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    Photo by Dixie Sheridan 2002

    Camel lot? Maybe not

    Battling stereotypes of Arabs as camel-riding, bomb-toting, harem-keeping primitives, "Sajjil" entertainingly explores Arab-Americans' rich, diverse culture and compellingly challenges U.S. policies while shying away from some of the toughest issues.


    If "Sajjil" were a college course (not to make it sound dry and academic, because it isn't), it would be called "Intro to Arab-Americans" and it would be a popular first-year survey but only a prerequisite to a more intensive seminar to be taken later.

    Written and performed by: Afaf Shawwa, Najla Said, James Asher, Omar Metawally, Omar Koury, Kathryn Leila Buck.
    Ensemble director: Maha Chehlaoui.
    Theater for the New City
    155 First Ave.
    Fringe Festival 2002, Aug. 9-25, 2002

    Fringe Festival 2002

    • Show listings

    • All American Boy
    • Beat
    • Confessions of an Art School Model
    • Deviant
    • The Joys of Sex
    • Living London
    • Naked Girls Drinking
    • Out to Lunch
    • Portrait of a President
    • Refugees
    • Resa Fantastiskt Mystisk
    • Room to Swing an Axe
    • Sajjil
    • Star
    • Seeing Each Other
    • Up Your Rabbit Hole
    • The Welcoming Committee

    • ASPIC
    • Stalking Christopher Walken
    • Wet Blue and Friends

    Other Fringe Festivals
    • Fringe 2000
    • Fringe 2001
    Created and performed by six actors, "Sajjil" is built around interviews with dozens of Arab-Americans (and others related by region or religion, as well as some average, poorly informed non-Arabs) on the question of "What comes to mind when you hear the word 'Arab'?" While Caucasians stumble on about ay-rab sheiks and camels and harems, the Arab characters talk about their own heritage in evocative tones, recalling everything from food and music to arranged marriages and why Arab men are sexy.

    To this point, the play is sort of a "Sesame Street"-level appreciation of Arabs' culture — getting acquainted, emphasizing the positive, and dispelling misconceptions. Then, twice in the second half of the show, the play ratchets up the intensity level just a notch.

    First, characters start to explore their place in the racial consciousness of America — talking about the discrimination they've experienced, especially since Sept. 11. (One of the most intriguing observations involves isolated Arab kids in New Jersey and California who blend into Japanese and Chicano culture because it gives them an identity that makes sense within their environment.) These people ponder how they can both find their place in America and maintain their distinctive culture — a challenge for any ethnic group arriving here, but complicated in this case by stereotypes that make solid citizens look like potential terrorists to the undiscerning mind.

    Second, and most potently, a letter from an unidentified federal detainee is woven into the dialogue, and it adds much more weight to the entire discussion that goes before it. (The letter was taken from an Internet discussion group and is believed to be from an actual prisoner.) As he describes his conditions:

    Photo by Dixie Sheridan 2002  
    I am allowed one 15 minute call to my family every 30 days. My food is handed to me through a slit in the door 2-1/2" x 12". The same opening is used to put the cuffs on me before the door is opened for any reason. I am allowed 3 showers a week for which I have to be cuffed to walk 10 paces to the shower that has a door similar to my cell's door. I'm only un-cuffed after I'm inside and the door is locked.

    Here is a perfectly real, concrete example of how far the discrimination that starts, as the show points out, with minor misunderstandings on airplanes has very quickly led. The barely defensible imprisonment of innocent Arab immigrants (defensible, that is, only on narrow legal grounds of visa status) should be seen as a shocking betrayal of freedom and human rights, but the broad American public tolerates it because it's happening to someone else. If "Sajjil" carries one strong message, that is it, and it could have been made even more forcefully.

    There are two even more difficult issues that the play fails to grapple with, and it should have. One is a hard question for Muslims themselves: Even granting that Islam is a religion that values peace, it is not just a few crazed extremists in al Qaeda who are responsible for violence — there are large and powerful factions that believe in using terrorism and state repression to battle nonbelievers and crush nonconformity even within the faith. This is true of rebel forces in Algeria, terrorists in Egypt, Israel and Kashmir, the Taliban, and the governments of Iran and some parts of Pakistan. How do peace-loving Muslims account for this strain of Islam and how can the Islamic world itself address this problem?

    For the West, there is an equally difficult question to face: What is the history that has fueled anti-Western opinion in the Middle East? The play touches on this question once, when an actor playing the scholar Edward Said argues that "99.9 percent" of the problem is rooted in the conflict over Israel, and yet there's much more to it. Britain, France and the United States have a long history of influence or outright colonial domination in troubled countries from Algeria to Indonesia, and the uprising of Islamic fundamentalists against Western influence — of which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is just one example — is obviously connected to Western colonialism that changed the shape of Middle Eastern societies. So there are specific answers to the overbroad question "Why do they hate us?" that was asked so often and answered so seldom in the aftermath of the bombing. Westerners should not find it so puzzling when violence erupts — instead, they should look to history for insight and maybe solutions.

    "Sajjil" is most concerned with using picket-fence lifestyle issues to create a little more understanding within America, and it's an enjoyable, eye-opening piece of work as far as it goes. But it gives too simple an answer to the big, big questions it raises about perceptions of Arabs. Without accusing Arabs overall of being in league with terrorists, because of course most of them are not, it's still important for Arabs and non-Arabs alike to look into what is happening in the Islamic world before dismissing the violence as the work of a bizarre fringe.

    AUGUST 15, 2002

    Reader comments on Sajjil:

  • sajjil   from jc, Aug 29, 2002
  • large and powerful faction   from loza, Apr 20, 2005

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