Torture, Nudity, and Family Betrayal

Still, the author insists Language Rooms isn't political theater.

If worldwide anger with American foreign policy is weighing heavily on the minds of most concerned liberal Seattle theatergoers, imagine how it feels to be an Arab-American playwright. Yet Yussef El Guindi, an Egyptian-born U.S. citizen and a Seattle resident since 1994, is calm and contemplative, quick to laugh, as we sit down at Café Septième to discuss his newest play, Language Rooms, which is chock full of torture implements, sexual taunting, nudity, and family betrayal. "Even now, I'm loath to call my plays political," says El Guindi in an accent that reflects the country (the U.K.) to which he immigrated at age 4. "I don't want the play to become an illustration of some theme. There are certain loaded words I'm never going to use, like 'waterboarding.'" Though Language Rooms is set in a detention-interrogation facility clearly inspired by Guantánamo Bay, it's not named or located in any particular country. Two of the main characters are Arabic speakers employed by the U.S. military, considered precious for their language skills, but also suspect for their country of origin (also, in this case, Egypt). The setting is generic, with minimal props specified in the script—hammer, rope, baseball bat, dildo. El Guindi says he wrote the two-act piece quickly last fall, without reference to current news or events (he doesn't own a TV). Submitted to ACT's New Play Award program, Language Rooms won him $2,500 and two workshop readings next month. After that, says El Guindi with practiced fatalism, "It may just stay in my drawer." El Guindi has had plenty of experience with "big, heavy, serious plays" that never got produced. But the former actor and drama teacher has lightened his touch since he first started writing in the '90s. "I rebooted," he says. "I started writing these short plays and comedies. And then I moved up to one-acts." The new goal was not to write weighty epics like Brecht or Tony Kushner, but to be "absurd, slightly surreal, and hopefully funny." His Back of the Throat, about an Arab-American writer being questioned by the feds after 9/11, was a hit for Theater Schmeater three years ago. That and other works have since been staged in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Chicago. Yet at age 47, El Guindi is still seen as a playwright of "promise," possibly because he hasn't yet achieved a big, Brechtian breakthrough. Or possibly because American theatergoers still aren't prepared to laugh at our Gitmo follies the way we are about, say, the Nazis cavorting in The Producers. (What is it they say about comedy equaling tragedy plus distance...?) El Guindi has been featured in The New York Times, and that paper's 2006 review of Back of the Throat praised its "very funny lines" and topicality, while fretting about the oversimplification of "plugging the Bush law enforcers into that old J. Edgar Hoover mold: hyperparanoid and sexually disturbed and not very bright." It's a balance Language Rooms, in its present form, is also struggling to achieve. Scenes between the two Arab interrogators are rife with mistrust and rhetorical evasion. Scenes of them being coerced and surveilled by their American boss are more blunt, even silly. And when it comes to the climactic interrogation, it's more Pinter than Molière—haranguing, not farce. El Guindi insists, "I think cruelty can become so absurd that there's despair and there's laughter." But we aren't the Nazis in The Producers or Hogan's Heroes; the bad guys brandishing the club (or dildo) are the Germans, which makes it easier for us to laugh. And drama, not absurdist comedy, has thus far been the more successful route for bringing such raw topical issues to the stage (see George Packer's Betrayed, based on his book The Assassins' Gate and now being performed in New York) and screen (see the Oscar-nominated documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, with a cameo by Dick Cheney). Before gaining citizenship in 1996—which he sought in order to vote against the new Mariners stadium—El Guindi had been an immigrant in not one but two successive countries. "In England," he recalls, "you'll never be quite English." Now he's a stakeholder, as it were, writing from within the club and in a position to explain to outsiders the cost of admittance. Seattle and the United States have been more welcoming than Britain, he adds, but citizenship doesn't guarantee freedom from insecurities and doubts about "belonging and notions of identity, American identity, and how tenuous that feels sometimes." Those are the doubts of Language Rooms, as one translator, Ahmed, finds his loyalty and even his sexuality questioned by an Arabic colleague and their American superior. This interrogation of the interrogator comes just as Ahmed, who's been accused of brutality in the past, is preparing to grill an important older detainee with supposed terrorist links back in Cairo. In both situations, shaming and assimilation are bound together. To fit into a new culture, you must be ashamed of your origins. And for Ahmed to prove his loyalty, he must be willing to inflict shame. In one key passage of the play, Ahmed reflects on the Arab newcomers who follow him to the States, not yet assimilated. These are the immigrants he often interrogates: It's really a perfect job for me, because I get to question and kick the shit out of all those motherfuckers who make me cringe....I don't actually care if they want to blow things up. They're just so embarrassing to me. With their manners, and backward ways, and accents, and countries, and features. To escape the bullies and tormentors means joining them, a dynamic that many will recall from the school yard and locker room. Says El Guindi, "The deep, visceral thing is something I'm tapping into from my experience in England." Now, more happily situated on Capitol Hill, he says, "I regard myself as an American voice, writing plays in the tradition of the American immigrant narrative." Not just the Arab immigrant narrative: Language Rooms might just as well have been written 60 years ago, about Japanese-American translators in the U.S. Army during World War II. "I think you could substitute any immigrant group," he notes, "Irish-Americans, Slavs—all broken and humiliated." Thus, he describes Language Room's oblique penal setting "as a kind of Ellis Island, a prison through which to discuss all these issues of belonging and fitting in." As El Guindi is well aware, that processing point had its share of ritual questioning and systematic shaming, too. Hard-to-pronounce names were shed, creeds and cultures renounced to gain admittance to the United States. And our immigration authorities—call them interrogators, if you like—employed loyalty tests and pseudo-science to screen out undesirables: those dirty Poles, those thievin' Irish, those backward Jews, those mentally defective Slavs, some of them photographed for the phrenology archives. That record also resembles our soldiers' notorious photos at Abu Ghraib, those shameful but carefully staged tableaus of prisoners. Why did Pfc. Lynndie England and her all-American, red-blooded military cohort bother with the poses, the props, the oddly precise arrangement of their humiliated subjects? We'll never know, of course. But as a student of the stage, El Guindi observes, "It is weirdly theatrical."

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