[Marxism] Nibras: Sajjil
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
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
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
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
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.
* Bring Them Home Now! <http://www.bringthemhomenow.org/>
* Calendars of Events in Columbus:
<http://www.freepress.org/calendar.php>, & <http://www.cpanews.org/>
* Student International Forum: <http://sif.org.ohio-state.edu/>
* Committee for Justice in Palestine: <http://www.osudivest.org/>
* Al-Awda-Ohio: <http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Al-Awda-Ohio>
* Solidarity: <http://www.solidarity-us.org/>
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