Sweden Isn't Perfect

Sweden…isn’t perfect. I know, it’s a lot to take in, but take a few deep breaths, and I swear the panic will pass. Trust me I understand what you’re going through. Like you I also thought of Sweden as the cool blue-green land where, many decades ago the great mother-ship IKEA landed unobtrusively, a great hardwood ramp quietly lowered itself to the snowy ground, and down came thousands of endearingly rumbling, navy-hued Volvos that spread benevolent socialism wherever they went, and caused lingonberries to grow like lucky charms. But this isn’t so. The reason it isn’t so, I recently had expressed very succinctly to me by an actor that I have recently had the pleasure to keep company with, Gilberto del Campo.  Gilberto had also just come to this startling conclusion because he had suddenly realized that Sweden, as he so elegantly put it ‘is full of people.’ And he’s right, they have right-wing nationalists, and racists, and the mean, ignorant and confused in Sweden too. Needless to say, this was a revelation of Soylent-Green-proportions.

What started our conversation was an open letter by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, to Swedish Minister of Justice, Beatrice Ask, in response to the Swedish Government’s Project REVA, a 2009 package of laws that, among other things includes a provision that is almost identical to (and predates!) Arizona’s “papers please” law, which grants police the right to stop and check the identification of anyone they suspect of not being a citizen. The impetus for Khemiri’s writing was the fact that REVA had just recently been implemented in Stockholm.

Now Jonas Khemiri isn’t just anyone. If he were, then his An Open Letter to Beatrice Ask, printed March 13th of this year in the newspaper Dagens Nyheter (and reprinted here in Asymptote) would not have already become the most linked text in Swedish history. The Swedish born, half-Tunisian playwright and author, has not only made quite a name for himself, but has done so writing about the experience of  immigrants and outsiders in Sweden and around the world. His debut novel One Eye Red (2003), received the Borås Tidning award for best literary debut, and his follow up novel Montecore: Silence of the Tiger (English title, 2007) won a handful more awards. His first play Invasion! (2007) was chosen for the Swedish Theatre Biennial. It has since been retranslated and played in several countries, always to rave reviews. In 2011 it debuted in New York where it ran for two seasons at The Play Company, was a New York Times Critic Pick, and won the Village Voice OBIE for playwriting. So yeah, no slouch.

The article is in large part a catalogue of experiences that are singular to the other, the (in Khemiri's case, perceived) outsider. An index of memories of returning from family visits to Tunisia, and     his father’s nervous preparation for the inevitable stop at customs, after all of the "nice pink people had gone through." Being ID’d by cops because he and a friend were sitting outside a McDonalds and being conspicuously thirteen and not blonde. Hiding in a door way with the taste of blood in his mouth after being chased by skinheads for the first (and not the last) time at age ten.

I perhaps belabor the point, but it is to an end. I think it's important, especially for me as the company dramaturge, to put Khemiri's work, specifically Invasion! in context. This play is not anything as simple as a response to 9/11, if such a thing could be simple, it's a response to growing up black haired and olive skinned in Sweden. It's a response to his life. The first version of the play, the one produced in Sweden was set in Sweden, and the playwright has said that he wasn’t thinking of 9/11 when he wrote it. But yes, it must also be said that it is a play that is aware of its place in our “post 9/11 world.”

When the play came to New York, many of those present for the first read-through responded ‘Wow, they have these problems in Sweden too? Huh, that’s weird.’ So it was decided to localize it for New York, a trend that has been followed by subsequent productions, including our own. While Invasion! has gone through a significant evolution since its first staging, with language changes, characters cut, and scenes expanded, the key thematic and structural elements have remained the same, including the names of George W Bush, and other “notable” members of his administration being anagrammed and re-deployed as academics and journalists who “study” the ever-present Abulkasem.  Fear of the outsider has been a human constant. Fear of the Arab/Muslim male is nothing new; before Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, we had Yasser Arafat, the PLO, and Hezbollah to be afraid of.  But a contemporary play set in American, dealing with misconceptions and anxieties, born of fear and even of sympathy for the Arab/Muslim is difficult to view through anything but the lens of September 11th.

Yet to do that would be to miss the power of the play, which is the way Khemiri explores and problematizes language and translation.  As a writer in any genre the hallmark of Khemiri’s work has been his use and stylistic creation of what might be called “outsider patois.” His first novel One Eye Red garnered both praise and not a little ridicule because his main character Halim speaks in what was incorrectly and derogatorily referred to by some in the Swedish press as “Rinkeby Swedish,” named so after the Rinkeby suburb of Stockholm which has a large immigrant population. In truth, Halim’s dialect is his own creation, full of intentional grammatical errors and mispronunciations, that he uses to gain control of a language that he does not feel is his own. In Montecore, which itself is a genre hybrid of (faux) autobiography and epistolary novel, the character of Jonas writes in a strange and captivating second person register, where articles are dropped, words are compounded and newly coined, and his parents (who are the focus of much of the novel) are referred to in the plural “moms” and “dads.” Some of this style is present in Invasion as well, with characters speaking lines like “Everything is nice mood, and best atmosphere. Up until she gets a bad conscience about her friends.” The result is both an attention grabbing, almost poetic cadence, and the marking out of characters as outsiders, without reducing them to “quaint” lower class stereotypes. The recent controversy over the Charles Ramsey interview comes to mind. Characters in Invasion! change language they way actors change costume, taking on different styles for different audiences. Language is also depicted as a means of control throughout the show. A better mastery of language, or of an establish (if completely fallacious) discourse equals control of the narrative, even if that narrative is someone else’s life.

And then there’s the complex relationship the play has with the power and function of translation, which plays such an important roll in Invasion!’s action, structure and history that it is difficult to know where even to begin. I suppose first off I must mention Rachel Wilson-Broyles who’s translations of both Montecore, and the American version of Invasion! are masterful and deserving of more praise than I have either space or words for. Suffice it to say that Khemiri, in every interview that I’ve read, has gone out of his way to note that without Wilson-Broyles’ skill and unique ability to grasp his intent, he would be nowhere. The next logical point of connection would have to be the now famous (infamous?) “apple picker scene,” but that I should leave to you to discover. The less said about that the better. There are also several subtle allusions to famous works in translation (like Tintin) and about translation (such as Nabokov’s Pale Fire) here and there that keep the idea of translation present throughout the show. Most important of all would be the roll that The Thousand and One Nights plays both thematically and structurally in the show.

Above even the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and the Nobel winning literature of Naguib Mahfouz, The Nights is the most recognized Arabic literary text in the Western world, and for good reason. Throughout the 18th and especially in the 19th century, there was a craze in the west for “exotic,” “oriental” folk tales, poetry, and erotica, especially in France, Germany and Great Brittan where such works were favorite topics of salons and society circles. Characters like Galland, Lane, Hammer-Purgstall, and of course Burton took turns compiling, editing, translating and publishing their own versions of The Nights. And a few of them weren’t above slagging their competitor’s translations off in the press. I won’t digress into anything approaching a history of The Nights here, I promise, but it is worth saying that there were (and still are) no definitive Arabic versions of The Nights, and very few extant texts that even claim to be actual versions of The Nights. All of these historic manuscripts contain variations of the frame story of Sheharazade, Shahriyar, Dunyazade  and Shahzaman, and different numbers, orders and versions of the stories told by Sheharazade to Shariyar, and often different tales all together. The tales themselves run the gamut from the moral and cautionary, to bawdy slapstick, and unabashed pornography. And always there is poetry. So each consecutive translator chose which stories to include (even going so far as to pull tales from other story collections and make a few of their own up for good measure), which order to place them in, whether or not to include the poetic digressions, and to (in the case of Lane and Galland) elide the bawdy and exclude the erotic, or (like Burton) to play them up to the utmost. And it wasn’t just the tales themselves that made their way into the western editions of The Nights. The most popular versions of The Nights included copious footnotes that “explained” the cultural references and mannerisms depicted in their texts. So it is fair to say (and oft said) that The Thousand and One Nights is not just the most significant western translation of Arabic literature, but the first “translation” of Arab/Islamic culture in the west.

This is a history that Khemiri is well aware of, and uses to great effect. Several of his characters adopt the names and mannerisms of those from The Nights. Structures of a few tales from The Nights are mirrored over onto the things that some of Khemiri’s characters do, and go through. The way the tales in The Nights often flow from one to another at several levels of removal, is adopted in Invasion! as well, where A tells a story about B telling a story about C, and then A returns to finish things. In fact the main action of the play is the telling of other people’s stories. In every scene, either in part or in whole, one or more characters tells the tale of someone else or of an alternate version of themselves, to the audience, or another character, or to the very person they’re talking about.  All of which, as in The Nights, is set within a frame story that Khemiri…well, again I’ll leave that to you to discover. Suffice it to say that he makes potent and unique use of the convention.

And all of this, is one dramaturge’s nerdy, probably too longwinded way of saying that Invasion!, isn’t just a lively and subversive satire that is powerfully funny even when it’s being equally heart-wrenching. It isn’t just a seven-year-old play that for all of the above reasons and more, is as relevant if not more so now, than the day it was first produced. Ultimately, it’s the outsider telling back the outsider’s story. And it’s a story we would all do well to really listen to. It’s about how not everyone in the Middle East is an Arab. Not every Arab is a Muslim. Not every Muslim woman in hijab is some sort of conservative anti-feminist, or agentless creature that needs our pity and protection. And certainly not every Muslim/Arab/Kurdish/Turkish/Indian/Christian/Secular/Half-Tunisian man is a freedom-hating terrorist. These are just the stories that we occasionally let ourselves be told.

Oh, and that Sweden…isn’t perfect.