A festival samples the complex reality of Muslim female playwrights. Tanning behind closed doors: Afaf Shawwa, left, Tamir and Irma St. Paule in Haya Husseini's Cracking Mud Is Pinching Me, directed by Marcy Arlia.

Views Beyond the Veil

If a small theatre company had staged a festival of plays by and about Muslim women a year or so ago, would this magazine have covered such an event? Maybe, but the sad fact is that Sept. 11 and the subsequent war against terrorism have pricked the collective psyche of America to be curious about the experiences of Muslims it happens, make up 2.2 billion of the global population.

As one of the many Muslims who has experienced embarrassing silences and awkward stares post-9/11, I have realized that being born into the same religion as the "Evil One" outstrips any other minority status of which I had previously been aware. I have been asked, "How can you be Muslim? You don't wear a head scarf". Bill Maher of Politically Incorrect rants regularly to TV audiences about Islam's links to violence and hate. Suddenly, the word "Muslim" has spawned a dictionary of meanings, suppositions and fears.

As for Muslim women: The stereotype of the helpless, veiled victim oppressed by bearded mullahs seems to have launched some feminists on a mission to free their Muslim sisters from the "veil of oppression". For this Muslim woman-who has never worn a veil, but has no problem if someone chooses to do so-the debate raging in liberal circles is, indeed, rich ill double standards and culture baiting. Often the Muslim woman's view on her own experience is missing from the picture.

So when the Sixth New Immigrant Theatre Festival-featuring plays by women from or influenced by Muslim cultures- opened in a small downtown New York space in January, it was a welcome relief to hear the voices of women who had at least some claim over their experience. The buzz of the event, titled Unexpected Journeys, palpably exceeded its humble reality-the plays were shown on a tiny stage at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, seating an audience of only 50. But in the same way that Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul had critics wondering if the playwright had acquired eerie psychic gifts, the festival, mounted by New York's Immigrants' Theatre Project, seemed to plug in perfectly to the zeitgeist.

IN FACT, PREPARATION FOR THE FESTIVAL was underway well before the world changed. Lucinda Kidder, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, had sent out a call for submissions from Muslim women playwrights back in March of 2001. Kidder had lived in Southern India and Beirut and knew that the Muslim world contained a small but vital voice that had been omitted from multicultural theatre. "The ultimate goal was to find a collection of plays that could potentially be produced by American theatres for American audiences," said Kidder. She added, "I was determined to find out how women from these countries expressed themselves in dramatic literature."

Marcy Arlin, artistic director of the Immigrants' Theatre Project, also realized that she had rarely come across plays from this demographic. "I was surprised at how little people knew about the Muslim world," she said. (The festival was co-produced by Bridgit Antoillett Evans and Rana Kazkaz's Kazbah Project.)

Out of 38 submissions from countries like Armenia and Nigeria, with over half in Arabic, Kidder and Arlin selected seven plays: two to stage as full productions, the rest as readings. Interestingly, the plays were not all written by Muslims - Edewede, about female circumcision in Nigeria, for example, was written by Christian playwright Juliana Okoh. And some plays by Muslim playwrights covered subjects that had no explicit Muslim themes, such as Nahed Nayla Naguib's The Boat People, about Southeast Asian refugees. "We wanted to show that there were more subjects tl1an just the veil," said Arlin, who, it just so happened, directed a play that did deal with the subject of the veil.

Written by Haya Husseini, a Jordanian playwright who lives in Australia, Cracking Mud Is Pinching Me follows three generations of Palestinian Jordanian women to a spa on the Dead Sea. The play opens with Maya kneading a ball of sugar wax in preparation for waxing her glamorous mother's legs. Maya wears a headscarf to cover her hair; her mother, clad in a bikini, can't wait to bare her hair-free legs in the open. The scene throws an immediate blow to the concept that Muslim women are homogenous, one-dimensional characters. In contrast to the Western norm of the teenage rebel, the daughter plays the conservative to her Westernized mom. The grandmother, we learn, is the most open-minded of the three. She openly describes a moment from her past, flirting and dancing the tango with her husband-to-be, without fear of judgment or religious condemnation.

IN A LATER SCENE, MAYA CHIDES HER mother for keeping her hair loose. "It's provocative," she says. Her mother responds, "Hair can't be provocative. It's only hair." The exchange is simple, yet manages to encapsulate the core of the veil issue in a humorous and effective way, without the heavy polemic that usually accompanies the debate. We later get a glimpse into Maya's own sense of womanhood as she writes her thoughts on her laptop: "I don't have a body. I don't have hair... I don't have breasts... I don't have shape. They waited to brand me for the cattle market, and I magically - transformed into a wolf." Her veil gives her cunning and stealth, removing her from the "cattle market" of sexuality.

Radical statement: Rana Kazkaz and Christopher Swift in Nora Amin's Bermuda Triangle, directed by Lucinda Kidder.

The freshness of Cracking Mud was sadly absent from the festival's other staged production, The Bermuda Triangle, which Kidder directed. In this work, Nora Amin, an Egyptian playwright, takes on the story of a frustrated woman married to a selfish, domineering husband. In the opening scene, a veiled woman (played by Rana Kazkaz) sweeps the floor while her husband delivers the first words of the play: "Again you haven't cleaned the toilet." Fed up with her spouse, the woman falls into the arms first of her ex-fiance and then of a pimp, whom she meets at a bus stop. A confusing murder ensues, ending with the woman reclaiming her sexuality and power by covering her head with the veil. Amin's drama feels like a daytime soap opera, replete with tall dark strangers and schmaltzy dialogue between the woman and her various suitors: "I want to get rid of the burden in my heart. I wish I could breathe freely again." But I wondered whether, to an audience in Egypt, the play would make a far more radical statement about domestic and sexual relations than, it does to a Western audience. Fatma Durmush's Portrait of a Marriage takes on another domestic topic but adds an absurdist approach. Mrs. Osman a Turkish woman, living in London, arranges her daughter's marriage to Feyzi, the family dog. "Twelve proposals of marriage and endless improper ones," the mother expostulates. "You've refused them all and now you are still a Spinster." The daughter protests: "I am not in love with the family dog".

As strange as the scenario is, Durmush's play makes a subversive statement about Muslim culture's obsession with marriage by any means possible. The play ends with the daughter finding true love with a human, Mr. Feyzi, but only after she has fulfilled her mother's promise of marrying Feyzi the dog. Mrs. Osman gloats at the end of the play, "What blessing, marriage breeds marriage. Mothers know best."

THE MOST POLITICAL PLAY OF THE festival, Torange Yeghiazarian's Abaga, tells a cross-generational story of inter-religious love. The action shifts between Turkey in 1915, during the massacre of Armenian intellectuals, and Jerusalem in 1935, when Jewish migration to Palestine from Russia was underway. Constructed as a simple love story, Abaga gives us a historical insight into the effects of conflict on human relations. Aram is a young Christian-Armenian man who falls in love with Jeyran, a Turkish-Muslim woman. Their love affair is thwarted after Aram is killed while protesting against the Turkish oppression of the Armenians; Jeyran is left with his child and moves to Jerusalem, a place that represents a haven for all faiths. Zarin, the daughter, is the voice of reason among the characters caught up in religious difference. She gives voice to the idea that was, for me, the strongest message that came through in the festival: "From the time I remember, I've been asked, "What are you, Muslim or Christian? Turk or Armenian?" Look at me: I am human. Why is that not enough?"

Shazia Ahmad, a former associate editor of American Theatre, writes for the New York Observer.

Torange Yeghiazarian, Artistic Director
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