As part of my PhD research I spend a lot of time reading literature written from the Lebanese diaspora (Amin Maalouf is perhaps my favorite). Last week I had the opportunity to see a play that is written by the Lebanese-Canadian Wajdi Mouawad. Scorched, like some of the novels I read, was an intense and intimate story of a brother and sister (twins in fact) in search of their roots. Their recently deceased mother, a migrant from “the old country”, sets them along this path and as a result the audience is taken back to the brutal days of Lebanon’s civil war. The twins’ quest to uncover their history in order to make sense of their mother’s refusal to talk in the last five years of her life is, to my mind, a central concern of the play. Of course unearthing one’s origins or history is of particular importance to any diasporic community but I think has a particular significance in the Lebanese context. As I watched the play (it is three hours long!) I was reminded of the Arabic phrase “so and so is without origins” (hayda bala asil). In my experience this is used as an insult against a person who is deemed to be of questionable character, who seems to lack authenticity or virtue. As a result I think we can assume that in Lebanese culture, and perhaps generally in Arab culture, having ‘good’ origins and knowing your origins is a crucial measure of self worth and value.
Given this importance it is only fair that the play’s narrative sees the twins discover their history and family story. But there is an interesting twist at the end of the performance which left the whole idea of finding one’s “true” origins in an ambivalent state. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away (you really should see this play!) but I can say that the unsettled nature of the play is part of the broader theme of the push and pull between “roots” and “routes” within the diaspora literature I have been reading. In short, as some commentators in diaspora studies have noted, to emphasise one form of roots/routes over the other leaves one part of any diasporan’s story under represented and, dare I say, inauthentic. I think by its conclusion Mouawad’s play shows the importance of a necessary oscillation between the two forms within the Lebanese diaspora.
If you’ve seen the play let me know what your thoughts are. And if you haven’t you better get to it – it’s showing until 7 September.
To learn more about the play and book tickets please visit the Belvoir Street Theatre website at http://www.belvoir.com.au/310_whatson_upstairs.php?production_id=194
To learn more about Wajdi Mouawad go to http://www.canadiantheatre.com/dict.pl?term=Mouawad%2C%20Wajdi