Humanizing the Arab World in America (U.S. News & World Report and International Women’s Media Foundation)

SEATTLE – WHEN terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Yussef El Guindi stopped writing. The Arab-American playwright’s career had only just started to take off, but stunned by the magnitude of the tragedy, he avoided his craft for weeks.

He also started noticing nervous glances in his direction as he walked down the street. He was pulled aside for airport security checks. He quietly wondered what police would make of his research materials: books on Islam, Palestine and guns.

When he returned to his craft two months later, it was with a deep determination to counter the one-dimensional view of Arab-Americans all around him. He started writing a play that followed an Arab-American writer as he’s endlessly interrogated by government agents after they discover his collection of pornography and the Quran. “Back of the Throat” became El Guindi’s first full-length published play and won the 2004 Northwest Playwrights’ Competition.

Almost two decades later, the Muslim writer who was born in Egypt, raised in London and lives in Seattle, has published 10 additional plays, won more awards and has been called by the artistic director of one theater as “the definitive voice of Middle Eastern American theater.” In other ways, little has changed in the United States. El Guindi says restrictive laws aimed at immigrants, harsh rhetoric and underlying fear and suspicion of Arab-Americans and other minority groups have strengthened his resolve to tell those stories, including his latest, “People of the Book,” which opened this month at Seattle’s ACT Theatre.

The new play fulfills his long-held desire to address the repercussions of the Iraq War and misinformation spread about it. As in all of El Guindi’s plays, he seeks to create complex Arab and Muslim characters. They help illustrate a seemingly obvious, yet often overlooked, idea: Just because two people are from the Middle East, doesn’t make them the same.

“The most radical thing I’m doing is creating three-dimensional Arab and Muslim characters,” he says. “I’m humanizing the people who are dehumanized in news stories.”

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