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Arab Awakenings

Inaugural NU-Q class shares their world on an Evanston campus stage

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June 12, 2012 | by Storer H. Rowley
Arab Awakenings

Difficult issues of Arab society unfolded in scenes ranging from tragic to humorous. Photo by Justin Barbin
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Outrageous TV reality shows infecting Mideast culture, the taboo subjects of alcohol, abuse and homosexuality, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the social justice rappers of the Arab Spring were among the provocative subjects of plays and documentaries showcased by students visiting from Northwestern University in Qatar.

Marking the achievements of the inaugural commencement class of NU-Q, graduating seniors and other undergraduates from the Doha campus came to Evanston last weekend to unveil what they have learned and created pursuing bachelor of science degrees from the the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications and the School of Communication.

Literally, unveiling. The opening of the six original short plays in the production of “Arab Awakenings” also involved three Northwestern Evanston students. Covered from head to toe in black abayas and hijabs, the women unveiled pieces of the set, and even the actors, by drawing back the black sheets that covered them.

The “Arab Awakenings” production is just one aspect of a week of events in which the inaugural graduating class from NU-Q -- some 28 students out of the 36-member senior class -- are coming to Evanston for the first Northwestern commencement ever to include NU-Q students. Most of them arrive here Tuesday (June 12).

The visit is emotional not just for them and their friends and families, but it is momentous for Northwestern, too, because the NU-Q students, in meaningful ways large and small, are beginning to impact the University as a whole in a kind of reversal of influence as they spread knowledge about their attitudes, talents, achievements and cultures.

The “Arab Awakenings” production was a major example. The Muslim call to prayer echoed in the background as the plays portion of the performance opened at Northwestern’s Mussetter-Struble Theatre on June 8 and 9.

One by one, the difficult issues of Arab society grappling with modernity and the West unfolded in scenes ranging from tragic to uncomfortable to humorous. But always these themes were at the heart of what was revealed in a production that brought home the success, reach and impact these NU-Q communication students are having on their own society and the region.

Preceding the play, three award-winning NU-Q journalism students were on hand to also introduce and discuss “Lyrics Revolt,” their documentary footage of Arab rap stars and hip-hop groups whose lyrics helped directly fuel and inspire participants in the Arab Spring uprisings from Tunisia to Egypt. They traveled to multiple North African and Mideast countries to make their initial documentary, which already has inspired a second.

“I’m so happy to be here. It’s been a really, really incredible experience,” said Rana Khaled, 21, a Palestinian who was born in Abu Dhabi, lived in Qatar and is starting a production company with three classmates after graduating this week.

Khaled was joined by two of those three -- Shannon Farhoud and Ashlene Ramadan -- to participate in the “Arab Awakenings” program in Evanston and to explain and show excerpts of “Lyrics Revolt.”

“I’m really going to miss Northwestern. It truly changed my life. In four years here, I have discovered who I am, and I’ve done incredible things -- and I hope to keep doing incredible things,” Khaled added during the intermission in Saturday’s production.

Next came a series of six plays written by NU-Q communication students Lama Al-Abdulla, Thamer Al-Thani, Dana Atrach, Kaltham Al-Thani, Omer Mohammad and Ethar Hassaan.

They dealt with difficult themes such as religion, alcohol abuse and homosexuality and the splits and angst they cause in traditional families in the Arab world. They portrayed the degradation of spirit caused by the Israel-Palestinian conflict. They lampooned American-style game shows and portrayed them with a hilarious Mideastern twist. They grappled with the Arab Spring and whether participation in the uprising would actually change anything.

The actors were strong, passionate and theatrical. They included students from NU-Q: Mohamed Farid, Motasem Kalaji, Meriem Mesraoua and Rasha Said; and students from Northwestern’s Evanston campus: Emily Ember, Brittany Blum and Amy Secunda.

“The whole thing has been phenomenal,” declared Farid, 21, an NU-Q graduating senior and a communication major from Cairo who is also starting his own company, The Youth Company, in Doha. “This all came together in six days.

“It was hard bringing these plays here and involved a lot of collaboration and discussion, but the whole community came together and created something much bigger and much better. And all our differences -- Christians, Muslims, Jews -- you just set aside through working together in a piece of art. And this is what NU-Q is all about.”

For example, the plays used a lot more Arabic when performed in Doha and more English in the Evanston performances, but both languages were widely used in both venues. Farid even had to fill the role of another NU-Q student who had a visa problem that affected his arrival in the U.S.

“We worried whether we would be as good as the students here,” he confided after the show on Saturday. “And you know what? We are as good. We really are as good.

“I’m saying that because we were kind of pioneers as members of the first graduating class. I’m also sad in a way to graduate. I’ll miss NU-Q and my friends. But I like to think of what happens a few years down the road with NU-Q, and I can’t wait to see how much better it will be for the next students.”

The Evanston students were just as exuberant about the collaboration, and the impact the visiting students had on life here.

Interestingly, the three Evanston students portrayed Arab women and emerged between each scene -- choreographed by Movement Director Dawn Mora, a senior lecturer at the School of Communication -- to unveil another scene, weave the various plays together and reveal what may have seemed surprising performances to a western audience.

They lifted their abayas together, below the knee, to look at their fashionista shoes; they peered in unison over their dark glasses at the audience, like Vogue models; they put on lipstick, and they danced ever so provocatively to a Middle Eastern melody with elegant and graceful hand movements -- each hand clutching a cellphone.

One of the three, Emily Ember, 20, a rising junior theatre major (class of 2014) from Montvale, N.J., said, “Working on this project was an amazing opportunity, and not only did I have a good time, but I also learned a great deal.”

On the first day of rehearsal, she said she was “amazed” to hear about the project and “astounded” that these plays were transferred from NU-Q. “It amazed me that these students were able to travel to Evanston and re-perform these plays to a completely different audience,” she said. 

“Once we understood the project, we spent time reading through the scripts, and as Evanston students, we commented on the script and gave feedback as to how the Evanston audience would receive the production. In this part of rehearsal, a number of issues were raised that had not been a problem for the NU-Q audience, such as the understanding of the Arabic in the script. Through this collaborative process, we were able to learn about each other's cultures. 

“As we came together to create a cohesive piece,” Ember added, “we formed an ensemble of actors and friends. Even though we came from different parts of the world, we were all just college students trying to successfully perform our production. Despite our different backgrounds, we were all Northwestern students that had to rigorously work through the week with finals. 

“I absolutely loved being a part of the show, and it is an experience that I will never forget!” she said. “This is where I learned a great deal of their culture. The costumes we wore were not costumes at all but were real clothes. We learned the religious significance of the hijab (and how to wrap one), and we learned about the cultural significance of the abaya.

“In learning all these things, I realized how much more there is for me to learn, and it has really sparked my interest. I already miss working with the cast and would love to work on a similar project in the future.”

Susan Pak, a visiting assistant professor in communication at NU-Q, oversaw script development for the project and was thrilled to work on the production.

“Working at NU-Q, I've seen firsthand how frustrated some students are by stereotypes, especially about Muslim women,” she said. “One student told me that she could still be Muslim, go to grad school, get married and wear jeans and that it didn't necessarily mean she was ‘at war’ with her traditional self versus her modern self. Rather, she saw all of these things as different facets of her personal identity.

“I don't think any of the students in ‘Arab Awakenings’ set out to make any kind of statement with their scripts or their performances. Rather, they wanted to share personal tales told from their own perspective. This is what was particularly exciting to me: We showcased several plays by and about people from the region.

“So, for example, the last play, 'Awake,' was not told from the perspective of some scholar who'd researched the Egyptian revolution,” Pak noted, “but rather, it was written by a young woman from Cairo, who had family and friends there, and who had a very specific perspective about what happened on January 25th.

“This is the kind of work I am thrilled to see coming out of Northwestern University in Qatar -- work by and about people who are from the Middle East. What I found most refreshing about this project, as well as my experience teaching at NU-Q, is exactly this ‘reversal of influence’ idea,” she added.

“Every time I speak to one of my students, I learn something new. My hope is that through vehicles like ‘Arab Awakenings,’ their voices reach beyond NU-Q and ultimately counter the misinformation which is often propagated about the Middle East.”

Ann Woodworth, an associate professor in the School of Communication who directed “Arab Awakenings,” was equally enthusiastic about the production.

“The students did a wonderful job of pulling together the six plays,” she said, “especially since we lost an actor 10 days before opening, requiring all of the NU-Q students to take on additional parts, learn new lines and blocking, while studying for exams, writing papers and taking finals. Truly, they were fabulous!

“The same goes for the three NU-E students who came into the project one week before opening. Their contribution to the production was incredibly significant,” she added. “I believe there was a definite impact on audience members from Evanston who saw the production and for the Evanston students who were involved.”