On this episode of In-Dialogue, host Jamil Khoury speaks with his dear friend, colleague, and collaborator Dr. Michael Malek Najjar, Associate Professor of Theatre Arts at The University of Oregon.
This is the first of nine conversations with Malek exploring the Arab American and Middle Eastern American theatre movements. This conversation was recorded on August 21, 2019.
Hello and welcome to Silk Road Rising's In-Dialogue, a podcast dedicated to the lively exchange of ideas and experiences. Silk Road Rising is a community centered art making and art service organization rooted in Asian, Middle Eastern, and Muslim experiences. Through live theater, digital media, and arts education, we challenge disinformation, cultivate new narratives, and promote a culture of continuous learning. I'm your host Jamil Khoury, Co-Founder and Co-Executive Artistic Director of Silk Road Rising. On this episode of In-Dialogue. I'm speaking with my dear friend, colleague and collaborator, Dr. Michael Malek Najjar, Associate Professor of Theatre Arts at The University of Oregon. This is the first of nine conversations I'm having with Malek, exploring the Arab American and Middle Eastern American theater movements. Today's conversation was recorded on August 21, 2019. Welcome Dr. Michael Malek Najjar. Very excited to have you here.Malek Najjar :
Thank you.Jamil Khoury :
I'm very grateful to have you here.Malek Najjar :
I'm so grateful to be here. Thank you.Jamil Khoury :
Thank you. So I'm gonna kind of put you on the spot a bit and ask you to tell our audience how you and I know each other.Malek Najjar :
Right. Well, it was around 2001 or 2 and there was a listserv for Arab American writers primarily. And I had joined the listserv and I noticed a posting from a playwright who is looking for a director that would assist that playwright in shaping a play called Precious Stones. And I replied immediately and it was just, there was something so interesting about that posting, it's like it called to me somehow. And so we began that dialogue back and forth with the play. You would send me a copy, and then I would give you notes, and then you would rewrite and send me a copy. And I remember this going on for many months before you had invited me to come out and actually direct the play here at the Chicago Cultural Center. So a really exciting time when I look back on it on the formation of an Arab American work from its inception to its staging, I think that's a very important moments in our personal history, but also in Arab American Theatre history.Jamil Khoury :
So Malek directed Silk Road Rising's inaugural productions, so you are ever, forever etched into the DNA, the memory, the history of the company, and very much involved to this day, as evidenced by...Malek Najjar :
Which has been a great gift in my life as an artist and as a scholar. Honestly.Jamil Khoury :
Thank you.Malek Najjar :
And to have friendship with you and Malik has been a great, just a great boon in my own personal life as well.Jamil Khoury :
The feeling is very mutual and to have Rana and your daughter, Malak, in our lives. So tell us about the work that you do.Malek Najjar :
So I see myself as a scholar practitioner. On the scholarly side, I am devoted to writing down Arab American Theatre history, Middle Eastern American Theatre history, in an attempt to have non-Middle Easterners understand the depth and the great talent that is in this genre. I, with my students at the University, I'll put up a bust of William Shakespeare and a bust of Khalil Gibran. And I'll ask them "Who is this person?" and they'll to a person, say, "William Shakespeare." And I'll say "Who is this person?" and to a person, not a single hand will go up. And this is very sad to me because Khalil Gibran was an American writer, and a novelist and a playwright. So I think that there's a there's a great gap in our general understanding of this history and therefore I feel that part of my job is to enlighten our audiences about this history. On the production side, I direct Arab American plays and Middle Eastern American plays. And so I feel that those two things need to work in concert with one another if we're ever going to have a movement that really is etched into the American theatre scene. Otherwise the place will fade into obscurity, like the early Arab American works we'll discuss later.Jamil Khoury :
And so how do you see the work that you're doing in the academy, in particular, advancing the both the Arab American and Middle Eastern American movements and of course you are at once an academic and artist and an activist and those three goes so much, so hand in hand for you.Malek Najjar :
And they must because I feel that there are different legs of a table, if you will. All three of them are supporting this work. A part of my work is bringing playwrights and directors and others to the university and introducing them to my students as we have done with yourself several years ago. Another part of the work is directing the plays and having the students embody the characters. So they actually step literally into the shoes of these Middle Eastern characters and take on their, the depth of their experience firsthand. And then of course, us trying to stage these plays outside the academy and trying to raise awareness of these playwrights to let audiences understand that there is a larger canon than just the sort of fixed canon we've been given. Even in theater circles, we've been reading a very small canon of works and now it's time to expand that cannon to let in different voices from African American community, Latinx community, Native American community, Middle Eastern American community and others in order to really bring to life this beautiful tapestry of theater that we have in this country.Jamil Khoury :
I think as a as a closing question, I would like you to tell us about your own Middle Eastern background.Malek Najjar :
Yes. So both of my parents are Lebanese immigrants. We're from a Druze lineage, from as far back as anyone can chronicle from Lebanon specifically. And so I feel I'm carrying the generational weight of all of those people when I come here as somebody who was born and raised here, but my wife is a Lebanese immigrant who emigrated during the war, the civil war in Lebanon. And I feel that that history is a part of us and and it's part of who we are and what we, what makes us who we are, and therefore, expressing it through art is one of the most interesting ways I think, to do so and to share those experiences with audiences in America.Jamil Khoury :
A heartfelt thank you to our guest, Dr. Michael Malek Najjar for such inspiring conversation. And a big thanks to you our listening audience for joining us at In-Dialogue. Bravo to Alex Groesch for recording and editing this episode and to Andy Lynn for production managing our show. Over the next eight episodes, we'll be continuing our exploration of the Arab American and Middle Eastern American theater movements with Dr. Michael Malek Najjar. In our next episode, we'll be examining the period from roughly 1880 to the 1967 Six Day Arab Israeli War. This podcast is a project of Silk Road Rising. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on the support of those who engage and enjoy our work. We hope that you will support our ongoing efforts and consider making a donation. To do so, please visit our website at www.silkroadrising.org that's silkroadrising.org. Click on donate and thank you for your support. Until next time, keep helping the world heal.