Impatiently sipping coffee in the Book Trader Cafe, I watched the door for Eyad Houssami ’07. Eyad sat at a table a few yards away, and, after waiting several minutes, left. As he stepped out, he looked back; we exchanged annoyed glances, and he squinted slightly, inquiringly. I didn’t react.
“That can’t be the guy,” I thought. “He’s white.”
This phenomenon of ethnic mislabeling is something Eyad stressed himself, when we finally met a few days later. A Syrian, he has lighter skin than natives of other Middle-Eastern regions, and many Americans would not recognize him as Arabic.
Eyad, “obsessed with his ethnicity,” discovered a means to express that obsession through his other passion, theater. Familiar with the stage all his life, Eyad has directed six shows at Yale to date, and is beginning his seventh, Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” as a joint senior project with fellow Theater Studies major Chad Callaghan ’07. Reading dramatic literature, he found he could identify with the characters created by Arabic playwrights. The families they describe, Eyad told me, are similar to his own, pressured into leaving their countries of origin to live in Europe or America.
The Arab world has suffered considerably from brain drain in recent years, as the educated have left their homes for better opportunities in foreign countries. Eyad plans to rebel against that trend, to return to Syria from Yale and use what he’s learned to “contribute to a resurgence of Syrian thought.” He hopes to live in a Syrian city, directly exposed to the culture, and be “inspired, provoked, depressed, humiliated.”
But as Eyad knows personally, he risks more than the agony of artistic exposure. He travelled to Lebanon last summer and happened to be there when the war started. He remembers jogging past a lighthouse every morning and how, after the bombs fell, the crown of the lighthouse was shattered.
Despite the danger, Eyad feels that this sort of closeness and direct interaction is vital to theater. While music can move quickly between cities or across continents, a dramatic production is necessarily local.
“Theater comes from the city and goes back to the city,” he said. “It is a reflection of a city’s thoughts, yet it provokes a city to think.”
His goals are in no way political, however. To say that contemporary Arabic drama is political is to “reduce dramatic literature to political propaganda.” There is something more personal in theater, a communion with the actors, a shared awareness of humanity. As Eyad said, “The actors’ presence on stage before other humans affirms: Yes, we are alive.”
Working in this reflective, poignant medium, this “combination of all artistic language — musical, visual, linguistic, and corporeal,” Eyad hopes to expand the American and Middle Eastern conception of Arabic culture, so that might include people with light skin — might include himself.