In an auditorium packed with students and professors, Elmaz Abinader, Lebanese-American poet, author, and performance artist, recently presented a selection from her latest play — “Under the Ramadan Moon.” Each semester Mills College invites one prominent member of the artistic or cultural community for their Colloquium; this year Abinader, a faculty member at Mills, was chosen for this honor.
“Under the Ramadan Moon” is a one-woman show accompanied by the Country of Origin band, lead by Tony Khalife, a Lebanese composer and guitarist. The band’s haunting and repetitive refrains, which combine Middle Eastern and African motifs, provide an appropriate background for a play that explores the themes of travel, cultural mythologies, and the politics of identity.
In the late 1990s, Abinader was the recipient of a Fulbright fellowship, which allowed her do research and writing in Egypt and as well as other parts of the Arab World. Abinader draws upon her insights and experiences during that year to create a multimedia presentation, which uses anecdote and irony to dramatize the situation of Arab-American women.
This fluid and accessible production hinges on some very basic paradoxes of the Arab American identity. The “Arab” and the “American” are often pitted against each other inside of one individual, who must find a way to accept both. The two ‘dueling’ sides long for simple meaning, but never will achieve it, due to the cultural and political rivalries and the mythologies/veils that separate them.
An example of how this duality plays out: in “Ramadan Moon” Abinader explains how she was held up for eight hours in a London airport because they “thought they had an Arab in disguise.” In other words, they didn’t think she was really an American, and they didn’t think she looked “Arab enough.” And then when she arrived in Saudi Arabia she was detained in a locked room, apparently because she didn’t seem “American enough.” Since she didn’t have the stereotypical blond hair, and since she was clearly unveiled, the customs agents assumed that she was a Syrian or Lebanese prostitute. Sexuality, again and again, becomes one of the defining issues/dilemmas of the Arab-American woman.
Throughout the play, Abinader makes the audience aware that there is an enormous gap between our perceptions of the Arab World and the actual lived experience. And she rails against the fact that Americans only seem to want to “learn” about Arabs when oil prices rise, or when there has been a bombing in Jerusalem, or in Oklahoma City…but in her voyage to the Arab World she also discovers the same lack of understanding about the Western experience.
For an audience with little or no background in these issues, Abinader’s play will be evocative and informative. The issues she raises, which now remain in the realm of erasure, are thought-provoking, especially for American culture at large, which for all of its talk of ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘diversity,’ remains frightfully unable to embrace the Other — unless, of course, there’s a profit to be made from it. It is perhaps this weighing xenophobia that engenders work like Abinader’s — an artist who speaks for many when she says: We are strangers here, a line from her latest book of poetry, “In the Country of My Dreams.”
This review appeared in Al Jadid (Vol.7, no. 34, Winter 2001)
Copyright (c) 2001 by Al Jadid