Chicago, Illinois – There was something different about the Goodman Theater last week.
Perhaps it was because of the drink menu, which offered cocktails made from arak, a traditional West Asian liquor. Or maybe it was the set that rose from the stage, depicting an affluent Baghdad home centered around an intricate red-and-gold sofa.
But there seemed to be an extra pulse of excitement when the hall lights dimmed and the actors took the stage for the world premiere of the play Layalina.
Layalina, a story of migration, family and sacrifice, begins in 2003, with the invasion of Iraq by the United States. But the playwright, Martin Yousif Zebari, was determined not to compile a gloomy historical chronicle. Instead, he tried to capture the joys, thrills and triumphs he had experienced himself as an Iraqi-born Assyrian American.
“I don’t see my life turning into tragedy,” said 29-year-old Zebari in an interview with Al Jazeera.
His play makes history for the Goodman, one of the leading regional theater companies in the United States. Never before has the Tony Award-winning theater premiered a work of SWANA origin – an acronym that stands for South West Asian and North African.
A story told through the generations
Like his characters, Zebari grew up in Baghdad, in the historically Assyrian district of Dora. But his family left Iraq in 1999 and first moved to Damascus, Syria, where they lived for three years.
Then, in 2002, they settled in Skokie, Illinois, a suburb north of Chicago.
Locked down at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Zebari began writing the story that would become Layalina. The title means “our nights” in Arabic.
He drew on a combination of personal experiences and fictional elements for the play’s story, which – like his own – begins in Baghdad and ends in Skokie.
The play opens in the house of the Ibrahim family, where father Yasir had hoped to protect and support his four children with the perks of his elite government job.
But beyond that, the world is changing rapidly. The government has fallen, US troops are patrolling the streets and former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein is in hiding. Protests are underway and the eldest children in the Ibrahim household are eager to join in despite their parents’ concerns.
It is a story that revolves around a clash of generations: between young and old, fear and optimism, tradition and change. But in the second act, the perspective shifts. Seventeen years have passed and the older siblings are now adults themselves and are in charge of raising their younger brother and sister.
They live together in Skokie, where protests are taking place again, this time in the name of racial justice. It’s 2020 and a black man named George Floyd has just been killed by police.
“The point of the play is that this is a family seeking each other out and finding their way back to each other,” says director Sivan Battat, who is himself of Iraqi descent. “That’s a really powerful story to tell about a broad political moment in history.”
A mirror to history
Layalina’s March 13 opening performance took place almost exactly two decades after the US invaded Iraq. The play itself begins on the same date in 2003, as tensions rise in the days leading up to the war.
“There’s something very terrifying about that,” Battat said of the parallels. “It’s quite magnificent and powerful.”
She feels the play honors that historic moment “by telling a story that isn’t about war,” but rather about something more intimate, more personal.
“It’s about family,” she explained, adding that the play is also about how the Iraqi community, both at home and abroad, has had to struggle to find a sense of belonging.
Relationships, rather than politics, are at the heart of Layalina. And that is intentional, according to the writer.
“I’m actively trying to fight against the political that gets in the way of the personal,” Zebari said.
In the piece, Zebari deliberately left Yasir’s job in the Hussein administration vague. Yasir’s government stance merely indicates social status — something that can determine the outcome of immigration narratives, Zebari explained.
Still, Zebari tried to capture the frustration and fear that drove millions of Iraqis to flee the country in the 2000s. “The sh** we’re dealing with in Baghdad doesn’t exist in America,” one character says over the course of the play.
A diaspora community in Illinois
The US invasion of Iraq proved to be a turning point in the history of Assyrians like Zebari. An ethnic group indigenous to the region, the Assyrian population in Iraq was close to 1.5 million before the invasion.
Today it is estimated that only 150,000 remain. Many fled the violence as the predominantly Christian population was threatened by armed groups after the outbreak of war.
New hubs for Assyrians were formed in places like the Chicago metropolitan area. There, the population is estimated to be 100,000 strong – one of the largest Assyrian diaspora groups in the world.
Nevertheless, Zebari faced cultural differences while growing up in Skokie. Like the youngest characters in his play, he spent much of his childhood in the US, unlike his older siblings.
Zebari explained that he wrote Layalina as a way to understand the “fundamental differences” in their upbringing.
“My childhood was disrupted and actually started again when I moved to the US,” said Zebari. “I didn’t understand why (my siblings) made the decisions they made, why they acted the way they did, why they felt and thought the way they did.”
Zebari also infused his characters with his experiences as a strange person, struggling to find acceptance and understanding in the community.
Caroline Benjamin, an Iraqi-born Assyrian who began working at Niles North High School in Skokie while Zebari was a student there, recalls that the playwright never seemed to compromise “his full authentic self” despite the pressures he may have felt.
“He is a proud strange man from the Middle East. Often we don’t hear that perspective in the community,” said Benjamin, Niles North’s Director of Activities.
Zebari credits theater as a refuge for him as a youth, even as far back as his high school years.
“I quickly found theater and found it crucial to my growth and to learning English and making friends,” he said. “Being the new foreign kid was much easier to digest in the theater because it was an open, inviting place where I didn’t feel symbolic.”
Unveiling the piece
Zebari was well aware of the traditional conservatism in many Middle Eastern households and harbored concerns about dramatizing the intimate struggles of an Assyrian-American family.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword. For those who aren’t in my community, I’m like, ‘Will they understand? Will they like it?” Zebari said.
“And for those in my community, will they be challenged? Will they accept that I visualize our people in our community in this very peculiar way that is completely out of line with the majority of our representation and our reality?
But for teens like Crystal Patto, plays like Layalina are important tools for making queer-identifying Assyrians visible.
“A lot of people think it’s wrong to be you and love whoever you want,” says Patto, who went to the same high school as Zebari. “In a home in the Middle East, it’s a lot about religion. You feel that you are wrong for who you like just because of what your parents or church or friends might think.
So far, Zebari said he’s been “impressed with the positivity” he’s received for Layalina. He dreams of writing more plays – and maybe even TV shows.
“I have an incentive to keep working on it. To see that pride (Assyrians) feel when they see there’s an Assyrian play in the Goodman,” he said, “that’s something very special.