Middle of What?
by Torange Yezghiazarian
The first thing people ask when you mention starting a new theatre company, or any organization for that matter, is "what's your mission?" Depending on who you talk to about Mission Statements, they'll tell you it's either the most stupid thing they ever had to do or the most important. I belong to the latter group. I think stating a clear and truthful mission for a company early on can in the long run save a lot of headaches and prevent future misunderstandings.
We founded Golden Thread Productions to produce works that draw attention to the Middle East, either by virtue of their theme or the writerâs ethnic background. It wasnât so much that we were looking for a niche but that no one was telling the stories we wanted to tell. At the time, we had no idea how complex articulating this simple idea would turn out to be. Certain things were clear to us from the start; for example we knew you didnât have to be from the Middle East to be part of Golden Thread. You just had to care about the Middle East. This is critical as many ãMiddle Easternersä no longer reside in the Middle East and many non-Middle Easterners deeply care about issues concerning the region and its culture. Although we are based in San Francisco, we expected the works to come from all over the world. Also, it was important to us to make it clear from the start that we donât claim to represent the Middle East in its vastness and complexity but that we are curious to learn more, to explore. After limited head-banging and some friendly back and forth we came up with the following Mission Statement which we felt accurately communicates our vision: Golden Thread Productions is a dynamic ensemble in the San Francisco Bay Area dedicated to the production of theatrical works exploring the Middle Eastern culture and identity as represented throughout the globe.
In all of our discussions, we took it for granted that there is general agreement among us and the public at large about what is meant by Middle East. But as it turned out defining the Middle East proved to be more difficult than writing the companyâs mission statement.Ê A few people who first read the statement asked if we were an Arab group. I said no. Isreali? No. Well, where are you from? They would ask me. I was born in Iran, I would say. Are you Moslem, Christian, or Jewish? Two out of three. I am half Moslem, half Christian. Does that help? It didn't. Politically speaking, the American public mostly associates the Middle East with Persian Gulf and the Arab-Israel conflict. This association not only limits the geographic boundaries of the region but also accentuates the very same stereotypes that our company brings under question. On the other end of the spectrum, we didnât necessarily want people to expect belly dancers and humus-spreading turban wearers either. Of course, most of us in Golden Thread love belly dancing and Middle Eastern food and the music. But as we sat around the table munching on pistachio nuts and snapping our fingers to the rhythm of Cheb Khaled wondering what really sets us apart we became deeply aware of the resistance we all felt to boxing ourselves in some easily digestible media bit.
Yet, the commonly held misperceptions underlined the need for a clear definition, not only for the audience but also the artists whose works we seek to represent. The first year we organized Golden Threadâs festival of short plays we had two plays about Algeria. There was a wave of questioning by Algerian intellectuals who did not identify themselves as Middle Easterners. Is Algeria part of the Middle East? Not if you define East as Asia because Algeria is in Africa. But its population is predominantly Moslem and Arabic speaking. Should we consider all Moslem and Arabic-speaking nations as Middle Eastern? What about Iran and Turkey that are not Arabic-speaking nations? And what about the predominantly Moslem nations in Europe (Albania) and SouthEast Asia (Malasia)? Do we define Middle East based on geography, religion, language, or what?
A couple of years ago Nawal El Saadawi, the prominent Egyptian writer and feminist, gave a talk at the Mission Cultural Center in support of lifting the embargo on Iraq and she commented on this very dilemma. She said when people refer to her as Middle Eastern she asks ãMiddle of What?ä ÊShe said öand I paraphrase- Egypt is on the Eastern Coast of Africa but West of the Arabian Peninsula. So where exactly is the East that Egypt falls in the Middle of? Relative to Egypt, England, the nation credited with coining the terms Near, Middle and Far East, would be Middle West (actually North-West, strictly speaking) and the Americaâs, Far West. Should we refer to these regions as such? In fact, Morocco is farther West than England but I donât think anyone ever thinks of England when referring to The East.
Obviously geography was not going to help us define the Middle East. Neither were religion nor language since there are multitudes of both in the nations we considered to comprise the Middle East. What did that leave us with? It was actually Larry Eilenberg, my professor at SFSU and the current Artistic Director of Magic Theatre, who suggested the liberating opening we currently use to explain our vision of the Middle East· In our vast imagination, the Middle East is not defined by geographic boundaries and political separations, but as the shared experience of the people who throughout history have been touched by its tastes, melodies and aromas. The Middle East lives inside us, as we redefine ourselves, we redefine the Middle East.
The answer was there all along. It is not about how other people define the Middle East but what we mean when we refer to it. Ultimately, making theatre is about bringing us together not defining us apart. It is this delicate balance of separation and coming together that like breathing infuses theatre with life.