Professor Michael Najjar Publishes Anthology

book coverFour Arab American Plays
Works by Leila Buck, Jamil Khoury, Yussef El Guindi, and Lameece Issaq & Jacob Kader

Edited by Michael Malek Najjar
Afterword by Jamil Khoury

Four Arab American Plays is the first published collection of plays by contemporary Arab American playwrights. Available from McFarland Books.

Michael Malek Najjar is assistant professor of Theatre Arts at the University of Oregon in Eugene. He has published in academic journals and encyclopedias and has created the first university course in Arab American Drama. He lives in Eugene, Oregon.

Q&A with Michael Malek Najjar:

How did you select the plays/playwrights to include in this anthology?
There really is an “embarrassment of riches” when it comes to contemporary Arab American plays. There are many gifted writers working right now: Yussef El Guindi, Betty Shamieh, Heather Raffo, Leila Buck–the list goes on and on. The original version of this anthology contained seven plays but McFarland thought we should try four plays in this first volume and, if it is successful, we can then publish other volumes in the future.  I chose ISite by Leila Buck because it deals with the trials of Arab immigrants and the difficulties faced by children of those immigrants born in the United States. The play was a one-woman show performed by Buck herself, so it is both a very personal statement by the author and a physical embodiment of her life as a daughter of an American diplomat father and a Lebanese-American mother. I chose Jamil Khoury’s play Precious Stones because I directed the world premiere at Silk Road Theatre Project (now Silk Road Rising) in 2003. I thought that I would be able to bring a very personal perspective to the play since I was there throughout Jamil’s writing process and I directed the play myself. Also, the play explores the lives of gay Arab Americans in a way no play before it had attempted.  Yussef El Guindi’s Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat is a great play by one of the best Arab American (and, by extension, American) playwrights working today. His play explores the intra-Arab conflicts that are tearing the community apart, especially in the wake of the persecution following 9/11.  El Guindi believes in showing the community “warts and all” and he does so in a very powerful and controversial manner.  Lastly, Food and Fadwa is a beautiful portrait of a Palestinian family that is being pressured both by the forces of occupation and emigration. The play takes place in the West Bank and dramatizes the lives of Palestinians who are dealing with the exigencies of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The anthology also includes an afterword by Silk Road Rising’s artistic director Jamil Khoury titled “Toward an Arab American Theatre Movement” that outlines his vision for the future of this genre.
This is the first published collection of plays by contemporary Arab American playwrights. Are you surprised this has not happened earlier? What moved you do this now?
Several Arab American plays have been included in previous anthologies, but never under the title “Arab American.”  My anthology seeks to remedy this situation because these plays are entirely specific to Arab and American issues.  Other anthologies looked at these plays as “Middle Eastern American” or “Feminist” or “Ethnic” dramas.  I agree with those genre titles, but  I also wanted to add that these works are also very much about “Arabness” and how that identity is manifested both within and outside the Arab community in the United States.  One of the problems we face as Americans is seeing entire ethnic groups as monolithic.  Instead, we need to realize that these groups are comprised of a myriad of religious, ethnic, and tribal affiliations.  Even the term “Arab American” is a very broad umbrella under which you can find disparate Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faiths.  Also, these writers specifically self-identity as Arab Americans.  This is very important because, as we all know, race is ultimately a social construct.  Therefore, their identity as Arab Americans is one of allegiance that defines them both as writers and as human beings.  It is a socio-political identity with many personal and political implications.
Who are you hoping will enjoy/benefit most from this collection?
My hope is that readers and audiences will come to appreciate the rich tapestry that is Arab America.  My preface is an attempt to educate audiences about the diversity of Arab Americans, to introduce them to plays and playwrights they have most likely never heard of before and, hopefully, to introduce artistic directors to these works so that they might be produced again and again in regional theatres.  In the final analysis, these are good American plays that should be widely produced.
Any new projects in the works?
I’m currently under contract by McFarland for my manuscript about a history and analysis of modern and contemporary Arab American theatre, film, and performance.  I’m also working on commissioning more of the early plays written in Arabic translated into English.  I’m intent on publishing an anthology of those translated plays by writers like Kahlil Gibran, Ameen Rihani, and Mikhail Naimy.  Most people only known Gibran from his book The Prophet, but he was also a playwright.  Rihani wrote the first Arab American novel titled The Book of Khalid, but he also wrote the first Arab American play in English titled Wajdah.  Mikhail Naimy is a fascinating writer because he actually graduated from the University of Washington and lived a Thoreau-esque existence in a small cabin outside of Walla Walla, where he did a lot of his work.  These early immigrants have been overlooked for over a century, and  I would like to reintroduce them to American readers and audiences.  I believe they are important because they have so much to say to us now about life, spirituality, and the immigrant American experience.

University Theatre Designs Honored

Brad Steinmetz’s set design for Metamorphosis (Robinson Theatre 2009), Alexandra Bond’s costume designs for Love Will Shake (Robinson Theatre 2012), and Natasha Kolosowsky’s designs for a dance piece from before her time at UO were selected for exhibition in World Stage Design 2013. The curators chose 100 designs out of over 700 entries from countries around the world. webpage: http://www.wsd2013.com. In addition to the exhibits, there will be workshops. seminars, performances, etc. all celebrating design for performance.