[Marxism] Nibras: Sajjil

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at osu.edu
Sat Apr 3 21:07:16 MST 2004


*****   The New York Times, April 4, 2004
The New 'Arab' Playwrights
By LIESL SCHILLINGER

PEOPLE who came to Layla Dowlatshahi's play "The Joys of Lipstick" 
last December at the Producers Club thought they were lining up to 
see a comedy about pretty Iranian women and makeup. What they got was 
a drama about an Iranian lesbian who goes to visit relatives in Los 
Angeles so she can get a sex change and return to Tehran to live with 
her American girlfriend as a man.

"After one performance," Ms. Dowlatshahi remembered, "a man came up 
to me and said, `I'm an Iranian professor, and this is filth.' I said 
to him: `I'm glad you hated the play. For me, as a playwright, if you 
love it or hate it, at least you left with something unforgettable.' 
Americans loved it," she added. "And this play was for an American 
audience. If I wanted to write for an Iranian audience, I would write 
in Persian."

Ms. Dowlatshahi is a non-practicing Shiite Muslim who moved to 
California with her family from Iran in the early 1970's, when she 
was a toddler. Today, she is part of a new generation of female 
playwrights, born in the 1960's and 70's, most of them brought up in 
the United States by parents who left war-torn countries in the 
Middle East. Some of the women are ethnically Iranian, which means 
(essentially) that they are Indo-European, and speak Persian. Some 
are ethnically Arab, which means (essentially) that they are Semitic, 
and speak Arabic. Their religious roots vary: they are Christian, 
Muslim or Zoroastrian (a faith that advocates good thoughts and 
deeds), and their national ancestry may be, to name a few, Iranian, 
Palestinian, Lebanese or Indian. But they are united by a commitment 
to take their hyphenated experiences to the New York stage, and by 
their perception that, although many of them are not Arab, that is 
how they often are seen in the United States at this tense moment in 
the country's history. Moreover, they embrace the confusion: "It's an 
honor to be called an Arab for me," said Ms. Dowlatshahi, who is 
Iranian, not Arab. Together, they are trying to put a familiar, human 
face on Arab identity.

It is not surprising that their voices are only being heard lately; 
the women belong to a new demographic. They are breaking a path not 
only creatively, but socially, overcoming pressures from the 
immigrant community to find husbands, not agents.

Betty Shamieh, perhaps the best known of the dramatists (her play 
"Roar," starring Annabella Sciorra and Sarita Choudhury, opens on 
Wednesday at the Clurman Theater), said she feels supported by 
Palestinian-Americans in the Bay Area, where she grew up. But, she 
explained, "People in the home country don't have to hold onto their 
culture as strongly as those who left it. It's kind of a time warp."

Kayhan Irani, a Zoroastrian, and author of "We've Come Undone," a 
collage of post-Sept. 11 monologues, said, "Every Iranian I meet 
always asks me am I married and how many children do I have."

The women report, however, that their parents have encouraged their 
ambitions. Ms. Irani, who lived in Bombay and Tehran as an infant but 
grew up in Queens in New York, is typical. "My parents haven't pushed 
the marriage and children thing," she said. "They support me 110 
percent."

Most of these writers work independently, but in the summer of 2001, 
a handful of them in New York - playwrights, actors and directors - 
formed a collective called Nibras, Arabic for lantern. Najla Said, 
daughter of the late Edward Said, the scholar and fierce advocate of 
Palestinian statehood, is a founder, along with Kathryn Leila Buck, 
Maha Chehlaoui and four others.

Ms. Buck, a Lebanese-American whose one-woman show, "ISite," 
describes her life as a diplomat's child in the "sites" of Oman, 
Kuwait, Iraq and America, said: "Initially, we were like, `Wow, there 
are seven Arab-American theater artists?' Who knew?"

They began work on a documentary theater piece about what people 
think when they hear the word Arab. They called it "Sajjil," or 
record. Tape recorders in hand, they interviewed a cross-section of 
Americans - both Arab and non-Arab - and acted out the responses 
onstage in a style made familiar by the performer Anna Deavere Smith. 
According to Ms. Said, "The point we were trying to make was that 
Arab culture is linked to Islamic culture, but not all Arabs are 
Muslim, and not all Muslims are Arab; and not all people from the 
Middle East are Arab; that we're a varied culture."

Of course, Israel is also part of the Middle East, but so far Nibras 
has not collaborated with Israeli artists. "We're still finding our 
voice in the community," said Ms. Chehlaoui, the group's artistic 
director.

Last year, Nibras sought out dramatists who might be interested in 
working with it. Only one Israeli responded - an Arab Israeli, not a 
Jewish Israeli. "If we'd billed ourselves as a Middle Eastern theater 
company, it might be different," Ms. Said said. "But we're an 
Arab-American theater company, so we have attracted Arabs, not Turks, 
or Iranians, or Israelis."

Ironically, the founders of Nibras were not sure themselves what 
"Arab" meant. "To some people," Ms. Said said, "Arab-American is a 
group of people in Detroit. That's not a group of people that I 
necessarily relate to. To other people, Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn - 
that's Arab America. But I grew up in New York City, on the Upper 
West Side. Most of our members are more like me; we're not connected 
to the recent immigrants. I spent much of my childhood and college 
years knowing my heritage, but always being able to pass as just like 
everyone else. People would say, `Oh, you're not one of them.' "

This sense of detachment ended a few weeks into the "Sajjil" project, 
when terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center. "After 9/11, our 
meetings became therapy sessions about how we all were feeling," Ms. 
Said said. "Sajjil" was presented at the 2002 New York International 
Fringe Festival, and has been restaged frequently. In the show, 
Jaqui, an Arab-American, says that, to her, the word Arab sounds 
"offensive and very harsh." Asked to define Arab, Kevin, a non-Arab, 
says: "Evil comes to mind. Dark, shady. Um, uh, sneaky, dishonest." 
"Sajjil" does not try to answer the question of why people feel this 
way; its innovation is to ask the question.

The group is now developing a project that confronts terrorism 
directly. "Actually, it's very frightening," Ms. Buck said. "We went 
to the library and read news accounts of suicide bombers, attempting 
to understand their psychology." With "Sajjil," Nibras was trying to 
improve the American public's impression of Arabs, Ms. Buck said, 
adding, "but there's another side."

"There are Arab terrorists out there," she continued, "and we don't 
know anything about them, or why they do what they do."

Men number among the founders of Nibras, including Omar Metwally, who 
portrays a Palestinian in the play "Sixteen Wounded," now in previews 
on Broadway. Yet, in the task of humanizing Americans of Middle 
Eastern descent, plays by and about women may have an edge over 
stories by and about men. "I think the idea of an Arab man is scary 
to Americans," Ms. Dowlatshahi said. "Growing up in this country, 
I've always sensed there's been a fear of Muslim men, and of any kind 
of ethnic minority, especially male. They're seen as a threat. It's 
easier to acclimate to a female Arab or Muslim voice than to jump to 
a male."

The playwrights have different artistic agendas. Ms. Dowlatshahi, 
whose newest work, "Waiting Room," is about Muslim women in a Serbian 
rape camp, is the most feminist in her politics. For Ms. Irani, whose 
portraits in "We've Come Undone" include an insensitive I.N.S. worker 
and a Sikh woman who gets a hate call, theater is a tool for 
education and raising awareness. Several Nibras members share that 
ethic, but to Ms. Buck, politics are more personal. She wrote "ISite" 
while a student at Wesleyan University, after visiting her parents in 
Saudi Arabia. "Saudi is more conservative than other places I'd lived 
in the Arab world," she said. "If you're a woman, you have to cover" 
- meaning wear a headscarf - "it's the law. It made me think, what 
part of me is Arab, and what part of me is American?"

Ms. Shamieh, however, resisted even this mild variety of identity 
politics. When she was a student at the Yale School of Drama, from 
1997 to 2000, she chose not to perform in plays on Arab-American 
themes. "I disliked being pigeonholed," she said. "And I wanted to 
get a few productions under my belt before I became `the 
Palestinian-American playwright.' " Nevertheless, during this period, 
she wrote two dramas using Arab-American characters: "Chocolate in 
Heat," a series of coming-of-age stories, and "Roar," about a love 
quadrangle. Her logic, she said, was: "I'm not going to change 
anybody's mind about the Middle East. I'm going to show a human 
story." "Chocolate" made its debut at the fringe festival in New York 
in 2001; "Roar," a New Group production directed by Marion McClinton, 
is scheduled to run through May 8 on Theater Row. "They're not about 
politics," she said, "but they're inherently political. Because if 
you've never heard a perspective, it makes it political."

Ms. Shamieh is evolving, along with the genre that she and her 
colleagues are creating. Lately, she has been working on a 
suspenseful, non-linear drama about an Arab-American woman 
daydreaming about her ambitions, her passion for a half-Arab-American 
man and her fear of terrorism. The play, "Architecture," had a 
reading at the Magic Theater in San Francisco last week. "Being 
Palestinian is a large part of who I am," Ms. Shamieh said. "I knew 
it was something I would eventually come to. I knew it would come to 
a clear choice for me; either stop writing, or start writing about 
what really matters to me."

Liesl Schillinger is an arts editor at The New Yorker.

<http://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/04/theater/04SCHI.html>   *****
-- 
Yoshie

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