Theater archives

Death to the Unchaste


On the November night in 2003 when filmmaker Theo van Gogh was stabbed to death by an Islamist extremist in Amsterdam, Nazmiye Oral was in a tiny Dutch town acting in The Veiled Monologues. The production is about, and performed by, women from Europe’s Muslim communities. Her shaken audience, in a small country struggling with large numbers of immigrants, suddenly had no idea what to think about Muslims and Islam. “The feeling in the theater was electric,” the actress recalls.

Back in Amsterdam, mourners in Dam Square were banging on pots and pans. So Oral made a curtain speech-—now her program note—telling the shaken audience that “we came to make noise from the heart. If we can touch each others’ hearts, then there is hope.”

This week, Oral arrives in Brooklyn hoping to reach American hearts. She and her fellow cast members—all from Dutch Muslim backgrounds—will perform two theater productions in English, opening October 5 and running in rep through October 14.The Veiled Monologues evokes the conflicting worlds and desires of immigrant women. Is.Man is about a conflicted immigrant man who kills his daughter.

Despite its title, The Veiled Monologues is not a variation on The Vagina Monologues. The Veiled Monologues was inspired by director Adelheid Roosen’s 2003 interviews with hundreds of Muslim women now living in the Netherlands. The women, who came from Kuwait, Mali, Turkey, Morocco, and elsewhere, spoke privately and anonymously about love, desire, anatomy, and cultural conflict. Roosen—a performer, director, and documentary maker well known in the Netherlands—artfully shaped and sculpted their stories into 12 poetic monologues (in English) for three performers, who are accompanied by asaz, the Turkish lute. Roosen uses colorful language and ample humor for a difficult subject; although the monologue form might sound familiar, there’s little sentiment or didacticism.

Roosen’s darker companion piece, Is.Man, deals with the male side of this coin. Weaving three generations’ perspectives, Is.Man unravels the events that lead a father to kill his teenage daughter, whom he suspects is unchaste, so he can uphold rural Turkish honor codes. The piece, which premiered in Amsterdam this spring, is partly based on Roosen’s real-life conversations with men serving prison sentences in the Netherlands.

In recent years, police in Europe have documented hundreds of these “honor killings” in immigrant communities, in which fathers and brothers kill daughters, wives, cousins. Since the entire family’s integrity depends upon notions of women’s purity, aunts and mothers sometimes collude, telling police that a girl has returned “home” to Turkey or Morocco. Perceived dishonor can come from a woman’s choice of husband, or pregnancy before marriage, or merely suspected loss of virginity.

Getting inside these minds—and these prisons—was not easy for Roosen. “I made Is.Man out of a creative anger,” she said in a telephone interview from Amsterdam. Dutch audiences were embracing the lighter Veiled Monologues, but a culture of aggressive male supremacy underlying the women’s stories was getting overlooked. Roosen wondered if audiences simply couldn’t wrap their minds around it: “Killing your child out of a perception—that is something we do not understand in Holland.” But, she says, “if I can look at someone, starting with the idea that there is no difference between them and me, I can learn. Even with my greatest enemy or some far-right-wing psycho, that recognition is my first step.”

The Veiled Monologues has been performed at a large national festival in Turkey and behind closed doors in Jordan. There has even been talk of visiting Pakistan. In Europe, the company—recently incorporated as the Female Economy Foundation—has played in huge baroque national theaters, local community centers, and everyplace in between.

Last year, I saw the piece performed (in Dutch) for a police conference in Ede, a provincial city in the Netherlands, where broad-shouldered officials enjoyed the sometimes raunchy humor and were disturbed by talk of domestic violence. A few months later, I watched the performers do it in Turkish at a cultural center in Berlin’s multi-ethnic Kreuzberg neighborhood—where its themes upset some immigrant spectators.

But the company’s triumph came in 2005, when they performed the piece in the Dutch Parliament for lawmakers from all parties. Among those engineering that feat was the highly controversial former Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali—a friend of Roosen’s (and Van Gogh’s) who participated in early versions of The Veiled Monologues. (Hirsi Ali’s own story mirrors those onstage: She grew up in Somalia and Saudi Arabia, suffered genital mutilation as a girl, and fled to the West to avoid a forced marriage. Van Gogh’s assassin pinned a note to his victim threatening Hirsi Ali too.)

Most of the debate that the shows have generated around the world has been civil and civic-minded. But the Amsterdam theater where it premiered in 2003 did receive a bomb threat. The performers have occasionally been unnerved but refuse to give in to their fears. Roosen emphasizes her total respect for Islamic belief as she questions cultural traditions that hurt women. The productions were not originally made with Muslim audiences in mind, and Roosen readily acknowledges that she sees the world through Western eyes. “I made this for the West,” she stresses. “I am from the West.”

Roosen is also careful not to make black-and-white moral designations, on or off the stage. She’s not exactly out to change perceptions, but rather to ask her audience to perceive strangers and differences more carefully: “Veiled Monologues is a much more open, inviting piece. Is.Man tries to open you to see something difficult.” Roosen hopes this newest play will offer an understanding of the feelings and attitudes of disorientated men, not tolerance or acceptance.

The 49-year-old director likes to quote a woman she once met while making a documentary in Mali. The woman told her: “There are four people in every dialogue. There’s you, there’s me, there’s the person I imagine you to be, and the person you imagine me to be.” Roosen has adopted this ethos for her theater projects: Are we seeing real women, or the people we perceive them to be? Even if their actions are reprehensible, are we hearing-—really hearing—the thoughts and feelings of men who kill for moral clarity?

Since the productions were created independently and Is.Man is so new, Roosen will see them play in rep for the first time in Brooklyn. Susan Feldman, artistic director of St. Ann’s Warehouse, had no doubts that she wanted to present both works together. But, she says, “my concern is that I don’t know if Americans want to know what’s going on in Muslim people’s worlds. Do they care about what women are going through, what women think about? Most people, I worry, think they probably know what these shows are without even seeing them. And the fact is, they don’t. Because they are very surprising.”

If the performances can lift the veil and offer even a partial glimpse of Muslim experience in the West, then she and the artists will be happy. “We don’t know anything—that’s what I feel,” says Feldman. “And my big question for American audiences is: Do you want to know?”