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Yussef El Guindi

 

The Review

 

(RATIB is seated at a desk in front of his computer Skyping with SHADIYAH. He wears a bathrobe. There is a stuffed bear on the table, or somewhere nearby. NOTE: Shadiyah's image is projected onto a large screen.)

(Shadiyah is seen reading a manuscript. Ratib waits.)

(Long beat.)

RATIB

When you take a long pause like that I know what you're about to say is probably going to be flat-out horrible.

SHADIYAH
(Not looking up from the story.)

Can you shut up? Please?

RATIB

But that's fine. Just so you know I want you to be absolutely honest. Since the last story I sent you, I am, with the help of that therapist I mentioned and daily meditation, I am much, much better able to take in criticism. And really hear it. So please: be absolutely frank. Ignore the way I've reacted before. Part of the reason for sending you this story is not just to get your feedback, but a test to prove to you, and myself, that I am able to hear, really hear your evaluation without throwing a hissy-fit, or bitching. Or accusing you of whatever in other aspects of our relationship, like - that - ridiculous sleeping around accusation, and again my hundredth apology for that. I'm actually quite excited to take this new me out for a test drive, especially if you don't like the story. Hell for me is no longer when someone hates something I've written. That's actually the chrysalis phase, so to speak, in which the caterpillar, the story you're holding, can be improved and turned into a glorious butterfly. That flits from one grateful reader to another. So frankness, please. Otherwise, how can I truly believe you if you genuinely love the story.

SHADIYAH

Why are your stories always about the same thing? - It feels like you have the same characters in roughly the same situations, with just different names and locations. The past four or five stories.

RATIB
(Slight beat.)

Huh. Okay.

SHADIYAH

It's not even variations on a theme. It's really almost the exact same story. I've seen these characters before. Exact same set up.

RATIB

Okay. - You think so?

SHADIYAH

You have the ball-breaking bitch. Usually she's an Arab woman, sometimes not. You're always undermining the sexuality of the Arab guy.

RATIB

Really?

SHADIYAH

If I was an Arab guy, I have to tell you, I'd be really insulted. As an Arab woman I'm mildly insulted. I don't particularly like my men-folk being slammed like that. For instance:

(Reading.)

"She looked at his shrivelling member in its post-coital state and wondered what she ever saw in him in the first place." What is up with you giving your Arab men problematic genitals? It feels like a constant in your stories.

RATIB

I'm - describing what happens after sex. To any guy's equipment. How that becomes a metaphor from her point of view.

SHADIYAH

There's always something wrong with your male protagonist's privates.

RATIB

There's nothing wrong with it, it's what happens. She just latches onto the post-coital sagging as a sign to where she thinks their relationship is going.

SHADIYAH
(Leafing through the story.)

The self-loathing, it's too much. And the woman's always having an affair behind the guys's back. She's a ball-breaker, a cheater, and always cutting the guy down.

RATIB

You've - applauded my championing of Arab women.

SHADIYAH

No. I'm sick of these depictions of quote unquote "strong women" who belittle the men in their lives.

RATIB

I happen to like strong, independent women.

SHADIYAH

No you don't, you fear them. That's why they always comes across as bitches. And it's always at the expense of the Arab guy. So the reader comes away with a distorted view of the whole culture.

RATIB

Okay, wait a minute. Are these - reservations? You have with the story? With its point of view? But which on the whole you like? Aesthetically speaking.

SHADIYAH
(Still leafing through pages as she speaks.)

No. I have to tell you, it's kind of rubbish. Which makes me reevaluate other things you've sent me. I think you need to start asking hard questions about the direction your writing is taking. I don't know if I just misread your past work or it was because we'd just started going out and so I was still infatuated. But your stories seem like they're starting to miss a big, central - something. Either they're not what they used to be, or they never were. To be frank.

RATIB
(Slight beat.)

Good. - That's the frankness I'm looking for. Can you hold on a second? (His chair having wheels, Ratib pushes away from the computer screen so he's no longer seen by Shadiyah. A slight beat. He moves to the stuffed bear seated on the table or nearby. He proceeds to slam the bear's head against the table.)

SHADIYAH
(Still looking at the story.)

You know what it is...about the last four or five stories...

(Ratib moves back to the computer screen and waits for her to speak. Finally:)

RATIB
(Trying to control his irritation.)

What?

SHADIYAH

I'm trying to find a way to put this delicately.

RATIB

You haven't been so far, why start?

SHADIYAH

I haven't said anything yet.

RATIB

I think the word "rubbish" was used.

SHADIYAH

You can handle this, can't you?

RATIB

Hit me.

SHADIYAH
(Goes back to leafing through the story.)

It feels like - for a while now, your subject matter has become so - limited, and narrow, with all this - navel gazing. That's what I'm trying to say. Your stories have become so - narcissistic. Self-involved. It's like you're disappearing up your own personal asshole and your asshole isn't that interesting. You try to make it interesting, but it isn't. And these silly concerns of your characters, and will Cynthia and Nadia admit to their attraction and fall into bed? And will they make room for Hussein? This total lesbo scene with Hussein joining in so reeks of male fantasy, I have to tell you, I was in hysterics.

RATIB

Great.

SHADIYAH

Not laughing with you.

RATIB

It's meant to be amusing.

SHADIYAH

Is the intention to be so ludicrous you dismiss the story and begin to wonder about the frustrated sexual life of the writer instead?

(Shadiyah and Ratib look at each other. Ratib looks like he might respond, but instead:)

RATIB

Wait a minute. Hold on.

(Ratib takes a long drink from a glass of water. More from an attempt to suppress what he might say than from any real thirst.)

SHADIYAH

And what is this long detour about his traumatic childhood toilet training and how he now can't look at a toilet bowl without feeling he's staring into the abyss of his life? There's something so - male, and unmanly at the same time. Like you're depicting the worst fetishes of a male psyche, and doing so without much insight.

RATIB
(Putting the glass down.)

Good. Interesting.

SHADIYAH

You know what it is.

RATIB

Good, more. I was worried that was it.

SHADIYAH

Your stories are now devoid of any real reason to exist. And why do I say that?

RATIB

Why?

SHADIYAH

Okay. And this is actually the crux of what I want to say. There is absolutely no relationship between your stories and the real world anymore. At least the world I thought you lived in. Your stories have almost zero relevancy, no political charge.

RATIB

I'm sorry, I don't mean to sound defensive, but wading into the gay issue in an Arab context isn't relevant or politically charged?

SHADIYAH

Oh please, don't dress up your sexual fantasies in political rhetoric. This is a male fantasy and if anything reinforces gender stereotypes.

RATIB

Um. Beg to differ. Nadia and Cynthia become the means by which I get to discuss the Middle-East's disastrous gender relationships and how desperately they're trying to break out of that.

SHADIYAH

You spend four full pages in a twenty page story detailing girl on girl action. And two of those pages are spent with Nadia's face buried in Cynthia's labia. Where is the politics in that?

RATIB

I think this is where a bit of cultural misunderstanding rears its head. In America, the personal is political.

SHADIYAH

In America, everyone disappeared up their personal asshole a long time ago.

RATIB

And I'm sure the Americans would say their personal asshole is political. Otherwise what's the point of politics if it doesn't address what's most closest to oneself. In addition, please note that it is Nadia's face buried in Cynthia's vagina. It is the Arab woman's face buried between the legs of the American woman. Again, the personal being used to address the patronizing effects of Western feminism, and American liberalism in general. And the final inclusion of Hussein in that bed scene is obviously allegorical and asks the question, "what if we all got along? What would that look like?"

(Slight beat.)

SHADIYAH

Ratib: What happened to you?

RATIB

Can I ask if this hostility disguising itself as criticism is actually related to the story? Because it feels extra-textual to me.

SHADIYAH

The first stories I read of yours tackled the world we lived in. I loved that. I loved you because of that. Now when there's even more reason to write about what's happening, you've gone all domestic and petty.

RATIB

For the record, Americans don't appreciate politics in their art. They think they're being preached at and then you get accused of being didactic.

SHADIYAH

That's preferable to being called irrelevant?

RATIB

I am not irrelevant. I just have to be crafty about how I go about saying what I want to say. It's kind of, weirdly, like - writing in a politically repressive regime; except the police state here isn't some baton-wielding goon but the mind-set that comes down on you if you dare express anything other than petty domestic matters. But what you read is not that. I want them to think it is, yes. But that's because I have to plot like a - like a stealth ninja. Cleverly insinuating what I really want to say without letting on I'm actually saying anything; so they go away thinking I've said nothing. That big central something you think is lacking is actually there, underneath it all. It's me skillfully skirting the political meat of the story while putting it front and center in a completely invisible way. I thought you of all people would pick up on that.

SHADIYAH

Ratib...one of the reasons I wanted to do this face to face...is because I wanted to tell you...I don't think it's a good idea for us to continue seeing each other anymore.

RATIB
(Slight beat.)

You mean we should stop Skyping?

SHADIYAH

No. Well yes. But I mean we should stop seeing each other.

RATIB

So - how would we communicate then? Regular telephone? E-mail?

SHADIYAH

We wouldn't communicate with each other.

RATIB

We're in the middle of planning my trip.

SHADIYAH

I don't think you should come for the summer.

RATIB

When are we going to see each other then?

SHADIYAH

We wouldn't.

(Seeing that he's still not getting it.)

Ever again.

RATIB

Wait....Are you breaking up with me?

SHADIYAH

Yes. - I appreciate the difference in times zones may be creating a delay in having that sink in.

RATIB

You're breaking up with me?

SHADIYAH

If you step back and objectively look at our relationship, you'd see it's also been - missing a big central something, for a while now. And I don't think that missing part is hiding underneath anything or stealthily doing its thing. Much like your stories now our relationship has become devoid of any real reason to exist. It's stopped having meaning for me.

RATIB

I knew it....I knew it. This has nothing to do with my story. For all I know you love my story. You're just using my story as an excuse to break up with me. That is low. That is so low, hitting me where it hurts just so you can end something. God! That is so below-the-belt; oh my God. - Wait. You're actually breaking up with me?

SHADIYAH

I don't remember you being this vacuous. For the two years you were studying in Cairo you were engaged, smart, curious about people; about the government, the protests. I'm really serious about this asshole thing: I think you've disappeared up one. Now that you're in the States again you're slipping back into these non-issues. This garbage of saying nothing at all about things that don't deserve your attention.

RATIB

Not everything has to be political!

SHADIYAH

Yes it does. When your life's on the line, yes it does.

RATIB

Not everyone's life is on the line here!

SHADIYAH

That's why we have to go our separate ways.

RATIB

But what does that have to do with us?

SHADIYAH

I don't have the luxury of compartmentalizing, Ratib. I need a partner. Someone who will go down this road with me, fight with me for the things I believe in.

RATIB

I'll fight with you.

SHADIYAH

No, it's - it won't work.

RATIB

I was there at the rallies, wasn't I?

SHADIYAH

You were there at one. And you spent the time complaining about the heat and worrying about communal toilets if you got arrested.

RATIB

That's not a small matter.

SHADIYAH

This summer's going to be a series of planned protests and I need to focus.

RATIB

I'll be there with you.

SHADIYAH

No you won't. Your heart's no where near the front lines of what we're doing here. You're back in la-la land and maybe that's where you belong.

RATIB

You're such an ideologue, you know that. You're disappearing up something yourself and it's just as dark as any cavity. And it completely unsexes you, I have to say. From a man's point of view, no - scratch that, from any point of view.

SHADIYAH

Goodbye, Ratib.

RATIB

Wait. Wait wait wait. I'm sorry. Don't - . We can't just end it like this. I - care for you. I love what you're fighting for. I love your passion. I want to be a part of that. Oh my God, you're seeing someone else.

SHADIYAH

Yes.

RATIB

You are?

SHADIYAH

I've met someone else, yes.

RATIB

I knew it. I knew it! Not my story, not me, it's you. It's been you from the very beginning, oh my God, you're just a whore.

SHADIYAH

You know - for someone raised in America, you have a very Middle-Eastern view of women, you know that.

RATIB

This whole review has been a sham. Not me, you! What: I suppose you met him at a - at a rally? Did you? Eyes locked over a cloud of tear gas? Rubbed shoulders as the police herded you into a police van? Thrilled at the sound of his sloganeering.

(Mock voice.)

"Down with the government", "down with the regime", "democracy now", blah, blah, blah. Is that how it happened? Hands touched as he handed out pamphlets? Did you get all warm inside as you listened to some obvious rhetoric spewing out of his mouth as he did all he could to get in your pants. Is that it?

SHADIYAH

No. He just writes better stories than you and has more impressive genitals. Plus he's not afraid to put his life on the line and doesn't care about communal toilets if he gets arrested.

RATIB

What - a fucking bitch - you turned out to be.

SHADIYAH

You've got me. Goodbye, Ratib.

RATIB

And just for the record, my story is clearly relevant to the world I live in. You prove it! It certainly captured you to a T.

(Counting off on his fingers.)

"Whore", "bitch", "ball-breaker", "cheater", jury still out about the lesbo part. I nailed you. In this country, that's called "portraiture" and craft. Admit it. The story was just too accurate for you to take.

SHADIYAH

There was one good thing about it. It was short. And in that regard, was very reflective of its author's stature. Goodbye. I hope your life rises above the irrelevancy of your art. I mean that sincerely.

(She switches off. The screen goes blank. Slight beat. Coiled, pissed, Ratib also switches off. Slight beat. He picks up the stuffed bear. He looks like he might tear its head off. Instead, if he's gotten up, he sits down again. His face contorts. It's not clear where he's heading with this expression. Then he looks like he might start crying. He clutches the bear to his chest, and puts his head on the table. Quick fade to black.)

 

 

Yussef El Guindi's most recent productions include The Ramayana (co-adaptor) at ACT; and Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World (winner of the Steinberg/ American Theater Critics Association’s New Play Award in 2012; Gregory Award in 2011) also at ACT, and at Center Repertory Company (Walnut Creek, CA) 2013; and Language Rooms (Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award), co-produced by Golden Thread Productions and the Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco; at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia (premiere), and at the Los Angeles Theater Center. His play Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat was produced by Silk Road Theater Project and won the M. Elizabeth Osborn award. His plays Back of the Throat, as well as Such a Beautiful Voice is Sayeda’s and Karima’s City, have been published by Dramatists Play Service. Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New Word was published in the September, 2012 issue of American Theatre Magazine. The Review was first performed at Golden Thread Productions with actors in both Cairo and San Francisco in 2009. It was also performed at Stageworks Hudson in 2011.

 

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MadHat, Issue 15, Winter 2013-2014