No Veils, No Headscarves – Reimagining the Middle Eastern Play with Kareem Fahmy and Sevan K. Greene
Kareem is a director I’ve known for a while. We met when we were paired up in the Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab back in 2013 (how the time flies). Since then, he has been an inspiring fellow artist and dear friend. He is kind and excitable, and speaks (and lives) with a conviction of the heart that is rare to find. His work is hot-blooded and emotionally deft – as a director and a writer, Kareem seems to be constantly asking where the core of feeling is in a moment. As such, his work feels deeply rooted in the physical life of emotions, the fact of (quite literally) feeling something not just in your head, but under your skin. I had the pleasure of interviewing him back in September about his last show, Couriers & Contrabands.
I had the pleasure of meeting Sevan at the start of this interview, as he first appeared as a grainy green blob on my screen (he soon fixed his web-cam). Sevan is passionate and fiercely intelligent, and has an uncanny ability to speak grand and incisive truths as if he were reciting yesterday’s shopping list. He has a dignified British accent and a stately beard.
A little bit of background: This Time is an adaptation of Kareem’s grandmother’s memoir. In the 1960’s in Egypt, his grandmother fell in love with a Canadian man, left her family, and moved to Canada (at a time when doing such a thing was thoroughly frowned upon, to say the least). Sevan has played fast and loose with the adaptation, and has created a second, parallel storyline set in the 90s, which tracks the legacy of that emigration.
Our conversation was far-reaching and vibrant, and it appears in edited form here. These two are thinking deeply about how the theater treats artists of color, and about the sad paucity of Middle Eastern voices on our stages.
Jerry Lieblich: I’m interested in how you responded to the responsibility inherent in adaptation, a responsibility both to tell Kareem’s grandmother’s story, but also to tell a story that is in a way representative of a certain generation of immigrants.
Sevan K. Greene: I never really felt pressured or worried about adapting it, because Kareem never made me feel like I had to treat it preciously. I think what Kareem did really well was he never said to me, “I want you to write my grandmother’s story.” What he said was “this was a fascinating woman. This is a woman who did things in a time when Muslim women wouldn’t dare to do those kinds of things.” So the play is not entirely accurate to his grandmother’s life. He gave me a lot of license and liberty to imagine within certain benchmarks and parameters.
Kareem Fahmy: What I find fascinating is that once we freed ourselves of that construct that we were bound to anything absolutely accurate, I think we came to find that the character actually became really true to who the real woman was. It’s like we had to explore all around it to land on a very authentic emotional beat, which I think we have. This feels so much like her, even though it’s not a by rote following of her exact story. It feels like a tribute to her. It feels like a real woman’s story.
SG: And you know, the kind of woman that Kareem’s grandmother was, Kareem and I are both Middle Easterners, so it wasn’t hard to tap into that fabric of womanhood and Arab personality.
JL: You mentioned that she was doing something that Muslim women of that time did not do. And I can know that. You can tell me that. But what I’m interested in is how did you feel that, both in creating this, and how do we as an audience feel that in the production? Because there is this big gap in time, in culture, and in location, so there’s an act of imagination that has to happen on all our parts to fill it. I’m interested in how that happens.
SG: Kareem and I actually found that the more the play talked about what an independent woman breaking the rules she was, the more Orientalist the play felt, and the more it felt like we were giving just the alternative narrative to what an Arab woman really is. It just felt so fake. And it felt like it was going against everything the two of us feel as artists of color. It felt like we were assuaging white privilege, instead of telling our story.
KF: As a Middle Eastern theater artist, I’ve always really pushed against the idea that I had to ever do anything that was inauthentic to who I was. I think that as a playwright Sevan is in a much more difficult situation. People are always saying “write what you know.” And even though Sevan has written many different types of plays that don’t only deal with the Middle Eastern experience, I feel like we in our industry are so trapped into the idea that if you are an artist of color you need to be doing that type of work. This whole project stemmed from a response to that, actually. I felt like oh, people want me to be Middle Eastern? Fine. I’m going to be as Middle Eastern as I possibly can.
And then I recognized that my responsibility was to be as authentic as I possibly could be to my experience as a Middle Eastern person, which is about having the knowledge that there is a preconceived notion about me. So as I’ve approached the work, I started asking myself “what are all the preconceived notions about what a play about a Middle Eastern woman is going to be?” And we unpacked all of those expectations, acknowledged them, but then asked “what’s authentic to our story?”
So the way I feel that this project is transcending that expectation is to just present her life as true as it was, and without this lens of seeing it through the West. This is a play about a Middle Eastern person told from the perspective of a Middle Eastern person. There’s no outsider that comes in as a go-between for the audience. It is truly in her experience.
And what we have found is that it transcends Middle Eastern and it becomes about the experience that so many Americans have had about what it is like to be born somewhere else and come to the West. So it’s become a very universal story. I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of people who have come up to me after workshops and said, “This woman is my mother. This woman is my grandmother. This woman is my aunt.” And they’re of all different races. There is a universality in the idea of what it is to be independent.
There’s no veils in this play. There’s no headscarves in this play. And that was really key.
JL: So there’s no “perspective” character. The West is not represented on stage watching this. But the play is in the West. The play is in New York. And I’ll speak for myself – I am not Middle Eastern, it’s not a cultural context that I know. What I find interesting is that you’re asking me to look at it without the expectation of full understanding. Which I think is very rare.
SG: I agree and I disagree with that statement. I was born and raised in the Middle East, and then I was enculturated in the States after I escaped the Gulf War. So I am very much a person whose culture and identity is both East and West in all the most interesting and complicated ways. As a writer, I’m dedicated to telling stories both of the West and of the East, but I’m very conscious of the fact that when I do it of the East I don’t want it to be a National Geographic experience. I’m not interested in being somebody’s learning lesson. If they want to learn that much, pick up a fucking book or go on Wikipedia. I’m more interested in how we can access the East through the West by making the unfamiliar familiar.
And the way that I do that is that, for example, this play is a family play. It’s about parents and children. At the very core of it, that’s all it is. It has nothing to do with Arab women and Arab children. It’s about parents and their children. But it’s seen through a different lens. So you can come into it not being Middle Eastern and not knowing anything about Egypt but still understand the core of the play, because it’s a problem we all understand, it’s a universal issue. It just so happens that they come from the East, and there’s enough knowledge in there to make it just unfamiliar enough to unseat an audience, but not so much to make them go “I don’t know what the fuck is going on, I’m so confused, I don’t understand where I am.”
KF: If we look at where we are in the history of the Theater of the Other, we see that there is a history of African-American plays, there is a lesser history of Asian-American plays. We haven’t built a history of Middle Eastern-American plays. Yet. Because it’s too new. It’s too new. In the huge wave of plays about Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East that came in the post-9/11 world, for the first few years they were all overtly political and about that issue.
But when can we move past that? When can we do a play in which it is just about the experience of those human beings?
If there was one impulse that really started me on the journey of the play, it was that I was born in the West. So I always felt that there was a reason, a narrative behind why this is my experience. And the book wasn’t enough for me to understand that experience. So that question, “Why am I the way I am?” that drives the central character of the play, who is actually my aunt, my grandmother’s daughter. And I think that is one of the biggest questions that all family plays ask. That feels like a conversation and a question that transcends time.
JL: You mentioned that you guys were thinking a lot about the expectations of what a play about a Middle Eastern woman is. What are those expectations?
KF: Headscarves. Repression. A domineering male figure that’s going to demean and belittle women.
SG: The sad victim. The martyr.
The problem is that most Arab plays are just Orientalist porn. And the reason why those plays keep coming back over and over again is because they fulfill the stereotype that the majority of people have about Arabs. It’s what we know from the media and what we see in representations on TV and film. So we think “this is what the Middle East is like.” And when we see it on stage that’s what it must be like. And if it’s not like that, then it’s not “authentic,” which really means it’s not what we want.
And I’m always trying to destroy that notion, not by presenting made-up characters, but by presenting the real people that nobody sees. None of the characters in this play are false. They’re all real. Not because they’re real human beings, but because they’re actually really Middle Eastern people.
KF: There’s a moment in the play where you see a woman get down on the floor and start to get it on with a guy. And she’s a married Muslim woman. And she likes it. She wants it. She’s horny! And I was thinking to myself – and, putting aside the fact that I’m staging my grandmother have sex – but I realized that I don’t think I’ve ever seen that on stage before. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an Arab woman desire sex and solicit sex in that way. And that was really exciting to me. It made me see that we’re offering something new to an audience that is going to come in with an expectation. And that to me feels important.
JL: Were there any times where you felt you had to or did capitulate to what that expectation is? Consciously or unconsciously?
SG: No. (Laughs.)
Older drafts of the play had all this stuff about Nasser, and it was terrible. It felt like we were being political because we felt like we had to be political.
KF: Because that’s what the audience expects and wants. They want to say “oh, well I understand the politics of this.” People want what they expect. “Oh, my Middle Eastern identity fills me with rage, and that makes me this type of person.” And I think the reason narratives like that are so successful is that they play to audiences that don’t actually know anything about the Middle East. It tells them what to think and feel in what I think is an extremely reductive way. Whereas this play is much more challenging of your expectations.
JL: Have either of you encountered resistance to not playing into those expectations? Like Sevan, have you written a play and people have said “Muslim people aren’t really like that”?
SG: Oh God yeah. I’ve faced it as an actor and as a writer. But it’s always veiled. “It’d be interesting if you explored this more, it might help your audience understand this culture.” And I always look at them like, I’m not an idiot. I know what you’re trying to say. And if you want that, then have someone else write the play, because that’s not what I’m going to do.
I’m not an overtly political writer. I don’t call myself one, even though everyone else thinks I’m a political writer. But I don’t explore that, and if I do, it always happens through the personal. It’s more interesting to me to examine politics as is affects people on a very singular level as opposed to thinking that I have the right or the ability to talk about a political situation as a whole for the entirety of an entire region.
Even for this play, you know Kareem and I are both Middle Easterners, but he’s Egyptian and I’m Lebanese, raised in the Gulf. And there are massive differences between those two, differences we discovered making this play. So if I’m still learning things about other Middle Easterners from other countries, I certainly don’t have the right to sit an audience down and say “I’m now going to tell you what it is like to be the Middle Easterner in the Middle East,” because it doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing.
JL: Part of what you guys are pointing out is that since we don’t have this canon of Middle Eastern-American plays, since it’s basically just Ayad Aktar, then he does kind of speak for everything. And so even if being Egyptian is very different than being Lebanese is very different than being Syrian, if there’s only one person there talking it feels like “Oh, that voice is Middle Eastern, and that encompasses all of it.”
SG: But there are plenty of Middle Eastern playwrights who are not being produced because they are not writing what people want them to write.
KF: We all know what the situation is. Theaters are going to program one or two “minority” plays. So we’re still at that point where that Middle Eastern play is not high on their list. Every theater is going to do Disgraced, and then feel like they’ve checked off the appropriate box. “We did Disgraced three seasons ago, so I think the next few seasons we’re going to have to do all these other plays about people of color.”
Right now, Middle Eastern theater needs to be about oppression, terrorism, and violence. That’s all there is. We’re just not past that yet. There’s another generation or two that needs to happen before we are just thought of as people and not an idea. And we’re not there.
JL: We had talked about this recently, Kareem, about how the Middle Eastern voice is maybe the single most invisible voice in our culture, even popularly. We talked about Shakira who is Lebanese and Colombian, but somehow only comes across as Colombian. Even as she’s belly dancing and projecting Arabic on the back wall of her concerts it’s like “Colombian artist, Shakira.”
SG: Same thing with Salma Hayek and Cher.
SG: Cher’s Armenian.
JL: I had no idea. I had no idea about Salma Hayek either.
SG: Oh yeah. Her name is completely Arabic. Salma Hayek? But somehow she’s Mexican. Salma. Hayek. Does that sound Mexican?
(The author here would like to note that the Wikipedia page for Salma Hayek begins “Salma Hayek is a Mexican-American film actress.”)
KF: Tony Shalhoub never plays Middle Eastern characters, even though he’s 100% Middle Eastern.
JL: Right he’s always Italian or Jewish.
KF: Exactly! His name is Shalhoub, for God’s sake.
Our responsibility as theater artists is to hold up a mirror to experience. But I don’t think that Middle Eastern theater artists have been given the space to really do that yet. And maybe it’s because people don’t care. Maybe people want that certainty and satisfaction of “oh, Middle Eastern people are just so filled with rage because they’ve been marginalized, so they beat their wives.”
JL: I think part of it is that the Middle Eastern body is so synonymous with “The Enemy” right now in American culture. I think even in your upper-middle-class educated theater goers, it’s still what you’re drinking in every day. And it’s really hard to break that.
SG: But it’s not. I don’t think it’s hard to break that. I just think people are lazy. It’s not a difficult thing to do. It’s not that hard to program a play that’s not racist.
JL: It’s easy in theory, but I think what’s hard about it is that that sort of racism is invisible. That I as an artistic director can think “I’m going to program my one Middle-Eastern play and represent the entire Muslim-American experience.” I can do that and not realize that I’ve made a racist assumption. I don’t realize that I’m buying into these stereotypes, because the assumption is invisible.
SG: I’ve heard artistic directors say “this is a great piece of theater, but it’s just not politically charged enough.” Which to me is the equivalent of telling a black actor in an audition room “could you be more, you know, urban?” Which of course just means be ghetto.
I don’t understand why people have such a difficulty presenting Middle Easterners just as they are. Why do you need it to be politically charged? I get that that’s the way things are right now, but there’s got to be a way that we can balance out the conversation.
KF: So much of the impulse behind this play was me feeling “oh shit, I’m a Middle Eastern theater artist, I have to do a Middle Eastern play.” And in no way was that play going to be about all these things we’re talking about. It had to be human. It had to be real. If it was going to be about my family, it has to be authentic. And we don’t sit around talking about politics and violence.
I became a person of color when I moved to the United States. Just this past summer I was back in Canada and I was speaking to a former professor of mine. She asked how my career was going, and I said “well, I tend to get a lot of opportunities because I’m a person of color.” And she literally guffawed and said “wait, you’re a person of color?” Apparently I am!
That identity shift was so huge for me. The way people were forcing my identity to shift. And so much of where this project came from was me not wanting to give into that pressure. People want to put you into boxes in this industry. So you know what? This is my Middle Eastern play. And you know, you could change all of the races of all the characters, and pretty much it would be the same play.
SG: I never felt like a person of color until I came to New York and started working in the theater. The theater, of all places, was where I first encountered racism in New York. And when I started writing, I found that people would not respond to me as a writer because the Middle Eastern plays I was writing depicted Middle Easterners just as people. And people kept saying “you were born and raised in the Middle East. You were raised Muslim and Christian. I’m sure that influences your anger and what you want to talk about.” And I say “Well yes, I am angry. I’m angry that you think I’m different. And that’s what I’m writing about.”
JL: I’m wondering if, for our readers, you guys could give us a quick Kilroy’s List type thing of Middle Eastern writers who are not getting produced. Who are these writers? Because I for one don’t know them.
SG: Yussef El Guindi. Ismail Khalidi. They’re the two big ones who I read constantly and don’t understand why they’re not being produced. Yussef does get produced regionally, but for some reason people in New York won’t do his shows, and I don’t know why. I think it’s because his shows are so not Middle Eastern in their temperament. He writes very Pinter-esque, absurd, black-comedy plays. And he was born in Egypt. But he refuses to kowtow to that Middle Eastern notion, and I think that’s why people won’t do him.
KF: There’s a lot of people who have written only one or two plays but then stop, because they don’t get produced.
SG: That’s sad, isn’t it.
And so here, a (brief) list of Middle Eastern American writers. Artistic Directors, listen up: