Humanizing the Arab World in America


Originally published in U.S. News & World Report. Read it here.

Lindsey Wasson for Round Earth Media/IWMF

Humanizing the Arab World in America

Playwright Yussef El Guindi is determined to confront U.S. laws, rhetoric and fears tied to Arab-Americans.

SEATTLE – When terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Yussef El Guindi stopped writing. The Arab-American playwright’s career had only just started to take off, but stunned by the magnitude of the tragedy, he avoided his craft for weeks.

He also started noticing nervous glances in his direction as he walked down the street. He was pulled aside for airport security checks. He quietly wondered what police would make of his research materials: books on Islam, Palestine and guns.

When he returned to his craft two months later, it was with a deep determination to counter the one-dimensional view of Arab-Americans all around him. He started writing a play that followed an Arab-American writer as he’s endlessly interrogated by government agents after they discover his collection of pornography and the Quran. “Back of the Throat” became El Guindi’s first full-length published play and won the 2004 Northwest Playwrights’ Competition.

Almost two decades later, the Muslim writer who was born in Egypt, raised in London and lives in Seattle, has published 10 additional plays, won more awards and has been called by the artistic director of one theater as “the definitive voice of Middle Eastern American theater.” In other ways, little has changed in the United States. El Guindi says restrictive laws aimed at immigrants, harsh rhetoric and underlying fear and suspicion of Arab-Americans and other minority groups have strengthened his resolve to tell those stories, including his latest, “People of the Book,” which opened this month at Seattle’s ACT Theatre.

The new play fulfills his long-held desire to address the repercussions of the Iraq War and misinformation spread about it. As in all of El Guindi’s plays, he seeks to create complex Arab and Muslim characters. They help illustrate a seemingly obvious, yet often overlooked, idea: Just because two people are from the Middle East, doesn’t make them the same.

“The most radical thing I’m doing is creating three-dimensional Arab and Muslim characters,” he says. “I’m humanizing the people who are dehumanized in news stories.”

El Guindi cites “politicians and pundits and writers who frankly have either been flat-out racists or who’ve very callously exploited these tensions and fears and suspicions for their own political gain.”

“But we’ve never had somebody as blatant as Trump,” he adds.

While El Guindi’s plays are often inspired by news stories or his own real-life experiences, the important thing for him is to transcend a specific event. He says it’s about finding “what elements are universal, what speaks to our humanity,” and then creating a compelling narrative around it.

Across 100 minutes, “People of the Book” tells a dramatic and occasionally humorous story about a young man who reunites with high school friends after returning from the Iraq war with a very popular but questionable memoir and a wife he “rescued” from the war zone.

The play is full of messy interpersonal conflicts including an extramarital affair, professional jealousy between an Iraq War veteran and his old Middle East-American high school classmate, and an Iraqi woman’s experience with spousal abuse.

John Langs, the show’s director and ACT Theatre’s artistic director, says there are points when the audience should root for the characters and other times when they should be horrified by them.

At the same time, “People of the Book” addresses such weighty issues as stereotyping, cultural appropriation and the meaning of patriotism.

“Without him saying all of those things, it sort of is built slowly in the background,” Langs says. “You walk away not only thinking about these people, but also thinking about the nation.”

After completing a run-through on a recent Friday, cast members gathered with Langs and El Guindi around a table in a large rehearsal space to discuss what they had learned. The question of physical touch came up.

While it wouldn’t be a concern for the character of Amir, who was born in Iraq but grew up in the U.S., the group considered how Madeeha, who just arrived from Iraq and wears a hijab, would interact physically with the other characters.

“I would never touch Amir,” says Monika Jolly, who plays Madeeha, adding that touching a female character would be all right.

El Guindi sat in on many of the rehearsals, taking notes, and offering his thoughts to Langs. The show is expected to run until Sept. 29, and El Guindi says there are a few theaters in the Midwest and on the East Coast that are considering it for their next season.

For now, El Guindi says he’s simply interested in seeing how audiences react to it.

“You begin to feel what the turns are, where the ascent is, where the fall is. As a playwright and as a craftsman you’re hoping that these things happen, but you’re always surprised.”

“It’s like going on an amusement park ride.”

El Guindi’s shows have been produced in cities from San Francisco to New York, and a number have been published by Dramatists Play Service and Broadway Play Publishing, Inc. In 2012, his romantic comedy about an Egyptian immigrant and a white waitress, “Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World,” won an American Theater Critics Association Award.

El Guindi likes to say he is living his Plan B. He’s always loved literature and writing, and received an undergraduate degree in English and comparative literature at the American University in Cairo. But for a long time his true passion was acting.

For graduate school, he applied to six institutions for acting and one for playwriting. He received a single acceptance letter: Carnegie Mellon University wanted him for its playwriting program.

For years, he continued to act while writing plays. He wrote poems and dabbled in screenplays. But eventually, playwriting became “his everything.”

“It really is a democratic, interactive means of storytelling – I like that,” he says. “I love the crackle in the air. As impressive as a film can be, I don’t feel I’m participating in it. I feel I’m just being fed something.”

Torange Yeghiazarian, artistic director at Golden Thread Productions, a San Francisco theater that presents shows from and about the Middle East, calls El Guindi “the definitive voice of Middle Eastern American theater.” El Guindi is the theater’s most produced playwright.

“He very creatively and beautifully dives into all the ways we are isolated by the community that we live in and the cost of that,” she says.

Yeghiazarian, who was born in Iran and moved to the U.S. with her family when she was 14, has been working with other theater professionals to increase the number of plays written by Middle Eastern Americans produced across the country.

“We want this not only because it’s good for us as a nation to hear from the people who’ve been vilified for decades,” the theater professionals said in an open letter, “but because these are American plays, representing the perspectives and experiences of vastly diverse communities.”

Yeghiazarian and others in the community are in the process of forming the National Coalition of MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) Theater Artists. It is run by a 14-member steering committee. There will be a gathering of Middle Eastern, North African, and Muslim theater artists in San Francisco in November as part of this effort.

Two decades ago when he moved to Seattle, El Guindi said theaters were not interested in his types of stories. He still recalls his feeling of isolation. And although the situation has changed, he says there’s still more work to do.

“There was no door at the beginning. Now there’s a door we can push against,” he says. “It’s sort of only partially open and we still have to keep pushing to try and get theaters interested in our stories.”

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