“Camus’ notion of silence rings true now”: An Interview with Michael Malek Najjar

Call & Response asked professor, director, and artist Michael Malek Najjar some questions about art, solidarity, and truth in times of darkness.

Michael Malek Najjar is an associate professor of Theatre Arts at the University of Oregon. He holds a PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies from UCLA, M.F.A. in Directing from York University (Toronto), B.A. in Theater from The University of New Mexico. He is an associate member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC), and an alumnus of the British/American Drama Academy (BADA), Lincoln Center Director’s Lab, Director’s Lab West, and RAWI Screenwriters’ Lab (Jordan). He is the author of Arab American Drama, Film and Performance: A Critical Study, 1908 to the Present, and he has editedThe Selected Works of Yussef El Guindi (Bloomsbury), Six Plays of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (co-editor with Jamil Khoury and Corey Pond), and Four Arab American Plays: Works by Leila Buck, Jamil Khoury, Yussef El Guindi, and Lameece Issaq & Jacob Kader (McFarland). He has directed plays with Silk Road Rising, Golden Thread Productions, and Minority Voices Theatre. He attended Pangea World Theater and Art2Action's 2019 National Institute for Directing and Ensemble Creation.

C&R: Is there an object or a practice (sacred or mundane) that gives you solace in these dark times? Is there something or someone who gives you hope? 

MMN: At this time, I think of a speech that was handed down by one of the early spiritual leaders of the Muwahhidun (the faith tradition I come from). It says, “You should know that there is no reason for disobedience in times of catastrophe and great personal tests.” That thought is forefront on my mind now as we see this catastrophe unfold before us. How can we not give in to our fears, our apprehensions, our darkest thoughts? How can we view this as an opportunity to remember how precious life is, and how we must all strive to be our best selves every day? I think about the people working on the front lines of this crisis and how difficult their lives must be now. As far as what gives me hope? I have a seven-year-old daughter named Malak (her name means Angel in Arabic). Her joy, her kindness, her effervescent spirit is what gives me hope now.

C&R: Albert Camus, in his novel The Plague, writes: “At the beginning of a pestilence and when it ends, there’s always a propensity for rhetoric. In the first case, habits have not yet been lost; in the second, they’re returning. It is in the thick of a calamity that one gets hardened to the truth–in other words, to silence.” Where is your head, and your heart, in relation to the rhetoric, to our habits, and to the silence that falls when the hard truths of calamity come into focus?

MMN: Camus’ notion of silence rings true now. Notice the stunning silence that has befallen our ever-busy cities. It is haunting to see empty streets, empty stadiums, empty theatres. I wake sometimes in a kind of panic thinking of how we, as a people, are going to survive this physically, emotionally, economically. I also think of how our habits will forever change after this. Will we no longer hug or hold one another? Will we no longer press hands together? Will we become strangers to each other? How many of us will remain to answer such questions, I wonder? These are the hard truths that we will face once this passes. 

C&R: What does solidarity mean to you? In your work?

MMN: Solidarity means feeling that we are really one with each other. There is so much suffering in our world today and this situation has only highlighted the inequities we all knew were there but were unwilling to acknowledge until now. I feel a solidarity to those who are suffering through this terrible crisis in conditions far, far worse than anything I am facing now. I feel for those who are homeless, hungry, out of work, unable to afford their expenses. I feel for those doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers who are doing their best to carry out their duties and who are terrified of falling ill as well. I feel for those people who must work in the critical areas of our economy and who are putting themselves at risk every day. I believe we must feel a solidarity as a people now because this crisis has proven how much we need one another.

As far as my artistic work is concerned, I believe solidarity means that must find ways to connect and create in ways we might never have conceived before. It seems terribly apparent that we may not be able to gather in theatres onstage or off for a long time. We are in an ensemble-based artform, yet we are unable to be with one another. Even when things begin to return to normal, how will we be able to have the intimate, physical, and embodied art that we are so used to sharing? How can we carry on doing the work we do if we must continue physical distancing? We need to reconnect and reify our solidarity now more than ever. We need to find ways to remind each other that we are not alone and that we have one another to lean on during these difficult days.

C&R: What/who have you read, seen or listened to recently that really blew you away?

MMN: I am having my students read Aeschylus’ The Persians now and I am once again struck by the timeless thoughts: “What words can equal this?/ Yet when gods send pain,/ What can mortals do but bear it?” In another section of the play we hear “My lords, farewell. In all this grief/ Enjoy what you have, still have: your life.” Those words, written 2,492 years ago still haunt me today. Reading the play at this time shook me because it deals with catastrophe, and with the fact that we must face these calamities and bear them. Most importantly, it reminds us that life is precious and we must cherish it.  

C&R: Does truth still matter in a “post-truth” age? What role does art play in relation to the truth?

MMN: Truth absolutely matters now. Brecht wrote, “Those who don’t know the truth are dummies, but those who know the truth, and call it a lie are criminals.” I am disgusted by the lies some of our leaders are telling, and how they claim they are the truth. My hope is that we will awaken to the truth and that this horrific situation will finally expose those who bend the truth to their own nefarious aims.

Art provides truth in the form of artifice, which could be construed as lies. However, I believe that greatest artists are the greatest truth tellers. When they asked Arthur Miller if he feared The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), he said, “If I can have a piece of paper and a pencil, unless they shoot me … they couldn’t destroy me. Cause I can write plays and they can’t … I would go on writing and writing against everything they believed. And nothing could stop me from doing that.” So, as artists, we must have the same moral conviction in this so-called “post-truth age.” We must continue to tell the truth, and to create in the face of this onslaught of desire to silence us by every means necessary.

C&R: There is no shortage of apocalyptic thinking these days. But what if we could fill the future with visions of light instead? There is a Sikh prayer that asks, “what if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?” Seeing this dark moment instead as the prelude to a rebirth of sorts,  what would the world look like in 50 years if you could imagine and bring that future into being?

MMN: I would like to be an eternal optimist and believe that, in 50 years’ time, we will have escaped this darkness. However, as we study history, we see that there has always been darkness, and there has always been light. I don’t believe this crisis we are facing will change everyone, but I do believe that it will change many of us and it is up to those who are irrevocably changed by this to create a better future than the present we are living now. Perhaps this crisis will expose the mendacity of a system that touts great economic strength while millions are homeless, hungry, and living one paycheck away from ruin. Perhaps this crisis will expose the hypocrisy of a nation that spends trillions on weapons of mass destruction, but a pittance on the healthcare and education of its people. Perhaps this crisis will awaken us to the destruction we are all reaping on this planet and on each other. We will escape the darkness of this tomb into a new womb and a rebirth, but it will be an ongoing struggle to fight for the light from those who are committed to keeping our world in darkness.

Mural on the Plaza Centenario from Pangea’s Lake Street Arts! Program. Mural created by Goodspace Murals. Photo by Meena Natarajan.

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