Interview with Playwright Yussef El Guindi
Walter Bilderback: Can you tell us a little about your background and your development as a writer?
Yussef El Guindi: I was born in Egypt; moved to London when I was 4. Went to school there until I was 17. Spent a year in Paris. Then went back to Cairo for my undergraduate degree in English and Comparative Literature. From there, I went to Carnegie-Mellon University for a graduate degree in Playwriting. Kicked around San Francisco for a couple of years after that, doing brief stints as a reader at the Magic Theater and as a dramaturg at the Eureka Theater. I landed a position as playwright-in-residence at Duke University for 7 years. Then moved to Seattle, where I pursued poetry, acting, film-making, before finally settling down to write plays full time. That’s the short and dirty. Actually, the short and dry.
In between all that one-thing-following-another, life sort of happened. And some sort of voice happened. Facilitated, I think, by my getting my citizenship in 1996. That event, strangely, concentrated the mind wonderfully. It gave me a subject matter. Or rather, it brought together a bunch of amorphous elements and subterranean emotions that were in effect, but to which I just couldn’t give a name to, or find a coherent story for. And that story was the simple one of the immigrant journey. One that had begun when my family left Egypt when I was 4. Becoming a citizen, in a way I hadn’t anticipated, plugged me into that unique template that belongs to this country in particular. Few countries owe their national character, and very reason for being, to the immigrant. This country got to be what it was with journeys such as mine. Millions of little such journeys. In Europe, if you’re an immigrant, you will always remain a foreigner, no matter how long you stay in England or France, etc. You will never quite be English or French. In America, some may gripe at immigrants, but this country’s life blood depends on them. Becoming a citizen plugged me into my own journey. Strangely. It allowed me to write about it.
Some of our audience will know your work from Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes, which was produced last season at InterAct. Like that play, Language Rooms is very funny. Could you talk a little about the role of comedy in your work?
Well, comedy is what I wake up to in the morning, even when most of the news I wake up to is not very funny. I do tend to laugh at stuff. Actually, I usually get very pissed off at something, and then when I sit down to write, I find all that anger sublimated and hammered out via the funny bone. When it doesn’t get sublimated, then my voice gets just too brittle and shrill and I don’t much care for it.
I’ve recently written a play that doesn’t have a whole lot of laughs, and I’m scared to death of it. I may even shelve it. I’m not sure yet.
I think my laughter also stems from the fact that most of my writing revolves around matters of fitting in, identity, how one is perceived, how one perceives others. The fact that I’m dealing with matters that are perceived to be fraught and political, doesn’t take away from the fact that, essentially, my concerns are no different from a high school student wondering which table he should sit at during lunch. Or an office employee trying to figure out how best to fit in her new environment.
In fact just think of Language Rooms as a play set in an office somewhere, with all the antics that usually stem from office politics.
Basically, like many other writers, I do tend to see our foibles and concerns, our needs and dislikes, as ripe for a good laugh. But I also feel great empathy for our basic struggles. As the saying goes, if you didn’t laugh, you’d weep. I think we’re that far up crap creek most of the time. And laughter is one of the healthiest ways of dealing with it.
What do you think of the portrayal of Arabs and Muslims in the U. S. media? And speaking of comedy, what do you think of the attention some Arab stand-up comics are now getting?
In regards to the portrayal of Arabs and Muslims in the media: It’s never been great. From around the time of the crusades, way back when, it’s been kind of like Fox News all the way. And of course since 9/11, it’s not been warm and cuddly, for obvious reasons. What I find particularly interesting was how quickly after the Soviet Union collapsed, the Arab and Muslim world was shoe-horned in as the new enemy (with a brief Panama interlude). I guess every great power needs a bogeyman to justify all that weaponry.
Also, it’s a weird rite of passage for a lot of immigrant groups in this country that before there is some acceptance, and acknowledged inclusion, they first have to go through this negative gauntlet, where some hysteria grips the nation about the perils and impending doom of having such and such a particular group in our midst. Whether it’s been the Native Americans, (made to feel like immigrants in their own country), the African Americans, the Irish, the Italians, the Chinese, the Japanese, Latinos, etc. This hysteria usually forces voices from that group to step forward and provide an alternative story, another perspective. Comics are usually the vanguard in this, being the most accessible and simple to present. Then the poets and storytellers. Slowly, over a period of time, these voices find their way into the mainstream. We hope. Though it remains a struggle for a lot of groups.
Language Rooms, like many of your plays, is partially about the American Dream. As someone who made the decision to become "an American," what do you think the current status of the American Dream is for immigrants?
I think the American Dream is alive and well and still very much in play. There’s a line in Language Rooms which I cut: “Immigration is not for sissies.” I don’t think people quite get the gains and losses that come with deracination (an appropriate sounding word for the act of uprooting yourself from familiar soil; and the struggle involved in replanting yourself in soil that you may or may not take to - or that might not take to you). And the people who least anticipate the cost sometimes are the immigrants themselves. It goes without saying that loss is incurred. You lose the familiar, your touchstones, your customs, what is expected of you and what you expect from a community. Sometimes you lose your family - your extended family, certainly. And often you lose the devil you know - which may be the cause of your leaving - only to come face to face with a whole set of new devils you hadn’t anticipated.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m so very glad I made this journey. I’m extraordinarily grateful and proud to be a part of this on-going experiment called the United States. Indeed, like a new convert to a religion, I may be more alert to my “Americaness” then those who are native born. But for those native born, I think they often forget how difficult the journey was for their parents, or grandparents, etc. Often those living family members don’t wish to dwell on the negative, the difficulties, And for certain groups, that journey was particularly painful.
But there is still much romance associated with “coming to America.” The romance of the journey itself. The romance of the country. The notion of starting over, reinventing yourself. Yes, you lose your family, your touchstones, but you also lose the weight of those things. This new sense of emotional, physical and psychological freedom sometimes leaves you breathless. But:
At some point in this journey you will of course need some kind of emotional, physical, and psychological support. The reinventing is never a total reinvention. I’m not sure it’s ever quite successful. You find you can’t quite lose that emotional weight after all. And now your supports are gone.
So you find yourself half reinvented: half cast in a new role and half stuck in the old one. A total in-betweener. You may feel yourself “hyper American,” but at the same time you may feel a total fraud. The immigration people of your birth country sneer at your American passport, and the immigration people in America look at you suspiciously. I don’t know why it’s important to feel like you belong somewhere, especially in this era of globalization, where some people refer to themselves as “global citizens,” but it is important for some reason. And if you probe deeply enough with these “global citizens” you will find that they do feel a deep lack somewhere in their center. In fact that lack is the absence of a center.
I actually think that absence of a center is inherited by the children of immigrants; and may even be a national characteristic. The wonderful optimism of this country, the propulsion to keep going, to reinvent, that weightlessness, the acceptance that you can change your name, your history, kick your past to the curb as you gun for a new beginning, I think all those good things end up gutting you of a center, a wholeness. What becomes of your touchstones, your anchor, your story, after you leave so much behind? Who are you when you’re always in flux? (Incidentally, I think that’s why this country, in comparison with other Western nations, is so religious. Religion seems to become that main touchstone and anchor when so much personal and former cultural history is disposed of.)
So yes, the American dream is alive and well. But as the father, Samir, says, in another line I cut: “The price for a better life, you see...it is always a little higher than you think it will be.”
What were your influences in this setting of the play, which seems at times a combination between 1984 and The Office?
I can’t remember the exact spark that provoked the writing of this play. I read about the “black sites,” thought the whole thing sinister and weird, but didn’t have a specific interest in writing about them. I read about Capt. James Yee, the American Muslim Army chaplain arrested (since released and exonerated) for possible sympathies with the prisoners he was counseling, got pissed off at the over reaction, but again, did not have a specific interest in writing about the incident.
But at some point, the notion of these “black sites” crystallized into a perfect metaphor to talk about the current situation in America, and how I personally felt. It wasn’t their function as places for suspected terrorists that interested me, it was their status as these non-acknowledged sites, a place of shadows, a no man’s land where intense questioning took place, that tickled my interior and allowed me to talk about how I felt as an Arab/Muslim American in this current climate. These black sites became the perfect “objective correlative”, if you will, by which I could laugh and rage at the alienation I was feeling as an American citizen in this hyper vigilant period.
This hyper surveillance got to me. I don’t think I realized that it was getting to me, but it did. I had felt great and unexpected pride in becoming a citizen. And now in this new climate, I felt I was no longer a part of a shared country. While not physically taken to an internment camp like Japanese Americans during World War II, I did feel on an emotional level that I had been separated from my fellow citizens. My loyalty was now under question. Emotionally speaking, I felt I was being shipped to a no-man’s land where everything about me, along with my fellow Arab and Muslim Americans, was being reevaluated. Were we loyal citizens? Could we be trusted? Were we a threat? Were we really American after all?
But like with most of my plays, I never really start out knowing what the primary emotional engine of a play is. I just get grabbed by a voice(s), a need, a situation, an immediate conflict, and go from there. I have no specific agenda when I write a play. And if I’m doing my job right, I will be half oblivious of that agenda, that emotional engine, right up until I finish the play. Once I start on 2nd and 3rd drafts, etc., then I begin to sense more fully what I've written.
And that’s an interesting pairing by the way: thinking of Language Rooms as 1984 meets The Office. At least in the first half of the play. In the second half, we add the “American immigrant family drama” to the mix of paranoia and office politics.