Muslim Americans speak out in the ‘Hijabi Monologues’

Muslim Americans speak out in the ‘Hijabi Monologues’

CAIRO: One of the defining features of modern times is a mania for public confession: from Bill Clinton’s televised broadcast in 1998 telling the world what it already knew about his shenanigans with Monica, to Oprah & co. — whose sofas seem to contain truth serum injected into the posteriors of remorseful, weeping celebrities.

This zeitgeist is the raison d’etre of thousands of blogs whose authors expound the minutiae of their lives, loves and longings behind the protective glass of cyberspace anonymity. Drama is not immune, either, and Hamlet’s existential humming and hawing was an early example of writers’ appreciation of the power of the dramatic monologue.

British playwright Alan Bennett made use of it in “Talking Heads,” a series of twelve monologues in which ordinary fictional characters mostly from the north of England describe the ups and downs of middle class life.

The power of the dramatic monologue lies in its intimacy, and the ability of well-written scripts to take the audience on a rollercoaster of emotions. Given all this, it is little wonder that confessional dramatic monologues have in recent times emerged as a favorite medium of women writers; Eve Ensler’s 1996 Vagina Monologues popularized a format (a woman telling stories about women) which seemed to strike a chord with many.

In Egypt the American University in Cairo initiated the Bussy Project in 2006, in which actors performed monologues based on submissions sent in by the AUC community. Themes of the performance included sexual harassment, religion, the veil, relationships and abuse. Significantly, the performances shined light on issues rarely discussed openly in Egyptian society.

It is this same desire to present untold stories which motivates the “Hijabi Monologues,” a project that began in summer 2006 by Zeenat Rahman and Dan Morrison, graduates of Chicago University. The Monologues are performed by Sahar Ullah and Leena El-Arian who are currently studying and working in Cairo.

They gave an informal performance of the “Monologues” Saturday night at a friend’s house to an audience made-up of North American Arabic language students.

The performance is billed: “It’s about being American. About being Muslim. About being women.” Ullah explained that in college her friend Dan Morrison used to approach his “brown Muslim girlfriends” with questions about the hijab and Islam in general. He realized that had he never befriended Ullah and her friends he — as a white American male — would never have had the opportunity to learn about what is often an inaccessible world, that of Muslim women in America.

This prompted the authors of the project to begin collecting, writing and performing stories which describe the experiences of veiled Muslim women in the US. “We want to take the veil out of your figurative face and give the whole women,” Ullah explained.

The stories were often hilarious, thanks to Ullah’s comedic talents. She performed a story describing the day she felt obliged to go to a University of Florida football game because it is a rite of passage for every student. She went — at that time wearing the niqab (in her university’s team colors) — with her football-crazy Muslim friend Zeenat. As she walks past the hoards of drunk, frenzied, largely male football fans of the away team in her team’s colors, she reflects dryly, “At that moment it wasn’t the usual fear of Islamophobic hatred which bothered me.”

The story revolves around the two girls’ attempts to find somewhere to pray at half-time, which takes them to the first-aid room where Zeenat (rendered by Ullah in the classic Valley-girl whine) asks the baffled men stationed there “Uh, hi, we’re Mooooslem and we need to praaaay…?” They perform their prayers and afterwards thank the men who tell them, “No problem. We usually get students in here who need to vomit.”

A dramatic change of pace followed this story with El-Arian’s moving account of the day when the FBI stormed the family home at 5 am and arrested her father (despite being acquitted, in 2005, of the terrorism charges against him, Palestinian professor Sami El-Arian remains imprisoned in Virginia).

El-Arian describes watching FBI officers combing her house and seizing anything with Arabic writing on it — including her mother’s tapes of Egyptian soap operas, and her own computer.

Advances by Muslim men are categorized according to type and ruthlessly pilloried by Ullah in one monologue: she describes the determinedly religious type who constantly flaunts his piety: “God excites me, not women,” he proclaims while simultaneously insisting that he and Ullah were meant to be “because we made eye-contact.”

At the other extreme is the guitar-playing, mystic type who bores her with endless Hafez and Rumi recitations.

During audience questions and feedback after the performance, Hassan, a Canadian Muslim working in Cairo, revealed that he had “totally identified with the Muslim player-type” described in the monologue. He added, “before I came to this I had this conception – ‘yeah, I know what it’s like to be a hijabi’- but I was wrong.”

Ullah and El-Arian say that the majority of audience members strongly identify with the stories told in the monologues and that the performance encouraged them to share their own experiences. “We need Muslims to tell their own stories. There needs to be a space for them. After performances a lot of women come up to us afterwards and tell their own stories — this is the goal of this project,” Ullah said.

The project is deliberately apolitical, seeking merely to “humanize Muslim women.” When Daily News Egypt asked Ullah whether they were considering incorporating the stories of Egyptian women into the performance she said, “Not at the moment. We want to stick to the American Muslim scene because we feel our image is under attack.”