The Political Act of Being an Arab-American Playwright / by R. Sheth


The Middle East is the nexus of American foreign policy, but it is still relatively rare to find playwrights with roots in that region on stages in the United States. Three prominent dramatists of Middle Eastern descent gathered on stage for a panel discussion at the Museum of Contemporary Art on April 21.

“Political Acts: The Emerging Arab-American Theatre Movement” was co-presented by Next Theatre, which just produced panelist and Iraqi-American playwright Heather Raffo’s acclaimed solo piece 9 Parts of Desire at the MCA, and Silk Road Theatre Project, which is dedicated to presenting work created by writers from the ancient “Silk Road” trade route through the Far East, Middle East, and Mediterranean nations.

Silk Road recently presented the world premiere of panelist Yussef El Guindi’s play Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat, marking the third time the company has presented work by the Egyptian-American writer. The third author, Palestinian-American playwright Betty Shamieh, has been widely produced in the States and elsewhere (her 2004 play about a Palestinian family, Roar, was the first play by a Palestinian-American to be produced off-Broadway), but her work has yet to be seen in Chicago, despite the fact that the city has, according to Shamieh, one of the largest Palestinian communities in the United States.

In a fortuitous coincidence, the May/June issue of American Theatre features several articles on Palestinian and Israeli theatre. Randy Gener, senior editor for the magazine, notes in one piece that “In the U.S., plays about the Middle East aren’t allowed to speak for themselves as artistic expressions, without the battery of post-performance discussions and structured community engagements that would ‘contextualize’ the show or present a ‘balanced’ perspective on the issues the play raises. The theatre’s role, in our culture of managed crisis, is to kick-start engaged conversations, more serious than are heard in the din of traditional daily news.”

Much of the MCA discussion, moderated by Simon O’Rourke of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, concerned negotiating the terrain around the hyphen. Raffo, whose father is from Iraq and is now a U.S. citizen, said that her father doesn’t like to call himself anything but “American.” El Guindi, who left Egypt at three, grew up in London, and has lived in the United States for 23 years, noted that “England never let you forget you were an immigrant,” and that when he was finally sworn in as a U.S. citizen, he found himself surprised by how emotional the experience was.

But Shamieh, a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, noted that, for Palestinians, “There isn’t a normal immigration story. You have to have a country in order to give it the big middle finger when you leave it.”

Yet all three retain strong connections to their regions of origin. Raffo, whose piece follows nine different Iraqi women, researched the play for 10 years over several trips back to Iraq. Since the war, her family in Iraq has become “internally displaced.” She noted, “Sectarian violence has changed everything, and this wasn’t a part of the Iraqi experience before the war.” Raffo also maintained, “I’m not writing about an Arab-American experience. It’s an Iraqi experience for an American audience.” Although El Guindi and Shamieh have both seen their work performed in Egypt and Bethlehem, respectively, when asked if her work will ever be seen in Iraq, Raffo responded, “When it’s safer to drive to the theatre.”

The question of whether or not their work is inherently political also came up for discussion. For Shamieh, “All works are political. If I’ve written a play about breaking up with my boyfriend and going shopping for shoes at Barney’s, the political message is, ‘I’m comfortable with the status quo.’”

“I shy away from calling my plays political,” said El Guindi, out of concern that they will be viewed as agenda-driven pieces.

Raffo concurred. “We’re writing character-driven work. Stuff Happens (David Hare’s excoriation of the Bush administration and the war) is idea-driven.” She described her play as one where “all the characters intensely debate the nature of liberation—what it means to be a free mind, a free being in the world. I’m writing about the need for the feminine. In Iraq, it’s changing for the worse. Now even women who are Christian can’t leave the house without a headscarf.”

Added El Guindi, “When a country feels under siege, patriarchy kicks in.”

The role of religion also came up several times. Shamieh, who identifies as secular, noted that, although she supports Barack Obama for the presidency and was moved by his speech on race, she felt his claim in that speech that one of the biggest problems facing the world is radical Islam “didn’t go far enough,” and that he could also have noted the problems caused by radical fundamentalist Jewish and Christian sects. Shamieh also said that a major problem is “how violence is used by states and by armies.”

In his American Theatre article, Gener notes, “It is very difficult, at this moment, to grant ordinary Palestinians their humanity on U.S. stages without someone insisting that the words ‘suicide bomber’ and ‘Hamas’ need also be uttered in the same breath. It is as if the Palestinian population were made up almost entirely of terrorists.”

Plays that may be seen as politically charged to United States viewers may not get the same reaction elsewhere. Shamieh pointed out that her play The Black Eyed includes a suicide bomber as well as a pacifist character based on herself—a character that she said was greeted by some viewers of the Greek production as “namby pamby.”

As for their goals in writing plays, El Guindi said, “Part of what I try to do is say ,‘See, we’re like everybody else.’” He hopes that one positive result will be increased understanding of Arab-American life in these times of difficulty and suspicion. Said El Guindi, “It’s hard to attack someone whose life story you know.”