The Selected Works of Yussef El Guindi

Introduction

Michael Malek Najjar

Yussef El Guindi is arguably the most prolific and successful Muslim Arab American playwright working in the United States today. Over the past twenty years he has forged a career that attempts to address the condition of being an Arab/Muslim immigrant struggling for survival in the United States. All of this was accomplished during a precipitous rise in Islamophobia, Arabophobia, xenophobia, and anti-Muslim hate crimes. With so many hostile conditions facing a playwright like El Guindi, it is extraordinary that he has not only continued writing plays for the theater, but that these plays have been widely produced and published in the United States and abroad. This dichotomy between a nation that embraces and encourages immigrants and their contributions, yet continues to fear and reject those same immigrants, creates the dramatic tension in his work.

Formative Years

El Guindi was born the youngest of four siblings in the Giza district of Cairo, Egypt to a family with a history in the literary and performing arts. His grandfather was the master Egyptian theater director Zaki Tolaymat, and his grandmother was famed actress, journalist, and publisher Rose El Youssef (who founded the famous Egyptian magazine named after her). His uncle, Ihsan Abdel Quddous, was a noted Egyptian writer, novelist, and journalist; his father, Ahmed El Guindi, was a film producer for a time in Egypt during the golden age of Egyptian cinema in the 1950s. Yussef El Guindi recalls that, at the age of ten, he attended a play staged by his grandfather in front of the Great Pyramids of Giza, which told the history of Egypt, replete with live horses galloping across the stage and projected shadows on the pyramids themselves.1

Like the great Egyptian playwright and novelist Tawfiq al-Hakim before him, El Guindi spent his formative years abroad. He moved to London when he was four and remained there until he was seventeen. In his adolescence, he saw many great productions in London including Pinter's No Man's Land, Peter Hall's staging of Jonson's Volpone, and the world premiere of Peter Shaffer's Equus. He then spent a year in Paris where he transferred from an English boarding school to the American College of Paris. He later returned to Cairo for his undergraduate degree in English and Comparative Literature at The American University in Cairo.

Although he had no intention of pursuing an MFA in Playwriting, he applied to graduate programs in acting and, as a back-up plan, he applied to the playwriting program at Carnegie Mellon University. Fortunately, he was accepted to the latter. His studies at CMU, along with his experiences acting on stage, helped him understand the art and craft of playwriting on a deeper level. Reflecting on that period he says, "Characters so often come to me as personas and voices. My experience as an actor helps me anchor those sometimes spectral voices in flesh and movement. My acting experience makes character-making a bespoke thing, so to speak, tailor made for a physical person on stage."2 After graduating with his MFA in Playwriting, he worked in San Francisco as a reader at Magic Theatre and a dramaturg at The Eureka Theatre Company. Later, he was a Playwright-in-Residence at Duke University. Despite his enthusiasm for teaching and assisting students in finding their own voices as playwrights, he ultimately found that his concentration on pedagogy led to a split focus that was detrimental to him as a writer. Although that teaching experience was ultimately helpful to him as an exploration into the craft of playwriting, it did not assist him in finding his authorial voice. After working for a time as a literary manager at Golden Thread Productions in San Francisco, El Guindi moved to Seattle where he pursued poetry, acting, and filmmaking before committing to a full-time playwriting career. Considering this personal, educational, and dramaturgical trajectory, it appears that all of these events in El Guindi's life groomed him for a career as a playwright.

: 1 Yussef El Guindi, interview by author, Seattle, WA, August 9, 2017.
: 2 Ibid.

Becoming an American Playwright

At the time of this publication, El Guindi has written fifteen full-length plays and his work has been produced at major regional theaters across the country winning numerous awards. His plays are published as individual playscripts, in anthologies, and in other collections. It is this prodigious output of dramatic material—this creation of a theatrical oeuvre—that has defined him as one of the most important playwrights of his generation. His playwriting has been championed by two of the most important Middle Eastern American theater companies in the United States—Golden Thread Productions and Silk Road Rising. His work has also been widely produced by many other non-Middle Eastern American focused companies as well including The Wilma Theater (Philadelphia), ACT: A Contemporary Theatre (Seattle), The Flea Theater (New York), Portland Center Stage, and Artists Repertory Theatre (Portland).

When asked to define himself as a playwright, El Guindi says that he finds himself on the fringes of both Arab and American cultures.3 He has been identified as a Middle Eastern American playwright, an Arab American playwright, and a Muslim American playwright. El Guindi sees this taxonomy as a tendency by those who wish to identify the origin of immigrants, and there are contradictory impulses at play—a tension between forgetting where one comes from in order to become an American, and yet constantly being questioned whence one came.

A lot of my plays explore that tension: The impulse of the immigrants who want to reinvent themselves and assimilate. But then finding the baggage they brought with them from the "Old-World" cannot be so easily discarded. Either because fingers are pointed at them that make them feel very self-conscious of their "Old-World" links, or because they can't let go.4

Therefore, if immigrants could free themselves from a hyphenate identity, many outside of their cultural group would insist on coupling them with their race and religion, even as that same culture promotes assimilation. El Guindi defines himself in this way:

What is unique is I belong to a small number of playwrights who are creating plays that have Arabs and Muslims as their central characters. Not bit players assisting the central journey of some Anglo character, but three-dimensional occupiers of center stage who struggle to find their own voice and moral agency. I am also creating plays from a hyper-aware immigrant perspective, and doing it from a uniquely Arab and Muslim perspective. And doing it, hopefully, not as a "native informant," but as a creative independent trying to find value in his own voice.5

Although there have been other playwrights who focus on Arabs and Muslims as central characters, few have created such a capacious body of work. Arab American actors relish playing El Guindi's characters because his plays often refute the stereotypical or archetypal Arab and Muslim characters that are so much a part of popular film, television, and theater.6 Also, what makes El Guindi's work distinct is the focus on several specific groups: Arabs, Muslims, immigrants, and those who are singled out for governmental surveillance and persecution.

: 3 Yussef El Guindi, interview by author, 2017.
: 4 Yussef El Guindi, interview by author, 2013.
: 5 Yussef El Guindi, interview by author, 2017.
: 6 Michael Malek Najjar, "Acting Arab/Arab Acting: Reclaiming the Arab American Identity Through Aesthetic Choices." In Arab-American Aesthetics, ed. Therí A. Pickens (London: Routledge, 2018), x.

The Immigrant and Citizen

Perhaps the event that most crystallized El Guindi's life and work was becoming a US citizen in 1996. Looking back on his own immigration and naturalization ceremony, he recalls, "That event, strangely, concentrated the mind wonderfully. It gave me a subject matter. Or rather, it brought together a bunch of amorphous elements and subterranean emotions that were in effect, but to which I just couldn't give a name to, or find a coherent story for. And that story was the simple one of the immigrant journey."7 These immigrants face overwhelming difficulties in their desire to achieve the ever-elusive "American Dream." In discussing his play The Talented Ones, he said:

in spite of the anti-immigrant flare-ups that periodically course through this country, the key ingredient in the U.S. is its self-renewal through the continuous blood transfusion of new immigrants […] The naturalization ceremony is actually very moving and effective in initiating newcomers. In its ritual, in the oath you take, it basically says/promises that regardless of your origins you are all now part of a new family. And the fact that you were foreign born does not make you any less American than the native born.8

El Guindi's faith and optimism in this American ideal is evident in the lives of his immigrant characters who believe in the promise of America even when America turns that promise into a nightmare. In other words, the immigrants in El Guindi's plays are often divided between their allegiance to their ethnic, and adopted, homelands. This inner schism leads to much of the internal drama in his plays because it is a paradox experienced by many transnational migrants who reject the notion that to become American one must completely abandon all ties with their nation of origin. For El Guindi's characters, the intimate connection with homeland both sustains and depletes the characters simultaneously.

: 7 "Interview with Playwright Yussef El Guindi," wilmatheater.org, February 9, 2010, https://www.wilmatheater.org/blog/interview-playwright-yussef-el-guindi
: 8 "Meet the Playwright: Yussef El Guindi," artistsrep.org, April 14, 2017, https://www.artistsrep.org/explore/news-center/articles/meet-the-playwright-yussef-el-guindi/

El Guindi and the Transnational Condition

The immigrants in these plays, like the playwright himself, are examples of "transnational belonging," a condition whereby some migrants and their descendants are strongly influenced by their ties to their home countries or by the social networks that transcend national borders.9 Transnationals must exist in a state of "simultaneity," or living lives that can incorporate the daily activities, routines, and institutions located in both home and adopted countries.10 El Guindi's immigrant characters embody this liminal state whether they are first or second generation. In these plays we see protagonists wrestling with the fact that they were raised in another culture and they have imbibed and embodied the traditions, religion, and ideas of that culture. When they become American citizens, they are constantly expected to reject their traditions, religion, and ideology to embrace the American ethos. Furthermore, the lens by which America views their culture and religion is distorted by the political machinations that have shaped US–Arab–Muslim relations for the past century. With the heightened anti-Muslim rhetoric espoused by some American politicians who repeatedly associate Islam with terrorism, it is little wonder that anti-Muslim anti-Semitism is embraced by some Americans. It is from this historical, social, and cultural background that El Guindi creates his plays dealing with the Muslim American experience in the United States.

: 9 Peggy Levitt and Nina Glick Schiller, "Conceptualizing Simultaneity: A Transnational Social Field Perspective on Society 1," International Migration Review 38, no. 3 (2004): 1002.
: 10 Ibid., 1003.

Back of the Throat: Getting to the Root Causes

El Guindi calls Back of the Throat "a paranoid thought game"11 born of the insecurity he felt as an Arab/Muslim American in the months following the 9/11 attacks. In his introduction to the play he writes that he found himself fearing a knock on the door by government agents.12 This fear was born of reports of Middle Easterners facing enhanced airport screenings, forced removal from airplanes, extraordinary renditions, indefinite detentions, and other harrowing government policies that gripped an already vulnerable community. For El Guindi, the difficulty lay in creating an empathetic protagonist while refusing to dehumanize the non-Arab/Muslim characters (the agents). As an admirer of the works of the great British playwright George Bernard Shaw, El Guindi wanted to give all of the characters strong arguments that justified their actions, no matter how cruel they were. By creating such nuanced characters, some audience members actually believed that Khaled was guilty (El Guindi is clear that Khaled is innocent). In her analysis of the play, Arab American scholar Carol Fadda-Conrey writes that, despite Khaled's innocence, the branding of him as a terrorist by the agents in the play leads him to embody the role regardless of his innocence or guilt.13 El Guindi's subversive tactic of not creating a definite conclusion to the play is one that challenges American audiences to reconsider their tacit acceptance of the surveillance regime implemented in the years following 9/11. Rather than allowing the racialization of Muslims, plays like Back of the Throat subvert the hegemonic narrative that states, "You are either with us, or with the terrorists." Although this "either-or disjunction"14 may have been meant to create a clear moral imperative, the subsequent actions of the US administration both domestically and internationally created a moral ambiguity as to whom one referred to as either "us" or "the terrorists."

Stuart Carden, who directed the 2006 Silk Road Rising production, wrote, "I think that what [El Guindi] does so remarkably is that he opens up areas for deeper questioning […] He asks us to probe a little more deeply into the balance between fear and freedom and truly ask ourselves what we are willing to sacrifice to feel safe?" He also found El Guindi's sense of humor a necessary counterbalance to the challenging subject matter in the play. What most attracted him to the play as a director, however, was the exploration of a contemporary political subject:

I often feel impotent as a theater artist to actually address and explore contemporary political issues. Plays seem to be two, three years behind the current political landscape typically […] and to be able to take on a play that is this plugged into the very important dialogue of our day—this question of freedom and fear—is one of the things I am so grateful for.15

Back of the Throat was Yussef El Guindi's breakout play because it explored a topic that was deeply resonant in post-9/11 America, and it did so with a powerful combination of dramatic story-telling, biting humor, and a deeply personal exploration of the precarious state of being an Arab/Muslim American in a time of heightened surveillance and fear.

: 11 Yussef El Guindi, "Author's Introduction," TheatreForum 29 (Summer/Fall 2006): 26.
: 12 Ibid.
: 13 Carol Fadda-Conrey, Contemporary Arab-American Literature: Transnational Reconfigurations of Citizenship and Belonging (New York: New York Univ. Press, 2014), 170.
: 14 Paul Keeling, "The Bush Disjunction," Philosophy Now, 52 (August/September 2005), https://philosophynow.org/issues/52/The_Bush_Disjunction
: 15 Jenn Q. Goddu, "A Play That Asks Tough Questions: Throat Finds Wisdom Through Humor," Chicago Tribune, April 7, 2006, http://www.silkroadrising.org/news/a-play-that-asks-tough-questions-throat-finds-wisdom-through-humor

Language Rooms: The Catastrophe of Nonsense

Language Rooms resumes where Back of the Throat ends, only this time Arab/Muslim Americans have been integrated into a US foreign black site as interrogators working for a director who suspects the protagonist, Ahmed, of disloyalty. Here the Arab/Muslim agents Ahmed and Nasser are purposefully set against one another in a battle for patriotism, belonging, and fealty. Unlike Khaled in the play Back of the Throat, who was the outsider suspected by insiders, El Guindi creates a scenario in which the outsiders are brought inside because they have the requisite linguistic, cultural, and communal skills to interrogate those who are deemed dangerous to the state. To further complicate issues, Kevin, their superior, is an African American who himself was co-opted by the government to infiltrate black militant groups in order to "plant information that led to their collapse."16 By placing non-normative bodies on stage, each vying for greater power and position, El Guindi has created a dystopian reflection of the vast network of black site/secret prisons established by the Central Intelligence Agency after 9/11 with the aim of confidentially detaining those deemed terrorists and subjecting them to indefinite detention and so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques."17

Like Khaled before him, Ahmed's behavior leaves a trail of suspicion causing those around him to question his intentions including his inhibition about nudity and showering with others, his lack of participation with other colleagues, and his own father's past. Unlike Nasser, "the designated Muslim,"18 Ahmed is suspect due to his questionable loyalty. Kevin asks him, "How do we become who we are, our loyalties, our bonds, to family, and country? How do you break that and build it up again?"19 Like most Arabs and Muslims, Ahmed has relatives in the Middle East, leaving him with divided loyalties between his duties to the United States and his feelings for those living abroad. Ahmed's father (a former engineer in Egypt now relegated to life as a convenience store owner) has become a terrorist suspect in the minds of Ahmed's superiors. Ahmed believes that, when one becomes a citizen, it is an instant conversion whereby citizens inherit everything and are never sorry for being foreign-born. Nasser disabuses Ahmed of that notion when he tells him "We are who we translate to them. We can't put on the disguise of the enemy as a tactic because we're already wearing it. The language itself puts us in enemy territory."20 In the so-called "War on Terror," one's ethnic authenticity is subservient to one's patriotic duty.

The ultimate test comes when Ahmed interrogates his own father, Samir. Here the true nature of Ahmed's self-hatred is apparent, as he deals with the abjection he has always felt as an Arab and a Muslim living in the United States. Samir's guilt by association with the unseen Imam Sheikh Al-Rawi stands directly in the way of Ahmed's goal of keeping his country safe. Ahmed is consumed by the shame of his father's career, religion, and extra-marital affair. Kevin, however, is more interested in Ahmed's loyalty to what he calls "family."

Kevin In America, son: you leave family—to find family. That's how it works. We're not tribal. We don't do blood feuds. We've evolved. You want to do family, join the Mafia. You're part of something bigger here. Which is to say, I do consider you like a son. You've found family right here.21

The only answer for Ahmed is to don a scuba looking suit and enter a chamber where he will remain in a spectral state of isolation. Kevin tells Ahmed to ask himself, "Do I know what I mean when I say: 'I belong' … When we've all now gathered to be a part of something new. And now that I've arrived, why does that set off such a war, in here? (touching his chest)." 22 All that remains for Ahmed is a state of permanent oblivion where he can no longer be of danger, or consequence, to the world around him.

Director Blanka Zizka, who directed the world premiere of the play for The Wilma Theater, says that she was attracted to the play because it is a story about outsiders, because of El Guindi's "precise, concrete, and muscular language," and the play's dark comic humor. As an immigrant herself from the former Czechoslovakia, Zizka says the play is about how Arabs in American deal with suspicion in the post-9/11 world. She asks, "How do you have to prove that you belong? And what do you have to do if you dislike some of the actions here that the U.S. government is taking, and how do you voice that without becoming immediately, you know, crossing the line, becoming the other? And wondering what is happening to that American dream that I have experienced."23 Through its use of comedy, wit, and Kafkaesque theatricality, Language Rooms provides a dramatization of the anxiety experienced by Muslim Americans in the post-9/11 world.

: 16 El Guindi, Language Rooms, 159.
: 17 Jane Mayer, "The Black Sites: A Rare Look Into the C.I.A.'s Secret Interrogation Program," The New Yorker, August 13, 2007, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/08/13/the-black-sites
: 18 El Guindi, Language Rooms, 140.
: 19 Ibid., 146.
: 20 Ibid., 157.
: 21 Ibid., 178.
: 22 Ibid., 178.
: 23 Walter Bilderback, "Director Blanka Zizka discusses LANGUAGE ROOMS." YouTube video. Posted by atiwilma, February 8, 2010. https://youtu.be/9lL5TBMp1D0

Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat: To Humanize, Warts and All

With Our Enemies, El Guindi turned his lens inward examining the intra-Muslim conflicts that face writers, imams, and second-generation Arab Americans. By creating the Noor-Gamal-Mohsen triangle, he pits the successful Arab/Muslim writer (Mohsen) against the struggling writer Gamal and his up-and-coming novelist girlfriend Noor. Each of these characters has contended with the notion of "selling out" in their own way: for Mohsen it means giving his audiences what they desire, for Noor it is the crisis of providing an Orientalized female fantasy at the expense of her own truth, while for Gamal it comes down to attacking the entire publishing industry. El Guindi counterbalances this primary plot with the Hani-Sheikh Alfani subplot that explores the delicate balance Muslim imams face preaching traditional Islamic values to their congregations while simultaneously dealing with younger, more liberal Muslims less willing to accept the fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran. Hani's desire to discover his ancestral homeland, Egypt, dramatizes the urge felt by some Arab Americans who seek to reconnect with their cultural roots despite the ongoing demonization of all things Arab and Muslim in America.

Noor, the independent and strong Arab protagonist, concludes that she needs neither of the men in her life and goes on to publish a book that fulfills her readers' desires, yet puts her in what Gamal calls "a literary burqa."24 Arab and Muslim female writers have, in many ways, borne the brunt of this criticism because they are trapped in what Arab American scholar Amira Jarmakani calls "heteromasculinist fantasies about owning and possessing women."25 Jarmakani writes that Arab women in American popular culture are represented either as romanticized and erotic belly dancers and harem girls, or as silent victims dominated by Arab patriarchy portrayed as veiled or harem slaves.26 Therefore, Noor has entered a literary field that will not accept her as a strong, independent, free-thinking woman. Instead, she is expected to fulfill the expectations of both the societal and literary patriarchy she so desperately wishes to escape.

The men in the play are also victims of an ethno-patriarchal paradigm. On the one hand, they are expected to be "The Good Muslim, the Good Arab,"27 yet they are instantly marked by their Arab/Muslim-ness, which manifests itself in their accent, their religious ties to Islam, and the Islamophobic society in which they live. Mohsen decides to play the game by writing commercially lucrative books that reify the Orientalist stereotypes of the backward, violent, and fanatic Muslim. Gamal, who calls himself "the new Arab Zorro,"28 rages futilely against both those who would denigrate his cultural heritage, and those Arab/Muslims he deems have sold out their own people. Hani, the son of the Muslim Imam Sheikh Alfani, attempts to reconnect with his culture and his religion with his pilgrimage to the homeland only to return to find that someone has burned down his father's mosque, leading him to wrongfully suspect a fellow Muslim, attacking him in the process. All three men are doomed to fail in the view of both their adopted culture (America) and their traditional culture (Islam). This dystopian ending is one that El Guindi attempts to address in this play:

Unfortunately, perceptions aren't easily altered. There are certain dominant narratives that run through any culture, and the narratives that play out in the West about Arabs and Muslims are very negative. These dominant narratives dictate how culture is produced and consumed. It becomes a challenge to introduce more nuanced and layered narratives about Arabs and Muslims into a culture that still continues to flatten out whole peoples into stereotypes. Arab Americans, and Muslim Americans, face an uphill battle simply because of the staying power of these negative narratives.29

Our Enemies was produced and directed by Torange Yeghiazarian, Artistic Director of Golden Thread Productions, in 2016. In her analysis of the play, Yeghiazarian wrote:

Yussef examines the state of otherness particular to Arab American men during the era of War of Terror. From self-loathing to dual loyalties to insidious questioning of belonging, Yussef encumbers his characters with so much doubt and social pressure that explosions—figuratively speaking—are unavoidable. Our Enemies […] tackles not only stereotypes imposed upon the Arab American community by outsiders, but also internal struggles over who gets to represent the community.30

Our Enemies represents the attempt to address the internecine conflict that has pulled apart Arab/Muslim communities since 9/11. The anxieties presented in the play have only heightened, and the Muslim American community still faces great tensions between those Americans who view Muslims as part of the diverse fabric of American society, and those who see Islam as an existential threat to the nation.

: 24 El Guindi, Our Enemies, 135.
: 25 Amira Jarmakani, Imagining Arab Womanhood: the Cultural Mythology of Veils, Harems, and Belly Dancers in the U.S. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 2.
: 26 Ibid, 4.
: 27 El Guindi, Our Enemies, 129.
: 28 Ibid, 86.
: 29 Yussef El Guindi, interview by author, Seattle, WA, August 24, 2013.
: 30 Torange Yeghiazarian, e-mail message to author, August 22, 2017.

Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World: A Gathering of Strangers

Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World represents an interesting break in El Guindi's oeuvre—the move into romantic comedy territory. This odd coupling of an Egyptian Muslim taxi driver and an all-American Caucasian waitress working in a diner provides a comically dramatic setting for the play. The play explores the complicated nature of the transatlantic migrant having to balance commitments to their home culture, religion, and family in a new world where such matters are not as necessary or desired. El Guindi explains,

The central theme in Pilgrims is that we're all wayfarers of one kind or another. That regardless of whether you're native born or you just got here, there's a feeling that we've all just arrived and are setting off on this journey to realize something, ourselves, to make a life. The fundamental rootlessness of this country makes seekers out of all of us.31

The notion of pilgrimage is central to the play, both for the titular characters and the others who share their lives. Abdallah (whose name literally means "servant of God") is on the holy Islamic pilgrimage known as hajj; Gamila (whose name means "beautiful one") is on a pilgrimage from her life as a young, unmarried woman to an arranged marriage with an immigrant from the old country; and Tayyib (whose name means "kind hearted") is on his pilgrimage to find his own American dream as an immigrant. As for Musa (Arabic for Moses) and Sheri, El Guindi calls them lone pilgrims who find resolution in connection with other searchers.

at their core, pilgrimages are also about connecting with strangers, fellow travelers with whom you can share your individual journey; about understanding, finally, the collective nature of that journey, that you are not alone, and finding comfort in that. Which is the real heart of the play, and of any spiritual pilgrimage, it seems. To connect with a higher being, yes, but as the character of Abdallah says in the play, the true holy sites are found in those places and moments where we make the effort to open ourselves up to another person in order to try and understand where that person is coming from.32

Anita Montgomery, who directed the world premiere of the play for ACT in Seattle, says the play is one that approaches the subject of the immigrant experience with humor and humility.

Pilgrims is a beautifully inclusive, deeply generous and American story. It speaks to the heart of a distinctly American ideal, the ideal upon which our nation was founded: the notion of a place where you can "live free" and as you wish to live, regardless of your ethnicity, color or creed. It's an ideal that's taken a beating and has some serious double standards and flaws in translation, but the ideal lives and is still worthy.33

Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World provides American theater audiences with a complex mosaic of Muslim experience, whether it is the diversity of Muslim backgrounds (Egyptian, Sudanese, Somali, American-born), the complexity of Muslim lives (from conservative to progressive), or customs and traditions (performing hajj and arranged marriages). El Guindi's play refuses to allow audiences to rely on preconceived notions of Muslims; rather he opts to complicate the notions we have about Muslims living in America. The play's ending, which includes two couples embarking on new pilgrimages, provides the backdrop for Abdallah's closing line, "This gathering of strangers. So rich … For that alone … for this gathering alone, I give thanks."34

: 31 Torange Yeghiazarian, "Sharing the Journey: An Interview with the Playwright," American Theatre, September 2012, 64–65.
: 32 Ibid.
: 33 Anita Montgomery, "Note From the Director," ACT Theatre Program, A–5, 2011.
: 34 El Guindi, Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World, 254.

Threesome: The Woman's Point of View

El Guindi's play Threesome is, perhaps, his funniest, boldest, and most controversial play yet. The very title, replete with sexual innuendo, along with the necessity of full-frontal nudity by all three characters, creates a scintillating mise-en-scène that slyly camouflages the fact that this play is actually about the 2011 Egyptian revolution, Western neo-imperialism, and a scathing critique of Orientalism in the American publishing establishment. By creating a trio of characters who are, externally, interested only in their sexual appetites, the play gradually transforms from a hilarious bedroom farce to a powerful drama about sexual trauma inflicted by dictatorships, American adventurism in the Middle East, and the shameless nature of a publishing industry that prizes salacious content over truth.

The opening bedroom scene introduces us to Leila and Rashid, who are struggling to repair their relationship after Leila's belief that Rashid had an affair. Leila's solution—to invite photographer Doug to their home for a threesome—opens the door for verbal and physical comedy. The underlying horror that pervades the story—Leila's rape by police during the Tahrir Square uprising—is one that is gradually discovered in the second act. The contrast of the contemporary American bedroom in Act One with the Orientalist photo studio in Act Two gives the play a fascinating counterbalance that immediately reminds audiences that this is a political drama and not a camp comedy. Leila's publisher, who wants her dressed in an abaya and reclining on a bed befitting Ingres' Grande Odalisque, demonstrates that she is unable to escape the rampant Orientalism that pervades Western conceptions of Arab femininity. She tells Doug:

Leila One of the things my book is an argument against, Doug, if you'd bothered to read it, is how the West, in its own little way contributes to things sucking for Muslim women by making them seem so very helpless every time they're depicted. One of which is shoving them into these things (i.e. the abaya). Which turns them into these weak, oppressed creatures who have to be rescued by the oh-so-enlightened Western man who sweeps in and rescues them. I don't want to contribute to that35.

What Doug wants is the illusion of the Arab/Muslim woman that will attract readers to her book. Doug's loathsome confession—relishing in the fantasy of sex with a destitute Arab mother while working as an embedded photographer during The Second Persian Gulf War—further explicates the neo-Orientalism that Edward W. Said believed was part of the American involvement during the Iraq War.36 Like Noor in Our Enemies, Leila refuses this male possession outright, leaving both Doug and Rashid to contend with their own inability to see her as an independent woman.

Leila's rejection of Rashid's cowardice and Doug's admonition pits her as one of El Guindi's strongest female protagonists yet. Some have criticized El Guindi's portrayal of females as overly sexualized and lacking agency. El Guindi retorts that he has repeatedly featured females in lead roles in his plays including The Talented Ones, Threesome, Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat, and his one-woman show Collaborator. He believes that the theme of female empowerment is central to Threesome:

I come from a family of very strong women. While there is of course a strong paternal/ patriarchal paradigm in place in a lot of areas around the world, including Egypt, I think it's a Western Orientalist tic to want to perceive Middle Eastern women as passive individuals waiting to be rescued by Western enlightenment. A lot of women from that region would beg to differ. The situation is much more complicated and nuanced on the ground.37

For El Guindi, Threesome is a play about a woman trying to reclaim her sexuality and her body after a violent sexual assault. He also wanted to find the parallel between the physical and emotional violence Egyptian and American women experience in different contexts. Chris Coleman, who directed the 2015 world premiere of Threesome for Portland Center Stage, stated that "I think what it's really about is—how can we reclaim our body, how can we reclaim our identity and our sense of ownership?" The production, which was both outrageously hilarious and deeply moving, successfully captured the duality of El Guindi's vision.38 In Coleman's conception of the play, it was the combination of the play's complexity and the humor that made the production compelling for his audience.39

: 35 El Guindi, Threesome, 294.
: 36 See Edward W. Said, "Preface to the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition." In Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 2003), xv–xxx.
: 37 Claudie Fisher, "Playwright Yussef El Guindi on 'Threesome'," pcs. org, January 15, 2015, https://www.pcs.org/blog/item/el-guindi-on-threesome/
: 38 Michael Malek Najjar, "Threesome by Yussef El Guindi (review)," Theatre Journal 67, no. 3 (October 2015): 554–556.
: 39 "Chris Coleman on Threesome." YouTube video. Posted by Portland Center Stage At The Armory, December 10, 2014. https://youtu.be/_rbIi6xbFP4

Three Dimensional Occupiers of Center Stage

Through this impressive body of work, Yussef El Guindi has explored the Arab/Muslim immigrant experience in the United States with humor, complexity, and candor. He says, "To write plays about my personal immigrant experience is, I feel, to write a quintessentially American play. I give it the attention I do because I feel I am also writing about this country when I do write about my own immigrant journey. This is where the personal becomes political in a very concrete way for me."40 This personalized perspective means El Guindi writes specific and individualized American characters with foreign attachments, yet by associating himself with the Arab/Muslim moniker he is still further marginalized by the American theater establishment. This frustrating duality is one faced by many playwrights who have a specific immigrant voice attempting to break through to the literary, theatrical, or academic establishment.

Given who I am, my political concerns, there's a good chance those characters will be Arabs and Muslims and their journeys will involve conflicts that highlight their racial, religious and gender identities. Race and gender are things that rattle around in my plays. And that's because those identity markers have burrowed under my skin and affected me in a profound way.41

One of the most unfortunate aspects about the commercialization of the American theater is that plays about race and gender are not always compatible with theaters whose main purpose is to entertain. At this point, El Guindi's plays have not been deemed sensational enough to make him a candidate for certain high-profile awards, mainly because he refutes the stereotypical notions Americans have of Muslims.

Also, you have to consider why theaters anywhere do "ethnic" plays […] in part they do it because that play addresses the (mis) perceptions their audience has of that culture. This is a nuanced discussion that varies depending on which ethnic group you're speaking about. The reasons differ quite markedly from one ethnic group to another. When it comes to Arab/Arab American, Muslim/Muslim American plays, it is a brave theater that stages a play that harangues, or even challenges the audience for the Orientalist stereotypes they came in with. Most of the successful Arab/Arab American, Muslim/Muslim American plays, I've noticed, are plays that fundamentally reinforce the stereotypes, the Orientalism, the audience has of Arabs and Muslims.42

The creation of a ubiquitous surveillance state, especially in the years after 9/11, has fostered a sensation of fear and paranoia in our society stoked by the rise of nativism and xenophobia. Yussef El Guindi confronts this environment with human stories that refute the dominant narratives heard by many in positions of power. Given the current theatrical landscape and the paucity of playwrights writing from a similar cultural perspective, El Guindi has provided a much needed voice previously unheard in the American theater. With the gathering interest in his plays, and the increase of more productions and publications, the hope is that others will continue to find equal value in his voice as well.

: 40 Yussef El Guindi, interview by author, Seattle, WA, August 9, 2017.
: 41 Ibid.
: 42 Ibid.
: 1 Yussef El Guindi, interview by author, Seattle, WA, August 9, 2017.
: 2 Ibid.
: 3 Yussef El Guindi, interview by author, 2017.
: 4 Yussef El Guindi, interview by author, 2013.
: 5 Yussef El Guindi, interview by author, 2017.
: 6 Michael Malek Najjar, "Acting Arab/Arab Acting: Reclaiming the Arab American Identity Through Aesthetic Choices." In Arab-American Aesthetics, ed. Therí A. Pickens (London: Routledge, 2018), x.
: 7 "Interview with Playwright Yussef El Guindi," wilmatheater.org, February 9, 2010, https://www.wilmatheater.org/blog/interview-playwright-yussef-el-guindi
: 8 "Meet the Playwright: Yussef El Guindi," artistsrep.org, April 14, 2017, https://www.artistsrep.org/explore/news-center/articles/meet-the-playwright-yussef-el-guindi/
: 9 Peggy Levitt and Nina Glick Schiller, "Conceptualizing Simultaneity: A Transnational Social Field Perspective on Society 1," International Migration Review 38, no. 3 (2004): 1002.
: 10 Ibid., 1003.
: 11 Yussef El Guindi, "Author's Introduction," TheatreForum 29 (Summer/Fall 2006): 26.
: 12 Ibid.
: 13 Carol Fadda-Conrey, Contemporary Arab-American Literature: Transnational Reconfigurations of Citizenship and Belonging (New York: New York Univ. Press, 2014), 170.
: 14 Paul Keeling, "The Bush Disjunction," Philosophy Now, 52 (August/September 2005), https://philosophynow.org/issues/52/The_Bush_Disjunction
: 15 Jenn Q. Goddu, "A Play That Asks Tough Questions: Throat Finds Wisdom Through Humor," Chicago Tribune, April 7, 2006, http://www.silkroadrising.org/news/a-play-that-asks-tough-questions-throat-finds-wisdom-through-humor
: 16 El Guindi, Language Rooms, 159.
: 17 Jane Mayer, "The Black Sites: A Rare Look Into the C.I.A.'s Secret Interrogation Program," The New Yorker, August 13, 2007, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/08/13/the-black-sites
: 18 El Guindi, Language Rooms, 140.
: 19 Ibid., 146.
: 20 Ibid., 157.
: 21 Ibid., 178.
: 22 Ibid., 178.
: 23 Walter Bilderback, "Director Blanka Zizka discusses LANGUAGE ROOMS." YouTube video. Posted by atiwilma, February 8, 2010. https://youtu.be/9lL5TBMp1D0
: 24 El Guindi, Our Enemies, 135.
: 25 Amira Jarmakani, Imagining Arab Womanhood: the Cultural Mythology of Veils, Harems, and Belly Dancers in the U.S. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 2.
: 26 Ibid, 4.
: 27 El Guindi, Our Enemies, 129.
: 28 Ibid, 86.
: 29 Yussef El Guindi, interview by author, Seattle, WA, August 24, 2013.
: 30 Torange Yeghiazarian, e-mail message to author, August 22, 2017.
: 31 Torange Yeghiazarian, "Sharing the Journey: An Interview with the Playwright," American Theatre, September 2012, 64–65.
: 32 Ibid.
: 33 Anita Montgomery, "Note From the Director," ACT Theatre Program, A–5, 2011.
: 34 El Guindi, Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World, 254.
: 35 El Guindi, Threesome, 294.
: 36 See Edward W. Said, "Preface to the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition." In Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 2003), xv–xxx.
: 37 Claudie Fisher, "Playwright Yussef El Guindi on 'Threesome'," pcs. org, January 15, 2015, https://www.pcs.org/blog/item/el-guindi-on-threesome/
: 38 Michael Malek Najjar, "Threesome by Yussef El Guindi (review)," Theatre Journal 67, no. 3 (October 2015): 554–556.
: 39 "Chris Coleman on Threesome." YouTube video. Posted by Portland Center Stage At The Armory, December 10, 2014. https://youtu.be/_rbIi6xbFP4
: 40 Yussef El Guindi, interview by author, Seattle, WA, August 9, 2017.
: 41 Ibid.
: 42 Ibid.
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