The Arab Film Festival’s Los Angeles Coordinator Nagham Wehbe is a woman of many talents. When she’s not working on the festival, she’s up to amazing work in the theater! Her current project is a play called Confessions of an Arab Woman, which she adapted from the book I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman by Lebanese writer and activist Joumana Haddad. The story of both the play and the book follows Joumana as she challenges the current notions of Arab womanhood that come from both the West and the Middle East while exploring what it truly means to be an Arab woman today.
Joumana Haddad is an award-winning poet and writer who has been recognized as one of the world’s 100 most powerful Arab women and is the founder of Jasad, an Arabic-language magazine.
In preparation for the play, which opens next month in Hollywood, we talked to Nagham and Joumana about both the play and the book and how they brought this important narrative to the stage.
Arab Film Festival: Joumana, tell me a little about your book I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman. What inspired you to write it?
Joumana Haddad: Growing up in the Middle East, I was increasingly frustrated by all the injustice and sexism that I was witnessing around me, and at times, experiencing personally. But I always believed in the power of responsibility, and I wasn’t convinced by the approach of “it’s their fault”. Self victimization is a pretext for inaction. Thus I wanted to explore our share , as women, of the work that needs to be done in order to improve our gloomy situation, while at the same time offering a real, however personal, description of the problems that we are facing and the obstacles that discrimination keeps raising in our path towards emancipation.
AFF: Nagham, what inspired you to adapt this book into a stage production?
Nagham Wehbe: I could relate to the book in many aspects of my life. I was going through a period debating between choosing safe and comfortable or being true to myself and the book helped me make that choice. I wanted to share it with more women and men and that is where it started.
AFF: How did this project start? Joumana, what was your reaction when Nagham came to you with this idea?
NW: I was working as an AD with Dr. Heather Corwin for “Lysistrata” production and I couldn’t stop thinking about the book. Dr. Heather agreed to be our production advisor if I get the rights. So, I got Joumana’s email and shared with her my thoughts. We communicated back and forth with Joumana and the publishers here and after 2 months we had the right to adapt and perform it in the U.S.
JH: I was absolutely ecstatic! I love it when my words get to gain a new dimension, and theater is such a powerful one!
AFF: Nagham, this is an unconventional style of book to try to adapt for the stage, especially since it’s so personal. How have you dealt with that hurdle?
NW: The setting of the play is in Joumana’s mind. The characters are the voices in her mind which represent different stages of her life, her memories, her ideas, and her thoughts. Throughout the play those voices gradually decide to own their power, choose their destiny and tell their own story rather than stand by and watch it be told by someone else which is where the play begins. The adaptation process was challenging but exciting at the same time. I started with dividing the characters in the book into ones that represent Joumana and others that represent her dad and other people in her life. Doing this allowed me to diversify the cast to also include men. The next step was making Joumana more than one character and figuring out what each character represents. This allowed me to cast multiple women to tell the story, which I really liked because this can be really any woman’s story. The last step was adding a character who links the scenes together and explains any references in the play that the audience may not be familiar with. This character developed to become the ringmaster, who actually controls the story until all the Joumanas take back control from him. The play structure is very complex as it includes many different means of storytelling. We use dialogues, monologues, visual presentation, dance, music – everything! It is experimental and interactive, as the audience becomes part of the play (Joumana’s mind) the minute they enter the theater.
AFF: Joumana, what has your role been in this adaptation?
JH: None, really, except for my total faith in Nagham’s vision and talent. I believe that artists cannot work under constraints, so I gave her complete freedom to embody my words as she felt them. It is about trust and letting go. It is a lot like allowing your baby (this book) to have a life of its own.
AFF: The book came out in 2010. Joumana, how have things shifted for you since then?
JH: As one reader recently told me, this book is more relevant now than ever, and that’s unfortunate, obviously, because it means that no real progress has been achieved in 6 years, and on many levels, things seem to have taken a step back. But hopelessness is not an option. It’s a luxury that we can’t afford. So we need to keep on using our voices to fight back.
AFF: Nagham, how much of the feelings and obstacles you explore in the play are particular to the Arab experience vs. shared by women all over the world?
NW: There are stories told in the play that are particular to the time and place. They provide a specific perspective on what a woman in Lebanon or any other Arab country has to still go through even today. This may be different if that woman is here or in another country.
On the other hand, the choices that the different Joumanas make throughout the play are global struggles that are not linked to the Arab World alone, like choosing to be authentic even if you will be disliked… choosing to say things as they are .. choosing to stand and fight back even when it doesn’t affect you personally… owning your power as a woman and not playing small ever because no excuse is good enough for playing small. Choosing to get out of the victim mentality…
AFF: So when and where can we see the final production?
NW: Confessions of an Arab Woman will be performed at The Dorie Theatre at The Complex in Hollywood. Here are the dates – Tickets are almost completely sold out, don’t wait!
March 9 at 8p.m. followed by discussion hosted and moderated by Women In Film -International
March 10 at 8 p.m. followed by discussion hosted and moderated by Rise Up For You Organization
March 11 at 2 p.m. followed by discussion hosted and moderated by The Markaz
March 11 at 8 p.m. followed by discussion hosted and moderated by Choice Leadership University
For more details and to purchase tickets please visit: www.confessionsofanarabwoman.com