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Traveling the Silk Road to the stage

Mon, Aug 20, 2012

In the 2005 theater production of 10 Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith, a strange thing happened to one audience member. The woman loved the play. The play, which told the story of an Egyptian family struggling to find its niche in American society, featured a genuinely loving relationship between a Muslim man and his wife.

Malik Gillani was surprised.
“That’s one reaction we get, where our mainstream attendees say that they are observing a behavior – an interaction in a community – that they don’t associate with that community,” said Gillani, co-founder and executive director of the theater company Silk Road Rising. “Something as simple as love between a husband and wife is newsworthy to them.”

Silk Road Rising uses art – primarily theater – to break the boundaries of race, ethnicity and ideology. Gillani and Artistic Director Jamil Khoury, who are also life partners, founded the company in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks when fear and mistrust of Middle Eastern and Muslim Americans abounded.

The idea struck a personal note with Gillani and Khoury, who both have roots in the Middle East. Gillani was born in Pakistan to Indian parents and moved to the U.S. when he was 7 years old, and Khoury is of Arab and Slavic background. As they began to build their company, they found an avenue to expand their idea into something even greater.

“We kept running into references to the historic Silk Road,” Khoury said. “And we thought, here is an interesting historical example of what we would call polyculturalism, where the intersections overlap in culture.”

The Silk Road refers to the ancient trade route that stretched from China all the way to Italy on land and sea. Although silk was the main good that traveled this path, many intangible goods made their way across the continent, too.

“In addition to trade, there was a strong storyteller component to the Silk Road, and the stories have been translated from Mandarin to Hindi to Farsi to Arabic to Greek to Turkish and so forth and also filtered along different cultures and different eras,” Khoury said.

These stories especially intrigued Khoury, a playwright and former cross-cultural trainer and international relocations consultant. Although some of Silk Road’s plays take place in Silk Road countries, many of them focus on the U.S. and the place Silk Road immigrants and their descendants occupy in this country. Many of these people face discrimination and struggle with their identities. Are they Indian, Pakistani, Japanese or Arab? Or are they American? Can they be both?

But just because Gillani and Khoury strive to expose the perspective of what increasingly seems to be the biggest underdog in American society today doesn’t mean they are putting halos around all Indians, Pakistanis, Japanese and Arabs.

“The pieces we choose tend to be smart, they tend to be edgy, they are oftentimes political,” Khoury said. “We don’t shy away from controversy, and we do not do what I call celebratory work. It’s not about ‘oh, isn’t it great to be Arab’ or ‘isn’t it great to be Japanese.’ I often say – somewhat tongue-in-cheek – that we are not a self-esteem project. We really exist to challenge both the communities represented on stage and the larger mainstream communities.”

The mission of Silk Road Rising is twofold. First, Gillani and Khoury want to create art and tell a story that has an impact. Second, they want to engage their audience and prompt them to make a change. This can be a challenge as their typical audience is rather diverse. According to Gillani, about 70 percent of their audience is made up of regular theatergoing people, and the rest is mostly comprised of the ethnic group the particular play is about.

Gillani and Khoury strive for universality in all of their plays to achieve their goal of challenging everyone and helping them find that common thread of humanity. And so far it’s worked.

“The thing that’s always most gratifying to me is that people will comment, ‘I did not think I would be able to relate to the story. I came here skeptical, but that’s my father’s story or that’s my sister’s story or that’s my family’s story,’” Khoury said. “[It’s] this ability that we all have to see ourselves in someone else’s story.”

Colleen Connolly, StreetWise Editorial Intern

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