Sara Elkamel interviews Aya Aziz about art and Islam, sexuality, and the dimensions of the self
Photo courtesy of Shivani Badgl
When Egyptian-American performer Aya Aziz visited Egypt as a child and teenager, she took stories from her New York life with her—she would talk about her lesbian school teachers, she would talk about sex, and she would ask questions. Her father “would get phone calls from people telling him you have to get her to stop talking, we can’t have our kids exposed to this stuff.” In her most recent solo musical at the New York Music Festival, the last thing she did was heed this advice.
Directed by Corinne Proctor, the solo piece, “Eh Dah? [What is This?] Questions for My Father” revolves around Aya Aziz, a young woman caught between her Egyptian and Muslim roots and her life as a New Yorker. The play, Aziz says, has been deeply inspired by her own family and unfolding journey of self-discovery.
Born to an Egyptian father and an American mother, the central character grew up in New York, with sporadic trips to her father’s hometown in Egypt. When her uncle dies unexpectedly, she temporarily leaves her job at a chili bar and makes a trip to Germantown, a black and Muslim community in Northwest Philadelphia, to console her father, her aunt Hadia, and her cousins Dalia and Abdu.
To tell the story of her family, and to reflect on her multifarious upbringing, the narrator embodies more than ten characters throughout the play. She wraps a scarf around her short hair and puts her hands on her hips to play Auntie Hadia, dramatically slumps her shoulder to become her cousin Dalia, and nonchalantly slouches in her chair as her cousin Abdu.
She also takes trips back to her childhood—transporting the audience to diverse, contrasting locales, including a street in Cairo, an after-school class with her drama teacher Janine, who “founded Theatre of the Repressed, a leftist performance collective that practiced Boal in the nude,” her babysitter’s house in the projects, and “Muslim Camp” — religious classes where Aya and her cousins learn to recite the Quraan.
Confrontations between Auntie Hadia (who Aziz cleverly portrays as a charmingly obnoxious Egyptian woman unwilling to compromise on her Egyptian and Muslim values) and the father, demonstrate the loose and often jagged ends caused by immigration. “Hadia, I came here with the decision to be a part of a different society. That is why I left. I left Egypt, I left that society to raise my child in a different one, as an American. And here you are in American bas [but] you’ve taken all of Egypt with you,” the father says.
Throughout, Auntie Hadia is central to the portrayal of the cultural tug-of-war Aya continually finds herself in. When the 10- year-old girl decides to take a topless dip in the community pool, Auntie Hadia retaliates by stitching together a new bathing suit for her—a comically conservative garment eerily resembling the heatedly debated burkini. When you want to swim, Auntie Hadia tells Aziz in broken English, “You don’t have to take off any clothes. No naked. Ever.”
The line, to which three Egyptians friends and I roared all too knowingly, is one of the places Aziz tries to discuss the friction between religion and sexuality in Muslim communities. Later in the play, Aya asks her religion-class teacher about the logistics involved in lesbian marriage, to which the teacher reacts with visible fury. And when her cousin Abdu hears that Aya had posted on Facebook about kissing a girl, he’s outraged: “You like girls now? Damn Aya, you just fucking shit up in all the ways.”
A couple of weeks after I saw the play, I sat down with Aya Aziz on a patch of grass in Washington Square Park. Off stage, Aziz spoke just as animatedly of being in the “in-between”—caught between two cultures, two languages, and the multitude of identities that “sit comfortably or, actually, rather uncomfortably” within herself. In the interview below, she discusses how this summer’s shooting at an Orlando nightclub, which claimed fory-nine lives, propelled her to explore the relationship of sexuality and Islam, in the process challenging the limited representation of the Muslim “other.”
— Sara Elkamel for Guernica
Guernica: You’ve said that you were anxious about this being a self-indulgent piece. Can you tell me more about that fear, and how you tried to work around it?
Aya Aziz: I think ultimately the material I had to work with was coming out of personal truth. It’s not that I set out to make some kind of autobiographical piece. I was just kind of swept up by the opportunity of the project. And the prospect of making an autobiographical piece scared me, because I didn’t want to be on a stage talking about myself—unless I was willing to problematize or really think critically about these truths. Which was what I was interested in.
The issues that the show looks at are coming from a place of very present anxiety that I have around the privilege of being in the in-between, and the mobility that that awards me. So I wanted to look at that critically instead of just looking at myself. I was also so much more compelled by the other people in my life than I was by myself. And that’s what I was interested in jumping into—those characters, those voices.
I ultimately didn’t want to present a story about me. I wanted it to be a story about the questions that I think people wrestle with in the ongoing state of growing and self-reflection.
And it was a way that I could adopt, or try to wear, or step into, a lens outside of myself. But I was scared of not saying anything useful. I ultimately didn’t want to present a story about me. I wanted it to be a story about the questions that I think people wrestle with in the ongoing state of growing and self-reflection. I really wanted it to be more about the questions.
Guernica: What were some of the specific questions your piece was trying to raise?
Aya Aziz: I think one of the main ones was the question of how we become one thing from many things. How growing is a process of immersion, and then sudden seclusion and “othering.” I think certainly “othering” and mobility were main themes. I wanted to explore what it means to be part of many different spaces or experiences.
Guernica: You mentioned jumping into the lives of the other characters. And you did that very physically—your physical form shifted, and that was really impressive and at times confusing to watch. What was that process like for you?
Aya Aziz: I think, as someone described me today, I’m a physical actor. It’s also how I write. Maybe it’s because I come from dance as my foray into the arts. But it was really hard! I would often get mixed up.
For instance, the character of the cousin has very slumped shoulders, and you know, the person it was based on doesn’t look like that at all. But we needed to make a strong character choice, because ultimately, we needed strong physical traits to be able to differentiate between everybody—simply because I was the only one on stage! So we had to choose a body for each person, and then find ways to minimize the space between each transition so that one body was melting into the next. And sometimes I would be Abdou as Dalia or Abdou as myself, so naturally, I would get confused. So it was definitely a little bit of choreography, and so the play felt like a dance, weirdly enough.
Guernica: You talk about the self and the other a lot, and that that was one of the things you wanted to get at with this play. And I feel like physically, you were dancing back and forth between yourself and others—what did that experience teach you about the relationship between your self and the “other”?
Aya Aziz: I think the irony of it is that the other exists within the self. And that kind of complicates the other by tussling with: Why do I understand that person that way? Why does this person live within me this particular way? And how can I complicate that? Which was always a kind of meta dance that I was doing throughout this process.
I was always surprised by the quotes and the thoughts that came out of me. And it also gave me a lot of anxiety, that idea that ultimately, I was revealing how I other. And it’s so terrifying. It’s a privilege to be able to portray characters that are real people in your life, and that always made me nervous. That position just reflected my own anxieties about my own mobility.
I just want to make art” is naive, because everything you do is highly political, and you can’t walk away or shy away from that.
And I was always anxious about revealing a part of somebody that would be potentially hurtful. There’s a lot of fiction in this piece. In the world of theatre, and when you write, you have to step out—you have to be willing to fictionalize. And so I was very scared of fictionalizing. And ultimately I would have to do that in order to get through it. But taking the liberty to fictionalize and grow a character out of a real person takes a part of you, putting on your own lens, and I didn’t really want to do that. And I was like god, what does it say about me if I am construing this person this way, and what are the politics of that? “I just want to make art” is naive, because everything you do is highly political, and you can’t walk away or shy away from that. So learning why I was fictionalizing somebody or remembering somebody or something a certain way was always something that I was kind of anxious about, and it was kind of personal. It’s kind of personal to showcase how you see the world. But in order to go forward I needed to be willing to implicate myself.
Guernica: Did you have a similar experience with representing some of the bigger characters in the play, such as Islam, or Arab culture?
Aya Aziz: In the air right now is this intense fear around anything having to do with Arabs or Muslims. I mean, people can say “oh no, Muslims are greaaat, it’s not about the religion” but then in their head it’s like…Fear. And of course! Everything we’ve learned since 9/11 has been that “this is a religion and a people who are inherently violent. There’s an inherent violence to this religion and it awards no exploration of the self.”
And so I wanted to tackle that. I wanted to look at the ways in which this religion can empower or award space for empowerment and exploration. I didn’t want to say “oh the other is just like us” as much as—these are questions that live within all of us, and we need to be allowed the space to express them, and tussle with our own growth and our own spirit.
We don’t immediately adopt or eschew ideology. We find new ways of interpreting it. And to be different or different from how the narrative is of what Islam is in the media doesn’t mean to be on the outside of it. I look at my cousins, I look at myself, I look at my friends who are queer and Muslim, it’s like this all exists within the Islamic world, and yet it is represented as this tiny tiny world, this one-dimensional thing with lots of terrorists. So I kind of wanted to show its many faces, and represent the universalism of growth and childhood and wonder.
Guernica: Did you feel that the people who came to see the show learned anything new about Islam?
Aya Aziz: Yeah! I was surprised by the messages I got from people. People seemed to really respond to the song about the wives of Prophet Muhammad. And yes, it’s a rosy picture, but it’s still a part of Islamic history. And it would’ve been so nice to be able to put more in, and to have been able to quote passages of the Quraan. That’s something I’m really interested in exploring.
We can carry all of these different parts of ourselves around and they somehow make sense
Guernica: I feel like this piece is maybe over-loaded with themes and questions. Obviously, identity is the overarching idea, but it deals with questions of religion and sexuality and language, among others. Was there one theme you were particularly moved to explore?
Aya Aziz: I didn’t really want to make an identity play, but I kind of had to if I wanted to incorporate all these: I was like well I can incorporate all of these thoughts and parts if I incorporate them as pieces of me or things that I have thought or been exposed to. But I think identity as an umbrella captures all of these complicated topics. But still, the self is so complicated that we can carry all of these different parts of ourselves around and they somehow make sense — we don’t look insanely dilapidated or particularly different on the outside, and yet we have all of these things within us.
But I really wanted to explore this idea of sexuality and Islam. That was a specific prerogative for me, especially after the Orlando shooting. That was a big impetus actually. I’ve always been highly sexually aware—and not in terms of sex as a thing, but just in terms of a form of expression. Growing up, I was always around all these hippies and lesbian couples. So it was very weird and different when I would visit Egypt. I remember being six and making everybody really uncomfortable, because I’d just bring my hippie with me. And I wanted to tell everybody’s stories — I’ve always loved telling stories as a way of engaging people. And my dad would get phone calls from people telling him you have to get her to stop talking, we can’t have our kids exposed to this stuff.
But then, just seeing how many different forms of womanhood exist in Egypt, and watching different forms of sexual expression that have been completely suppressed, but have not disappeared… So I was thinking of the freedom to ask—Who am I? And how people can reconcile their religion with their sexuality.
It’s within the communities I think that this insane intolerance of personhood, or multi-dimensional personhood happens. So I was kind of curious about that. I was thinking of my queer Muslim friends, who are perhaps not advertising their sexuality to their communities but on a spiritual level can exist spiritually whole with it.
So then the question is: How can we be spiritually whole while accepting ourselves in this dimensionality, but not be accepted within the rigidity of these community spaces. So it widens the parameters of what religion can mean, and what spirituality can mean, in an important way.
Aya Aziz is a songwriter and performance artist based between New York and Beirut, Lebanon. Aya wrote and performed her first full production, Sitting Regal by the Window, in 2015 at the Metro Al-Madina Theatre in Beirut. The show then featured in both the Fringe and Planet Connections Theater Festivity in New York. The re-written iteration of the show, now titled Eh Dah? Questions for my Father was produced by the Hypokrit Theatre Company and taken to the New York Musical Festival this past summer. There at NYMF, Aya won the award for Most Outstanding Book and an award for Outstanding Individual Performance. Aya is a longtime member of Girl Be Heard, a nonprofit theater company devoted to foregrounding issues affecting women and girls around the world. She now works with GBH as a teaching artist for middle school girls in multiple public school programs in the city. Aya is also currently finishing her BA in Anthropology and Political Science at Hunter College. You can follow her work at soundcloud.com/aya-aziz-music-nyc and www.facebook.com/AyaAzizMusic.
Sara Elkamel is an Egyptian journalist and writer, born and raised in Cairo, currently living in New York. Elkamel is Associate International Editor at The Huffington Post. She graduated in May 2015 with a Master of Arts in Journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Before then, Elkamel was reporting on arts and culture in Cairo for local and international publications