Kareem Fahmy: The Gift of Breadth

Kareem Fahmy was kind enough to speak with me over a terrible Skype connection on a day when we were both rushing between commitments. I was grateful to get to know him, even briefly. I had originally read about his work with Maia Directors, an organization that serves as a resource for artists engaging with stories from North Africa, South Asia and the Middle East. I asked Kareem about about the work that he is doing with Maia to bring to the forefront voices that are not usually heard onstage.

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Image from the cover of Kareem Fahmy’s play, “The In-Between”

Kareem Fahmy: Back in 2004 or 2005, a group of Middle Eastern writers and actors started trying to respond to what they thought was a lack of appropriate storytelling around issues of Palestine. [Organizers the Voices of Palestine event in New York wanted] Middle Eastern directors, and people who are not necessarily Palestinian but of who are of Arab descent, or who are Muslim, to collaborate with [their] writers. I had just finished my graduate training in directing.

That kind of started this whole journey of our community, the Middle Eastern theatre community, of trying to have our stories told in the most respectful and nuanced way. When there started to become more of an interest in telling Middle Eastern stories on stage, which I kind of track back to post-9/11, we started to see more plays like Iraq war plays, but largely they were written by white men. In fact, if you look at the history of plays particularly about the Iraq War, there’s hardly any that are written by Middle Eastern writers. So it’s been this long journey of creating a space where our stories are being told by us.

We’re not saying to institutions: don’t tell our stories, because that would go against our goals. But you’re going to tell a Middle Eastern story and your key interpretive artist don’t have that lived cultural knowledge? Come to us and we will and will partner with you and help you tell that story, or give you more tools or more guidance to help you tell that story.

In the last three years there’s been an aggressive push [by our organization] to have our stories share a space in institutions that have largely not told our stories, traditionally white institutions and institutions with a national profile. More recent work we’ve been doing internally is [to ask], how do we organize? How do we get our work out there? And how do we dismantle — I’ll just call it what it is — a sort of institutionalized racism and institutionalized blind spot to how our stories are are perceived?

That work started even just by trying to define our own self-identity, what we choose to call ourselves. I use the term Middle Eastern but there’s a lot of people in our community who don’t like that term. So [we have had a] thought partnership with one another and a sort of patience, to say, how can we band together? Because there are so many different identities. I think we are in the process of transcending the differences because we believe in the overall good of being a united front.

Elizabeth Harlan-Ferlo: Can you talk specifically about how you seen how religion play out as a part of that challenge?

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A scene from “The In-Between,” 2014

KF: Oh yeah, it’s a huge part. Obviously not everyone in the Middle Eastern theater community is Muslim, identifies as Muslim. There is a large component of the community that it does come from a Muslim cultural background or is practicing. I personally identify as a cultural Muslim — I don’t practice but I come from a very devoutly Muslim family. It’s the culture that I grew up in. I understand the faith, I understand the practice. In the earlier years, the [national] rhetoric was so anti-Muslim and anti-Arab in all the ways that you can imagine. [And] representations that showed a Western lens into Muslim life, [were] always filtered that experience of how an American or a Western person perceives the Middle East, and that’s so often skewed.

EHF: What might be a good example of that of that kind of piece of art?

KF: There was a really key example that happened about three years ago, a play [called] The Profane, which was written by a white writer. It was given a big splashy production at Playwrights Horizons which is a very important American theatre. A white male writer, a white male director, and an all Middle Eastern cast [were] telling a story about two Muslim families. And the reason that particular project got under our skin, is that, well, a few things:

The actual representation of the faith [in the play] felt unexamined and lacking in nuance. The idea of centering a Muslim American story around two generative artists that don’t have any of that lived experience but were in a way… it’s tricky to talk about because there it’s obviously different thoughts about this. It was putting the actors in an uncomfortable position of being the protectors of accuracy.

EHF: Doing that while at the same time the script is not reflecting their actual experience that puts them in a very strange position, I would think.

KF: Right, right. It led to us having a very open and respectful conversation with the producing organization saying, you know, you might have considered doing this differently. You might have considered the position that it puts actors in when they are are the only people in the room… not to say that a writer can’t write a play about Middle Eastern or Muslim characters. Any writer should write what they want. Where we are in are in this particular moment in terms of representation, especially Muslim representation, is there hasn’t been enough of it that’s done in a way that we feel really reflects us. That led to us writing an open letter to the theater and larger America theater community saying: let us tell our stories; diversify how you seek out writers. Because a lot of what we heard is, “Oh that we would tell stories by Middle Easter writers if we knew they existed.” Come on, you know?

EHF: Yes, ‘we can’t find them.’ That’s always the story.

KF: You’re just not doing your due diligence in terms of finding those writers. It was a really good turning point because it kind of led to us having to confront that issue and really talk about it and say, what do we want? What is the corrective to that? I think it is about, at the very least, to allow writers of Middle Eastern and Muslim descent to have their stories produced at theaters. It starts the cultural conversation that we think is lacking. We’re starting to see that diversity get reflected in certain television shows. But even that is few and far between and still very new — that you’re seeing a Middle Eastern or Muslim protagonist or a play or a TV show that isn’t about recent conflict.

Sometimes what I’m doing when I’m a consultant on a project is just giving people the very basics. And that’s ok! People say, don’t you get tired of having to teach all the time? Well, who else is going to do it, do you know what I mean? I myself am an artist, so if I’m going to be working alongside another artist, I’m not going to expect them to know everything. If I do plays that are about a culture that is different than mine, I can’t pretend to know everything. But I think because there is so often such inflammatory rhetoric around just the idea of Islam and Arab-ness and the Middle Eastern in general, it’s loaded with this political baggage.

EHF: As I was hearing you, I was thinking that question about educating. I’m wondering if that [need to educate] gets in the way of your own process as a playwright and a director. I’ve struggled in my own work how to manage that urge to explain about religion.

KF: Oh yeah, it’s a huge challenge. We talk about it all the time. Last year I co-founded a Middle Eastern writers group in New York. Not necessarily all of our writers — there are eight of us, of different Middle Eastern backgrounds — are writing about faith, but certainly it does come up. How much do you have to explain? How much do you have to teach in the actual writing? How much can you just let it be a given of the of the work? It certainly does become a challenge because you want to give the listener, the reader, the audience member, enough context without being didactic.

This is another reason what we’re trying to do is not force the writer, or in some case the director, to have to become the cultural consultant as well. We are saying, maybe what you always need is somebody with a lived cultural or religious knowledge who isn’t the generative artist, who is helping the generative artist to really identify what you need to explain, what do you need to teach.

For too long the Middle Eastern or Muslim writer has been having to explain, and explain and explain, and teach and teach and teach. And I’m sure the same is true for other religious communities. But because Islam is not a religious tradition that most Americans have much knowledge — and more so have a lot preconceived ideas — about, [our work] is about confronting those misconceptions. We should not stand by and watch our stories get told with these broad misconceptions, again and again and again, especially around gender and ideology and, you name it…

EHF: Sure, all the things… Violence….

KF: All of it.

EHF: You describe yourself as a cultural Muslim. How does that arrive in your own work?

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A scene from “The In-Between,” 2014

KF: I had to kind of embrace that identity when I came here to America. I was born and raised in Canada. There, the whole perception of your cultural identity is a different gaze, a different entry point.

EHF: I once heard a British person say that Americans describe themselves like they’re racehorses: “part this and part this…”

KF: Yeah, it’s really funny! It’s a truly American phenomenon to need to know all of [someone’s] cultural background and religious background. That was never a thing for me growing up. I mean, people were aware of me as an other, but I didn’t feel othered, in the way that I felt when I came here. And it’s been fascinating [that] ever since I embraced my cultural heritage… it actually improved my ability to speak with passion about my work, and center it in something that I felt was an actual need.

I’m of the school if you’re going to be putting art out into the world, particularly theater, it needs to be saying something about the world around us. Up to this point in my career I’ve never felt that we’re anywhere close to having enough stories about my community. The breadth of storytelling is still very very small, you know? That has given me both the desire and then also the agency to say, yeah, I’m just going to keep doing this. I’m going to keep moving that needle of representation.

We were talking before about how some people feel really burdened by having to teach. I really do think of it as a gift. I might feel differently about it in four or five years, but if I don’t do it, there’s going to continue to be other Profanes and yet another television show where the antagonist is a Muslim terrorist, or another depiction of a Middle Eastern women as as a meek and abused — all of the stereotypes. We really have yet to get much past that. Still. Right now it feels like vital work, it feels like important work, it’s energizing. We’re looking at at [artistic] form as a big thing too, how new forms can emerge in terms of our stories. It’s a very fertile time.

EHF: Was there a turning a particular turning point for you in feeling that way?

KF: The shift for me was when I was approached about creating a new piece that was inspired by the mythology of the Middle East. It made me grapple with: am I more defined by sort of pervasive Western myths that I grew up with, or is there a deep cultural heritage that lives inside of me that I haven’t accessed yet? When I really took a deep dive into what those things were inside me that were truly like, a Middle Eastern tradition, I was like, oh yeah, those things do live inside me. I can still be Western-born, very Western, and still have that cultural history. I can be both of those things at the same time, all of those things at the same time.

EHF: Was there a particular myth or story that spoke to you in that moment?

KF: I ended up telling a mythological story there’s a lot of writing about in the Quran. It forced me to look at the ways in which people have interpreted the Quran in a very strict traditional lens versus just looking at it like a mythical story. It was a good place for me to start to examine how it’s very easy to misinterpret faith-based storytelling around the idea of what we take to be fact and what we can embrace as story. Various people who know that story were like, oh but that’s real, that’s a real thing! But I was like, but that’s mystical, supernatural thing. You’re accepting it as fact and I’m accepting it as a story that informs human experience. It was a way of digging into religion as source material in a way that is really exciting. So yeah, I’m a cultural Muslim. I don’t have to believe in these things, but I can accept that belief of those things is important to people.

EHF: So much of the tension you’ve described before has been between non-Middle Eastern or non-Muslim and Muslim, and this was a tension within the community.

KF: The best writing is always personal, so in that case I was actually talking to family members, [saying,] what is your opinion of this thing that is in the Quran? And hearing them say, oh that is a real thing that exists. And I’m trying to push back and say, you can’t possibly believe that! Just the inherent tension in that. To me that’s drama, that’s conflict right there, you know?

EHF: Right!

KF: And that ended up being what the play was about. This character fundamentally believing in this thing which the other characters are saying is absolutely impossible.

EHF: What was the story? Which part of the Quran?

KF: It was a story about djinn. They are often represented as evil demon character figures, followers of the devil. There are pervasive myths in Middle Eastern culture that djinn can possess human beings. There was even a story in my family of one of my cousins who, according to members of my family, had been possessed by a djinn as a girl. And I was like, come on, are you serious? But they still fundamentally believe that this is real. And I was like, I need to look at that and say, where does that belief come from, and what’s it rooted in? It’s just rich ground for storytelling. That did feel like a turning point for me. [I realized] I can tell this, I know this, I’ve lived this. And seeing people respond [to the play — saying things like] ‘this is a story I’ve never heard before.’ What better work can I be doing than telling a story that people haven’t heard before?

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Kareem Fahmy is a Canadian-born director and playwright of Egyptian descent who focuses on the development of new plays and adaptations of work for the stage. He was 2019 Sundance Theatre Lab Fellow, the 2019 Phil Killian Directing Fellow at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and a 2017–2018 National Directors Fellow.

His plays, which include A Distinct Society, The Triumphant, Pareidolia, The In-Between, and an adaptation of the acclaimed Egyptian novel The Yacoubian Building have been developed or presented at The Atlantic Theater Company, Target Margin Theater, The Lark, Fault Line Theater, and Noor Theater. He is a founder of Maia Directors, a consulting group for organizations and artists engaging with stories from the Middle East and beyond.

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