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Back of the Throat – Yussef El Guindi

October 18, 2016

bott-2The tale of an apparently friendly visit by two government officials, which soon devolves into a full-blown, no-holds-barred probe. Khaled, an Arab-American writer and the focus of their inquiry, finds himself, to his astonishment, suddenly accused of possible ties to terrorists. As the interrogation proceeds, the officials reveal their evidence, but is it evidence? Or have innocent events been distorted through the lens of paranoid suspicion? They soon notice several “suspicious” items in Khaled’s cramped apartment, including his stash of pornography, the  Qur’an, and a book on assassinations. Khaled argues that the items in question may appear suspect, but that they need to be seen in context. Bartlett, on the other hand, states simply that “a person is reflected by what he ownsAs the situation turns increasingly surreal, and the menace to Khaled increasingly real, the question of what it means to be an American takes on a very personal and charged significance. An enthralling and ultimately chilling black comedy, BACK OF THE THROAT confronts bureaucratic euphemisms like “person of interest” and “extraordinary rendition” with the frightening reality they seek to obscure.

While the writer acknowledges that he’s been chastised for dialogue that is “too political or didactic,” he bats away those criticisms by arguing that politics is an “urgent” part of everyday life for Arab-Americans and in the Middle East. “Domestic drama in Cairo is political drama,” he said.

Mr. Guindi said he doesn’t feel obliged to write about politics. “I wish there were more political plays,” he said. “The problem with the American theatre is it’s not addressing what’s going on.”

Seattle, where Mr. El Guindi lives, is a liberal city, he said. “Friends were questioned, friends of friends,” he said. “The Patriot Act came in, and suddenly you didn’t know what your rights were. You started hearing these stories of people getting stopped for what they were reading at airports, of the F.B.I. going to galleries and questioning the artist if the exhibit was politically charged.”

“I began to look at my apartment,” he continued. “What do I have in my apartment if an F.B.I. agent came in? I have books on assassins, guns, Islam, research materials, the Koran, that would identify me as interested in the Middle East. In my paranoia, I started to imagine what could happen.”

For all its atmosphere of menace, though, the play has humour. At one point, Bartlett gives Khaled an evaluation form. “We’re trying to get direct feedback from the public,” he says. “Especially from our target audience.”

The Chicago production augmented the fictional play with documentary aspects by strengthening the links to current FBI procedures and actual fears of Arab Americans, having discussions with real-life FBI agents as well as victims of accusations and discrimination as part of the rehearsal process. Retired FBI agents were also asked to attend post-show discussions and compare the play’s plot and depiction with their own experiences and FBI interrogation methods.

Shelly, the librarian is stereotyped, worrying about a rare map she’d fold duo in order to defend herself.

 During a Nazi interrogation of suspected Jews in France, a stunning rumour begins to circulate: “They’re going to look at your penis.” Forty-five years later, not only has the offstage rumor become an onstage reality, but in Back of the Throat reality is also allegory. Our protagonist’s penis is more than merely an organ: It is a metaphor for all the privacy that Americans have lost in the aftermath of the World Trade Centre attacks on 9/11.

bott-3 Quotations:

“person of interest”

“extraordinary rendition”

“When you thought I was at work. (To Carl) I should also tell you that I thought he was having an affair. I’m still not sure he wasn’t . . . . He certainly was at the computer a lot. It must have been something steamy because every time I approached him he would do something to hide the screen”

When first I come to this country—I not know how to speak. How…even to say anything. […] I say, I must learn language that is everywhere. Language that has fallen on our heads and made us like—like children again. What is this power? […] I want to write. I want to write a book. In English. […] And one day, I say […] I might even teach it… I will teach language back. I will make them speak their own language differently.

I would point to something, sand, and you would repeat it—sand.—Sea—and then you: sea.—Sky…sky.—Family…family. Airplane…airplane…America…(slight beat) And I showed you in which direction. And you said, where? And I held you up high on my shoulders… and I pointed. (Hold for a beat. Blackout)

My family worked damn hard to make this country the place it is. And if you came here to do the same, I will personally roll out the red carpet for you . . . . But if you’ve come here . . . . To take from us. Pick all the good things this country has to offer and give nothing back . . .. Then I don’t think you’re making a contribution, not at all.

“I have rights, I do have rights.”

“You hate everything that this country stands for.”

No. No, this isn’t normal. I have to tell you, Khaled, none of this is normal. Right about now I would place you a few feet outside of that category. . . . I am frankly amazed at just how abnormal everything is in your apartment. I have been growing alarmed by what we have been finding. More: I’m getting that uncomfortable feeling that there’s more to you than meets the eye and not in a good way. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were to turn on that computer and find plans for tunneling under the White House

“New information about a person suddenly makes you see that person in a different light.”

bott“You’re a Muslim and an Arab. Those are the bad-asses currently making life a living hell and so we’ll gravitate you and your ilk”

Yesterday the Irish and the Poles, today it’s you. Tomorrow it might be the Dutch”

One more thing: at no time should you think this is an ethnic thing. Your ethnicity has nothing to do with it other than the fact that your background happens to be the place where most of this crap is coming from. So naturally the focus is going to be on you. It’s not profiling, it’s deduction.

“I personally hate this, you know that” he says. “I hate it when I have to beat the shit out of someone because then by an act of willful horror, whose effect on my soul I can only imagine, I have to shut out everything good about me to do my job to defend and protect.”

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