In the days after September 11, Malik Gillani remembers, southwest suburbanites marched on the Bridgeview Mosque Foundation as anonymous callers phoned in bomb threats. A friend of his who wears the hijab was repeatedly harassed at school. When she complained to officials they did nothing. And though nothing so drastic happened to him, Gillani, a Muslim born in Pakistan, noticed strangers shooting him looks of suspicion and fear on the street.
"That first week after the event I was very focused on Malik's well-being," says Jamil Khoury, Gillani's life partner. "Because I don't particularly look Arab I wasn't the focus of any hostility personally. [But] I found myself on the defensive, as did a lot of Arab- and Muslim-Americans."
That year Khoury, a Mount Prospect native who was raised in the Syrian Christian church, "spent a lot of time on the phone and meeting with people in the community who felt very galvanized and threatened," he says. At the same time, however, he and Gillani saw signs of a new receptiveness among some American audiences for Arab and Muslim perspectives. Sales of the Koran boomed. Khoury, a cross-cultural consultant, found himself in demand as a speaker at civic and cultural organizations. "There was...an outpouring of sympathy and interest," he says. "Having knowledge of the Arab and Muslim world was suddenly a valuable commodity."
Khoury had written a couple plays, and he and Gillani felt that theater could provide a way to address misrepresentations of their cultures and tap into that growing interest. The metaphor they settled on for the project: the Silk Road, the ancient trade route that linked Asia to the Mediterranean by way of the Middle East.
Starting with their own money, borrowing from friends and family, and soliciting donations, the two men launched the Silk Road Theatre Project in summer 2002, with Gillani as executive director and Khoury as artistic director.
"More than just trade was taking place on those caravans," Khoury says. "There was an exchange of arts and aesthetics and philosophies. By embracing this range of cultures that were connected by the Silk Road, we realized we could make a very strong statement."
The company's gotten off to an auspicious start. Barely a year old, Silk Road's already collaborated with Steppenwolf Theatre Company and the Chicago Cultural Center. Reader critic Nick Green praised the "gripping stories" and stylized staging of its second show, Tea, currently in a six-week run at the Loop Theatre. The Sun-Times's Hedy Weiss called it "a superb, exquisitely tuned production."
Khoury attributes Silk Road's quick success to its sound fiscal management and focus on networking and marketing--business principles he and his partner bring from their day jobs: Khoury's with Cendant Mobility Intercultural Services, Gillani's with the Falkor Group, an information technology firm.
"A big part of the reason that we've been able to make relationships with such great institutions in a short period of time is the fact that Malik and I approached this as a business, albeit a nonprofit, which has earned us a good amount of respect and trust," says Khoury. "A lot of theater companies are established by artists who want to practice their art, and getting bodies into seats is something they think about later."
Silk Road's first production was Khoury's own play, Precious Stones, staged by Los Angeles-based director Michael Najjar at the Chicago Cultural Center's studio theater last winter. Precious Stones is the story of a Jewish lesbian and a married Palestinian woman who organize an Arab-Jewish discussion group in Chicago during the first Palestinian intifada and find themselves falling in love.
"I'm interested in how gender and sexuality fit into the larger identity picture for people and for communities," Khoury says. He has firsthand experience confronting the tensions that can arise with such issues. As an international relations student at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in the late 80s, he cofounded the Gay and Lesbian Arab Society (GLAS), an organization that combats homophobia within the Arab-American community and provides support for lesbians and gay men in Arab countries.
"People were shocked to see the word Arab associated with the words gay and lesbian," he recalls. "Many people vehemently deny we exist. We hear a lot that it's a Western thing. I say, 'Sure, there are no gays and lesbians in the Arab world--except for all those that I've met.'"
Khoury wrote his first play, Fitna: Chaos as Woman in the Arab World, in the early 90s while he was working toward his master's at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Produced at the U. of C. in 1995 and presented in a staged reading at Bailiwick Arts Center in 1997, the play tells the interlocking stories of three women from different parts of the Arab world, each of whom defies tradition in her own way.
Last July, Silk Road presented a screening and discussion of Mohsen Makhmalbaf's film Kandahar at the Chicago Cultural Center in conjunction with Steppenwolf's production of Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul. In September the company followed up Precious Stones with Singaporean playwright Chay Yew's A Language of Their Own, part of a series of staged readings they've launched at the Chicago Temple.
The company's production of Tea, Asian-American playwright Velina Hasu Houston's drama about a group of Japanese war brides in Kansas, opened last month under the direction of Goodman Theatre fellow Lynn Ann Bernatowicz.
"Both of our first two [full] productions are set in the U.S.," Khoury notes. "We're particularly interested in the diaspora voice of Silk Road people trapped between two worlds...but we also think [Tea] speaks to the immigrant experience across the board."
Tea runs through February 29 at the Loop Theater, where Silk Road is one of five companies slotted by the Department of Cultural Affairs for the final season of the 65-year-old playhouse. Once Tea has finished its run, Khoury and Gillani are taking Precious Stones on a tour of U.S. colleges. In August the play will be performed at Sabanci University in Istanbul as part of an International Institute on Peace Education conference.
"We'd love to bring it to Israel [and] Palestine. We've spoken to some people there," Khoury said. "But it's tricky, both with the lesbian story line and the Arab-Jewish elements. We don't want to get shot."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.