Anti-Arab bias is an easy target for satire, but Invasion! misses the mark | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

Anti-Arab bias is an easy target for satire, but Invasion! misses the mark 

Anna Bahow directs Jonas Hassen Khemiri's unfocused play for Silk Road Rising.

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Kamal Hans, Dan Johnson, Glenn Stanton, and Amira Sabbagh

Kamal Hans, Dan Johnson, Glenn Stanton, and Amira Sabbagh

Michael Brosilow

Nothing is so firmly believed as that which is least known.

—Michel de Montaigne

As it turns out, our schools, legislatures, police departments, and entertainment industry were never in danger of communist infiltration. Communists weren't lurking under the bed. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States needed a new imaginary enemy—lest we jeopardize that massive military spending and that carefully cultured strain of nativist paranoia—and the Arab Muslim fit the bill perfectly.

Unlike the communist, the Arab Muslim won't disappear, so long as Arabic is spoken and Islam exists. Communism was new and relatively unmythologized; Westerners' anti-Muslim cultural programming, in contrast, dates all the way back to the Crusades and Dante's Inferno. The Western imagination is saturated with enough semiconscious dread of bearded mullahs, untrustworthy sheikhs, shady vendors, and all-around zealots to keep us forever dependent on the powerful for the protection we imagine only they can provide.

All that programming helps make facts irrelevant. It doesn't seem to matter that most Muslims are not Arabs, that "jihad" does not mean "holy war," or that "fundamentalism" has no equivalent in Arabic. It doesn't matter that Shias and Sunnis are as different as Catholics and Baptists. Arabs and Muslims have morphed into a singular, violent Other. (Somehow Christians who carry out religiously or politically motivated violence—Timothy McVeigh, Anders Breivik—are lone wolves. Organized Christian terror campaigns are construed as areligious; the Muslim-slaughtering Serbs, for instance, were not called "Orthodox Christian terrorists.")

The contemporary construction of the Arab Muslim contains the two elements necessary for good satire: absurdity and consequence. It's laughable that such blatant, unsupportable generalizations can carry so much currency, and tragic that they can damage real lives. Following the Oklahoma City bombing, for example, more than 300 hate crimes were reported against American Muslims and Arabs; meanwhile the New York Times suggested Arab involvement because "some Middle Eastern groups have held meetings [in Oklahoma City], and the city is home to at least three mosques."

In his play Invasion!, Jonas Hassen Khemiri tries to unpack the West's fervor. I'm guessing the play is supposed to be a satire—mostly because that's what the hyperbolic New York press said when it opened there in 2011—but Anna Bahow's pushy production for Silk Road Rising isn't particularly satirical. In fact, it's so unfocused and indefinite that it ends up being almost nothing at all.

The 80-minute piece is made up of short skits, some interconnected, a few extraneous. It opens with the extraneous stuff: A pair of high schoolers, one of Lebanese descent, sit in the cafeteria dissing a boring school play they've just intentionally disrupted. One of the characters in the play, Abulkasem, shares a name with the Lebanese student's flamboyantly gay uncle; this leads to a long flashback of the uncle's visit to the U.S., which ends with a bit of xenophobic humiliation in a train car filled with American soldiers. Anyway, the high schoolers start using the term "Abulkasem" to mean anything from "lame" to "cool." Whatevs.

In most skits that ensue, "Abulkasem" stands in for a forgotten or inconvenient name. A female theater student, hoping to convince her condescending white colleagues that Arab women are not universally repressed, describes a famous female avant-garde director named Abulkasem. A shy guy in a singles bar doesn't have the courage to introduce himself to a pretty woman until he calls himself Abulkasem. Later, a nearly identical scene plays out again from the vantage point of a woman. Perhaps Khemiri wants to make a point about the interchangeability of Arab identity in the West, but the scenes simply don't matter, and the lousy comedic pacing in Bahow's production doesn't help.

Khemiri tries to make his big points about Arab profiling in a series of panel discussions featuring three unidentified experts trying to describe the "real" Abulkasem. But since it's never clear who these experts are—academics? policy wonks? intelligence officers?—it's not clear why their opinions should matter. And the blame they ultimately place on Abulkasem for everything from rising gas prices to the Asian carp invasion is facile.

Khemiri's most affecting scenes involve a man of indeterminate ethnicity who has been denied asylum, goes into hiding, and receives endless mysterious calls from Abulkasem. It's the final straw that drives him to hate America. But his subsequent decision to call himself Abulkasem—thus becoming the mysterious, threatening figure the expert panel discussed earlier in the play—doesn't make any psychological or emotional sense. It feels like a last, desperate attempt by a playwright who's somehow fumbled a satire that should've written itself.

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