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Arab-American Actors Seek to Challenge Misperceptions in Play - 2002-08-26

In New York City, an experimental theater project started by a group of Arab-American actors is exploring Arab-American identities in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The actors began the project before the attack, but its aftermath underscored their efforts to challenge misperceptions and present the diversity of the Arab-American experience. The project resulted in the documentary play Sajjil, that made its debut at a recent theater festival in New York.

Some of the characters portrayed in the play Sajjil are first generation immigrants, who adjust to new foods, new customs and a new language in the United States.

"When I first came to this country, the first time I came in 1963, nobody knew what yogurt is. You see, yogurt in the Arab world, is part of our every day food, and part of our life," says a character in one scene.

Other characters are the children of immigrant parents. Whether they are Arab, Italian, Korean or Iranian Jewish, they talk about attempting to fit in, trying to become American, in their lifestyles, and even their appearance.

"She had nose jobs on me. She plucked my eyebrows at age eight. To this day, it's so painful. I see tweezers, I just start twitching," reads another actor in the play.

The play's title Sajjil, means "Record" in Arabic. It is part of a new trend of documentary theater that explores minority identity. There is no story line. Instead, bits and pieces of interviews introduce a cross-section of U.S. society.

Six actors of Palestinian, Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian or Jordanian descent, recorded scores of interviews with people, and used that material for the play, presenting Arabs as part of the larger immigrant experience in the United States.

Najla Said is a founding member of the theater troupe, called Nibras, the Arabic word for lantern. Ms. Said says, in July 2001, two months before the terrorist attacks, they set out to tell untold stories of Arab-Americans.

"Then 9-11 happened, and it made this project even more urgent," she said. "Because we were just trying to carve a place for ourselves in American cultural history, because it seemed to not be there. And then 9-11 happened, and it sort of lit the fire underneath us. We need to do this project now."

In Act II of the play, an Arab-American police officer, a suspected terrorist and a Muslim community leader, struggle with the attacks and a perception that they are the enemy.

"You see people dying, and family members who lost people, who are suffering. That is something that affects you as a human. At the same time, you had been accused as a Muslim or as an Arab that you have something to do with that. So, you have, it is as if everybody suffers one time, and you suffer two times," the officer says in one scene.

Some of Sajjil's non-Arab characters refer to stereotypes of Arabs, setting them apart from other minorities. In a scene that recreates an actual interview conducted by the actors, two elderly white men in army attire, in a small town ironically called "Palestine" in the southern State of Arkansas, grapple with the questions: are all Arabs Muslim and are all Muslims terrorists?

By presenting a variety of Arab-American characters, actor Omar Metwally says, the play is confronting these misperceptions of Arabs head-on.

"I wanted to challenge those representations, and provide alternatives, and show a richer more complex picture," he said. "And, hopefully, allow people to think about Arabs and Arab-Americans in a different way than maybe they thought of them before."

The Arab-Americans represented in the play range from Muslims to Christians. Some are funny and warm, others are angry and opinionated. They can be political or apolitical, religious or secular, rich, middle class or poor.

The dialogues touch on topical issues, including the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Arab views of Israel. The actors say they wanted to offer a variety of perspectives expressed by real people to the audience.

But Sajjil was also an opportunity for personal exploration. Actor Najla Said is the daughter of controversial Palestinian-American writer and academic, Professor Edward Said, about whom a character in the play is based. Ms. Said says the actors, who have varying connections to the Arab world, united at a time when they felt misunderstood.

"I think most of us in the group really never had quote-unquote 'Arab' friends. And it is one of the things that came out of 9-11, out of that whole period, is that Arab-Americans came together in really strange ways," she said. "Like this. We really felt the need to find people that we relate to. And, for us, it is great, because we are all Arab-Americans, but we are all theater people."

Ms. Said says the troupe wants to create a network of Arab-American artists, by putting on plays by new Arab-American writers and presenting Sajjil to audiences in other cities.

She said Sajjil allowed the actors to celebrate their heritage, and to try to pass on their appreciation of a rich culture to the audience.

Meanwhile, actor Omar Metwally, the son of a Dutch mother and Egyptian father who was raised in suburban California, says he is still trying to figure out what it means to be an Arab-American. But he says he is certain that Arab-Americans, who have lived in the United States for more than a century, are part of a unique tapestry of immigrants that make up the United States.

As he said in one of the play's scene's, "It's, It's us. It's Omar. It's Iman. It's Mike. It's so and so. It's us."