The way the United States sees the world has rarely been consistent or wide ranging. Instead, especially in popular culture, the American gaze is fitful and sporadic, its focii more determined by political ideology than by a sustained and balanced interest in global culture. In the 1960s and 70s Americans were very aware of Southeast Asian geography and politics; in the 80s, Central America. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, in the midst of a “War on Terror,” Middle East, Arabic and Islamic cultures are subjects of a relentless American gaze that looks intently but superficially at certain aspects of those cultures, for the most part ignoring depth, context, and history; and disliking, or at least not understanding, what it sees.
In what follows, I want do discuss certain Western problems with Islamic culture, specifically in the context of Middle East and Arabic performance. But let me try to make some distinctions clear. First of all, Middle-Eastern and Arabic performance is mostly but not always created within an Islamic perspective; my focus is those Middle-Eastern and Arabic performances which do reflect an Islamic point of view. I also include the Ta’ziyehof Shi’i Islam (performed primarily in Iran) and some aspects of Turkish performance because both Iran and Turkey can be considered part of the Middle East, even though neither is Arabic. Secondly, Islamic performance in the Middle East is only a fraction of the wide range and multiplicity of performance traditions in Islamic societies from the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Given this complex situation—often misapprehended by Western scholars–I hope that my central argument about the West’s problem with Middle Eastern and Arabic performance traditions will be clear.
The distortions involved in the West’s look East have been a persistent problem of Western performance and theatre history. Various faces of Islam in the Middle East, including Ottoman Turks, North Africans, Arabs, Sufis, and Persians, complexly overlapping categories conflating religions, ethnicities, and cultures—have regularly appeared upon the stages of Western Europe (and later the United States). Islamic characters appear in Western theatre in productions ranging from the sixteenth-century Coventry Shearmen and Tailors Play to Molière’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme; the Sicilian Orlando Furioso cycles; most English mummers’ plays; Peter Brook’s Ta’ziyeh-based Conference of the Birds; Jean Genet’s The Screens; Ariane Mnouchkine’s Tartuffe with the title figure as an Islamic fundamentalist; the annual Brooklyn “Giglio” ritual; Trisha Brown’s whirling dances and Robert Wilson’s use of Sufi performance traditions and Arabic calligraphy in Einstein on the Beach; and Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul. Even Iranian expatriate Reza Abdoh’s Quotations from a Ruined City might be considered a Western theater production which looks East for inspiration.