Dramatizing Contested History

How can Arab narratives that depict the complexity of their lives be created for the Western stage while also challenging Orientalism?

Oct 08, 2017

hamilton Illustration by Shenuka Corea

I knew I wanted to write a play about queer Arabs navigating and negotiating their identities in the Middle East from the time I knew I wanted to write plays. Nevertheless, I consistently found myself shying away to other, less troublesome subjects. Taking on such a loaded topic would be knowingly entering a path fraught with potential stereotypes, Orientalism and reductiveness. I did not want to recreate Orientalist tropes about the Middle East being a savage, lawless place in my work. Depicting a violent husband, for instance, might reaffirm my Western audience’s belief that Middle Eastern men are indeed all violent. When representation of a subject is limited, as is the case with the Middle Eastern subject in the West, the politics and repercussions of creating a narrative must constantly be questioned in the creation process.

As my studies led me to a focus on postcolonial theory, these anxieties and trepidations heightened. I knew that I would inevitably fail to capture some experience and that someone somewhere would label my work with the ever-dreaded label of problematic, or worse, self-loathing or Orientalist. Theater about the Middle East is rarely presented in Western theater capitals like New York, London and Berlin. Plays dealing with the legacy of colonialism and the colonial subject that have been commercially successful in the last decade have also been extremely problematic. I am reminded most of Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, whose central narrative involves two Muslim characters who attempt to perform liberated and Western identities but, despite their best efforts, fail to overcome their Muslim and Pakistani identities. That failure manifests in one claiming to have felt pride on Sept. 11, 2001, and the other violently punching his wife repeatedly on stage. In an increasingly Islamophobic U.S., the play’s critical and commercial success can only be explained by its reaffirmation of stereotypes about Muslims in the contemporary political climate of the U.S.

Despite this anxiety about representing minorities and their treatment within different legal systems in the Middle East, when it became time for me to choose a topic for my capstone project, I could not think of anything else to write about. These anxieties only made me more excited to tackle these subjects. I found myself constantly asking the question, How can we create narratives for the Western stage that depict the complexity of our lives while also engaging and challenging the Western spectator’s Orientalized reading of us? I also wondered, How could I dramatize this history when its accounts were so scarce and contested? Is a play — a piece of dramatized history — itself an objective account, an archive of sorts, or would I be crafting a history to suit my liberal agenda? And what was the point if my content was going to be too subversive for production in the Middle East? Is my pursuit meaningful at all if the only people to see it are New York liberals whose beliefs parallel my own?

In attempting to engage the question of how to tell my story, I wanted to see how others before me grappling with similar cultural identities have done so. I wanted to examine modes of storytelling that tell Middle Eastern stories in a Western context, with a consciousness of the assumptions, understandings and frameworks of interpretation the spectator is likely to bring with them to the performance.

In my study, the plays I found the most compelling were about Middle Eastern minorities, such as Jamil Khoury’s Precious Stones and Amahl Khouri’s She, He, Me, which was read as a part of the Arab Voices Festival at the NYUAD Institute in fall 2016. At the same time, I read texts in postcolonial theory that illustrated the different tropes present in depictions of the Middle East. Some of the best texts in that category were, of course, Edward Said’s seminal work Orientalism, and Joseph Massad’s Desiring Arabs. These postcolonial texts shed light on the historical context that fosters the creation of these plays and aids in understanding the nature of the gaze I assume the Western spectator has in relation to the Middle Eastern narrative and subject.

However, a mere critical analysis was not sufficient to help me understand what made these plays good. I had read plays by other playwrights that left a sour taste in my mouth. The two plays by Khoury and Khouri that I came to like sometimes contained the same issues that others did. Why were they the ones I wanted to understand and emulate the most? These playwrights were doing something truly different. It felt like they were trying to capture the world and understand it as they wrote. It was not a mere exercise of recreating tropes. They were aware of what tropes they could fall into, and rather than avoid them completely, they embraced them, gave the spectator what they want and then subverted them somehow by making us see where the villain is coming from or how they came to be who they are. They’d done their character work. They had contextualized that world and its history into their characters’ very DNA.

After conducting this study, I continue to have questions. However, I do feel more confident about engaging the Middle Eastern narrative in my own writing. Through my research, I have encountered many Middle Eastern stories, and observed how they complicate the notions of enacting, acknowledging or resisting Orientalism. Dramatizing history is not easy. The secret is to come into it with no assumptions in mind and truly explore your characters’ origins, intentions and truths.

Adam Ashraf is a contributing writer. Email him at [email protected]

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