Denmo Ibrahim was in complete command of Yussef El Guindi’s Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat. Movie heroines kept coming to mind: Carmen Maura in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown; Anna Magnani in The Golden Coach. A flawed, sardonic, intelligent woman outsmarting the troublesome men — and other obstacles — in her life.
In fact, the set design included a wide screen at the back of the stage. Seeing her projected to movie star size answered an unspoken if implied question: yes, Ibrahim ought to be in pictures. But how many dramatic actors of Middle Eastern heritage are household names in the U.S.? Offhand, the Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo comes to mind because of her Academy Award nomination in 2004. In most arenas of popular culture, widespread representation from the community is sparing to none.
Our Enemies tackles the subject of Arab American representation by focusing on the publishing industry. Ibrahim is Noor, a novelist at the beginning of her career. Both she and her boyfriend Gamal (James Asher) have submitted their first manuscripts to Olivia (Annemaria Rajala), a big city editor. Olivia likes Noor’s heritage more than she likes her book, which she describes as a bodice ripper (she dismisses Gamal’s as a harangue). During their meeting, she also asks Noor a series of leading personal questions about her upbringing.
Without saying it directly, Olivia wants Noor to emphasize — rather than disguise — her ethnic identity, her Arabness. Noor is wisely withholding and reluctant to do so. She faces a complex dilemma. While it’s true she has stayed in America both for its attendant freedoms and to enjoy her adult sense of autonomy from her family, she doesn’t want her narrative to be read as stereotypical — the Arab woman escaping from an oppressive patriarchal society that forces her to wear a hijab. Olivia’s offer to publish her reeks of tokenism. Another author she represents embodies the idea that signing with her is akin to selling out.
The playwright introduces and humiliates Mohsen (Kunal Prasad) in the first scene. It’s not entirely clear if, as a writer, he is an apologist or if he’s actually an “Uncle Tom” figure as Gamal refers to him. Either way, his best-selling book is controversial for his unsavory depictions of Arab-Americans. We quickly discover, though, that Gamal is the one having a breakdown. He pretends to be a makeup artist at the television studio where Mohsen is about to be interviewed. Gamal escalates an innocuous conversation into a tirade against Mohsen’s character, while also drawing the word “whore” in lipstick-red letters across his forehead.
Mohsen, however, is not the only Muslim Gamal holds a grudge against. There’s also Sheikh Alfani (Munaf Alsafi), a spiritual leader who makes appearances in the press as a religious pundit alongside priests and rabbis. Gamal objects to what he perceives as Alfani’s distinct set of antiquated and anti-Western values, such as calling homosexuality an abomination. Like a Middle Eastern caped crusader with a tragic backstory, Gamal acts out his neurosis by demanding that these men, whose public voices carry some weight and influence, hear him out. He is an isolated figure, clearly wrecked, whose broken relationship with Noor is the main reason we sympathize with him. Through her eyes, we see the potential she once saw in him, and then watch as her tenderness and affection fade to exasperation.
Our Enemies makes sense of Gamal’s alienation, and then, sadly, goes on to punish him for it. It’s the only, but major, failing of a play that defies cultural reductionism by creating four diverse, lively and fully formed Arab-Americans. Their values and opinions, thoughts and feelings, are as complicated and varied as any other group of Americans. Pointing out such a statement may seem obvious to some, and not so obvious to others who have called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” El Guindi doesn’t make a martyr of Gamal, but he doesn’t forgive him either. He lets Noor do that, and she does so with a justifiable and unqualified amount of grace.
Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat, through Nov. 20 at Thick House, 1695 18th St., 415-626-4061.