'My Arab Fall' Offers a Message of Hope with a Female Perspective
August 3, 2019 - San Antonio
Article By: Jade Esteban Estrada - Writer, SA Sentinel
In late 2010, street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in an act of protest outside the governor's office in Tunisia. His death sparked the beginning of the Jasmine Revolution and, shortly thereafter, helped inspire the string of anti-government protests and armed rebellions in North Africa and the Middle East known as the Arab Spring.
San Antonio native Anna De Luna, who was visiting Cairo about this time, watched the events unfold with avid curiosity. In My Arab Fall, a multimedia theatrical performance about her travels through the region, she draws parallels between Egypt's Arab Spring and the experience of San Antonio women in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
Co-written by Doyle Avant, the story is told from the perspectives of a "Chicana tourist" (De Luna) and an Egyptian activist (Kauthar Harrak-Sharif), two women separated by social and political privilege but connected in a fight to change the world from their respective platforms.
When De Luna returned to San Antonio, she heard about Lara Logan, a CBS reporter, being beaten and sexually assaulted while covering the celebrations in Tahrir Square after President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. This news, in conjunction with what she’d seen and heard regarding sexual assault against Egyptian women, impacted how she would ultimately compose her travelogue.
Sitting before me is director Mellissa Marlowe, the storytelling expert, Harrak-Sharif, the cultural background authority and De Luna, the co-creator of the play. The three women seem to represent the sweeping social changes taking place in the world today.
Marlowe, 52, attended a staged reading of the play in 2015 and immediately connected with the script.
Once collaborative talks began, De Luna expressed her desire to find an actress from the Muslim community to play the part of Hala, the Egyptian activist.
“At first, my thought was, ‘Wow. Good luck [with that] in San Antonio,’ right?" says Marlowe, who has appeared on local stages since the 1980s. She later remembered that she did, in fact, have a theatre student who was a practicing Muslim and was "a very good actor."
22-year-old Harrak-Sharif is sitting directly in front of me. She’s wearing a hijab. As a devout Muslim, she's required to wear it at all times.
Many people treat the term "Arab" as interchangeable with "Muslim." This is incorrect according to Musa M. Sadek, the director of the Islamic Academy of San Antonio. "It is true that not all Arabs are Muslims," he explained during a recent phone interview. "Technically speaking, the Arabs are the minority of the Muslim population worldwide.”
Harrak-Sharif, who is also an Arab, was open to the project, however, she was concerned about the way Egyptian men were going to be portrayed. "I [didn’t] want anyone to walk away from this play thinking that Muslim men are bad," she says.
Throughout the rehearsal period, the three women have been careful not to villainize the men portrayed in the piece. As De Luna points out, "There are some incredible men [in Egypt], too."
Harrak-Sharif's cultural expertise is an obvious asset. For example, De Luna suggested that they use a real Quran, the central religious text of Islam, in one of the scenes. Harrak-Sharif, a San Antonio native of Moroccan descent, advised against it. "She said 'It's important to respect the Quran and take care of it,’” De Luna recounts. “‘It’s got to be treated a certain way.’" As a result of the conversation, the sacred book is not in the show.
And neither are any of the stereotypes that one might expect. As a Western tourist visiting the Egyptian capital, De Luna was heartened to see that many Egyptian women were also “extremely powerful protest organizers.” In Egypt's Arab Spring, she saw that women were present, however, their voices were not being amplified.
“As Americans, we are wildly privileged,” Marlowe says with the artful flair of a deft tragedienne. “[This] play recognizes American privilege.”
After a few speculating exchanges about how one translates veracity onto the stage, she summarizes, “That’s what theatre’s about. It’s about the truth.”
Marlowe also makes it a point to emphasize that De Luna isn't portrayed as “a hero from the West.”
Though some members of the HIV/AIDS community may peg her as a heroine from the South. The writer/actress, now a well-preserved 49, has championed the cause through her play, The AIDS Lady, which she performed last year at the Blue Star Arts Complex.
Reminiscent of Doric Wilson's activist play, Street Theater, a retelling of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, My Arab Fall may find its core audience among local human rights activists and the Arab community, a group Marlowe feels has been underrepresented on San Antonio stages.
"I think a lot of people are scared of Muslims," De Luna says. Her voice is both soft and vehement. [Some people] are scared to talk to them." When De Luna began her search for a pronunciation consultant, she was happy to see that some members of the Muslim community were enthusiastic about her play. “We just want people to not be afraid of us,” one person said. Another supporter from the Arab community wanted to ensure that there would be a celebratory vibe at the post-show reception. "You have to have food! You have to have hummus," she was told. De Luna starts to laugh. "I was like, 'Oh, my God! They're just like Mexicans!'"
Because the subject of sexual assault and harassment can be a sensitive topic, De Luna has partnered with the Rape Crisis Center. “They'll be [at the performance] in case someone in the audience is triggered,” she says.
To balance out the drama, Harrak-Sharif says the show contains more than a few humorous moments.
“There’s [not only] black and [only] white in the world," says Marlowe. “I like [this show] because it's gray. Not everyone in the show is completely good [or] completely bad. They’re just people.”
She offers a thought: “A play is a representation of human beings.” She thinks My Arab Fall is a good example of that idea. "I love what we’ve done here and I love that we’ve been allowed to do it,” she says.
My attention returns to the youngest member of the show, who has spoken the least during our interview.
Her energy and youth opens a window to this new age of female empowerment, and may be this production’s strongest suit.
When I ask Harrak-Sharif what she thinks audiences may take away from this show, she smiles and says, “Hope and enlightenment.”
Hope and enlightenment.
That sounds like a revolution in itself.
If you go to My Arab Fall:
3:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.
Saturday, August 3, 2019
Northwest Vista College
Palmetto Center for the Arts
Black Box Theater
3535 North Ellison
San Antonio, Texas 78251
Admission is free
Reservations are not required
Duration: One hour and ten minutes
Due to subject matter and language, the show is not suitable for children 12 and under.