Talk about Othering. Look, if you will, at the way we in the West speak about a certain region half a turn around the globe: We refer to the “Middle East and North Africa,” often with the abbreviation MENA, as a rough way to encompass the world’s Arabic-speaking countries in some kind of semi-coherent grouping. Leave aside for a moment that this is a region, or cluster of regions, replete with diverse ethnicities, languages, and cultures that can’t be reduced to one broad category; just look at the labels themselves. They are profoundly decentering: It is not the East but its Middle, not Africa but its North. This is a region, it would seem, that does not stand confidently or continentally on its own, but ever in relation to, in orbit around, other centers of gravity.
While we in the U.S. boldly claim America as if it’s our country’s name, and are slightly disoriented if not chastened when reminded that we’re really just “North Americans,” people in what is sometimes called “the Arab world” (a similarly misleading but relatively more empowering label, provided you happen to be an Arab in that world) have no such singular national identity to overstate. It is not hard to trace the origins of this fragmented, liminal, homeland-less status: It has all to do with the centuries-long divide-and-conquer legacy of Western colonial powers, which is why it’s hardly surprising that movements aimed at smashing Western-imposed borders, and of returning the region to the more indigenous imperial vision of a caliphate, have had purchase there.
There is another way, though, for scattered peoples to assert a common identity across borders and governments, in spite of war and plunder and devastation, and that is culture. Egypt, to give one oft-cited example, has long been credited with creating a sort of pan-Arabic popular culture via its busy television industry, from soaps to news shows. There may be no theatrical equivalent for that kind of cross-border, mass-audience reach. But in this issue we look at a variety of ways that MENA performing artists are not only speaking to the current harrowing moment in their region, but reaching outside their specific contexts to share their work on wider stages. In many cases, due to economic and political conditions, this means that they either live and work far from their nations of origin, or that even when they do keep a toehold in their home countries, they typically work in partnership with Western institutions, like Sundance, which is hosting its next playwriting lab in Morocco in May; New York Live Arts, which brought dozens of performers from the region to a MENA festival in the spring; the International Theatre Institute, which lends its support to a biennial monodrama festival in the emirate of Fujairah, among other regional programs; and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which has backed theatrical activities as part of the psychological-health services at Syrian refugee camps in Jordan.
Many young artists in the West voice the aspiration to change their world with their art, to disrupt or unsettle a complacent status quo. For MENA artists, the need for change seems considerably more urgent, but perhaps more pressing is the role of art in settling their world, in making sense of it—in naming the concerns of a region still struggling to name itself. In this issue, we aim to give voice to that struggle.