A funny, ferocious drama post-9/11

An Egyptian-born writer mingles the immigrant experience, the war on terror, and office politics.

What do I love when I love my country?

What must I do to prove that devotion?

What if I'm asked to sacrifice love itself?

Those are some of the questions raised by playwright Yussef El Guindi's Language Rooms, a new black comedy about the immigrant experience, the war on terror - and office politics - that will have its world premiere tomorrow night at the Wilma Theater in Center City.

Think The Office meets 24.

The Egyptian-born El Guindi may be familiar to Philadelphia theater audiences for his highly praised satire about racial stereotyping, Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes, which was staged last spring by the InterAct Theatre Company.

Language Rooms, which has been in previews since March 3, is set in a secret U.S. detention center in an unnamed country. It tells the tragic, and tragically funny, tale of an Arab American interrogator named Ahmed (played by Sevan Greene) charged with extracting information, by whatever means necessary, from fellow Muslims suspected of terrorism.

Ahmed's life begins to unravel when he realizes that his colleagues harbor the same resentment and suspicion toward him that he feels toward his interview subjects, who he is convinced are evil.

"The play speaks to the sense of alienation" Muslim Americans felt after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Seattle-based El Guindi says. "At least for a few years, it was very, very strange. The paranoia level was high and much suspicion fell among Muslims, Arab Americans, South Asians, Iranians. It was not a particularly pleasant time for those groups."

El Guindi was raised in England, to which his family immigrated in 1963, when he was 4. He was 23 when he came to the United States to attend grad school at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He stayed on, eventually becoming a naturalized citizen in 1996, because he felt he was more welcome here than in England.

"At that time, it wasn't open to immigrants and foreigners. And, as you know, America is a country built on foreigners and immigrants," he says.

"Like Ahmed says [in Language], being American means never having to apologize for being foreign-born."

But it seems, some do. Or at least they did after 9/11.

"Suddenly there was this criterion of who counts as a real American," El Guindi says. "But what were the criteria? It wasn't quite understood."

He acknowledges that things have slowly improved for Muslims in the United States since the immediate post-9/11 years, especially since the election of Barack Obama.

"But that period still lingers a little bit," he says. "The Patriot Act is still in place."

El Guindi believes that we have come to accept the legislated limits on civil rights and privacy that make it easier for the government to track down terrorists - in part because we are complicit.

"There's this general sense that everybody's sense of privacy has been altered," he says. "But it's just as much due to the Internet. I'm a private person myself, and I'm amazed . . . at how much personal information is available" on Facebook and other sites.

"I think people don't even take notice of it anymore, until it's used against them," says the Wilma's Blanka Zizka, who is directing Language Rooms.

The Czech-born Zizka, co-artistic director of the Wilma since 1981, also is a naturalized American.

"I grew up in a country thoroughly given over to surveillance, a complete police state," she says. "What I find interesting about [El Guindi's] play is that it showed the same absurdities of living in that world which were exposed by artists in Eastern Europe in the late 1960s."

Language Rooms portrays a microcosm entirely ruled by surveillance, paranoia and secrecy.

The interrogators' job is to pry secrets from their subjects, which then will be used in covert operations by the military. At the same time, the interrogators are deprived of all privacy and expected to conform without question. Ahmed and his colleague and fellow Arab American, Nasser (J. Paul Nicholas), for instance, are told they can have no secrets from their boss, Kevin (Peter Jay Fernandez).

In one of the play's most hilarious scenes, Ahmed learns that his loyalty to the group - and, by extension, his patriotism - is in question because he missed the detention center's Super Bowl party. Worse, he refuses to use the communal shower.

"I wanted this to be a kind of corporate environment," says El Guindi. "The whole issue of office politics was a way for me to introduce Ahmed's questions of fitting in . . . and moving from that to the larger issues of fitting in as a citizen."

In the scene, Kevin grills Ahmed about his loyalties while taking off, ironing, and putting back on his shirt, tie and trousers.

"I love you, my friend," he tells Ahmed. "If I give you the third degree, it's to confirm those feelings."

Later, after demanding total conformity, Kevin tells Ahmed that "it's important to be authentic" and individualistic, noting that "loyalty has been overstressed."

Eventually, Kevin forces Ahmed to consider that beneath his fervent patriotism he may be torn by doubt and self-hatred. Doesn't Ahmed hate the fact that he's an Arab, like the terrorists he tortures? Perhaps, then, Ahmed also hates being an American?

After a shocking plot twist, Ahmed's grip on reality - and his ability to love his family, his native language, or his new country - collapses entirely.

But for all his engagement in political issues, don't try describing El Guindi as a political artist.

"Once you say you're a political writer, the number of theaters who want to do your plays diminishes," the playwright says with a laugh.

"I don't identify myself as a political writer but as someone who . . . is plugged into the world around him and who filters what is going on," he adds. "For me to be political is just to be aware."

Besides, El Guindi says, most self-described political writers are ideologues who lecture rather than entertain.

He says he finds it important to be entertaining.

And funny.

"I do lean towards comedy. . . . You know the saying, 'If you don't laugh, you'd weep'?" Because beneath all the laughing, there's also a hardness, an edge to it, especially when you are dealing with such a heavy subject."

He adds, "Comedy is not a choice. It's what I do. It's my natural language."