Silk Road Rising's Multi Meets Poly: Multiculturalism and Polyculturalism Go on a First Date is an engaging and exciting video play that manages to present two complex ideas in a thoughtful, balanced, provocative way. It’s a terrific teaching tool and discussion-starter, managing to combine the theory, politics, intellectual debate, and real-world consequences surrounding the concepts of multiculturalism and polyculturalism in a way that is both accessible and nuanced, serious and humorous. We screened the 34-minute video and invited playwright Jamil Khoury and Professor of Anthropology Richard Shweder of the University of Chicago to engage in a discussion with our workshop audience of students, staff, and community members. The result was a lively and informed conversation that elicited multiple perspectives and some new insights— you couldn’t ask for a better way to frame such an urgent and timely topic.
– Betty Farrell, Executive Director (2009 - 2015), Cultural Policy Center, Harris School of Public Policy, The University of Chicago
Silk Road Rising’s provocative film, Multi Meets Poly, wryly challenges staid concepts of diversity and invites college campuses to redefine conversations about cultural differences and pluralism. More importantly, it challenges colleges to reimagine their approach to multicultural education and the intentional creation of campus culture. Too often, “Diversity” encourages a culture of alienated “tolerance,” a term that implies imperialism and fosters isolation. Well-intended faculty and students politely refrain from genuine engagement with one another across varied identities and perspectives for fear of transgressing. As an unintended consequence, our campuses devolve into self-selected segregation. Polyculturalism, however, teaches us how to embrace and participate in difference as part of a polymorphous culture that moves fluidly and interactively within multiple cultures. It has the potential to deconstruct concepts such as “dominant” and “minority.” I recently taught a course on “Immigration, Assimilation, and Nationalism” framed in the theory and debate of Multi Meets Poly and can say that my students grappled authentically with the issues of boundaries, identities, and appropriation. They left the course significantly less fearful of Otherness and invigorated about the possibilities of a genuinely inclusive future.
– Liz Carlin Metz is the Smith V. Brand Distinguished Professor of Theatre at Knox College (Galesburg, IL) and the Artistic Director of Vitalist Theatre (Chicago)
In his brilliant and engaging video play, Multi Meets Poly: Multiculturalism and Polyculturalism Go On a First Date, playwright Jamil Khoury crafts a fast paced “anything you say I can say better” (and meta-) verbal duel between she (Poly) and he (Multi) over the true meaning of multiculturalism. For Poly it means embracing cosmopolitanism and hybridity, and actively promoting the erosion of boundaries between groups, the dynamic and creative mixing up of marriages, neighborhoods, schools, professions, and even cuisines. For Multi it means in-group solidarity and the liberty of different peoples to maintain their borders and protect their unique ethnicity and distinct way of life by means of family life, separate schools, residential enclaves, and the policing of "authentic" cultural practices. The creative writer who produced this script is a matchmaker at heart who tries to arrange for Poly and Multi to embrace each other’s moral agenda. Watch this riveting dramatic dialogue and find out where they go on their next date, if there is a next date.
– Richard A. Shweder is a cultural anthropologist and the Harold Higgins Swift Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Comparative Human Development at The University of Chicago
Jamil Khoury's Multi Meets Poly is the perfect piece for an engaging discussion with students on a college campus. The ideas of multiculturalism and polyculturalism can appear abstract and difficult to distinguish. Without a catalyst like this piece, it can be difficult to hold a lively, insightful discussion with students and the campus community. However, the personification of these two ideas makes them approachable and relatable. As an international education professional who thought I sided with one ideology over the other, I found that the debate between the two ideas pulled me back and forth, exactly as it should have. Khoury perfectly balances the two ideas, and the eloquence of the arguments they make is delightful. The script is brilliant. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of this piece and can't wait to share it with others.
– Joseph Frake, Assistant Director of International Student Recruitment & Services, Office of International Programs at Valparaiso University
Multi Meets Poly is crucial to our American political landscape for its nuance. In order to confront the over simplification and polarization of American two party politics, we must elevate our cultural understanding and communication skills. Multi Meets Poly is a fun, playful and profound exploration and explanation of the exact kind of dialogue we need to inject into our daily lives and community culture.
– Brad Burgess, Artistic Director, The Living Theatre (New York City)
Multi Meets Poly should not be viewed as entertainment so much as a theatricalized intellectual workout. It is not narrative storytelling in the traditional sense, but rather a rigorous and hopefully compelling exercise in probing two important ideas through a medium we call pedagogidrama.
Pedagogidrama is drama intended primarily as a teaching and learning tool. We are not asking you to be passive spectators when watching the piece, we are asking you to be engaged thinkers. It is more lean forward than it is lean back.
I am thrilled to be sharing Multi Meets Poly with all of you. For years I've been saying that Silk Road Rising was born of a multicultural politic then migrated to a polycultural aesthetic. The comradery and tension between multiculturalism and polyculturalism are, in so many ways, emblematic of the work that we do. Our art making and community engagement live in a multi-poly continuum.
The ideas in this video play do not simply inform the story, nor function as mere subtext to the story, the ideas are the story. As a writer, I have grown increasingly drawn to the notion of dramatizing ideas and dramatizing discursive argument, not as stealth messaging but as the basis for constructing a story.
Culture refers to the collective accumulation of knowledge, beliefs, practices, traditions, art, representation, and experiences that get associated with a defined group of people and transmitted from generation to generation.
Multiculturalism refers to the cultural diversity of communities. As an idea, it promotes the understanding that society is comprised of distinct cultural communities that should be afforded agency, sometimes even self-determination or autonomy, typically within an institutionalized framework - the state, the corporation, the university, the organization, etc.
Polyculturalism refers to the interchange that occurs between cultures. It assumes cultures to be fluid and evolving, not static and fixed. As an idea, it promotes the understanding that society is comprised of cultural communities that continuously intersect and redefine themselves through processes of dynamic engagement.
Unlike multiculturalism, polyculturalism is less adaptable to public policy and organizational rubrics, and more rooted in voluntary, often spontaneous, exchange and discovery. Polyculturalism is more concerned with the personal evolution that creates cultural and societal change, whereas multiculturalism is more concerned with preserving cultural integrity and managing relationships between communities.
Sacred Stages: A Church, a Theatre, and a Story (28 min, 36 sec) is a new documentary film produced by Silk Road Rising, the Chicago-based non-profit theatre company that I co-founded with my life partner, Malik Gillani, in 2002. Malik and I felt galvanized to develop a proactive, artistic response both to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and to the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim backlash that quickly ensued. Drawing upon Malik’s Pakistani Muslim, and my Syrian Christian heritage, we established as a prevailing metaphor the historic Silk Road and set out to conquer fear, racism, and Islamophobia through the transformative power of storytelling.
That our endeavor would blend artistic and activist impulses was a given — we are activists and artists, after all. We didn’t anticipate, however, that our vision of a theatre company showcasing Asian American and Middle Eastern American playwrights would come to fruition in the basement of a Methodist church. Hence Sacred Stages, which documents the story of this unique and inspiring partnership between the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple –Chicago’s oldest Christian congregation — and Silk Road Rising, a relative newcomer to Chicago’s much-vaunted art and theatre scene.
I must admit, save for the occasional news story about some intra-denominational gay rights squabble, Middle Protestants were so not on my radar in those early days. A blissful, self-imposed exile from the Orthodox Church pretty much summoned up my ecclesiastical status (and still does: love the liturgy, hate the homophobia). But what seemed an unlikely alliance at first soon revealed itself in mission alignment: a religious community, and a secular arts organization, with a shared commitment to storytelling, racial and economic justice, and LGBT inclusion.
Inadvertently, we had each happened upon something inspiring, and the inspiration was in the overlap. Cut from a similar narrative cloth, we had co-authored a theatrical storyline—a horrific tragedy in Manhattan that begets a beautiful marriage in Chicago. Call it a blessed union, and a civil union. Could the written genealogy of Western theatre be traced through church basements, then we could contribute a whole chapter. One that illuminates the intersection of art and religion as being built on not only a performative, but a metadramatic and even spiritual foundation.
Who knew that earning a Master of Arts in Religious Studies degree (1992) from The University of Chicago Divinity School would prove so invaluable to producing theatre? And yet it has, in more ways than I ever imagined.
I like to think there is a theology that encapsulates our relationship with the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple. One that appears, at first, artistic for us and religious for them, until it reveals this binary to be utterly false. This isn’t a dichotomous relationship. Thereare throughlines to this work-in-progress; ours relationship that predates either institution individually. Arguably by several millennia.
Churches and theatres share a common origin and come from a place in common. We’re each on a quest for transcendence, and each in the business of storytelling. We use stories to discover and to uncover truths, to evoke empathy, create change, and to elevate the human condition. The power of representation leaves each of us awestruck. When narratives succeed, they can change the heart, mind, and soul, and for the better. We each exist to inspire, to unleash dreams, to offer hope and salvation.
Both churches and theatres revere the written text. We ascribe great meaning to words, narrative, parable, fable, and myth. We are as liturgical as we are theatrical. We stage ritual and dramatize passions, and we each have a penchant for pageantry. We’re performers and drama queens who love production and crave an audience, forever coveting those venerated “butts in seats.” For us, it’s about characters and staging, transitions and plot points, conflict and resolution. We rely heavily on sets and costumes, lighting and sound, props and paraphernalia.
We are sinners and we are holymen, and both hats fit perfectly. We strive to be students as well as teachers; acolytes as well as celebrants. Ours is an eternal journey towards knowledge and wisdom, catharsis and renewal.
In the beginning and at the end of the day, churches and theatres are about building community, sharing collective experience, and communing with the Divine (however we choose to imagine the Divine). Evangelism and discipleship are woven through our shared DNA. We’re missionaries seeking converts. And we will preach to the choir till we’re blue in the face. We each strive to be relevant, to matter, to make a difference, to affect people’s lives, to help people heal. We strive to be timely, yet timeless. We cry for justice, battle for redemption, and speak each our truth to their power. We’re not afraid to recontextualize and reinvent ourselves in response to the 21st Century with its myriad new technologies and degrees of connectedness (and disconnectedness) previously unheard of.
Altars are stages and stages altars. Silk Road Rising and the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple have builded, figuratively, a Sacred Stage. Watch the film and then come for the blessings!
Dr. Manal Hamzeh, Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Gender & Sexuality Studies at New Mexico State University, discusses the animated short film, The Four Hijabs (2016), which was adapted from her book, Pedagogies of Deveiling: Muslim Girls and the Hijab Discourse (2012).
This interview was recorded on October 12, 2019.
Obstacle Course is a 45-minute video play that I adapted from my full-length stage play Mosque Alert. Set in a suburb of Chicago, it explores reactions to a proposed Islamic Community Center on the site of a beloved landmark. But when bias intersects with zoning, a seemingly routine approval process gets heated.
At heart, Obstacle Course is a story about NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard), religious pluralism, and the challenges of liberal democracy.
I set out to explore a particular manifestation of Islamophobia in public life; that is, resistance to the building of mosques, or Muslim houses of worship. It is a phenomenon occurring throughout the United States and Canada, as well as Europe, Russia, Australia, and large parts of Asia.
If Muslims and Islam evoke fear for many non-Muslims, then mosques become a trigger for Islamophobic panic, signaling not only the physical presence of Islam, its immediate proximity, but the reality and rootedness and longevity of Muslims in our midst.
Its visibility and corporality make the mosque a brick and mortar actualization of “all things Muslim,” which, depending on the seer, can have disparate meanings: a cherished prayer hall, a welcome neighbor, an existential threat.
Is a mosque a building in which Muslims worship God or in which Muslims plot our demise? It’s a persistent angst, wrapped in a national security discourse. ****
Sadly, the buildings where Muslims peaceably gather to pray have become three-dimensional canvases on which to draw our suspicions and fears.
NIMBYism teaches us a great deal about how we imagine community and understand security. In the abstract or the hypothetical, we may be indifferent toward a given business or institution. In principle, we may even support it. But next door, or down the street, it becomes an entirely different matter.
The typically benign suddenly invokes urgency and danger. The shelter for battered women, homeless people, or LGBTQ runaways; the low-income housing development, the food bank, the drug rehab center, the halfway house for registered sex offenders, the strip club, the tattoo parlor, the gun shop, the fast food restaurant.
Anything that threatens a community’s perceived identity, its conscious sense of self, can and often will galvanize “grassroots” resistance.
This defensiveness, or fragility, is a symptom of tribalism. Much to my lefty chagrin, a lot of people tend to be tribal.
And mosques haven’t cornered the religious market on inflaming insecurities. If we consider earlier periods in US history, it was the prospect of a Catholic church, or a Jewish synagogue, or a Mormon temple that could fire-up the mob, incite hysteria, and then instigate organized push-back.
Perhaps no phenomenon has defined local politics and community demographics more so than white flight, the resolve of (mostly) white people not to live near or with (mostly) black people.
Suffice to say, that while anti-mosque activism became more salient post-9/11, anti-blackness has been seared into the DNA of American NIMBYism for centuries.
I want Obstacle Course to advance our conversations about religious pluralism. I’m not talking about religious tolerance or religious co-existence. Nor do I want anyone to proselytize or convert to another faith. I’m talking about dynamic interchange and learning. The idea that one can be better at practicing their own faith if they understand and appreciate other faiths.
My video play centers Muslims, their allies, and their adversaries. I wrote it as a Christian Arab American ally and as the husband of a Muslim man. I want it to be a springboard for inquiry about Muslimness within our broader religious landscapes.
Rarely is it acknowledged that Islam has deep and meaningful relationships with Christianity and Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism, secularism and feminism, and with myriad movements for democracy, human rights, and social justice.
When explored, these relationships reveal vigorous religious pluralism.
Finally, I think it important that we interrogate liberal democracy. And I say that as a passionate proponent of liberal democracy. The dangers of majoritarianism and the limits of good intentions remain constant roadblocks to the humanist ideal.
Systems that enshrine basic rights of citizenship, such as freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and freedom of association, and then subject those rights to referendums, demagoguery, and the vagaries of public opinion, are systems in need of fixing.
The “popular vote” should never decide our civil rights.
When animus towards specific communities is allowed to shape public policies, and sometimes even laws, then the premise and the promise of the liberal state has been contaminated. When democratic processes are used to maintain inequality and injustice, then citizenship becomes precarious, it becomes tiered. Either we’re full citizens or we’re not.
I hope that Obstacle Course helps illuminate some of these mendable defects within our political praxis. Scapegoating and “otherizing” are, by definition, antithetical to freedom and liberty.
I believe we can get this right.
In the summer of 2017, one year after the launch of our animated short film The Four Hijabs, my friend Samar Dudin introduced me to the owner of one of the most reputable dubbing companies in the Arab world, located in Amman, Jordan. Even before viewing The Four Hijabs in its entirety, he agreed to produce an Arabic dubbed version. I handed him the Arabic script assuming we would need to workshop it with actors before beginning the recording process. To my astonishment, within 48 hours, he asked me to visit him at the studio so that I could review the final dubbed version!
In that short window of time, the producer hired the actors and finished the actual dubbing. Adding to the complexity of it all, the actors he selected were all Syrians living in Syria. They literally emailed in their audio recordings shortly after listening to the film in English. Their cadence and tonality adhered to that of the American actors. All of this was done against the backdrop of a horrific war in Syria. Thus, the actors requested anonymity to avoid any risk of retaliation for participating in such an overtly anti-patriarchal project.
The process of dubbing The Four Hijabs into Arabic is an example of critical feminist translation. It adds another layer of resistance, refusal, and disobedience to both the English language version and the Arabic subtitled version. Moreover, the Arabic dubbed version gives The Four Hijabs another chance to speak back to oppressive patriarchal movements and regimes in Arab and Muslim-majority contexts. It also engages a substantial Arabic-speaking audience and opens the possibility of questioning and unlearning the dominant gendering discourse of the hijab.
It is worth noting that the Arabic translation intentionally used classical Arabic to reach a wider Arabic speaking audience. Simultaneously, the actors' very subtle Shami (Levantine) accent invites warmth and intimate engagement with the script, mostly for Arabs who speak and are close to this accent: Syrians, Jordanians, Palestinians, and Lebanese.
Along with the previously available version of The Four Hijabs subtitled in classical Arabic, it is our hope that this dubbed version will reach a broader Arabic speaking audience and generate transnational conversation and inquiry.
Having co-written the original English language version of The Four Hijabs with Dr. Manal Hamzeh, I take great pride in the fact we created an animated short that’s been described as “compelling,” “informative,” “thought-provoking,” and “eye-opening.” But the experience of hearing the piece in Arabic goes beyond interesting food for thought. Quite frankly, it feels revolutionary and subversive, dangerous even.
Listening to The Four Hijabs in English, I’m always struck by the critical questions the film poses, the new perspectives it dramatizes, and its relevance to conversations occurring within Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism. But when I listen to it in Arabic, the stakes are even greater. For in addition to doing important pedagogical and feminist work, it challenges gender injustice more stridently and unapologetically. It throws down the gauntlet in a hotly contested intra-Muslim debate. The patriarchs are being taken to the mat, and it is both scary and exhilarating.
We live in a world where we are constantly being told what to think. In an age of readily accessible information, passive consumption of media-perpetuated stereotypes trump active quests for knowledge. For instance, the hijab, commonly associated with the headscarf worn by Muslim women, has become a source of irrational fear for many. With a sharp rise in Islamophobia and xenophobia in America and abroad, we have gone from telling Muslim women in hijab that they're being oppressed to yanking off their headscarves. Much of this fear stems from false information and a lack of inquiry. So what do non-Muslims actually know about the hijab or the Qur'an? Demystifying the hijab with an eye toward justice is exactly what New Mexico State University Interdisciplinary Studies/Women's Studies Associate Professor Dr. Manal Hamzeh and Mount Prospect native and Silk Road Rising Founding Artistic Director Jamil Khoury set out to do with the new animated short film The Four Hijabs, premiering at Silk Road Rising on July 30, 2016.
The Four Hijabs was purposefully developed as an entertaining and accessible animated short film that engages with the complex ideas surrounding the hijab. The animated short explores the multiple meanings of four hijabs mentioned in 16 Qur'anic verses. In engaging these verses through Arab-Muslim feminist lenses, four identifiable hijabs emerge: the visual hijab (the modest dress of both Muslim men and women), the spatial hijab (the separator between private and public spaces), the ethical hijab (ethical values/practices required of all Muslims), and the spiritual hijab (the barrier that inhibits deep spiritual growth and new knowledge.
The Four Hijabs reflects our deep commitment to make important cutting-edge academic thought accessible to a general public by interpreting and rendering it as art," said Hamzeh. The project stemmed from several conversations between co-writers Hamzeh and Khoury about the effects that Islamophobia and hijabophobia are having on young Muslims.
Hamzeh and Khoury are no strangers to challenging perspectives. The Four Hijabs is inspired by ideas in Hamzeh's book, "Pedagogies of DeVeiling: Muslim Girls and the Hijab Discourse" (2012). "[The film] engages broader audiences in work and thought that may cut against the grain of what they have previously taken for granted," said Hamzeh. She sees The Four Hijabs as one of the extensions of her own struggles as an Arab-Muslim feminist wrestling with patriarchal logic. It also supplements her approach to teaching, guided by a commitment to equity and social justice.
"There's a lot about Manal's scholarship that inspires me as playwright," said Khoury. "The challenge of adapting sophisticated theoretical concepts into a character driven, dialogue driven animated short, has been a huge learning curve for me. The fact that these verses are grounded in sacred texts that have been largely distorted further raises the stakes."
Social justice and art are entwined passions for Khoury. His theatre company, Silk Road Rising, co-founded with his husband and company Executive Director Malik Gillani, has been committed to presenting stories through Asian and Middle Eastern American lenses for over 13 years. Khoury is also a successful playwright. His most recent play "Mosque Alert" boldly tackles Islamophobia, assimilation, and generational divides. In its dramatization of the resistance to the building of mosques in communities across the US, "Mosque Alert" highlights the diversity of beliefs within Muslim American communities and offers a variety of complex perspectives.
"I do not take a 'position' on the hijab nor do I seek to define it," said Khoury. "As a non-Muslim man, it is not my place to endorse or condemn the choices of Muslim women. As political and religious positions, 'pro-hijab' and 'anti-hijab' feel both reductive and essentializing. As an artist, I'm interested in the dramatization of ideas and theories. I draw inspiration from discursive argument and contested categories, and from debunking stereotypes and unpacking assumptions."
With a touch of humor and a sense of wonder, The Four Hijabs takes us on an imaginative journey through the eyes of three very different Muslim friends, two women and one man, eager to dive into a world of inquiry. In the course of engaging with the Qur'anic text on their own, the multiple meanings of the four hijabs begin coming to life. "Essentially, we had to uncover the lived experiences, the behaviors and personal applications, that inform each of the four hijabs," said Khoury. "In so doing, we embodied and empowered concepts and verses as self-aware characters seeking to undo their own misrepresentation."
The Four Hijabs also indicates how an individual Muslim has the opportunity to interpret the Qur'an without scholars, without a mediator. "How often does scripture get to resist its appropriators?" said Khoury. "Its feminist agitprop meets spiritual reclamation."
"I am excited at the thought of the The Four Hijabs engaging a wider range of learners who may then begin to question and re-read the Qur'an," said Hamzeh, "to discuss the complex ideas around this loaded topic, and ultimately to imagine a world that exists beyond that created by the power-elite."
The significance of critical inquiry brought director Elizabeth Wuerffel to the table for this project. Wuerffel is an interdisciplinary artist, filmmaker, and professor of digital media art at Valparaiso University. Wuerffel said, "As an educator, critical inquiry is the core practice essential to growing and learning that's more than developing 'practical skills for the workforce,' but deeply investigating why things are the way they are, and questioning those narratives and the forces that keep them circulating."
The Four Hijabs is made possible by generous support from The Chicago Foundation for Women, a community organization dedicated to advocating for equality and increasing resources and opportunities for women and girls in the greater Chicago area. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion, including Hamzeh, Khoury, and three respondents: Suroor Raheemullah, Director of Organizational Development for the Muslim Women's Alliance; Itedal Shalabi, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Arab American Family Services, and Fouad Teymour, playwright and Professor of Chemical Engineering at Illinois Institute of Technology.
"I am very proud of the result that our team has been able to bring to life," said film animator Anna Hayden-Roy. "Creating characters to act as audience avatars as well as physical representations of the four hijabs was perhaps the most important part of this process. My hope for this project as we bring it to the public is that these characters and the small universe they inhabit will shed new light on the subject of the hijab in a way that is both entertaining and memorable."
The Four Hijabs premiere screening and panel discussion take place on July 30, 2016, at 4pm at Silk Road Rising's downtown Chicago theatre in the Historic Chicago Temple Building (Pierce Hall, 77 W Washington St, lower level-right across from Daley Plaza). Admission is free, but seating is limited.
Working as an animator on The Four Hijabs, my goal was to create a visual space that is both anchored in reality, and can, at the same time, come untethered and enter the realm of visualizing abstract thought. Creating characters to act as audience avatars as well as physical representations of the four hijabs was perhaps the most important part of this process; and I am very proud of the result that our team has been able to bring to life. My hope for this project as we bring it to the public is that these characters and the small universe they inhabit will shed new light on the subject of the Hijab in a way that is both entertaining and memorable.
Anna Hayden-Roy is an animator, illustrator, and graphic designer hailing from the sleepy heart of the Midwest. She has been deeply passionate about both storytelling and art since a very young age, which has made The Four Hijabs a deeply rewarding project to be a part of. More of her work can be found at ahaydenroy.com.
Besides the people, two elements drew me to work on The Four Hijabs: collaboration and critical inquiry. As an interdisciplinary artist, collaboration drives much of my work. Or perhaps it’s because I’m a collaborator at heart that I’m an interdisciplinary artist. For years, I’ve enjoyed watching how Jamil and Silk Road Rising create spaces—in person and online—that cultivate dialogue and conversation. As an educator, critical inquiry is the core practice essential to growing and learning that’s more than developing “practical skills for the workforce,” but deeply investigating why things are the way they are, and questioning those narratives and the forces that keep them circulating. Manal’s work brought critical inquiry to bear not only on the script but into our many conversations and the visual representations that followed. She also brought a wealth of knowledge and insight— and such patience along the way.
The Four Hijabs is the result of talented, creative, and insightful people who care about the big picture and know that the small stuff does matter, that individual words and visual representations can reinforce or rebuff dominant narratives and offer new ways of being. My thanks go out to all the shapers—Jamil and Manal, of course; Anna Hayden-Roy’s creative and intuitive hand and mind; our talented and energetic actors who brought with them good questions and a frankness to ask them; Peter Storms’ beautiful blend of technique and creative sound design and Effat Moussa and Fouad Teymour for their early reflections and ideas. A final thanks to Fatima Mernissi, who I first encountered through Scheherazade Goes West, who came before us and whose words and ideas will last far beyond.
The journey of creating the animated film The Four Hijabs began in Chicago in 2006 as a series of conversations with playwright Jamil Khoury. Khoury and Malik Gillani, both dear friends of mine, co-founded Chicago's Silk Road Rising, a politically activist theatre and film company that I'm enormously proud to be associated with.
Through deep critical engagement with the main ideas in my 2012 book, Pedagogies of DeVeiling: Muslim Girls and the Hijab Discourse, Khoury and I began to adapt my scholarly work into an accessible, entertaining, character-driven script. The strength of this collaboration lies in its pairing of an academic/researcher with an artist/producer as co-writers and political allies, coupled with the dynamic creative team and community of actors that Silk Road Rising assembled. Our collaboration has yielded, as a culmination of numerous insights and discoveries made together, a work that honors my theoretical ideas while advancing understanding of the effects of hijabophobia and Islamophobia on young Muslims, particularly in North America.
The Four Hijabs represents our commitment to making important, cutting-edge academic thought accessible to a general public. This animated film brings to the forefront a timely dialogue about the implications out-of-context misinterpretations of the Quran have on women's lives and bodies, and I am thrilled at the prospect of The Four Hijabs inspiring a wide range of learners who may then begin to reread and question the Quran, to discuss complex ideas surrounding the loaded topics that control expressions of their muslimness, and, ultimately, to imagine a world that exists beyond androcentric historiography.
The Four Hijabs has been a journey of friendship, solidarity, inspiration, questions, joy, trust, sincerity and imagination, and I look forward to the conversations it is poised to incite.
As referenced in Sacred Stages, the “Charred Cross” serves as a frightful reminder of the visit paid by the KKK to the lawn of Reverend Ed King, Chaplain of Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Mississippi. This cross would soon transform into a dramatic symbol of a church divided—a symbol which, both literally and figuratively, accompanied Tougaloo College students to the 1964 General Conference of the Methodist Church.
The Methodists, a mainline Protestant denomination, gathered that spring of 1964 for their quadrennial meeting to review church law and practices. Heading the agenda was a motion to desegregate the denomination “from the top down” by uniting with the African American church which was then operating under a separate central jurisdiction. The driving force for desegregation was, in part, propelled by several white pastors from Chicago: Gerald Forshey, Martin Deppe, and Jim Reid. The Tougaloo students also joined in their crusade.
The motion passed, and the conference concluded with a planned merger that would fully integrate the Methodist Church. As they said their goodbyes, the students from Tougaloo gifted the charred cross to the Chicago pastors for the roles they played in that historic reunification. Pastors Forshey and Deppe wrapped the precious gift in paper and returned with it to Chicago. Forshey then passed the artifact along to his friend, an urban sculptor named John Kearney, who preserved the wood with epoxy and cast a human effigy to hang from its side: a crucified Jesus, depicted as a black man.
For 45 years the sculpture has remained in the private collection of Forshey and his wife Florence, only occasionally going on display for local congregations. Then, in October 2008, the cross was presented as a permanent gift to the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple on the occasion of their 175th anniversary. The only condition: that it always remain on public display. As the Forshey's saw it, the Charred Cross belongs to the church, and to this day it remains a powerful symbol of the struggles so many have suffered for their full inclusion in the body of Christ, the church on Earth.
In Jamil Khoury's video essay "On Whiteness," Khoury explores the meanings and ramifications of whiteness, its promises and pitfalls, beneficiaries and victims, and his own complicated relationship to whiteness (existing somewhere between white and not quite white).
With the exception of a few minor edits, the text below transcribes my video essay, On Whiteness, released as a companion to Silk Road Rising's documentary film, Not Quite White: Arabs, Slavs, and the Contours of Contested Whiteness, on April 28, 2012.
At the time, I understood my racial identity as existing along a "not quite white" spectrum. And yet, as a beneficiary of white privilege and status, I believed it important to reference myself as white several times throughout the essay. However, this distinction felt then as it feels now: dishonest and ahistorical. Just as referring to myself as a person of color feels dishonest.
I am, in most people's eyes, white appearing. Therefore, I am afforded the awards and accolades bestowed on white people, and particularly on white men, in the United States. In a sense, I've pretty much hit the jackpot. And while I would never apologize for how I happen to "look," I would also never deny my mixed Arab and Slavic heritage—and that Arabs, despite what the US Census Bureau may or may not say, are not white. In fact, according to Pew Research Center, Arabs are "despised" in this country, rarely a signifier of whiteness. For many of us, an absolute binary of white/non-white can not work. Nevertheless, the histories of whiteness are also a part of my histories. I must own and struggle with them accordingly.
—Filmmaker Jamil Khoury, October 3, 2017
Hello my name is Jamil Khoury and I am the Founding Artistic Director of Chicago’s Silk Road Theatre Project. Silk Road Rising creates live theatre and online videos that tell stories through primarily Asian American and Middle Eastern American lenses.
In 2012, Silk Road Rising released its first-ever documentary film titled Not Quite White: Arabs, Slavs, and the Contours of Contested Whiteness. Directed by Stephen Combs and me, Not Quite White explores the complicated relationship of Arab and Slavic immigrants to American notions of whiteness. Whiteness, and its practitioners, most of whom are white people, is the prism through which we explore overlapping issues of citizenship, racism, assimilation, and the American Dream.
Not Quite White was inspired by my short play WASP: White Arab Slovak Pole. I use my mixed Arab and Slavic heritage as the lens through which to investigate the ways that immigrants achieved whiteness to hence qualify as “fully American.” Not Quite White integrates scenes from WASP alongside interviews with Arab American and Polish American academics; four compelling scholars who reflect upon contested and probationary categories of whiteness and the use of anti-Black racism as a “whitening” dye. That is, anti-Black racism as point of convergence and point of consensus.
In making Not Quite White I was, on many levels, tapping into the difficult, often contentious relationship I have with my own whiteness. I am of course seen as white. Perceived and received as white, which in the United States is a very good thing. However, do I feel white? Kind of. Maybe. Sometimes. But more often than not, I feel not quite white. Being of mixed Arab and Slavic heritage, and having an Arabic name, certainly complicates my whiteness. Semites and Slavs are, after all, suspect whites. Being queer also disrupts my whiteness. Queerness weakens, it dilutes the white brand. It always has. And so I find myself on the margins of whiteness. Or as I like to say, “I’m on the inside looking in.” As for the political position I’m arguing in Not Quite White, I would describe it as anti-racist, pro-immigrant, and aligned with efforts to disentangle whiteness from white supremacy.
Our film defines whiteness as a constructed social and political category, a slippery slope that has historically played favorites, advantaging Northern and Western European immigrants over immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe and the Middle East. We maintain that whiteness has victims. Non-white victims, not quite white victims, and white victims. And no two groups have bore the wrath of whiteness, have suffered the brutality of whiteness, more than Native Americans and African Americans. For in the US context, whiteness was invented and defined in opposition to Native Americans and African Americans. And it was against those two peoples that whiteness unleashed its greatest cruelties. So please note that when I speak of white victims, and not quite white victims, I am in no way suggesting any moral equivalency or parity in suffering with those who were deliberately and strategically excluded from whiteness. Yes, whiteness does a lot of harm to a lot of people along the white continuum, but it devastates non-white people.
The film proceeds from the assumption that whiteness affects all our lives and that we all need to critically engage whiteness. In conducting the research for Not Quite White, we discovered that in the history of American whiteness, several groups of ostensibly ‘white’ people have, at different times and for different reasons, been assigned a conditional or partial white status. Arabs and Slavs as case-in-point. Appalachian whites and poor whites were two such groups. Immigrants of Armenian, Assyrian, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Persian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, and Turkish backgrounds, all endured periods of transitional whiteness, consigned to a sort of white purgatory. Roma people, or “Gypsies,” to this day exist on the far outer reaches of whiteness. Whiteness giveth and whiteness taketh away.
We maintain that whiteness has everything to do with melanin and pigmentation and it has nothing to do with melanin and pigmentation. Ultimately, whiteness is about power and borders and authorship.
I see whiteness primarily as a socio-political-economic system. A system designed to benefit some while punishing others. I believe whiteness was devised to serve and protect the interests of a moneyed capitalist elite. And it succeeded by convincing masses of immigrants from Europe and the Middle East that they too have a stake in the promise of whiteness, the material promise – however intangible – and that in exchange for this imagined stake, they would identify with and defend those benefiting the most from whiteness. A Faustian bargain one might say. Simply put, whiteness convinces the vast majority of white people to defer our own hopes and dreams on behalf of a select few white people. What do we get for our sacrifice? We get to be “superior” to non-white people. Apparently, for many whites, the illusion of white supremacy trumps the pain of white poverty and white powerlessness.
When we examine how whiteness was created, how whiteness reproduces and sustains itself, we uncover intricate webs of violence and intimidation and coercion. I call it the unholy trinity of whiteness: physical brutality, economic dominance, and psychological warfare.
And yet, it is we, the beneficiaries of whiteness, or at least a good many of us, who also feel its sting. In working on Not Quite White, and since releasing the film, it has been absolutely fascinating for me to hear just how many quote-unquote “white people” feel estranged from whiteness. The very whiteness that grants us all sorts of privilege.
We feel alienated by the meanings ascribed to whiteness, the assumptions, be they cultural, social, economic, or political; we’re embarrassed and ashamed by the history of whiteness. The complicity of whiteness and the duplicity of whiteness.
But there’s more. We are resentful of how whiteness erases our respective backgrounds, negates our cultures, our family histories, all that’s unique and particular about our own stories. And we are angered at how whiteness forces us into these oppositional, adversarial relationships with non-white people. Relationships that are immoral and unjust and corrosive to our souls.
Whiteness has no interest in my family’s histories in Syria, Poland, and Slovakia. Whiteness is embarrassed by our immigrant histories in this country, our narratives of survival, of triumph over adversity. No time for that. Instead whiteness renders us accomplices to its own history, the history of genocide of indigenous peoples, the history of African slavery and racial apartheid. Histories that, if given a choice, I’d rather not own.
Frankly, me and a lot of white people, we resent the guilt, the guilt that whiteness saddles us with, the pangs of conscience and unease and discomfort that inevitably arise when availed greater privilege, greater human worth and dignity based solely on how we look. For the record, white guilt messes up white people, and it causes us to do all sorts of really stupid things that you’d rather not see.
In other words, whiteness lies. Whiteness lies to white people and it especially lies to poor white people. And whiteness lies pathologically to everyone else. Whiteness, as an ideology, is a racket, it’s a ponzi scheme. And when whiteness turns its fury against white people – which it does with wild abandon mind you – the targets are many: poor whites, working class whites, unemployed whites, uninsured whites, white people of suspect nationalities, suspect religions, female white people, queer white people, disabled white people, elderly white people. Ironically, the margins of whiteness are a lot bigger than the center!
We know that in the United States in a few decades whiteness will go from a majority status to a minority status. And whiteness, as it has been defined for us, will change. Natural change. Engineered change. Forced change. All of the above, whiteness will change. And I believe it will change for the better. Maybe I’m naïve, and the future may indeed prove me wrong, but I believe that as whiteness adapts to a new American landscape, it will become more just, more equitable, more about empathy, less about power, more about community, less about competition.
And the same can be said for Americanness, once deemed the identical twin to whiteness. In my ideal world, I imagine an Americanness that values people over profits, that elevates families and communities above markets. I am convinced that with shifting whiteness will come shifting consciousness will come shifting priorities; an America in which we actually become citizens, true citizens, as opposed to our current status as consumers. I want to be an American citizen, not an American who buys things.
So what do we do about whiteness? If whiteness is the problem, can it become part of the solution? Do we overthrow whiteness? Rid the world of whiteness? Maybe. In so doing do we also rid the world of blackness and brownness? Can the answer be found in a post-racial America? I don’t know. But I’m inclined to think in terms of redefining whiteness, albeit radically redefining whiteness, so that whiteness ceases to be about coercive power and inequality, and is instead about justice and empathy.
Yes, whiteness is in flux, folks. And nothing points to that more vividly than the histrionics playing out in the American right wing today. The gasping last breaths of an ideology gone south. The final roars of the dinosaurs. That whiteness, their whiteness, will be consigned to history books. And they know it. Whiteness without enemies, whiteness without victims, whiteness without bullying, is unfathomable to them. But fortunately, they’re on the wrong side of history.
Watching whiteness over the coming decades is going to be fascinating. And it’ll be even more fascinating shaping whiteness over the coming decades– which is something all of us - white, not quite white, non-white – need to be actively involved with.
I hope you enjoyed Not Quite White. And if you haven’t seen it, I hope that you will. Thank you for helping the world heal.
Hello my name is Jamil Khoury. I am the founding artistic director of Chicago’s Silk Road Rising and I am the author of the video play both/and.
How would you describe both/and?
both/and is a short video play, approximately 12 minutes long, that sets out to undermine some rather “either/or” assumptions about identity. It is also quasi-autobiographical. In both/and, the characters of Jamil, Arab Man, and Gay Man explore and explode the contested borders between American and Arab, Arab American and gay, for profit and not for profit, and assorted other disputed territories.
What inspired both/and?
both/and is derived from my stage play WASP: White Arab Slovak Pole, that was originally commissioned and produced as part of THE DNA TRAIL: A Genealogy of Short Plays about Ancestry, Identity, and Utter Confusion. I essentially culled material from WASP then created some new material specifically for both/and.
What is The DNA Trail?
The DNA Trail was a project I conceived of in which seven playwrights, including me, each took a genealogical DNA test – swab of saliva on a q-tip that we sent to a lab – and then each wrote a short play in response to either the results of the tests or the conversations surrounding the tests. This collection of short plays had its world premiere at Silk Road Theatre Project in the spring of 2010.
Why the title both/and?
I learned the term "both/and" from second wave American feminism. I am a huge fan of the second wavers. For me, “both/and” is a rebuttal, it is the antidote, the challenge to the more masculinist notion of “either/or.” "Either/or" being a very established paradigm in American culture. This or that, us or them, black or white. "Both/and," on the other hand, is holistic, it’s integrative, complimentary. It is the idea that one can be both this and that. If traditional masculinity espouses competition and rigid dichotomies, then feminism posits a world view that is empathic, cooperative, more about interdependence and equality, less about winners and losers.
In my own life, I have often been asked to separate, compartmentalize, prioritize the various components of my identity. It has been suggested that some of these components of my identity are at odds with each other - Arab American and gay comes to mind – go figure. And since I actively refuse to bifurcate my person, I am a both/and-er. And being a both/and-er allows for fluidity, it honors the fact that identities shift and evolve and are transformed. Ultimately "both/and" is a much more liberating position from which to approach life than "either/or" ever could be.
For the record, Arab American and gay work together fabulously.
How true to life is the character Jamil?
Well, clearly he is based on me, but both/and is not strictly autobiographical, I do take artistic license, so I best establish that that Jamil, he is not entirely representative of this Jamil. That said, I feel enough kinship with the Jamil in the story that giving him a name other than my own would have felt, well, dishonest.
What inspired the character Arab Man?
I know this guy. Or at least various iterations of this character. The conversations between Jamil and Arab Man in this video play are composites of actual conversations I’ve had with certain Arab men over time. So he is a character for whom I feel a great deal of affection and of course familiarity but he also evokes a certain anxiety and animosity within me slash Jamil.
Is the character Arab Man derived from a stereotype?
You know at Silk Road Rising we are in the business of challenging stereotypes. As a theatre producer and as a theatre artist I take very seriously the importance of subverting and deconstructing stereotypes. I don’t promote stereotypes. So when certain Arab and Arab American friends of mine, mostly theatre artists, expressed misgivings about the character of Arab Man, I listened. On the one hand, these friends, whom I love and respect, know the character very well, perhaps too well, I would hear, “oh, that’s my father,” or “that’s my brother,” “that’s my uncle,” but on the other hand, they worry that he’s advancing negative stereotypes of Arab men. In particular, some of my friends took exception to the very name Arab Man, insisting that it implies all Arab men.
And yet, in the scenes between Jamil and Arab Man, there are two Arab men present, Jamil and Arab Man. And instead of acknowledging the very real contrast between these two very different Arab men, it appears that Arab Man’s ultimate denial of Jamil’s Arabness has more currency with audiences that I would have expected. Jamil is not the one being called out as either stereotypical or representative of Arab men, Arab Man is. So ironically, for some of Arab Man’s critics, if I understand their objections correctly, Arab Man becomes both the arbiter of Arabness and the embodiment of Arab male stereotypes. Two suppositions that I, as the creator of Arab Man, entirely reject.
I maintain that Arab Man is, of course, not representative of all Arab men. He represents a social conservatism characteristic of some Arab men, no doubt, but one that ultimately transcends Arabness. His voice, his socially conservative views, his economically conservative views, could be embodied by a South Asian character, a white American character, a Latino character, or whomever.
As for the name Arab Man, for me the name has very specific and personal and situational meanings. Not to mention it being a bit tongue-in-cheek. Now it could be that in the larger context naming the character Arab Man was a mistake. Maybe it was politically irresponsible. I’m not convinced of that, but I’ve been wrong before. That said, if naming my character Arab Man causes anyone any hurt, I sincerely apologize.
What does the character Gay Man represent to me?
What he doesn’t represent to me is all gay men or all white gay men. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa. But he does represent a certain gay man that I knew for a very brief period of time several years ago and this gay man had all sorts of complicated reactions to me. He was attracted to my “white, all-American looks,” his words, not mine, and yet greatly disturbed by the specter of my potential “non-whiteness” as exemplified by my Arabic name. My interest in him was much more immediate, far less complicated, and ultimately more primal.
Interestingly, some women friends of mind, both straight and gay, have expressed a strong dislike for the character of Gay Man and object equally as strong to the dynamics that exist between Jamil and Gay Man. They argue that Jamil allows himself to be debased by Gay Man only to then consummate his humiliation by kissing Gay Man.
While I fully appreciate where my friends are coming from, and I am moved by their coming to Jamil’s defense, i.e. my defense, I maintain that Jamil was very much in control of the situation and laser focused on his sole objective with Gay Man, which was of course getting in his pants.
Which is a good thing!
What do I hope audiences take away from both/and?
Well, I hope they love both/and! I hope it challenges audiences, I hope it spurns conversation, and further inquiry and I hope it advances more "both/and" approaches to identity and life and helps us move us away from the dictates of "either/or." How’s that for ambitious?
If you have not yet seen both/and, I hope that you will. It means a great deal to all of us at Silk Road Rising to be able to share this story with you.
And on that note, thank you and goodbye.
There’s nothing unusual about a theatre company operating out of a church basement. The genealogy of western theatre is storied with church basements. On a performative, perhaps even metadramatic level, the union of church and theatre routinely manifests in such phenomena as storytelling, ritual, liturgy, and pageantry. And yet, beyond these seemingly obvious connections, the relationship between my theatre company, Silk Road Theatre Project, and our hosts at the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple(where we have been theatre-in-residence since 2004) appears to have penned a whole new storyline in this age old symbiosis.
A Christian church and a non-religious theatre company forge a secular partnership based on shared values and intersecting missions. Widely divergent in both size and age, and functioning in seemingly distinct realms, the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple and Silk Road Theatre Project recognized early on that our shared commitments to storytelling, diversity, dialogue, and the exploration of new ideas and perspectives, placed us in communion with one another. And if performed narratives and the raising of consciousness are cornerstones to both of our “ministries,” why not find inspiration in the overlap?
Unlike the established trajectory of a theatre in a church, ours is not a rental agreement. FUMC does not charge us rent or lease us space. Rather, they gift us a home from which we can operate, flourish and grow, right in the heart of the Loop theatre district. In fact, Pierce Hall, the mixed use, lower level facility we share with the church, was renovated by FUMC with our needs very much in mind. We in turn enhanced the space with furniture, technology and theatre accoutrements, as well as the creation of a new flow of traffic into the historic Chicago Temple building. The result is a beautiful, intimate, warm, flexible, jewel box of a theatre that also doubles as a hall for church functions and events, in addition to adjacent classrooms and a restaurant-quality kitchen that we enjoy access to.
That much of SRTP’s success is intricately linked to the generosity and hospitality of the FUMC community, and the visionary world view of Senior Pastor Philip Blackwell, is a fact we are enormously proud of. Our written agreement with FUMC is fair and remarkably comprehensive, guaranteeing our full artistic freedom and organizational independence, thus making it possible for us to operate there. And the congregation and staff have been gracious in a manner far surpassing anything we ever anticipated or imagined. Of course, the foundation to any successful collaboration exists in prospective partners. In this case, a venerable Loop congregation that predates the incorporation of the City of Chicago, and a young, polycultural theatre project created in response to a terrorist attack.
I will begin with the latter. Silk Road Theatre Project was co-founded in 2002 by my life partner and SRTP’s Executive Director, Malik Gillani, and me, the company’s Artistic Director. Our mission statement reads as follows: Silk Road Theatre Project showcases playwrights of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean backgrounds, whose works address themes relevant to the peoples of the Silk Road and their Diaspora communities. Through the creation and presentation of outstanding theatre, we aim to promote discourse and dialogue among multi-cultural audiences in Chicago.
Malik and I created SRTP as a proactive response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Realizing that the consequences of this catastrophic day were bound to reverberate for years to come, posing unique and urgent challenges to artists of all backgrounds, Malik and I, with our respective Pakistani American and Arab American backgrounds, felt compelled to create a company that could educate, promote dialogue, and heal rifts through the transformative power of theatre. That theatre would be the medium in which we’d advance cultural change seemed a given—a decision dictated by our mutual love of the art and my vocation as a playwright. Tragically, in December 2003, a year and a half after setting out, the imperative of our decision was horrifically reinforced when Malik’s brother, Nader, was murdered in Atlanta, GA in what police declared an anti-Muslim hate crime.
Our activist natures propelled us to respond to the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments sweeping the US in the aftermath of 9/11. Our world had changed dramatically and our identities made suspect, loathed far beyond any “recognizable” or “garden variety” brand of bigotry. Furthermore, our names, and Malik’s “brown” appearance, seemed to call into question our American citizenship. And we felt increasingly alarmed by arguments surmising a “clash of civilizations”—a deeply troubling thesis that quickly gained traction among key policy makers and opinion shapers.
In our earliest, pre-SRTP brainstorming sessions, we set a goal to create a forum to counter negative representation of Middle Eastern and Muslim peoples with representation that was authentic, multi-faceted, and grounded in human experience. Likewise, we wanted to create a forum for introspection and debate among Chicago’s Middle Eastern and Muslim communities, while bringing to the forefront issues all too often dismissed in our communities as “controversial,” or “uncomfortable,” if they’re addressed at all.
It wasn’t long before our idea expanded beyond the Middle Eastern and Islamic realms. Not surprising, as our instincts have always been cross-cultural. We love to seek the interconnectedness of peoples and experiences, and to relish the conversations that arise in the process. Each play we’ve produced to date has either addressed conflicts within or between communities, including conflicts between Silk Road peoples and non-Silk Road peoples. If SRTP were to articulate a worldview, it would be one that rejects neat and orderly categorizations while eschewing identity politics that are narrow and self-serving. While conjuring a world larger than our own, we found ourselves bumping against random and repeat references to the historic Silk Road; it soon became obvious that we had stumbled upon the very “road map” to our vision.
Inadvertently, we constructed an identity politic that allowed an Asian story and a Middle Eastern story and a Mediterranean story to inhabit the same plane, to coexist inclusive of one another and in dialogue with one another. Silk Road Theatre Project thus officially came into existence in summer 2002 as the business name of Gilloury Institute, the registered 501(c)3 not-for-profit that Malik and I had submitted for approval just months prior. Our vocabularies would quickly expand to include such terms as Silk Road playwrights, Silk Road stories, Silk Road actors, Silk Road content. SRTP had become the nation’s first ever theatre company dedicated to representing such a diverse grouping of peoples and cultures.
“Silk Road” refers of course to the great trade routes that originated in China and extended across Central and South Asia, the Middle East, and into Europe, from the 2nd century B.C. until about the 16th century A.D. The dominant land routes connected China to Syria, adjoining sea routes to create an East-West corridor linking Japan to Italy. These transcontinental caravans resulted not only in trade, of which silk was an important commodity, but also in tremendous cross-cultural interaction among the peoples of the regions—interaction that fostered the exchange of ideas and the fusion of art and aesthetics.
The legacy of the Silk Road is one associated with rich traditions of oral narrative, epic poetry, and storytelling; it serves SRTP as both a geographic guide and a metaphor for intercultural dialogue. If we view the Silk Road on a contemporary map, the many trade routes established and joined by the Silk Road comprise some two-thirds of humanity! Furthermore, it was not a legacy “invented” in Orientalist accounts and depictions, but one proudly embraced by the peoples and governments of Silk Road countries.
The storyteller tradition, combined with our love for the written word and my shameless bias towards playwrights, has informed SRTP’s identity as a playwright focused theatre (as opposed to the other dominant models, e.g. an actor focused theatre or a director focused theatre). We believe that representation begins at home, and that a playwright’s subjectivity is greatly informed by his or her cultural background. The term “playwright/protagonist imperative” is one I coined to describe the rule I follow when selecting the plays we produce. Playwright must be of a Silk Road background, and the protagonist, or a central character, must also be of said background.
When cultural background and family heritage inspire creativity, representation is planted squarely in the author's domain. This is why artists are best suited to representing themselves. In producing playwrights who hail from the communities about which they write, we are aligning the company’s subjective voice with aesthetics and perspectives rooted in Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean experiences. The characters rendered are neither angels nor demons, their stories neither celebrations nor indictments, but complex, three dimensional, sometimes painful portrayals of the human condition. And in giving voice to playwrights seldom heard on the American stage, we aim to integrate their plays within the canon of American theatre.
SRTP’s tag line is Global Theatre for a Global City. We take notions of global citizenry and global thinking quite seriously, and we share a keen appreciation for the role art plays in fostering understanding between peoples. America’s relationships with countries of the Silk Road have become increasingly characterized by conflict and complexity, and we feel it right to defuse some of that “angst” with the empathy that emerges when we find ourselves in someone else’s story. As a Chicago based company, SRTP contributes to the global education of Chicagoans by generating dialogue across the city’s diverse communities. SRTP’s audience has been singled out and celebrated as one of Chicago’s most diverse in terms of ethnicity, race, age, and economic status, and for our rare mix of first time and veteran theatregoers.
It is estimated that some one and half million people of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean backgrounds live in the Chicago metropolitan area, and yet we seldom see ourselves on Chicago’s stages. The absence of such visibility reinforces our marginalization within American culture, and inhibits us from building bridges with the broader American public. This lack of Silk Road representation also discourages young people in our communities from pursuing careers in the performing arts. It erodes appreciation for theatre within our communities, stifling the cultivation of a potentially formidable theatre-going audience.
Therefore, we engage our mission with an overtly activist bent. We provide mentoring and professional opportunities to artists of Silk Road backgrounds. We partner with grassroots, community based organizations. We aim to expand the theatre community’s discourse on race and ethnicity. And we demonstrate that theatre with Asian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean content can indeed generate mainstream interest and success. The resonance of our mission and the quality of our product is, I humbly suggest, validated by the critical acclaim for our shows and in the many awards we’ve received, including: the 2008 Broadway in Chicago EMERGING THEATER AWARD, the 2008 City of Chicago HUMAN RELATIONS AWARD, and the 2007 Asian American Institute MILESTONE MAKERS AWARD.
It has been said that every partnership has its better half, and in this case, that would be our hosts at the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple. An institution with a rich and distinguished past, the First United Methodist Church is in fact the oldest congregation in Chicago. In 1831, six years before Chicago official founding, back when Fort Dearborn was an outpost on the United States’ western frontier, a group of Methodist circuit riders founded the church. Over its 177-year history, five buildings have provided the congregation a home in which to worship—the first being a log cabin on the north bank of the Chicago River. In 1838, in a move that foreshadowed the adventurousness and ingenuity of the young congregation, the log cabin was floated across the river and rolled on logs to the very site the church occupies today: the southeast corner of Washington and Clark Streets in the Chicago Loop. Of the church buildings that followed, one was razed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and others were outgrown and replaced, with each new building representing a bold improvement over the previous.
FUMC’s current home, the magnificent Historic Chicago Temple Building, was designed by the renowned architectural firm of Holabird & Roche. Construction began in 1922 and was completed two years later. The Temple has long heralded for its architectural beauty and its magnificent spire. Constructed of gray and white Bedford stone and blending the grace of the French Gothic cathedral with the pragmatism of an American skyscraper, the Chicago Temple became, when first dedicated, the tallest building in Chicago. In addition to housing the church, the parsonage, the Chapel in the Sky, commercial spaces, and of course, Silk Road Theatre Project, the 27-story Chicago Temple building also features 17 floors of private offices, primarily occupied by attorneys.
Today, with more than 1000 members, the congregation has contributed enormously to Chicago’s spiritual, civic, and cultural development, having been described as “a microcosm of the history of Chicago and of the nation itself.” Celebrated as one of Chicago’s most diverse congregations, members hail from every ZIP Code in the city as well as 80+ suburbs. The congregation’s rich ethnic, racial and economic diversity, as well as its welcoming and affirming embrace of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, makes FUMC an ideal partner for SRTP.
Of special note is the relationship Malik and I enjoy with FUMC’s Senior Pastor Philip Blackwell. It is a relationship characterized by absolute trust and respect, not to mention a great deal of admiration. Malik is Muslim and I was raised in the Antiochian (Syrian) Orthodox Church, and yet we both refer to Phil as “our pastor!” Interestingly, Phil and I both received degrees from The University of Chicago Divinity School: he a Doctor of Ministry (1986) and me an A.M.R.S. (1992). I truly believe that the philosophical “aesthetics” of the Divinity School are alive and well both in the mission of SRTP and in our relationship with FUMC, and the degree to which my experience at the Divinity School informs my role as Artistic Director never ceases to amaze me.
If anyone were to tell me, back when SRTP was “gestating in the wombs of our minds,” that the most significant patron and champion of our vision would be a Methodist church (or any church for that matter), I would have dismissed the thought as impossible. But a funny thing happens when you start your own theatre company. Many who you expect will support you do not, and often your greatest supporters turn out to be those you never thought would care. My own religiosity is a sliding scale and a slippery slope, but I can say with certainty that the bond between FUMC and SRTP is a blessed one indeed. Amen to that.
The following is an interview with Reverend Philip Blackwell, Senior Pastor at the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple.
How would you describe the relationship between FUMC and SRTP?
The relationship is based entirely on trust. We have a rigorous written agreement, but we hope that we will never have to refer to it to answer a question or address a concern. It also is a relationship that is growing; it is not stagnant. We continue to surprise ourselves with what might be possible.
How did you first meet Jamil and Malik?
Jamil and Malik arranged to see me about buying a block of tickets for one of the early plays of SRTP. When we met, it took me a while to glimpse the vision of what they were trying to do—start a theatre that would focus on stories written by people from the historic Silk Road about people from the historic Silk Road. All of this, they explained, was in response to the attacks of 9/11. My imagination began to run free as they spoke, and I could see how what they understood as mission, and I as ministry, might overlap.
What compelled you to invite SRTP to become the theatre-in residence at the Chicago Temple?
The compelling notion was that both the church and the theatre are about storytelling, and that our core Christian story is a Silk Road story. I always have known that we cannot fully understand the story of Jesus unless we see him in both his historical and social context. So it made sense to me to have, on location, a theatre project invested in telling stories that, in direct and indirect ways, comment upon the church’s story.
Do you see the respective missions of FUMC and SRTP as complementary?
It’s a key part of our mission, as a Christian church at the heart of the city, to encourage dialogue among people of different faiths, and of no particular faith. There must be a safe place to talk to one another. We best can accept one another once we have heard each other’s “story.” SRTP has had an enormous influence on this happening in Chicago.
How does SRTP fit into your vision of the Chicago Temple as a cultural destination?
There is an historic role for the church—often as a “cathedral”—to promote the arts and shape the culture. For centuries the churches of Europe were the patrons of music, drama, and dance. Today, the Chicago Temple can be a kind of oasis for cultural expression in the midst of the city’s governmental/financial/commercial district. The more we can bring people together in our sanctuary, and other public spaces, for cultural events, the more we are fulfilling our mission to serve the whole community. It cannot be only at 11 am, on Sundays, on our terms, that we are the church. We must be more than that to as many people as possible, as often as we can.
How do you address the issue of artistic freedom?
It is crucial that SRTP has artistic freedom. Without that, they would receive no grant money or community support. We at the church understand and honor that. All we ask is that the productions do not bring dishonor to the church, or undermine our work in the community. This is where trust is crucial.
Has SRTP proven a good partner for FUMC?
SRTP is a wonderful “foot forward” for us in the community. People in Chicago know about it who do not know about the church. So, it introduces us to a population whom we wouldn’t otherwise meet. It also gives us a distinctive claim that causes people to stop and think, “what kind of church is this that has a theatre in the basement and lets them do anything they want to do?” Also, within the life of the church, SRTP increasingly is providing programs and opportunities for members of the congregation to grow in their personal understanding of other cultures.
What role did SRTP play in the decision to renovate Pierce Hall on the church’s lower level?
The congregation had to restore Pierce Hall and the entire lower level of the Chicago Temple because water damage had made areas unsightly and unsafe. Our decision to do this was made just as we were in our initial conversations with SRTP. So we listened to the needs and hopes the theatre folks had for the space, and we tried to incorporate them into the master plan. It helped a great deal that STRP was willing to make some noticeable financial commitments toward the additions. We ended up with a space more versatile than we first had planned, and SRTP wound up with a home that has served them very well.
How has time-sharing with SRTP worked, given that Pierce Hall is a multi-user space?
Sharing space is always a matter of trade-offs, but it’s also a time of buy-ins. Because SRTP is part of our “extended family” (as is the tutoring program, the Chicago Humanities Festival, and the Interfaith Thanksgiving Service) we learn a lot from just being around each other. At the same time, I think that the actors and theatre crew have found it interesting, even meaningful, to be in a church. The shared space makes things complex — without SRTP around, things would be so boring!