Arabs and Muslims on Stage: Can We Unpack Our Baggage?

24 November, 2020

Outtake from Yussef El Guindi's 2019 play  People of the Book , directed by John Langs at the ACT in Seattle.

Yussef El Guindi

 

When it comes to coun­ter­ing the implic­it, and some­times explic­it prej­u­dices that the larg­er soci­ety exhibits toward Arabs and Mus­lims, Amer­i­can the­atres are not par­tic­u­lar­ly ahead of the curve. While some the­atres have brave­ly and com­mend­ably gone out of their way to address the del­uge of neg­a­tiv­i­ty the main­stream cul­ture exhibits towards most things Mid­dle East­ern, those the­atres are rare.

Pri­or to the 2000s there were few to no rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Arabs or Mus­lims on Amer­i­can stages. I grew up in the UK and the US and nev­er once saw myself rep­re­sent­ed in the the­ater. I nev­er saw a play by an Arab or Mid­dle East­ern immi­grant. We were nev­er count­ed among the cul­tur­al work­ers in these coun­tries. When there was­n’t a cold indif­fer­ence, there was an antipa­thy to our stories. 

This is dis­ap­point­ing. One expects the­atre to rise above the crass­ness that swirls through the cur­rents of main­stream cul­ture. You would hope that the­atres espouse val­ues that more com­mer­cial fare might shy away from. You want theatre—especially non­prof­it theatre–to cham­pi­on val­ues that might inter­fere with the bot­tom line. Not that we want the­atre to lose touch with a wide audi­ence, lest it become per­ceived as being even more elit­ist than it already is. Crass­ness, after all, can be fun. 

The­atre has some of its roots firm­ly plant­ed in the mud—in the foibles and weird­ness of human nature. “Ris­ing above” main­stream cul­ture does­n’t mean the­atre should eschew any of the broad, pop­u­lar memes cur­rent­ly in cir­cu­la­tion in it. By all means artists should feel free to infuse their work with what­ev­er is most fash­ion­ably cur­rent, in style, aes­thet­ics, pop­u­lar thought, songs, etc. But the­atre should also have a crit­i­cal eye; it should offer up cri­tiques, con­tex­tu­al­ize, and pro­vide some kind of crit­i­cal frame­work through which to view the cul­ture and pol­i­tics of the day. Because most the­atres are non­prof­its, they should be more dar­ing in terms of the sub­ject mat­ter they choose, stag­ing sto­ries and per­spec­tives that might be hard to find elsewhere. 

This is the ide­al. And giv­en this ide­al, expressed by many the­atre mis­sion state­ments, I won­der why there aren’t more plays by and about peo­ple who come from the Mid­dle East. Nev­er has any one area of the world had more impact on the U.S. than the Mid­dle East. Repeat­ed­ly. Every year for as long as most of us can remember. 

The Talented Ones  (2016) by Yussef El Guindi, at Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland.

In every decade of my life, Arabs and Mus­lims have made head­lines in some capac­i­ty (almost always in a neg­a­tive light). One gets a lit­tle punch drunk dur­ing some news cycles deal­ing with this (from my per­spec­tive) bat­tery of biased report­ing, in which Arabs and Mus­lims end up always com­ing across as seem­ing­ly genet­i­cal­ly prone to mind­less vio­lence, wars, the oppres­sion of women, etc. The go-to images are always large mobs of angry Arab men, veiled women, beard­ed Mus­lims in prayer, bombed sites, and so on. I have spent most of my life being gob­s­macked by all this, con­trast­ing what I see in main­stream Amer­i­can cul­ture with what I live and know when I trav­el back to Egypt and hang out with friends and fam­i­ly and imbibe the cul­ture around me. 

Quite nat­u­ral­ly, in a desire to make sense of all this, I turn to the arts as one poten­tial source to put some of these Mid­dle East hap­pen­ings in per­spec­tive. I want to step away from the objec­tion­able “objec­tive news” and the biased pun­dit class with their con­ser­v­a­tive think-tank opin­ions, and see how the cul­ture around me process­es these events.

I hold out lit­tle hope that movies or tele­vi­sion will give me the oth­er side of the sto­ry. Black-and-white per­spec­tives sell more tick­ets than grays, or rar­er still, view­points direct­ly from “the ene­my.” The best you can hope for in a pop­u­lar movie that deals with the Mid­dle East is some­thing akin to the “cow­boys and Indi­ans” nar­ra­tive, in which the vast major­i­ty of the “Arabs” are por­trayed as men­ac­ing and hos­tile, except for the “good Arab” who sides with the West and aids its agents in fight­ing a par­tic­u­lar­ly nasty leader and his fanat­i­cal hordes. In movies, mon­ey fol­lows prej­u­dice because sim­pli­fy­ing the world into “us” and “them” is more sat­is­fy­ing than hav­ing to deal with all the ambi­gu­i­ties and qual­i­fiers that are part of most peo­ple’s dai­ly lives. 

I expect more from the stage. But in the Amer­i­can the­atre over the past 15 years, for all its talk of want­i­ng to be inclu­sive, I have rarely seen plays that address what’s going on in the Mid­dle East or what is hap­pen­ing to Mus­lims and peo­ple of Mid­dle East­ern descent here in the U.S. (leav­ing aside the almost total absence of such plays before Sept. 11, 2001). The Ancient Greeks made it a point to address their wars in their dra­mas. Why is it that Amer­i­can the­atre, with rare excep­tions, should fail so dras­ti­cal­ly in this regard?

James Asher (Gamal) and Kunal Prasad (Mohsen) in the 2016 Golden Thread Productions of  Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat , directed by Torange Yeghiazarian (Photo: David Allen Studio).

It’s an oft-repeat­ed obser­va­tion of Amer­i­can cul­ture that peo­ple don’t like pol­i­tics in their enter­tain­ment. It is out­side the lim­it­ed purview of this essay to explain this aver­sion to polit­i­cal the­atre in the U.S. But the fact remains that a whiff of pol­i­tics will expose you to the charge of hav­ing an agen­da, of being too didac­tic or preachy. While my plays often present the out­sider’s per­spec­tive, I’ve nev­er writ­ten a play that express­ly dra­ma­tizes the points I raise in this essay. As much as some crit­ics like to say I have an agen­da, I don’t when I write for the stage. It’s all about char­ac­ters and their wants. Now obvi­ous­ly these char­ac­ters are con­scious­ly or uncon­scious­ly pick­led in the brine of my polit­i­cal out­look, so to speak, so some of my per­son­al con­cerns will find their way into the play, but these char­ac­ters are not mouth­pieces for me. 

It’s odd that, by con­trast, a small island like Eng­land can cre­ate big-can­vassed plays that address their polit­i­cal cul­ture and their stand­ing in the world, while the U.S., a world pow­er and a coun­try that sure­ly begs for ambi­tious plays, most­ly pro­duces small, insu­lar plays that deal with mat­ters of the hearth and heart. It is often argued that some types of navel-gaz­ing can be deemed polit­i­cal. Or to use a com­mon phrase, the “per­son­al is polit­i­cal.” A domes­tic dra­ma may be said to act as metaphor, encap­su­lat­ing larg­er polit­i­cal concerns. 

But most of the time, the pol­i­tics are so deeply cloaked in metaphor that they can be safe­ly ignored. It’s a repeat­ed odd­i­ty that the Amer­i­can pro­tag­o­nist rarely seems to care or under­stand his or her place in the his­tor­i­cal and polit­i­cal forces at play. As a con­se­quence, the default set­ting for Amer­i­can dra­ma is gen­er­al­ly warm (mat­ters of the heart pre­dom­i­nate), uplift­ing (dreams can be real­ized in spite of obsta­cles, and if they’re not it’s an Amer­i­can tragedy), and domes­tic (the indi­vid­ual is para­mount), with just enough social com­men­tary thrown in to give it a lit­tle bite.

The prob­lem is that for most peo­ple out­side of the West, active pol­i­tics is part of their dai­ly life and con­ver­sa­tion. To self-real­ize, to pur­sue hap­pi­ness, means hav­ing to pay atten­tion to gov­ern­ment poli­cies and how they affect you. You can’t do too much navel-gaz­ing when bul­lets, tear gas, and arrest are real pos­si­bil­i­ties, or if you’re sim­ply try­ing to gain basic free­doms and human rights. Con­se­quent­ly the home life of a lot of Arabs and Mus­lims is filled with polit­i­cal chat­ter. To dra­ma­tize the dai­ly lives of these two groups (and quite a few oth­er non-West­ern peo­ples) is to unavoid­ably include the polit­i­cal ele­ment as part of nor­mal domes­tic inter­ac­tions. Here the per­son­al tru­ly is political.

Anthony Leroy Fuller (Abdallah) in the 2011 ACT world premier of Yussef El Guindi's  Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World , directed by Anita Montgomery (Photo: Chris Bennion).

Amer­i­cans are so averse to pol­i­tics in their enter­tain­ment that the sim­ple act of includ­ing Arab or Mus­lim char­ac­ters in a play expos­es it to the charge of being over­ly polit­i­cal or didac­tic. And if the play is writ­ten by an Arab or a Mus­lim? The writer must sure­ly then be ped­dling some polit­i­cal agen­da. Even if, for exam­ple, the play revolves around the ordi­nary fam­i­ly dra­mas of an Arab or Mus­lim fam­i­ly, as in my play 10 Acro­bats in an Amaz­ing Leap of Faith, though noth­ing polit­i­cal is uttered the play is regard­ed as mak­ing some kind of state­ment. Or worse, the play gets dis­missed as social activism rather than being judged on its artis­tic mer­its. The very act of ren­der­ing a group of peo­ple usu­al­ly depict­ed neg­a­tive­ly in a three-dimen­sion­al way is deemed a polit­i­cal act. Whether the writer intends it or not, they’re seen as try­ing to “address” some­thing, to right a wrong. 

Such crit­i­cism has been lev­eled at some of my plays, even though, as I say, I nev­er have a con­scious polit­i­cal agen­da when I set out to write a play. Like most play­wrights, I am focused on see­ing to the needs of my char­ac­ters. I am focused on craft and char­ac­ter pas­sions, not on try­ing to sneak in some polit­i­cal agen­da, or to have a char­ac­ter wield a polit­i­cal axe I’m grind­ing. Where’s the fun in that? I’m always sur­prised when I get cri­tiqued by a review­er for hav­ing some cal­cu­lat­ed agen­da, as if the play was writ­ten as a plat­form to express my polit­i­cal views. 

Artis­ti­cal­ly speak­ing, Arabs and Mus­lims are in a predica­ment in the the­atre. We can not walk onstage unbur­dened by the polit­i­cal frame­work in which we exist off­stage. As a group we are fraught with all the accrued bad news heaped on us. As char­ac­ters in a play, regard­less of what we do, it’s hard to shed the man­u­fac­tured polit­i­cal nar­ra­tive we’ve been assigned. Exis­ten­tial­ly, and dra­matur­gi­cal­ly, we’ve become politi­cized. While oth­er char­ac­ters can come onstage with a ques­tion mark hang­ing over them as we wait to find out who they are and what they want, with Arabs and Mus­lims our entrance sets up a set of expec­ta­tions, usu­al­ly all negative—which these char­ac­ters will either sub­vert (at which point the polit­i­cal-agen­da accu­sa­tion might be brought up) or con­firm (at which point the play might then be safe­ly cel­e­brat­ed, since the audi­ence’s prej­u­dices have been validated).

This scape­goat­ing echoes the way oth­er eth­nic groups have been treat­ed onstage in the past, and often still are. African Amer­i­cans, Asian Amer­i­cans, Native Amer­i­cans, and Lat­inx char­ac­ters have his­tor­i­cal­ly made stage entrances car­ry­ing their share of polit­i­cal bag­gage. Bag­gage that is spilling over with oth­er peo­ple’s stuff, not their own. The polit­i­cal bur­den attached to these and oth­er minori­ties has begun to lessen as more var­ied depic­tions make their way into the main­stream cul­ture. It takes a while, and the strug­gle to unpack that bag­gage is still ongo­ing. But for Arabs and Mus­lims, that unpack­ing has bare­ly begun.

Arabs and Muslims—even in lib­er­al, West­ern eyes—have come to embody the sins of patri­archy, sex­ism, reli­gious fanati­cism, mind­less vio­lence, and machis­mo of a kind that is seen as par­tic­u­lar­ly dark and men­ac­ing. Nev­er mind that these sins are as ram­pant in oth­er groups all over the world. In Jun­gian terms, Arabs and Mus­lims are (cur­rent­ly) the groups upon which oth­ers get to project their “shad­ow” elements.

In the­atre’s fit­ful embrace of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, then, Arabs and Mus­lims have rarely been includ­ed, as we tend to fall out­side the mul­ti­cul­tur­al com­fort zones. That’s because mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism as it stands now often oper­ates as a depoliti­cized zone, a place where “diver­si­ty” has been smoothed over to appeal to the great­est num­ber of peo­ple, with the least amount of fric­tion. Com­mon­al­i­ties are sought, dif­fer­ences ignored or smoothed over. It’s a way to bring peo­ple out of pol­i­tics and into a gen­tri­fied his­to­ry. If you can’t be gen­tri­fied or depoliti­cized in this way, you can’t be wel­comed into the mul­ti­cul­tur­al fold. Arabs and Mus­lims, it seems, will have to wait in the wings until we can some­how shed the dis­con­cert­ing polit­i­cal trap­pings that cur­rent­ly hang over us.

Or per­haps the tra­jec­to­ry of an ide­al like mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism is inevitably to open up to ever more inclu­siv­i­ty. I’m enough of an opti­mist to believe that the promise of diver­si­ty will even­tu­al­ly have to include the voic­es of the near­ly two bil­lion peo­ple that com­prise Arabs and Mus­lims in aggre­gate around the world. I believe that more and more the­atres will start to pro­gram plays by and about Arabs and Mus­lims, as some already have. But it’s only like­ly to start hap­pen­ing in our nation’s region­al the­atres when Arabs and Mus­lims can be seen as ful­ly dimen­sion­al peo­ple, not as mere trig­gers or sym­bols of polit­i­cal controversy.

It large­ly remains true that a whole peo­ple and reli­gion have been locked into very spe­cif­ic and neg­a­tive nar­ra­tives, and so it becomes very dif­fi­cult for an audi­ence to see beyond the head­lines. They don’t know what they’re look­ing at, or why they should pay atten­tion, when the whole point of bring­ing in all these mar­gin­al­ized voic­es in from the cold and onto the big­ger stages is to fore­ground the very the thing that has been stripped from them for decades: their human­i­ty. Watch­ing an Arab fry an egg, for exam­ple (why not a break­fast of shak­shou­ka), may be the start of a very fun­ny play (or dra­ma) that intro­duces an audi­ence into the lives of peo­ple with con­cerns very much like their own. Which is very much the impulse behind all sto­ries: to com­mu­ni­cate an expe­ri­ence and bridge a divide. 

Playwright Yussef El Guindi

Yussef El Guindi’s most recent pro­duc­tions include Peo­ple of the Book at ACT in Seat­tle, The Tal­ent­ed Ones at Artists Reper­to­ry The­atre in Port­land, and Three­some at Port­land Cen­ter Stage. Bloomsbury/ Methuen Dra­ma recent­ly pub­lished The Select­ed Works of Yussef El Guin­di. He is a pro­lif­ic Arab Amer­i­can play­wright of Egypt­ian descent whose works have been pro­duced across the USA since Back of the Throat first pre­miered in 2004. He writes full-length, one-act, and adapt­ed plays that focus on the Arab/Muslim expe­ri­ence in the Unit­ed States. El Guin­di has been the recip­i­ent of many pres­ti­gious play­writ­ing awards includ­ing the Steinberg/American The­ater Crit­ics Asso­ci­a­tion’s New Play Award, Gre­go­ry Award, Edger­ton Foun­da­tion New Play Award, ACT New Play Award, Seat­tle Times’ “Foot­light Award”, the M. Eliz­a­beth Osborn Award, L.A. Week­ly’s Excel­lence in Play­writ­ing Award, Chicago’s After Dark/John W. Schmid Award for Best New Play, and the Mid­dle East Amer­i­ca Dis­tin­guished Play­wright Award.

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