by Omar El-Khairy is a play that dramatises the story of Amina Arraf, a fictional Syrian character created by Tom MacMaster in a blog he dubbed A Gay Girl in Damascus.
Emerging in the hype surrounding the Arab Spring, the blog bore an activist façade and was part of a buzzing blogsphere discussing a transition to democracy and progressiveness in the region.
Following a posting on the blog claiming that “Amina” was abducted, journalists and bloggers started questioning the true identity of the blogger, with strong suspicions it was all a hoax.
In June 2011, the website Electronic Intifada uncovered that the Syrian gay girl was in fact a heterosexual, American man named Tom MacMaster, living in Edinburgh.
El-Khairy’s Sour Lips, produced by Iain Goosey and directed by Carissa Hope Lynch, relies on excerpts from MacMaster’s blog intertwined with fictional events to create a speculative narrative that dramatically presents the political story. This production also aims to critique the flat and binary representation of Arab women in contemporary culture, as either hopelessly oppressed or sexually liberated superheroes.
The playwright finds in the fictional blog A Gay Girl in Damascus a microcosm for the pervasive rhetoric of media, which tends to portray a mythical Arab superwoman who outspokenly subverts oppression.
Omar El-Khairy was born to a Palestinian father and a Turkish-Polish mother who both grew up in Jordan. El-Khairy moved to London while still an infant and has been living there ever since. El-Khairy holds a PhD in political sociology from the London School of Economics and co-directs a theatre and film collective entitled Paper Tiger. While not writing for stage or screen, El-Khairy spends time digging for music and secretly wishes he were a DJ. “Looking back, it was hip-hop culture that first taught me the beauty and power of words,” he tells Ahram Online in interview about his upcoming play.
AO: Your script was inspired by Tom MacMaster’s blog A Gay Girl in Damascus, but you have added your own renditions of characters and incidents. How did MacMaster’s blog help you in setting up this play?
El-Khairy: I wasn't aware of the blog at the time when Tom was writing it, but came across it at the point when Electronic Intifada uncovered the hoax. My feelings towards Tom evolved as I wrote the play. It would have been easier to have created a piece that simply tore into Tom and presented him as this cartoon villain, but after reading the blog I became more interested in the general appetite and desire for this fictional/mythical Arab superwoman. Who is this absurd Pocahontas-like woman? Why did such a poorly written and badly conceived of creation become such an iconic figure and worthwhile news story? And why did the West crave her? It's that space that certain Arab voices seem to be exploiting -—the Mona Eltahaways and Joumana Haddads of this world.
The speculative narrative we have created thus aims to critique the simple binary representation we usually get of Muslim woman, of being either beaten, bruised and chained to the bedpost or secular, sexually liberated superheroes.
AO: In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, almost all artwork produced, be it visual art, films, music, poetry or theatre, possesses political undertones. How does the context of political turmoil surrounding Syria factor into your production of Sour Lips?
El-Khairy: Sour Lips is importantly not an "Arab Spring" play. If anything, it serves as a sort of prelude. Despite all the recent interest in the Middle East and its cultures, there has been little attempt to ask more difficult questions about how we — over here — continue to be wrapped up in the region. Sour Lips thus attempts to bring the story of the "Arab Spring" closer to us; to make it our story as well.
For me, Tom MacMaster highlights the incredible potential to connect and reinvent both ourselves and our relationships across race, gender, religion and nationality — the desire to undercut the absurdity of authenticity. However, he also obviously serves as a warning. His actions point to the continued international power dynamics that social networking is still caught up in.
AO: Sour Lips will run at the Ovalhouse in London from 29 January to 16 February, which coincides with the second anniversary of the peak of the so-called "Arab Spring." How have the political transformations in the region affected your work as an artist and playwright?
El-Khairy: The uprisings that took hold across the Arab world and the struggles that continue today don't just undermine authoritarian regimes, they also unsettle mainstream representations of seemingly war-torn, sectarian, oppressed and repressed societies. They have thus helped infuse a different kind of interest in the Middle East, particularly from within the arts. New kinds of conversations are being had and exciting collaborations are beginning to form. However, this newfound excitement and interest has already started to occlude certain historical and socio-political relationships that predate the "Arab Spring" and remain unquestioned today.
AO: You have recently completed your PhD in political sociology at the London School of Economics, focusing on American cultural diplomacy in the digital age. How do you think, if at all, blogs and social media from the Arab world are altering the dynamics of contemporary politics/culture?
El-Khairy: I think that "youth" and "social media" have become catchphrases and somewhat empty signifiers through which one is now meant to understand the changing events in the region. There is no doubt that social networks played a significant role in bringing people together, organising and spreading information. However, this narrative does little more than ignore substantial material issues of power, access, equality and rights. There has subsequently been a reinforcement in some of these new narratives — a renewed fetishisation of the Arab world through the lens of technology, secularism and modernity. Social networking has undoubtedly made the world smaller, but in many ways it has simply reinforced the status quo. Both the volume and speed of these new interactions have done little in terms of the direction and quality of these relationships. In this respect, Sour Lips wants to ask: What can a more radical intercommunalism look like in our hyper-connected world?
AO: Is there a particular actor or scene that you’re excited about in this play?
El-Khairy: We're blessed with an absolutely wonderful cast. I tend to find the politics of casting incredibly stifling. The refreshing choices that someone like Peter Brook takes is something that inspired us to make some bold and possibly risky choices ourselves with this production.
We feel it's important to recognise the international dynamic to this story and refract this through the diversity of the cast and the multiplicity of languages spoken on stage. We want our work to look, feel and sound like the world we live in.
AO: If this play could be performed anywhere else in the world, where would you like it to be, and why?
El-Khairy: I would love to see it up on its feet in the Middle East. A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to spend some time in the Freedom Theatre in Jenin. To see this play performed on that stage would mean a lot to me.
AO: In a nutshell, why are you working on this play?
El-Khairy: I don't believe in the idea of writing on behalf of or for a specific community, but I do hope that this play engages the much-neglected British Arab community. Over recent years a number of theatres have made a sustained attempt to re-engage certain communities in the work that they programme, but little has been done to embrace and nourish a strong artistic appetite amongst Arab communities in this country. Being part of a diasporic community in a metropolitan hub like London, it is the bodies that live between and through fixed identities — modern-day urban pirates and motley crews — that interest me. Their lives ultimately show us the way to more convivial futures.
Sour Lips runs at Ovalhouse from 29 January to 16 February 2013
52-54 Kennington Oval, London