Arab American Drama, Film and Performance: A Critical Study, 1908 to the Present
By Michael Malek Najjar
McFarland & Company, Inc., 2015
In 2002, a battered historical marker emerged from the rubble of the World Trade Center: the bulldozed cornerstone of St. Joseph Maronite Church, once the heart of New York’s thriving late 19th and early 20th century “Little Syria.” Washington Street’s diverse residents included members of The Pen League, a group of writers and dramatists – most famously, Mikhail Naimy, Ameen Rihani, and Kahlil Gibran.
In this comprehensive and scholarly, yet engaging study, Michael Malek Najjar, a playwright, director, and professor, follows Arab-American theatre (including stand-up comedy and film) from its beginnings to the wave of contemporary works created in a number of cities in the wake of the destruction of the Twin Towers built on “Little Syria’s” ruins.
Najjar explores the tensions and contradictions that existed in Arab–American drama from the start. He eschews use of the hyphen in this umbrella term that dates from Arab-American activism of the 1960s, except when quoting other writers:
…I believe that the connection between these two words
is more of a gulf than a bridge. Arab Americans live in this
space between these two identities in a state of constant
negotiation. It is from that interstitial space that I believe
these writers and performers create their works.
At the same time, the divided Arab American has to contend with his/her “Otherness” in the prejudiced society in which s/he lives – perhaps a more keenly felt oppositional barrier for the modern Arab-American writer (first, second, or third generation) than for the members of The Pen League. Najjar more than once references Jewish American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler:
…Arab American identity formation was, and remains, a reaction to the post-1967 and post-9/11 derealization of Arab Americans. Derealization is a term deployed by Judith Butler to describe the condition that renders the Other as neither alive nor dead, but “interminably spectral.”
Yet out of these agonies of divided consciousness, danger, demonization, and haunted stereotypes has emerged a continuing tradition of vibrant and innovative performance. Najjar is at his most fascinating when describing and analyzing individual (and collective) works, both past and present. A few of the many highlights include:
• Kahlil Gibran’s 1916 one-act play “The Colored Faces” (aka “The Chameleons”), published in the Arabic language newspaper As-Sayeh (The Traveler). Here, the writer best known for lofty aphorisms excoriates the Syrian/Lebanese Americans of his time as crass, closed-minded, and envious. They condemn the writer “Salim al-Marjani” (a Gibran stand-in) because of his opposition to the Church, his Western ways and associates, and the praise he has received from American newspapers. Miss Warda, who Najjar describes as one of a number of powerful female characters in the history of Arab-American performance, becomes al-Marjani’s only defender. When al-Marjani arrives with a money order for those in the Old Country (whose starvation under the Ottomans is of intense concern to Gibran), the group fawns on him; he leaves quickly. Miss Warda – whom her compatriots have marginalized because of her cultivation and unmarried status – has the last word, skewering the group’s hypocrisy before the stage directions tell her to flee “like someone who is running away from hell.”
• Comedian, comic actor, and philanthropist Danny Thomas’s hallmark nightclub routine “Ode to a Wailing Syrian/Lebanese,” which in 1944 put him on the cover of LIFE Magazine. This enormously popular piece—also performed on radio and television—combines comic punchlines and stage bits (pounding the microphone with a dinner roll, draping a table cloth over his head to represent a keffiyeh/hijab), with remarks in colloquial Arabic, and its centerpiece is a tragic ode composed on the gallows by a man hanged by the Ottomans for singing anti-Ottoman propaganda. Although Thomas’s later work, as Najjar says, was co-opted—erasing or Orientalizing his Arab influences—“Ode to a Wailing Syrian” demonstrates Thomas’s kinship to today’s successful Arab and Muslim stand-up comedians, including Ahmed Ahmed, Maysoon Zayid, and Dean Obeidallah.
• The 2002 staging of Sajjil, a play in multiple voices, by Nibras, with an ensemble that included then-emerging playwrights and performers James Asher, Leila Buck, Maha Chehlaoui, Omar Koury, Omar Metwally, Najla Said, and Afaf Shawwa. “Though in the mode of a documentary drama like ‘The Laramie Project’…the central question of the piece is ‘What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘Arab’?” Najjar notes. “According to [Najla] Said, Arabs who were asked this question responded with words like ‘love,’ ‘food,’ ‘home,’ and ‘family.’ Non-Arabs used words like ‘desert,’ ‘camel,’ ‘terror,’ ‘angry,’ and ‘Muslim.’” Najjar asserts that Nibras—although not the first Arab American theatre ensemble—“was the first post-9/11 theatre ensemble to confront the misrepresentation of Arab Americans.” This central confrontation proves a thread in the work of other contemporary playwrights, performance artists, and filmmakers as diverse as Yusef El Guindi, Betty Shamieh, Jamil Khoury, Ismail Khalidi, Heather Raffo, Kathryn Haddad, Andrea Assaf, Cherian Dabis, Sayed Badreya, and Rola Nashef.
The current flowering of Arab American drama leads Najjar to end his study on a hopeful note: “Arab Americans will no longer play the ‘tiny, marginal, and unimportant role [s]’ Edward W. Said believed they had been assigned to playing for over a century in American culture.” The next century will tell.