Their backgrounds vary, but they share a cultural legacy of the Arab world. From many voices, three playwrights have emerged to create vibrant and exciting plays: Jamil Khoury, Kathryn Leila Buck, and Betty Shamieh.

These playwrights do not write in a vacuum. An estimated three million Americans trace their roots to an Arab country. The majority of the U.S. Arab community traces their roots to five major national groups — the Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians, Egyptians, and Iraqis. Although Arab Americans are found in every state, more than two-thirds live in ten states. The three metropolitan areas of Los Angeles, Detroit, and New York are home to one-third of the Arab-American population. The most concentrated areas of Arab-American settlement are in southeastern Michigan, especially the neighborhoods in the city of Dearborn where Arab Americans make up twenty percent of the population. These growing communities and the changing cultural climate post-9/11 provide playwrights with a bountiful spring of source material.

Jamil Khoury and Silk Road Theatre Project

One of the most prominent writers and producers in Arab-American theater is Syrian-American Jamil Khoury, artistic director of Silk Road Theatre Project (SRTP). SRTP was founded in Chicago to showcase playwrights of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean backgrounds, whose works address themes relevant to the peoples of the Silk Road and their Diaspora communities. The company's name is derived from the great trade routes that originated in China and stretched across Central and South Asia, the Middle East, and into Europe from 2nd century B.C.E. through the 16th century C.E. Today, the nations of the Silk Road comprise some two-thirds of humanity.

The attacks of September 11, 2001, were the impetus that gave birth to SRTP. The company was founded by Khoury and his partner Malik Gillani as a response to the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments that swept the United States in the aftermath of the attacks. With the hope of countering negative stereotypes of Middle Eastern and Muslim peoples, SRTP strives for representations that are "authentic, realistic, and grounded in human experience," according to Khoury. The SRTP resides in the Chicago Temple, First United Methodist Church in downtown Chicago. In addition to Khoury's work, the SRTP has produced Velina Hasu Houston's play Tea, and hosted playwrights Chay Yew and Naomi Iizuka for staged readings of their works.

Silk Road Theatre Project's inaugural play was Khoury's Precious Stones, which premiered in the winter of 2003 at the Chicago Cultural Center, and is currently touring college campuses nationwide. Precious Stones examines the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in what Khoury describes as "the 'safe' yet turbulent terrain of American Diaspora." Set in Chicago in 1989, two women, one Jewish, the other Palestinian, join forces to organize an Arab-Jewish dialogue group, only to find themselves falling in love. The relationship of the two women is a metaphor for the complicated and troubled relationship of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.

Khoury, a former Refugee Affairs Officer for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and now cross-cultural consultant and an instructor for the University of Chicago Graham School of General Studies, spent a year living and working in the Palestinian Territories. "I wanted to explore how the conflict plays itself out in Diaspora communities (Arab and Jewish)," Khoury said, "and how it directly impacts the lives of people in a place like Chicago, thousands of miles 'removed' from the conflict, and yet more cognizant of events in the Middle East than events occurring many a mile from our own homes."

Precious Stones covers many difficult and intriguing topics including sexuality, class, and ethnicity. The homosexual themes in the play have been especially difficult for Khoury, who is openly gay himself. "Needless to say, that has been an enormous struggle for me, both in the Arab-American community and in the Arab world," he says. "It has also been a source of a great deal of pain, rejection, anger, disappointment, and resentment."

Khoury also has addressed the post 9/11 world in his work. "I think the challenges are enormous,' he says, "In some respects, 9/11 widened the hyphen between Arab and American in my life, and in other respects it narrowed that hyphen." Khoury's next two plays will address 9/11 and the theme of atonement, respectively. "I'd like my work to become less issue-centric and more focused on interpersonal dynamics and human narrative," he says. "But for now, the 'issues' still shape much of my imagination and are the igniting force behind why I write in the first place."

Betty Shamieh and Palestinian-American Identity

Another prominent writer is Palestinian-American playwright Betty Shamieh. Shamieh was born in San Francisco to Palestinian-American parents from Ramallah where, "my ancestors founded a small Christian village over 400 years ago," she says. Catholic by birth, Shamieh was raised in a "very Arab-American household. Arabic was spoken. My community was integrated, but I felt very much a minority, more so than just an Arab American."

Shamieh attended Harvard and the prestigious Yale School of Drama playwriting program from 1997 to 2000. While studying at Yale, she did not fully embrace her heritage in her writing. "I disliked being pigeonholed and I wanted to get a few productions under my belt before I became 'the Palestinian-American playwright.'" In 2001 she premiered her two-person play Chocolate in Heat: Growing Up Arab in America, in which she starred and toured extensively. Her second play about Arab-American themes, titled Roar, premiered last spring at the Clurman Theater in New York, starring Annabella Sciorra and Sarita Choudhury and directed by Marion McClinton. Her play Architecture had a reading at the Magic Theater in San Francisco, and a production at Here Performance Art Cafe in New York. Her most recent work, The Black Eyed will premiere in the Magic Theater's upcoming season. Ms. Shamieh was awarded a New Dramatists Van Lier Fellowship, an NEA grant, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Award.

"If I were to talk about specifically 'the Palestinian experience,' I wouldn't be able to melt the armor that exists when people come to my plays," Shamieh says. "I want to talk about things that will have relevance 300, 400 years in the future, when hopefully the conflict will be solved in a humane way that makes sense for both sides." In June 2002, Shamieh joined several other prominent American playwrights including Tony Kushner, Naomi Wallace, and Kia Corthron on a visit to the Palestinian Occupied Territories. "The cost of ignoring what is happening there — and ignoring how those happenings affect the stability of the entire world," Shamieh found, "is unbearable."

Her cultural background and her experience have made being Arab American an integral part of who Shamieh is as a writer. "I think that by showing them as human beings, it humanizes people whose stories never are told," Shamieh says. "I feel my job at first was to show (Arab Americans) as human beings, to show them as people who can lust, who can be ambitious, who can be mean, who can be loving."

Kathryn Leila Buck and Nibras

Kathryn Leila Buck is the daughter of a Lebanese mother and an American diplomat father. After growing up in Kuwait, Oman, Iraq, Canada, and the United States, Buck has gained insight into the complex dichotomy of being Arab American. Buck's one-woman show titled ISite deals with this dichotomy through a series of sketches, both comic and reflective.

Buck plays many of the characters from her own experience including her mother, father, grandfather (or Jeddo), children and other Arab acquaintances. She also points up the similarities as well as the differences between American and Arab culture. In one sketch, a typical American teenage girl struggles to dress herself in pantyhose, push-up bra, and makeup. As she talks to her friend on the phone she ironically asks, "Can you imagine, Muslim women can't just leave their houses as they are?!" Buck also confronts her own inability to fit into either the American or Arab world when she struggles with language and identity. "Sometimes I feel like the ocean," she writes. "It's touching so many shores at once that forms the shape of who I am."

Buck is Education Director and a founding member of Nibras (Arabic for lantern), New York's Arab-American Theater Collective. In 2002 Nibras produced Sajjil (Arabic for record), a theatrical documentary for which the company interviewed Arabs about their experiences in America and Americans about their perceptions of them. Buck and another company member then wove the words of these real people into a script which won Best Ensemble Performance at the 2002 International Fringe Festival in New York.

As with Khoury and Shamieh, understanding the complexity of her background is important for Buck as a writer. "What I have come to realize is that it is only by acknowledging and confronting the negative aspects of Arab culture that we can truly begin a dialogue about the positive ones," Buck says. "At the same time I feel strongly that it is important to keep telling the simpler, personal stories because that is what is missing in American culture — positive, human portrayals of Arabs."

The task for Arab Americans, Buck says, is to educate. "BE!! Engage! Dialogue! From now on we are all Arab Ambassadors whether we choose to be or not, so we might as well be the best we can."

Buck's next projects include a work with Nibras about "themes as broad as fear, terror, political violence, and dreams." As education director for Nibras she will also be developing a plan for bringing awareness of Arab culture into New York schools through the use of theater. In addition, she plans a project about her experiences in Iraq, "the recent destruction there, and historical cycles of ruin and memory."

As a writer, this sharing of cultures has created the fertile ground for Buck's imagination. "I cannot judge why people choose to identify with or write about their Arab-American heritage," Buck says. "For me it is the reason I write — not an obligation but an inspiration."

*Thanks to Jamil Khoury, Kathryn Leila Buck, and Betty Shamieh for kindly offering interviews for the preparation of this article.

For more information about these playwrights, or about Arab Americans, see:

Bruckner, D.J.R., "Immigrants' Losses and Anger In Linked Coming-of-Age Tales," New York Times, September 18, 2003.
Corthron, Kia, et. al., "On the Road to Palestine," American Theatre, July/August 2003.
Mendes, Jonathan, "Play Gives Voice to Arab Americans," Daily Illini, October 28, 2003.
Renner, Pamela, "Betty Shamieh: Worlds Apart," American Theatre, March 2004.
Samhan, Helen, "Arab Americans," Grolier's Multimedia Encyclopedia.
Schillinger, Liesl, "The New 'Arab' Playwrights," New York Times, April 4, 2004.
Tanzer, Joshua, "Camel Lot? Maybe Not," (www.offoffoff.com).
Arab-American Institute
Nibras
Silk Road Theatre Project