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I Come From There: New Plays from the Arab World at PEN World Voices Festival

By Emma Garman

At the Martin E. Segal Theatre at the CUNY Graduate Center yesterday afternoon, readings of two works by young playwrights—presented by the British Council and London’s Royal Court Theatre, with support from the Sundance Institute Theater Program—explored notions of home.

In Withdrawal by Mohammad Al Attar—translated by Clem Naylor and directed by Kareem Fahmy—a pair of young lovers secretly rent a room in Damascus, where they try to enjoy each other's company and plan for the future away from the pressures of family obligations, careers and, more nebulous but omnipresent, societal expectation. But against all of the above, the mere physical existence of those four walls proves no match. As Nour (Sarah Nina Hayon) tries to turn the room into a real home with pictures and possessions, and Ahmed (Rufio Lerma) broods, complains, and fails to find in Nour an escape from his perpetual sense of alienation, the couple's all too convincing bickering spins an atmosphere of equal parts romance and claustrophobia. "I'm scared of you," each tells the other, "and scared for you."

In Arzé Khodr's The House—translated by Khalid Laith and directed by Trip Cullman—two sisters in Beirut find themselves locked in almost mortal combat over what to do with the family home in the aftermath of their mother’s death. Older sister Nadia (Roxanna Hope) not only wants to continue living in the house, she wants Reem (Marjan Neshat) to stay there too, even though Reem left a long time ago and hates the house, and her childhood memories of it, with a passion. “I’m not growing old with you in this house so you can feel good about your life,” she tells Nadia. Their younger brother Nabeel (Nehal Josh) is, for his part, loathe to take sides, even when Reem decides that the best solution would be to sell the house and split the proceeds three ways—a goal she ends up achieving by drastic measures. In the meantime, the sisters’ verbal battle slides from black comedy to tragedy and back again, mainly thanks to the brilliantly rendered, larger than life Nadia. “Me, torture her?” she retorts when accused of torturing Reem. “She’d put Guantanamo to shame.”

Published Apr 30, 2010   Copyright 2010 Emma Garman

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