Four Arab American Plays: Works by Leila Buck, Jamil Khoury, Yussef el Guindi, and Lameese Issaq and Jacob Kader ed. by Michael Malek Najjar (review)
- Mashriq & Mahjar: Journal of Middle East and North African Migration Studies
- Moise A. Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies
- Volume 2, Number 2, 2014
- Additional Information
Mashriq & Mahjar 2, no. 2 (2014), 155-158 ISSN 2169-4435© Moise A. Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies 2014 MICHAEL MALEK NAJJAR, editor, Four Arab American Plays: Works by Leila Buck, Jamil Khoury, Yussef el Guindi, and Lameese Issaq and Jacob Kader (Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2013). Pp. 194. $45.00 paper. REVIEWED BY MAYSOUN FREIJ, Center for Evaluation and Applied Research, New York Academy of Medicine, New York, NY; e-mail: email@example.com In Four Arab American Plays, Michael Malek Najjar contends that a cadre of Americans of Arab decent have forged a genre of playwriting that could be characterized as Arab American, and that Arab American plays have recently gained prominence in the United States. His introduction, the four original plays, and the afterward give ample evidence of the characteristics of this genre. Yet, overall, the volume lacks context as to what drew this cohort of aspiring professional playwrights into politicized cultural production, and why they feel that among the biggest barriers they face is lack of support for their work from Arab Americans. In this book review, I hope to add such context by briefly reminding readers of the growth in the aesthetic economy in the U.S. since World War II, as well as the general lack of public investment in the arts. This background in part explains why a group of mostly Generation X’ers were educated and ready to respond to interests in Arabs in America following 9/11, and why support from the Arab American community is perceived to be critical to the production of Arab American theater. In the introduction, Najjar provides a list of overarching characteristics of Arab American theater, including (but not limited to) plays written by Arab Americans in English and/or Arabic, that use a realistic dramaturgy, that are interested in issues of assimilation, acculturation, and isolationism among Arab Americans, and that are deeply personal yet political. In conducting my dissertation on Arab American artists in New York, I similarly found that it was not enough for artists to simply be Arab American to make Arab American art; at some point they had to consciously choose to incorporate this aspect of their identity into their work. In doing so, they believed they were making better art, and that such art was more marketable (whether among Arab Americans or preferably the “mainstream”). This process of positive self-identification often came about despite being surrounded by negative perceptions and stereotypes of Arabs and feeling persecuted through various forms and waves of federal and local surveillance and detention in the U.S. Like Najjar, I found Arab American artists to be engaged in art as a form of “resistance.” 156 Mashriq & Mahjar 2, no. 2 (2014) The boom in Arab American theater that Najjar refers to came after the most recent wave of both persecution (and resistance): 9/11. As an anthropologist doing fieldwork in New York from 2003-2006, I would attest to that surge in interest in Arab culture and identity across all sectors in the arts, including theater. Among the 31 Arab-related theatrical productions that I observed, 17 were plays by Arabs or Arab Americans. This included the full-scale mainstream production of Betty Shamieh’s Roar at Clurman Theater and a reading of her work Again and Against: the Art of Hoping Indefinitely at the Public Theater. The remainder were mainstream productions that may or may not have included Arab American actors, such as Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom at the Culture Project. There was also the revival of western plays that were “Arabized” through characters and settings making them presumably more relevant to contemporary audiences, including Miss Julie by Strindberg at the Cherry Lane Theater and Metamorphosis by Kafka at the Soto Velez Cultural Center. I offer these examples to affirm that there was an appetite for the plays in Najjar’s volume, all but one of which was originally produced after 9/11, thereby giving Arab American playwrights some degree of prominence. The fact that Arab American theater professionals, like the ones included in Najjar’s volume, were ready to showcase personal yet politicized work speaks to characteristics...