An Antidote to Orientalism: I Call My Brothers at Crowded Fire Theater

Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s 2013 open letter to Beatrice Ask, Sweden’s former Minister of Justice, went viral. Khemiri, a novelist and playwright, was born and raised in Sweden. But his looks belie the stereotypical blonde haired, blue-eyed Swedish citizen: his father is Tunisian and Khemiri inherited his dark skin and hair color. Ask, in defending Sweden’s deportation policy of searching for people living in the country without permission, essentially endorsed racial profiling. This policy encouraged a heightened level of police interest and harassment for those Swedes (and non-Swedes alike) who shared Khemiri’s physical coloring,

In one passage, Khemiri describes the experience of being arrested by the police for the crime of simply writing in his notebook in a public place: “I sat there alone. And I met all the eyes walking by and tried to show them that I wasn't guilty, that I had just been standing in a place and looking a particular way. But it's hard to argue your innocence in the back seat of a police van.” He goes on to listen to a troubling voice inside his mind: “What if it was our fault. We made the mistake of having a villainous hair color. We could have chosen to have less melanin in our skin.”

In this letter, Khemiri skillfully illustrates how the psyche of a dark-haired, dark-skinned man can be harmed and damaged. The play I Call My Brothers, which Khemiri also wrote as a novel, shares its theme and tone with the Ask letter. The play, however, is a hybrid: in part it’s a memory play, but it’s also a spoken word roundelay. The title becomes the familiar refrain repeated at various intervals, temporarily pausing the forward motion of the plot. Through repetition, the line becomes a statement of intent and a call to action.

Of the four characters who populate the piece, Amor is the central figure. He comes across as a destabilized person, unable to establish his footing, living between the past and the present. He is joined onstage by his best friend Shavi; his unrequited love Valeria; and by Ahlem, the ghost of his grandmother. The three of them also act as his Greek chorus, shifting in and out of other supporting characters and then coming together with him to exclaim the titular refrain as a unified and purposeful quartet.  

The play is heavy on exposition. We come to understand that there’s been an explosion in the city. Is Amor responsible for it, or an automatic suspect because of his skin color? Amor’s interior monologues, for the most part, move the story forward through telling rather than showing. This is I Call My Brothers’s strength, and its weakness. Although it’s not in any way meant to be a naturalistic play, the narrative through line halts at times, and at others stalls. 

While all four actors connect with their characters, they also must contend with microphones. They’re unnecessary impediments that are meant to convey telephone conversations to the audience. But they upset the dramatic rhythm of some scenes by extending, rather than tightening, the beats. We could be closer to the emotion on stage if the actors didn’t have to fuss about with them. The audience could be trusted enough to imagine an invisible cell phone, just as it imagines the aftermath of an explosion.

Regardless, the play offers an antidote to the many misconceived versions of Middle Eastern men in popular culture. Growing up Khemiri watched action films, “where dark men rape, swear gutturally, strike their women, kidnap their children, manipulate and lie and steal and abuse.” Beatrice Ask, after attending a performance of I Call My Brothers, might recognize herself in Khemiri’s humane portraits of dark-haired men and women. Pale audiences everywhere are long overdue for this kind of theatrical corrective.

I Call My Brothers, through April 23 at Crowded Fire Theater, 1695 18th St., 415-523-0034

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