Jonas Hassen Khemiri‘s Invasion! holds a mirror up to our own preconceived notions about other races and cultures, particularly the Arabic male.
One of the most acclaimed novelists and playwrights active in Sweden, Khemiri has been vocal about his discomfort in that largely homogeneous society as the bi-racial child of a Tunisian father and a Swedish mother. As recently as February, President Donald Trump cited Sweden in a bizarre tweet as the victim of a terrorist attack that never happened, apparently misunderstanding an interview he had seen with a documentary filmmaker.
Although he wrote Invasion! in 2007, Khemiri is most well known for a 2013 open letter to the Swedish Minister of Justice, Beatrice Ask, that went viral on social media and received hundreds of thousands of shares, the most shared Swedish-language post of all time. (The original was translated into English, and Khemiri himself rewrote an English version for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune.) In his letter, a deeply personal account of suspicion and persecution since childhood but eventually reminiscent of Émile Zola’s J’accuse…!, Khemiri’s sense of humor becomes apparent in his opening: “There are a lot of things that make us different. You were born in the mid-fifties; I was born in the late seventies. You are a woman; I’m a man. You’re a politician; I’m an author. But there are some things we have in common. We’ve both studied international economics (without graduating). We have almost the same hairstyle (even if our hair color is different). And we’re both full citizens of this country, born within its borders, joined by language, flag, history, infrastructure. We are both equal before the Law.”
Invasion! has no plot in the conventional sense, but rather is a series of vignettes featuring characters dealing with their own prejudicial attitudes. (The structure consciously parallels and evokes the Arabian Nights.) The man at the center of the story is known as Abulkasem. Is he real or imaginary? Is he a terrorist or a refugee seeking a better life in America?
Abulkasem is “one of the world’s most sought after men,” we are told. A group of “academics” discuss Abulkasem’s childhood and his “violent future.” He wears disguises, veils and fake mustaches. “Now he is among us,” someone says.
One of the most effective moments in the play features an Arabic translator (Karishma Swarup) interpreting for a Middle eastern man (Ahmed Ashour) who came to America in the hopes of obtaining asylum but was held in a detention center. He expresses his anger at the cruel treatment he was subjected to by government officials.
“I felt hunted,” he says. “I made myself invisible. I ceased to exist.”
Then the man’s words transform into a vile screed against Jews. The translator is talking yet the man’s demeanor doesn’t correspond with what he is supposedly saying. He seems too laid-back. His pleasant mood is enhanced by his love of ABBA songs, which he plays on a little boombox. The audience realizes that the translator cannot be trusted, but unless they understand Arabic are cut off from access to what the speaker is really saying. The effect is chilling.
The not already mentioned cast members, Shivam Agarwal, Fadwa Ahmed, Eric Baffour-Addo, Shreyes Sundararaman and Abdullah Yousufi, are all talented performers who bring humor and poignancy to the story.
In her director’s note, Ashley Teague writes that Invasion! refuses to give “easy answers” about society’s problems, “The play looks at how we shape cultural identity, how we erase and rewrite it based on our needs. Abulkasem is more than a metaphor; it’s a microcosm of American paranoia and the ease with which that paranoia is taken advantage of.”
Certainly the election of Donald Trump to the presidency was due in part to his exploitation of fears of Islamic terrorism. The subsequent travel ban which has drawn so much opposition is an example of bigotry in its most vile form.
Invasion! also points the finger of blame at the media, particularly the unflattering depictions of Arabs in films and television shows. These clips are projected on a screen in the back of the stage.
If in part Abulkasem is meant to represent the menace of Middle-eastern men, then it seems we’re all responsible for creating the image. Whether it’s our need to fear what we don’t understand, or a mass cultural ignorance, the fear and hatred have only increased in the last decade.
Invasion! inspires us all to wake up and challenge what we have been spoon-fed for so long.
Invasion!, directed by Ashley Teague, written by Jonas Hassem Khemiri and translated by Rachel Wilson Broyles, at Brown University Leeds Theatre, 83 Waterman St, PVD. Through Apr 16. Telephone: 401-863-2838. Web: www.browntaps.org/invasion