How does an arts organization devoted to presenting work about Muslims and the Middle East respond to the Trump Administration’s immigration ban affecting seven Muslim-majority countries?
KQED spoke with Torange Yeghiazarian, the artistic director of Golden Thread Productions, to learn how the 20-year-old Bay Area theater company that specializes in plays by and about Middle Eastern people is approaching this issue.
Is this a challenging time to present Middle Eastern culture to a U.S. audience?
The higher visibility is a double-edged sword for us. People may demand more programming about the Middle East. But they often want that programming to confirm their already-held beliefs. Countering the dominant narrative has been and continues to be our mission, providing an alternative to the victim-or-villain box the Middle East is often forced into. I’m thinking about how our work can reach those outside metropolitan areas. How can we touch the hearts and minds of middle America? I would love to find a way to take our work there. I think the conversations that our work provokes are very much needed in the middle of the U.S.
What’s your take on President Trump’s efforts to ban Syrian refugees and immigrants from some Muslim-majority countries?
I think it’s shameful. The U.S. is still the richest country in the world, but how many refugees have been resettled here? We admitted the highest number of refugees in 2016 and that was only 80,000. In the same year, Germany admitted over one million. Half of the six million Syrians displaced live in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. So, when we talk about the “burden” of refugees on the U.S., it would be helpful to look around at the rest of the world for some perspective.
The Trump administration claims it’s trying to protect the American people from the threat of terrorism. How do you respond to that?
I think it’s B.S. What was the nationality of proven perpetrators of terror in recent years? They were European, American, and if you go back to 9/11, Saudi. I don’t see those places listed in the ban. If it’s meant to be a ban on Muslims, I don’t see the countries with the highest Muslim populations listed. Those would be Indonesia, Pakistan and India. This says to me that the list is arbitrary.
You’ll be producing two very timely plays this season: Autobiography of a Terrorist, a comedy by the Iranian American playwright Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, and Oh My Sweet Land by Amir Nizar Zuabi, about Syrian refugees. What can we learn from these two plays about what’s happening in America today?
Both plays put a human face on what is often limited to a news bite. Autobiography of a Terrorist is a comedy about growing up Iranian with an unpronounceable last name in the U.S. during the Iranian hostage crisis. The title refers to people’s tendency to associate Middle Eastern men with terrorism. But also, on a deeper level, it exposes a certain level of personal terror experienced by the main character. It’s a hilarious play that pokes fun equally at liberals and conservatives, as well as well-meaning theater artists!
Oh My Sweet Land is based on interviews with Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. It’s not documentary or verbatim theatre. It’s the fictional story of a woman’s friendship with a Syrian man and her search for him. The woman tells us the story as she makes kibbeh, a Syrian delicacy like meat balls. Between the personal narrative and the cooking, I’m hoping that the audience will have a very visceral response to the play. We plan to present it in kitchens to small groups. The performance will be followed by food-sharing and conversation. Meaningful conversation is what I feel we as a country are really hungry for.
You’re hosting a public conversation on Wednesday, March 8, with four artists who have Middle Eastern connections. What do you hope these women can tell us about the challenges facing Syrian and other Middle Eastern immigrants coming to the U.S.?
Women are the core of our community. They are the movers and shakers. The exceedingly fabulous women participating in this year’s What do the Women Say? event — Egyptian-American actor Nora el Samahy, Tunisian-American film editor Sara Maamouri, Iranian-American vocalist Dina Zarif, and Syrian-Palestinian-American chef Reem Assil — are accomplished storytellers who put a human face on political hype. I think the audience members, regardless of their own cultural backgrounds, will find much in common with the women on the stage.
Can your theater company change people’s minds and open their hearts regarding Middle Eastern immigrants and refugees?
Yes. I believe we can or I would not do what I do. Stories have the power to lift our imaginations and bring us closer to each other. I’m convinced that once you have deeply experienced the life story of someone from the Middle East, you will be reluctant to point a gun at them, or consider them an enemy.
Golden Thread Productions’ ‘What do the Women Say?’ event takes place Wednesday, March 8 (Women’s Day), at Brava Theater Center in San Francisco. More information here.