On both/and and Being a Both/And-er
By Jamil Khoury
June 8, 2012
Hello my name is Jamil Khoury. I am the founding artistic director of Chicago’s Silk Road Rising and I am the author of the video play both/and.
How would you describe both/and?
both/and is a short video play, approximately 12 minutes long, that sets out to undermine some rather “either/or” assumptions about identity. It is also quasi-autobiographical. In both/and, the characters of Jamil, Arab Man, and Gay Man explore and explode the contested borders between American and Arab, Arab American and gay, for profit and not for profit, and assorted other disputed territories.
What inspired both/and?
both/and is derived from my stage play WASP: White Arab Slovak Pole, that was originally commissioned and produced as part of THE DNA TRAIL: A Genealogy of Short Plays about Ancestry, Identity, and Utter Confusion. I essentially culled material from WASP then created some new material specifically for both/and.
What is The DNA Trail?
The DNA Trail was a project I conceived of in which seven playwrights, including me, each took a genealogical DNA test – swab of saliva on a q-tip that we sent to a lab – and then each wrote a short play in response to either the results of the tests or the conversations surrounding the tests. This collection of short plays had its world premiere at Silk Road Theatre Project in the spring of 2010.
Why the title both/and?
I learned the term "both/and" from second wave American feminism. I am a huge fan of the second wavers. For me, “both/and” is a rebuttal, it is the antidote, the challenge to the more masculinist notion of “either/or.” "Either/or" being a very established paradigm in American culture. This or that, us or them, black or white. "Both/and," on the other hand, is holistic, it’s integrative, complimentary. It is the idea that one can be both this and that. If traditional masculinity espouses competition and rigid dichotomies, then feminism posits a world view that is empathic, cooperative, more about interdependence and equality, less about winners and losers.
In my own life, I have often been asked to separate, compartmentalize, prioritize the various components of my identity. It has been suggested that some of these components of my identity are at odds with each other - Arab American and gay comes to mind – go figure. And since I actively refuse to bifurcate my person, I am a both/and-er. And being a both/and-er allows for fluidity, it honors the fact that identities shift and evolve and are transformed. Ultimately "both/and" is a much more liberating position from which to approach life than "either/or" ever could be.
For the record, Arab American and gay work together fabulously.
How true to life is the character Jamil?
Well, clearly he is based on me, but both/and is not strictly autobiographical, I do take artistic license, so I best establish that that Jamil, he is not entirely representative of this Jamil. That said, I feel enough kinship with the Jamil in the story that giving him a name other than my own would have felt, well, dishonest.
What inspired the character Arab Man?
I know this guy. Or at least various iterations of this character. The conversations between Jamil and Arab Man in this video play are composites of actual conversations I’ve had with certain Arab men over time. So he is a character for whom I feel a great deal of affection and of course familiarity but he also evokes a certain anxiety and animosity within me slash Jamil.
Is the character Arab Man derived from a stereotype?
You know at Silk Road Rising we are in the business of challenging stereotypes. As a theatre producer and as a theatre artist I take very seriously the importance of subverting and deconstructing stereotypes. I don’t promote stereotypes. So when certain Arab and Arab American friends of mine, mostly theatre artists, expressed misgivings about the character of Arab Man, I listened. On the one hand, these friends, whom I love and respect, know the character very well, perhaps too well, I would hear, “oh, that’s my father,” or “that’s my brother,” “that’s my uncle,” but on the other hand, they worry that he’s advancing negative stereotypes of Arab men. In particular, some of my friends took exception to the very name Arab Man, insisting that it implies all Arab men.
And yet, in the scenes between Jamil and Arab Man, there are two Arab men present, Jamil and Arab Man. And instead of acknowledging the very real contrast between these two very different Arab men, it appears that Arab Man’s ultimate denial of Jamil’s Arabness has more currency with audiences that I would have expected. Jamil is not the one being called out as either stereotypical or representative of Arab men, Arab Man is. So ironically, for some of Arab Man’s critics, if I understand their objections correctly, Arab Man becomes both the arbiter of Arabness and the embodiment of Arab male stereotypes. Two suppositions that I, as the creator of Arab Man, entirely reject.
I maintain that Arab Man is, of course, not representative of all Arab men. He represents a social conservatism characteristic of some Arab men, no doubt, but one that ultimately transcends Arabness. His voice, his socially conservative views, his economically conservative views, could be embodied by a South Asian character, a white American character, a Latino character, or whomever.
As for the name Arab Man, for me the name has very specific and personal and situational meanings. Not to mention it being a bit tongue-in-cheek. Now it could be that in the larger context naming the character Arab Man was a mistake. Maybe it was politically irresponsible. I’m not convinced of that, but I’ve been wrong before. That said, if naming my character Arab Man causes anyone any hurt, I sincerely apologize.
What does the character Gay Man represent to me?
What he doesn’t represent to me is all gay men or all white gay men. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa. But he does represent a certain gay man that I knew for a very brief period of time several years ago and this gay man had all sorts of complicated reactions to me. He was attracted to my “white, all-American looks,” his words, not mine, and yet greatly disturbed by the specter of my potential “non-whiteness” as exemplified by my Arabic name. My interest in him was much more immediate, far less complicated, and ultimately more primal.
Interestingly, some women friends of mind, both straight and gay, have expressed a strong dislike for the character of Gay Man and object equally as strong to the dynamics that exist between Jamil and Gay Man. They argue that Jamil allows himself to be debased by Gay Man only to then consummate his humiliation by kissing Gay Man.
While I fully appreciate where my friends are coming from, and I am moved by their coming to Jamil’s defense, i.e. my defense, I maintain that Jamil was very much in control of the situation and laser focused on his sole objective with Gay Man, which was of course getting in his pants. Which is a good thing!
What do I hope audiences take away from both/and?
Well, I hope they love both/and! I hope it challenges audiences, I hope it spurns conversation, and further inquiry and I hope it advances more "both/and" approaches to identity and life and helps us move us away from the dictates of "either/or." How’s that for ambitious?
If you have not yet seen both/and, I hope that you will. It means a great deal to all of us at Silk Road Rising to be able to share this story with you.
And on that note, thank you and goodbye.