ARTS & THEATER

Home and Exile in Queer MENA Theatremaking

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Nabra: That’s very exciting.

Marina: We have to come back to immersive site-specific soon, yes.

Nabra: Yeah, as soon as anyone says immersive site-specific, I’m a thousand percent sold and my FOMO kicks in in a big way and I’m upset that I can’t see it. So I’m very impressed. And also, we have to point out that we’ve got some international situations happening here, because Zeyn, you’re in Italy. Where in Italy?

Zeyn: I am based in Bergamo, which is in the north of Italy near Milan.

Nabra: Lovely. And then Raphaël’s calling in from Berlin. So thank you so much for figuring out our time zones here.

Raphaël: I want to ask Zeyn when exactly the site-specific immersive piece is going to be, because it sounds amazing.

Zeyn: Oh, the one in New York, you mean? Or…

Raphaël: Yeah, yeah.

Zeyn: It doesn’t have a date yet or anything.

Raphaël: Okay.

Zeyn: I’m still writing the thing, so we’ll see.

Raphaël: So amazing.

Zeyn: Thanks.

Nabra: That’s exciting. And Raphaël, what are you working on that you’re excited about?

Raphaël: Okay, I’m working on… During the pandemic, I spent a lot of time researching, because I was gainfully unemployed and it was an opportunity for me to delve into theatre history and into plants. Because I’m very much interested in ethnobotany and plant archeology, and it came up suddenly just as the pandemic hit.

And so I started looking into plants, and then I slowly found a relationship between plants and theatre, and also queerness and transness in ancient theatre. And so my latest play, or text I might call it, is about all that history. And I’m going to present it, some of the research will be presented, in Brazil late this September at a trans feminist conference. And then it will premiere, actually, in Belfast in November at Outburst Queer Arts Festival. So that’s the bulk of what I’m working on now, yeah.

Nabra: And when is Outburst?

Raphaël: Outburst starts on the 9th of November I believe, and it lasts for about two weekends, starting from that weekend until the weekend after it. And it’s a really brilliant festival. I started getting involved with them right before the pandemic. I was on a panel and then we stayed in contact, and then they commissioned this new play. And it’s a beautiful queer festival, and I encourage anybody listening to look into it and to visit it.

Marina: Definitely. We’ll hyperlink it so they can have some easy access in the transcript.

Raphaël: Thank you, yeah.

Marina: Yeah. Can you say more about ethnobotany, which may or may not be the first time I’m hearing this phrase?

Raphaël: I mean, again, I’m an amateur kind of sleuth, but it’s really the relationship of people and culture to plants. So it looks especially into shamanism and rituals and herbal medicine, and the way people used plants mostly before industrialization. There is of course people who still practice plant medicine now, but less than before. And of course there’s increasing interest nowadays with people getting into astrology again, and tarot and shamanism and all that. So I’m happy about that.

Nabra: Well, I can always connect you to my mom, who definitely still uses Nubian-

Raphaël: What?!

Nabra: … plant rituals. Yes, absolutely.

Raphaël: Look at me, I just woke up, I’m like…

Nabra: She’s absolutely always like, “Don’t go to the doctor. Your teeth ache— I’m going to just boil mango leaves that I found, and you’re going to steam your teeth.” And that is what happens every time our teeth hurt. So she will tell you all of the old Nubian rituals.

Raphaël: Hell yeah, hell yeah.

Nabra: Absolutely. That would be really fun to preserve those as well.

Raphaël: That is amazing.

Nabra: As much as I wish to go to a doctor, I still do the steaming of the mango leaves. It’s the combination of both, I think.

Raphaël: I’ve never heard that. I’m so intrigued. Fantastic. And that’s interesting, because mangoes, from what I’ve read, they’re a new introduction to Egypt, like a hundred twenty, hundred forty years old, I want to say, in Egypt, they brought them from India. That’s what I’ve read, but this is going against all of that. So now I’m intrigued.

Nabra: Well, since Nubians have been in the same place until the sixties, there’s so much that we just adapt and change according to the world around us.

Raphaël: Yeah.

Nabra: So maybe the same ritual that’s ancient, but with new ingredients. Maybe the mangoes work better than something else, so.

Raphaël: Mango 2.0, love it.

Nabra: Yeah, exactly. It’s the upgrade. It’s the upgrade from question mark, date leaves? We probably used dates for everything. I feel like date palms were the only thing for a long time in most of our medicine, and then…

Raphaël: Well, dates are fantastic, especially the dates from Aswan.

Nabra: Oh of course.

Raphaël: They’re particularly nutritious, actually, from what I’ve read and tasted.

Nabra: Yes. Oh, absolutely.

Raphaël: Yeah, sorry.

Nabra: Yeah, absolutely. Okay well, yeah, we should just-

Raphaël: Digressing.

Nabra: …cancel the episode. We’re going to talk about ethnobotany from now on and immersive site-specific. That’s it.

Raphaël: There you go. Your mom is ethnobotany, that’s exactly what it is.

Marina: Actually, after she started talking, I was like, “Oh yeah, actually I’ve experienced this with her. This is great.”

Nabra: Yes.

Zeyn: This is fascinating.

Nabra: Well, we also wanted to know about the work that… Because we’re talking about home and exile and what you do in the Middle East versus here, I guess, in wherever you’re living now. And so can you talk about what kind of work that you’ve presented in the Middle East or wherever you’ve lived, and how it might have shifted according to geography?

Zeyn: Yeah, Raphaël, if you want to go first, go ahead. I took the last one, so.

Raphaël: Okay. I presented work in the Middle East that has always been behind closed doors, not open to the public. In terms of my own work no matter where I go, we did it in secret, and it was by invitation only, the media wasn’t allowed. So there was-

Zeyn: And where was that?

Raphaël: That was at the American University of Beirut, at a conference. The conference organizers knew about it and they helped us put it together and they gave us a space, and the conference participants came, and we also invited some friends and family to attend. That was in 2014, and the rest of my work has been… I worked as an assistant director for many, many years in Beirut with Lina Abyad, who’s a very prolific and brilliant stage director in Beirut. So I worked under her as her assistant.

But yeah, I haven’t been able to do my work in the Middle East, in the open at least. So a lot of my source and passion comes from there, but I can’t present it there openly, or I haven’t been able to, at least, until now.

Zeyn: Yeah, to be honest, I haven’t spent that much time in the Levant or in North Africa in several years. For a little bit I was spending a bit of time in Beirut and there were some folks that I had worked with there. I did a residency in Beirut at one point and did some writing workshops for local… just not even necessarily local artists and writers, but just people that wanted to come and write with us for an afternoon or two.

So it wasn’t really presenting work, but it was interesting in the sense that it was in a time in my life where I was able to sort of tailor how I was presenting to safety concerns wherever I was. I wasn’t on hormones yet, and so I did have to either speak only in English, so that I could control how I was gendering myself or not gendering myself, or let other people use feminine pronouns for me, and that’s not a thing I can do anymore. And so I just haven’t really spent time there.

I will say one thing that has been cool has been doing other things that have reached people, either readers or people that are interested in the arts that either are Arabic speaking or that are in those regions that read in English. I was in Elias Jahshan’s This Arab Is Queer anthology, I had an essay in there. And I know that’s been fairly widely read, and we even had a free download available for folks that maybe were having a hard time getting copies.

Or just things like, my work has been pretty widely translated. My first book in particular was translated into Arabic and a lot of other languages. My second book less so. My second book has only been translated into French, although obviously for folks that don’t speak English, there are obviously a lot of Arabic-speaking readers that also maybe read in French, so maybe that makes it a little bit more widely available. But because that book is much more… I mean, that book is an explicitly trans book, and the first one, I wasn’t out yet, it’s not an explicitly trans book. So obviously that makes a big difference in how your work is received.

But I will say it has been very cool to get to work with translators. I worked with my French translator on that book for what we could do with language. It’s been cool to see the ways that people are queering language in Arabic, in French, in Italian. I’ve lived here for four years now, I’m pretty much a fluent Italian speaker, and it has been really cool to see how all over the world, even if I’m not able to go to a place or my work hasn’t yet been translated, I can see that things are changing. I can see that people are doing what they can to change the language. And I do think that changing how you engage with a language does change something. I do think it sets us up for what we might be able to do in the future.

Marina: As an Arabic learner, and continuing to learn, I just came back from the summer in Palestine and a little bit in Jordan, and I was also excited by, when people are explaining pieces of the language that I didn’t understand, they were like, “Oh, this is actually a way that we’re now talking about queerness in a different way.” And I was like, “Oh, great.” I’m so glad, first of all, that folks were taking the time to explain it to me, and then also that these new ways of talking and doing, especially in Arabic, which is so beautiful and layered. But also we have with gendered languages these new things that are happening, so I’m really glad that you’re mentioning that too.

Nabra: This is a dichotomy I’ve been seeing and hearing about a lot, which is that queerness is criminalized and discriminated against, and/or, across the Middle East. But it’s also true that queer art is happening across the Middle East, and there’s really exciting work that’s coming out of the Middle East. There always is. There’s always this incredible underground world. And especially in Egypt, I’m seeing a lot less underground, I think especially in the novel, graphic novel, comic space, and visual art space.

But what would you like people to know about navigating queerness in your respective countries, or the countries you’ve worked with or been in or engaged with? And what’s happening, what’s coming out of that? As well as just in general, what the status is. Because I think there’s this blanket idea that there is no queerness in the Middle East, which is obviously untrue. But understanding what the status is and what this dichotomy is between this exciting work that’s being done and this exciting art that’s happening, and the difficulties of making that art, is really difficult to grasp when you’re not there.

Marina: Well, and just to add onto that, sometimes people say that it’s not happening because it doesn’t look like a western version of queerness. Right? There’s this set script that the West follows, which now is maybe changing a little bit, but it used to be in queer films, this was the thing, and it was queer suffering. And I think there’s a transition towards queer joy in a lot of different ways, and also just that there’s actually so many ways of existing as humans. So yeah, I think also adding that in, is that when there’s not a queer western script, I think people get befuddled, but that’s just because queerness looks different everywhere.

Raphaël: I want to say that I hear you Nabra, and I feel a little bit pessimistic these days, and I feel like what you’re saying was relevant until about maybe two, three years ago. But what I see now is something very ominous, and I think it’s happening in the US as well, and maybe even a little bit in certain European countries.

For example, I read an article in the New York Times from 2017 about queer artists in Beirut, and some of them of course my friends, and they were very public about what they were doing, and that could never happen right now. Because what we’ve been witnessing in the last year or two all over, and even in places like Lebanon, which we never thought would… Lebanon has eighteen different sects, and in the cracks of those eighteen different sects, there’s always been room to maneuver. Lebanon is the place that had Helem, which was one of the first LGBT human rights organizations.

We’re seeing a massive backlash there. A lot is happening on social media, on the ground. They’re even talking about passing a new law. Up until now, we had only the remnants of a colonial law, which was very loosely interpreted at whim, but now there’s a serious backlash against queers. And I think the same… Egypt has always been pretty intense, but it’s getting worse and worse from what I’m seeing. So I feel actually quite pessimistic about what’s happening, and it’s dangerous.

In Palestine also, I’ve heard of that happening. In Jordan, that’s happening. Even very low profile people are getting arrested or leaving the country. So I think we’re entering something… We’re on the precipice of something very dangerous if not already in it. And I think that’s happening in the US as well, but what I’m seeing in the Middle East, really it’s not good.

Nabra: Do you have any thoughts on why the past couple of years there’s been kind of a catalyst?

Raphaël: And I mean, Zeyn, feel free to chip in if you have any ideas. But I think we’re being scapegoated. I think, for example, Lebanon has seen one catastrophe after another. And I speak about Lebanon, because I am Jordanian, but Jordan has always been very socially conservative and not really a space of freedom, so I don’t really think of it as any kind of litmus test in general. But Lebanon definitely, because I sought refuge there. That was pretty much the only place in the Middle East where I could live as myself, and even then, I couldn’t do a performance in public, as you see.

But Lebanon in particular has faced one catastrophe after the other between the Covid crisis, the explosion of August 4th at the Port, which killed hundreds of people, the economic collapse, which is, they’re experiencing hyperinflation. And so they’ve really scapegoated queer people, which is probably a typical thing. Always when you have fascists, a rise to fascist rise to power, we’re generally an easy target. So I think that might be what’s happening. Yeah, and I think especially with the inflation, just inflation and Covid, that’s already been enough to just push things over the edge, from what I’m seeing. But yeah, maybe Zeyn has more to say.

Zeyn: Yeah, I mean, I can echo everything you’re saying. And I do think the pandemic has led to this consolidation of right-wing power and attempts to scapegoat, as you said Raphaël, and also to… in a particular way, trans people in a lot of countries, but I think queer people, trans people, immigrants, in general, I think, are some of the groups that have been hardest hit. And it’s weird and sad, because also I had spent time in Beirut and in Morocco at one point as well, and I knew and know a lot of queer and trans writers and artists and musicians who had spent time or lived or been from those places as well, and a lot of people have left and are leaving.

And I do think that the rise of these fascist tendencies and right-wing legislations that are either being proposed or being passed in some cases, that we’re seeing in the US, are happening in all of these places as well. It’s happening in Europe too. I mean, look, I live in Italy, and the quality of life for trans people of color and immigrants in general in Italy is not great. And we’re seeing crackdowns on, for example, how difficult they’re trying to make it to get an abortion, crackdowns on bodily autonomy in general, which then obviously, anytime that bodily autonomy is attacked in one way, like reproductive autonomy, then you have also attacks on trans people. And we’re definitely seeing that.

We don’t even have marriage equality here, and there’s still people that want to get rid of the very little that we have, in terms of the law that allows us to get civil unions, which has very recently passed. Very recent. So I think one thing that I’ll say is that for me, my quality of life as a trans, racialized writer, artist, really no matter where I live, I think that in general, it’s very important to remember that we have to find people on the ground wherever we are and try to change our material conditions where we find ourselves, because it’s not going to get better just by virtue of being in Europe or in the US.

I definitely don’t think that we’re on the way to anywhere good. You know what I mean? And I do think that maybe the positive is that even if we are here in Italy, I know a lot of queer Arab artists that have come here, for example. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to live here or anywhere else necessarily, but if we can find each other and continue to make art where we are and try to change things where we are politically as well, then maybe we have a chance. But I definitely agree that it’s a global phenomenon.

Marina: I appreciate you both really sharing what you’ve experienced, and also what your friends and colleagues are experiencing too. I think Zeyn, to your last comments just about community, I think that’s so important, and I appreciate you mentioning, “Yeah, let’s find each other and change these conditions.” And I think that’s what theatre, or at least why I love theatre so much is because for me, that always provides the space with people who tend to be like-minded, or who I can find and say, “Hey, we’re experiencing similar things, and let’s make stories together, and let’s use this to influence what’s going on around us and to change any material conditions we can.” But I would be curious to hear you both talk about just your respective communities in theatre. I also think Zeyn, if your novels, they go abroad, they go outside to different communities too, and so you’re hearing back from different places they’re touching.

Actually, Raphaël, I was smiling earlier when you were talking because you mentioned Lina Abyad, who, two different podcast guests the other day were talking about Lebanese theatre and they mentioned Lina, Sarah Bitar and Lama El Homaïssi were both talking about her. And then also your work has been sort of a theme, because Sivan Battat and Pooya Mohseni were also here. So it feels like this community is threaded together in these really beautiful ways that come back.

So yeah, I guess wanting to open it up to talk about community, to talk about these theatre communities, novel writing communities, just these spaces that you’ve carved out for yourselves and how they inspire and fuel your work. Yeah. Yeah, a vague brief, but let’s see what that brings.

Zeyn: Yalla, then. I mean, I’m really, relatively speaking, quite a newcomer to theatre, in the sense of I did theatre when I was in school and it was something I really enjoyed a lot, but I haven’t done any writing for theatre, really, ever. So this has been really exciting to make this new move with Noor Theatre. And I think that one of the things that has been really exciting for me has been that being able to work with other people, collaborate with other people in the way that theatre really requires you to do opens up possibilities that are just not at all… they’re just completely foreclosed by the novel as a form, by the written word as a form.

I was at the New York Theatre Workshop in August, and I was joking with a lot of people how as a novelist, I often feel like I have to do everything myself, because that’s just the form. That’s what the novel requires of you, right? You’re like, “Well, it’s all on me,” you know? “If I want someone to see this place or do this thing, I have to put it on the page.” And theatre isn’t like that at all. And at first that was a little bit scary, because I was sort of like, “I have to leave space in my script for everyone else that’s going to come in and make this thing with me.” And then I was like, “Wait a minute. I get to leave space for all the people that are going to come in and make this thing with me!” That’s the best part.

And it’s also showing me that doing something that is necessarily an embodied piece of art means that I can do things with space and the body and image that are just impossible to do with the written word. And I think that in that sense, coming to the theatre community from there and being like, “How amazing that there’s things we can say that we can say together that we can’t say when we’re alone?” I think it’s really powerful. Has been for me anyway.

Marina: I love that. Leaving space and having people fill in the space. I mean, yeah, very vulnerable in certain ways, and very powerful.

Raphaël: I think exactly what Zeyn is experiencing as something new and a little bit scary in the beginning has always been what’s attracted me to theatre. And I try as little as possible to put any kind of stage directions in the play, and I would love to see people take anything I’ve written and just explode it and do their own thing with it. So there’s that.

But in terms of community, which is I think what you were asking, it’s been very difficult. Being a trans Jordanian documentary playwright in Germany is like… I know one other playwright and I rarely see him. Just being a playwright is already something very lonely and isolating, I think. And being Jordanian also in exile, we’re not really a people of exile. There’s not huge swaths of Jordanian exiles in other countries in the west. So mostly, I think I know maybe one other Jordanian in Germany? I know one. And so it can be very daunting on so many levels.

But coming to Germany, it’s mostly Syrians who have built up their own communities, especially in theatre. And Germans are more in touch in contact with Syrians and doing theatre with them, and Syrians, understandably after what they’ve been through, they really stick together, so there’s not much room for a Jordanian on either side. So it’s been very difficult for me.

But I’ve managed slowly to, piece by piece, put together my own web of friends in the theatre. The National Queer Theater headed by Adam has been very, very supportive, but they’re in New York. And in 2020, I was supposed to present She He Me in New York, but of course the pandemic made things difficult. So Adam has invited me this coming June to present She He Me in New York, which is really amazing. The support I’ve gotten from the National Queer Theater has been immense, really immense, and not like anything I’ve gotten here.

I do have to say at this point, I have an agent now in Germany, and she’s been really fantastic. Her name is Jessica Hoffman, and she’s trying her utmost to get this play produced in Germany, because it hasn’t been, it’s been produced in Austria. And I’m half German and half Jordanian, so it would mean a lot for me if eventually I could get it produced here.

Germany is not… I feel like in the US if you don’t speak the language, which, I don’t speak German and I came here rather late, in the US it’s much easier for you to say, “I’m an American.” Where in Germany, if you didn’t grow up here, if you don’t speak the language, if you’re not white, there’s so many strikes against you in terms of being able to just say you’re German and have people accept that. They have terms for you. You’re a “passport German,” you’re not considered a real German. It’s really problematic and painful. It’s quite painful to be half German and not having grown up here and speak the language. So it’s been very challenging for me to…

And being a playwright, as much as, Zeyn explained it so beautifully, where theatre is a collaborative art, you’re always at home in front of your computer also writing, and it’s kind of frustrating. You want to be in the theatre. So there’s a lot of lonely aspects to it, but slowly I have met some wonderful people who are doing their best. And being trans is a whole other level to it, because I don’t know about the US, but in Germany there aren’t trans actors in the ensemble.

In Germany, how it happens is every theatre has its in-house ensemble, and they’ll put on the play using the same actors every time, or they’ll rotate them between different plays. And of course, they don’t have trans actors, let alone trans actors of color. They have very few actors of color. It’s very new in Germany that they even have started to discuss changing the dynamics of power and race in their theatres. So in the last couple of years, we have seen female directors and female heads of theatres more visible in Germany, but this is something new. So when it comes to my play for example, to produce it, a lot of people tell my agent, “Well, we don’t have any trans actors of color, so we can’t produce this play.”

And even before I had an agent getting it, I sent it, because in Germany you send it to agencies and they distribute it to the theatres. You can’t just write to the theatre and say, “I have this new play.” So I remember getting rejected even from the agents, or the publishing houses saying, “Well, German theatres don’t have actors of color, so we can’t publish your play, we can’t distribute it.” Even gatekeeping before it got to the theatre, telling me Germany doesn’t have… So that’s been… But very slowly, very incrementally this is changing, and that’s what I’m dealing with. So it’s been tough. I need whiskey. Is there whiskey?

Marina: Always a good time for that. But no, I’m really not particularly familiar with the German system of doing things.

Raphaël: Yeah.

Marina: I think in the US, similar systems used to exist. I mean, they’re still not casting enough actors of color, not enough trans actors, not enough trans actors of color. But there used to be a system where this theatre had all of these white actors, and that’s how they put on the plays, and that was what they relied on. But I’m not familiar now with the German system. So thanks for just giving us some context to what you’re also dealing with there, because there are several hurdles as you talked about.

Raphaël: Yeah, because I came from Jordan, where Jordan… Forget about Jordan. There’s no way I can possibly… Just existing in Jordan is… So I came from a place where I couldn’t put on my plays, because they’re about trans stuff and about talking about sex and sexuality, to a country where you can talk about sex and sexuality, but then you have a whole new other set of problems. So it’s complicated.

Nabra: It’s so interesting how geography plays into how and where and when we can do our art. And it’s so interesting to have your perspective as well, Zeyn, as a novelist and now a theatremaker, because I think of the fact that novels can travel, that as long as they can get somewhere online-

Raphaël: Right. Download it!

Nabra: … someone can sneak it into their house or something like that. And the fact that you have one novel already translated in Arabic, that hopefully this next novel can be translated into Arabic. And as you said, this connection with French colonialism in the Middle East makes it so that there’s this possibility of folks accessing your work. Because of the reliance on community that we have in theatre as an industry, as Raphaël was sharing, there’s just so many factors, so many people who need buy-in who need to be involved in order for anyone to even see a piece of theatre. And yet also hearing these hurdles that you have as a novelist when it comes to sharing your work more widely.

And Raphaël, you mentioned exile, the idea of exile, and I wanted to talk about that, because I think exile is something that looms constantly for queer MENA theatre artists and also MENA theatre artists, I think, in general, who are talking about anything that our families, countries, cultures don’t want to talk about. And I wonder, first of all, what you mean by being an exile and if you’re willing to share that part of your story, as well as how both of you consider this idea of exile as people who are not living in the Middle Eastern countries y’all are from.

It’s still something that us who are living abroad are constantly thinking about, because we want to visit our families, we want to be connected with those homelands in a lot of situations, but this fear of not being able to do that either because of an actually government-imposed exile or a familial exile or a fear of our safety in those spaces, or discrimination in those spaces, whether that’s literally we are in exile on paper, or there’s so many other ways that that can manifest.

I wonder how you consider that in your art making, if you do consider it in your art making, and how that’s maybe affected you? So we can all learn, as we as MENA theatremakers are constantly afraid of this, how can we all learn from each other and navigate that looming word and idea?

Raphaël: Yalla Zeyn, this one’s for you now.

Zeyn: You want me to start?

Raphaël: Sure, yeah.

I do think that the experience of being an immigrant anywhere changes you. And so obviously, anything that changes you also changes your art.

Zeyn: Yeah, no, I think we’re both trying to get our thoughts together, because a very important question and point you’re bringing up, and a very personal one. And there’s a lot of things that come into my mind to say, one of which is that I considered for a very long time in what capacity I was willing and able to be out.

And there were years where I thought, “Maybe I can walk some kind of a line where I’m out to some people and not to others, or in certain situations and not others.” But I think the difficulty as a trans person is that there’s only so much you can do. And I do think that the expected narrative of, “Oh, you have to come out to be valid or to have a narrative that is recognized as a narrative” is a very western idea. And at the same time, some of us are just out when we walk down the street, and being in that situation means that I can no longer go to some places in the world, or just even in my own city, that I would like to.

And that’s hard, obviously. I would love to go to Syria, and there’s a lot of family in many parts of the world that I would love to see, but either I don’t have relationships with anymore or places I just can’t go. And that’s just a reality, and I know it’s a reality for a lot of other people too, not just me. How that affects my work? I mean, I am an immigrant here in Italy. I’ve been going through the immigration process for the last three years, just about, a little more than three years. And what’s interesting is, well for one thing, I do think that the experience of being an immigrant anywhere changes you. And so obviously, anything that changes you also changes your art.

Who I am in Italy, let’s say existing in Italy, has also changed some of the things that I thought about who I was and how I show up in certain kinds of spaces. It’s taught me things about myself. It’s changed how I talk about myself. Just the act of learning another language and figuring out what modes of expression are available to me in that language.

I’ve written several essays by this point, probably, about how it can be very hard to speak a gendered language, and at the same time it can be extremely empowering as a trans person, because I can argue with someone about my pronouns in a polite way. Right? Where someone just genders me casually, and I can just casually gender myself correctly in response to their incorrect gendering, and we can have whole arguments that are just in subtext, which is actually very fascinating.

But the difference between being an immigrant and an expat is that I have to deal with the immigration system, I have to deal with oppressive systems, in a way that someone who maybe can come on a tourist visa and go back, and isn’t beholden into certain systems, they don’t come up against those kinds of oppressions as much. And so for me, being clear with myself and with other people about, “Okay, I’m an immigrant in Europe, and this is what it means to be an Arab, trans, queer immigrant here” has also just made it so that I’m very acutely aware of how important finding my people is, how important my people are, no matter where I go.

And for sure that’s changed how I write, even just in the fact that I’m really tuned into the material reality of not just my own existence, but all of the people that I care about who also live varying levels and types of marginalization here in the US, in the Levant, in North Africa, other folks in diaspora that live here. All of those things obviously change us as artists, but I think it’s important to be tuned into the social conditions of life wherever we are in any particular moment.

Raphaël: I’m so glad that Zeyn joined us. You’re so eloquent, Zeyn, it’s a pleasure to hear you speak. It’s like reading a novel. It’s like reading something written down, which is a pleasure, really.

Marina: I was thinking about that. “I was like, how is this a perfectly formed…”

Raphaël: It’s edited, it’s ready to go, ready for print. Hot off the press, Zeyn. Amazing.

Zeyn: Thanks y’all.

Raphaël: I guess it’s my turn. Exile.

Nabra: I feel like you’re avoiding this, Raphaël. Which you can if you want!

Marina: And you’re allowed to avoid it too.

Raphaël: It’s hard to speak about because it’s been going on for so long. First of all, I’m what people call mixed or mixed race, so I’ve always had this level of otherness even since I was a kid. And also I grew up in Saudi Arabia, and we weren’t from Saudi Arabia, so we’re already outsiders. And then I came back to my home country, which is supposed to be Jordan, and I was somebody strange and other. And in terms of queerness, I’ve always known that I needed to be out, and when that happened to me… I was in my twenties in the nineties, and so being out in Jordan in the nineties was pretty difficult. So I left Jordan in 1997 because I wanted to be out, and I moved to San Francisco in order to be out.

And that was a very deep level of exile in the nineties, being across the world and not having social media, barely having telephone access, really not having support at all from my family. On the contrary, feeling like they were upset and they didn’t really want me how I was. And so it was kind of like a running away from home situation.

So it was very difficult the first few years in terms of the homesickness alone. That was so deep, not knowing when I would ever be able to go back to Jordan, and being all the way across the world. So it’s become a part of something integral to me now. I don’t know what it feels like to be at home. I’m a little bit jealous of looking around at German people who are living in the place where they were born, or, “That’s my school, or that’s the street where I grew up.” I’m a little bit jealous. I’m like, “I wonder what it feels like to just have that simple of a life.” You know what I mean? So.

At the same time, it’s been very enriching to be in exile. I mean, I have friends, I was in California in last December, and every night somebody came to pick me up to hang out, or go have dinner, go have lunch, go see a show. And then my friends in California, some of them are jealous of me. They’re like, “But you’re traveling all over the world.” It goes both ways I guess, you know? But I’m definitely ready to feel at home somewhere.

And being trans, I can no longer enter Jordan on my own passport. It’s impossible to change your gender identity on your papers, at least in Jordan. So there’s that. And yeah, I think what Zeyn was saying was really deep, being trans and not being able to hide it anymore. But at the same time, you win your body back, and then the world makes you pay a big price for that. You know? So here we are. Yeah.

Nabra: Well, I wanted to kind of end, question mark, with… Because we have so little time and there’s so much to dive into, but you’ve already shared so much. But I wanted to wrap up with this gigantic question of, “So, why do you make art?”

And I hate this question so much, but I’ll give you my answer, because I really believe that art is what changes culture. And obviously there’s something that deeply fuels us as artists to continue in the face of all this. Both of you have shared the ways in which exile… in which these considerations in all of these different countries, we’ve kind of gone across the world in this conversation, also really are not choices in any way.

They’re how you present, they’re how other folks see you, they’re what’s on your passport, they’re what’s on documents. They’re really physical reasons why yourself and your stories are out there. And yet you still take the extra step to write them and make sure they get out there and organize secret conference performances and translate these pieces, and continue to fight these systems by virtue of simply creating art and trying to have folks hear that art, which I believe is incredibly powerful. That is purely what will change culture across our respective communities and countries, in my opinion.

But I wonder, from your perspectives, if you’re able to articulate it, why do you continue to make art? To have something to wrap us up with here.

Zeyn: Do you want to start or should I?

Raphaël: Yalla, Zeyn, yalla.

Nabra: “Zeyn, yalla” has been a recurring theme.

I am not now, nor will I ever be, making things for everyone, and that that not just has to be okay, but that that’s actually a strength of the work. 

Zeyn: Oh, I mean… I think that one of the things that I think about a lot is who I’m trying to talk to in the art that I make. I think that that’s helped me to stay clear on what projects I choose to invest my time in and my energy in, and just how I go about my personal and professional life is just being really clear who I’m making things for, and understanding that I am not now, nor will I ever be, making things for everyone, and that that not just has to be okay, but that that’s actually a strength of the work. And so that’s one thing.

And I think that we talked about safety and we talked about all of the ways that the world works very hard to constrict us, so this may seem surprising, what I’m going to say, but generally I try, I don’t always succeed, but I try really hard to put all of that sort of outside the door of the room where I’m working, and try to just make the thing that I want or need to make, and then worry about all of that other stuff later. I try to just worry about, “What is the thing that I really need to say to the people that I really need to talk to?”

And that may be other racialized trans people, it may be a wider or more narrow audience. But generally speaking, I’m usually in my work trying to speak first and foremost to other people that are marginalized in some way that I understand intimately. Because if I try to let too many people into my head, I will just not be able to say anything.

And so I think that’s also relevant when it comes to safety concerns, in terms of, okay, maybe even if it isn’t safe to say something publicly in such and such a space, at such and such a moment, what we know to be true, we can still say at least to ourselves. I think we do owe it to ourselves to at least be honest in our art, and then figure out how we’re going to go about making that art visible to other people later.

So I don’t know. And I don’t know how helpful that is, but it’s at least something that’s helped me a little bit, is just to be like, “Who is my audience? Who is this art for?” And then try to just make the thing that needs to be made and worry about all the rest of it later.

Marina: I love that. Raphaël, do you want to tag in?

Raphaël: Another perfect answer! For me sometimes I think, “Oh, this is a choice.” It’s kind of like being gay, it’s kind of like being trans, being an artist, for me. It feels like something genetic, where my mind’s like, “Why don’t you just be a software engineer? Why are you doing this to yourself?” It’s so hard to be a playwright, it’s ridiculous. People can download my work, but it needs to be staged, you know? It’s a bit sad.

So a lot of times, especially as I get older and I need more, material security becomes a question. “Am I doing the right thing? Why am I doing this?” And then I realize that I can’t change this and I need to accept it and I need to just go with it. Because for many years I’ve worked such a plethora of other jobs, and it’s just made me pretty miserable.

And looking back, at home I find old home videos where I’ve written a script for my cousins in the village to play. And at the end, it’s like, “A play by…” and then I’ll put my name. I thought that was a play, even though it was on video. Like, “What?” I don’t know how I knew this. I had never seen a play. Where did I see a play? I grew up in Saudi Arabia. I don’t understand it. You know?

So this is something, really, that’s been there the whole time. And I’ve been obsessed, trying to act at school as much as I could, or I would go… In Jordan, the closest we had to anything was the encyclopedia, and the British Council had a library, and I would go and I would put the headphones on and watch videos of Shakespeare’s plays in seventh grade and just memorize it, and just listen to the BBC radio, listen to all of Shakespeare’s plays that way. So it’s just something that I can’t change. So I don’t know.

And in terms of if I believe it can… I mean, that’s why I keep doing it, is because it’s an addiction. It’s a very, very severe addiction. This is the best way I can put it. I need help.

Zeyn: I can relate to that.

Raphaël: Right?

Zeyn: Yeah.

Raphaël: Yeah.

Nabra: I agree, yeah. The idea that art is like queerness in that it’s not a choice is an absolutely true idea. You’re completely correct. We all need help, somebody help us. But also we’re the ones helping the rest of the world, so what are we going to do? There’s no one else to help us.

Raphaël: Especially theatre. Theatre is bad. It’s like you have a case of theatre, it’s bad.

Nabra: Yeah, it’s true.

Zeyn: Who would do this to themselves?

Raphaël: That’s exactly what I’m talking about. But I think… Can theatre change the… What was the question that you asked? If it can change…

Nabra: Oh my goodness. I was asserting that art is what changes culture, but I guess yeah, I can ask that as a question. Do you agree?

Raphaël: I believe that it used to, and that’s kind of the play that I’m working on now, is precisely proving that it used to, in a very visceral and in a very tangible intervention in society. And I believe that’s all, especially theatre has been taken out of this ritualistic context and put into a capitalist context, and it’s no longer what it was. But I definitely believe that it used to. But I’m very interested to hear what Zeyn has to say about that.

Zeyn: Oh gosh. I mean, I don’t know, to be… I wish that I could be like, “Absolutely! We’re going to change…” But I don’t know if I can say that. I think that especially in terms of novels, being primarily a novelist, I think that a book can change the world for one person. Do you know what I mean?

There’s so many pieces of art that have absolutely changed my little micro world that have made me feel possible. And I don’t know, I think maybe that’s the best… It sounds pessimistic, okay? But actually I’m not sure that it is, to say that I think that might be the best we can hope for, and that anything else is just the icing on the cake. That if the art that I’m making changes something or makes somebody feel possible for one person who reads it or is in the audience or whatever, then okay, I’m on board. You know?

Nabra: Absolutely. I mean, what is culture but people? It’s people and art. So I can completely agree with you, Zeyn. And I feel like Raphaël’s secret new play, soon hopefully not to be secret, soon to be done and out in the world, is such a great cliffhanger. I can’t wait to hear the, “Why does theatre not work anymore?” Because I have a lot of similar sentiments in some worlds, and a lot of critiques on US theatre today, and so interested in hearing your perspective on that. But we’re all doomed to create theatre and to be queer, and to do all the things that are genetically required of us in that way, for better or worse. And we’re thankful for that.

Raphaël: Actually, Zeyn has so many talents and degrees, Zeyn is actually a biologist.

Zeyn: I like how you outed me!

Raphaël: I’m an opera singer, so. I think we need to ask Zeyn about the genetics of wanting to do theatre. And also I think we should talk to Zeyn, because I talked about plants. Zeyn has a fantastic array of fauna and animal life in his work that is just like, that is a podcast that needs to happen, because it is impressive.

Zeyn: Habibi thank you.

Marina: I was actually thinking about that, because we didn’t get to talk about the immersive site-specific, we didn’t get to…

Raphaël: I know.

Marina: There are just so many other things I would love to talk to you both about, so I feel like there has to be a part two of this at some point.

Nabra: I feel like the plants and the great outdoors would be the theme.

Raphaël: That’s the cliffhanger, yeah.

Nabra: But in the meantime, you all have the… If you can’t get to a doctor, steam some mango leaves on your teeth, and if nothing else, we’ve walked away with that ethnobotany knowledge from Nubia from Mama Nelson.

Zeyn: I love it.

Marina: Oh gosh, it’s so many cliffhangers, Zeyn’a a biologist? There’s so much. Okay.

Nabra: There’s much. Oh my gosh.

Marina: I look forward to part two with you both at some point, please.

Zeyn: Yes, totally.

Raphaël: This was amazing, y’all. Thank you so much.

Nabra: We have all the power, so we are going to do that soon. Which is exciting. All the power in this podcast, not in general, as an asterisk.

Marina: Thank you both so much, this was amazing.

Raphaël: Thank you so much. Thank you all so much. I loved this, thank you.

Zeyn: Thank you for having us. This was so fun.

Marina: Thank you.

This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of Kunafa and Shay, and other HowlRound podcasts, by searching HowlRound wherever you find podcasts. If you loved this podcast, please post a rating and write a review on your platform of choice. This helps other people find us.

You can also find a transcript for this episode, along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content, on the howlround.com website. Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theater community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and contribute your ideas to the comments.

Nabra: Yalla, bye.

Marina: Yalla, bye.



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