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Staying or Going? Regardless, at the Graduate Center: Coming Back for More

I could only make it to the first session of the PEN World Voices Festival today but what I saw was encouraging, indeed. Elyse Dodgson, who has been working as the Assistant Director International of the Royal Court Theatre for the past 20 years briefly described the 2-year project that is culminating at the Graduate Center this week.  It is the first of its kind that takes a Royal Court project from the Middle East, back to London, and then on the road again (this time, to the States). These Arab playwrights created new plays about their own contemporary societies, and, Dodgson suggests, American audiences have much to glean from these voices.

Mohammad Al Attar’s play, Withdrawal, opened the theatrical program. It is an intimate piece set in a rented room on the top of a hill overlooking the old city of Damascus. Ahmed and Nour, two twenty-six year olds struggling under the weight of societal and family pressure, try to escape to a clandestine refuge where they can be together, removed from the watchful and judgmental eyes of their parents and society. But, it turns out, it isn’t just external pressure that’s straining their relationship: both Ahmed and Nour, as individuals, are fighting to carve out a path for themselves between the only world they know and the itch to resist what’s “expected” and create their own rhythm. Ahmed strains against the yoke of parental expectations and of older brothers making it big in Dubai and Nour wants to believe the best job she can get in Damascus is worth her energy and professionalism. Mostly, it is Ahmed’s voice that drives the play (though in specific contradistinction and varying degrees of harmony with Nour’s) as he fights a tightening noose between wanting to stay  and needing to leave. Nour comes to represent something he no longer fully understands – his home, his youth, his city, his countrymen – and while she is loved, he must leave her. The play resonates as the voice of young men and women all over the Levant faced with the option of weak prospects at home or careers abroad, and even evokes shadows of the calls for motherland that older immigrant generations often conjure. At the same time, however, it is rooted in the rich materiality of a living, contemporary relationship among changing people in a complex city. Al Attar’s dialogue, especially when his characters speak on top of each other, each in her/his own thoughts, is remarkably well-tuned.

If the question posed by the Syrian characters in Withdrawn is “(How) Can I leave?” the question proffered by the Lebanese ones in Azré Khodr’s play The House, may very well be, “(How) Can I stay?” Her story follows Nadia, Reem, and Nabil, three siblings dealing with the death of their mother and what to do with the house they grew up in, left to them as inheritance. Nadia, the eldest, much enamored with her mother’s space refuses to give it up, while Reem, burdened by the weight of a childhood she resents, insists on selling it. The play is largely about the ebbs and flows of the relationship between these two sisters but it is also, refreshingly, about how two very “different” women are coming to terms with life and family when they suddenly and finally have (perhaps an illusion) of complete control over their lives. Nadia and Nour are incredibly well-developed characters; even in a reading, their personages take on the weight of very real people. Khodr shows a talent for constructing people and their relationships, even if Reem’s vindictive twist at the end of the play stretches our trust in the playwright’s vision of Beirutian corruption.

Both translations: Clem Naylor for Attar and Khalid Laith for Khodr are nothing short of remarkable. One can almost hear the original dialect through commendably smooth English.

Tomorrow’s program showcases Egyptian Productions by Laila Soliman at 4:30 and 603 by Imad Farajin at 6:30.

Hope to see you there!

Rayya El Zein

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