There have been many stories which have arisen in the post-September 11th world - especially “apocalyptic” Hollywood films. In each of these films, interestingly enough, the main plot point is something “foreign” or “other worldly” coming to America to somehow, some way, “destroy its way of life.” But there is no other trend which greater reflects the post-9/11 trauma than the plethora of zombie stories that have cropped up in films, books, and television over the past 15 years or so; the idea being that a “horde of death”, seemingly unstoppable, is there to challenge the world or the American way of life. I guess this makes sense, being that art often reflects its times.
So it should come as no surprise at all that the exploration of the post-9/11 world would one day reach the theater and playwright Yussef El Guindi adds his bit to the conversation with his one act play Back Of The Throat (the title indicating how to pronounce the “K” in the main character’s name). The difference between this play and all the other post-9/11 stories out there is this one concerns itself with real life matters and tries to look at the issue from the other side - the Arab side. Not that it is a defense of terrorism or even radical Islam, but it does look into the idea that a country which prides itself on freedom and individual expression can quickly become the very enemy it is trying to fight. However, there is a lot of ambiguity here, obviously meant to generate a healthy discussion of the issue. The entire play takes place in the apartment of a young Arab-American writer named Khaled. He is being questioned by two government agents - Bartlett and Carl - two hard nosed, witty, and deadly serious men who come to Khaled due to a suspicion that he may have played a role in a massive terrorist attack that had just occurred the day before. Khaled, at first, is a little perplexed as to why they are visiting him and the tension grows as the two agents begin rifling around his apartment, specifically looking at his reading material, and somehow finding suspicion in his choices. Khaled explains that he is a writer and that he reads widely for material for his stories, that he has no political affiliation and is not even religious; but things get more tense once one of the agents finds a copy of the Qur’an as well as other reading material about the growing problems in the Middle East. To the agents, Khaled is guilty who must prove himself innocent and once Khaled realizes this, he demands that they leave and refuses to speak to them unless he has a lawyer present. This further infuriates the agents who then begin to lean much harder on him, informing him of those around him who were the ones that drew suspicion toward him.
The way this is handled is interesting. The other characters in the play: Khaled’s ex-girlfriend; a stripper from a local sex club; a librarian from the library that Khaled often frequented; and a shady Arab immigrant named Asfoor, who had been one of those involved in the attacks. Khaled’s girlfriend, only in hindsight, finds his behavior “suspicious” and wonders whether or not he could possibly have been involved. Being that their break up wasn’t amicable, it only furthers her resentment of him and she tips off the authorities. The stripper was eyewitness to both Khaled and Asfoor being in the same club at the same time and even having contact and the librarian also is witness of the two men conversing in the library. But there is an explanation to all of it, an explanation that the two agents don’t want to hear. Their minds are made up. Each of these characters are brought out on stage during the play, their stories being told aloud to the agents (and audience).
What starts off as a bit of a humorous exploration into the issue quickly becomes much darker as the two agents and Khaled face off with one another. The ending is, as noted earlier, extremely ambiguous, with the final scene being that of Asfoor speaking to a beaten and frightened Khaled. Was he revealing to the audience what his connection to Khaled actually was, or was Khaled merely revealing what was in his mind as he tries to figure out the predicament he finds himself in?
The play is political without it being heavy handed, though and the focus is more on paranoia, fear and yes, racism, as the dialogue from the two agents reveal throughout the black comedy of the play. There is a lot going on between the lines here, a lot that will no doubt generate a healthy and meaningful debate.