'Vagina Monologues' Inspires Arabic Interpretation

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Lebanese playwright Lina Khoury saw a performance of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues in Chicago, and it inspired her to write an Arabic version that tackles issues that speak to a Lebanese audience.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michel Martin in Washington. Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION Neal Conan will be broadcasting live from New Orleans. He'll talk with residents there about the new hurricane season and what they're doing to get ready. That's tomorrow's TALK OF THE NATION live from New Orleans.

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Today, breaking taboos in the Arab world. Have you ever seen Eve Ensler's play, The Vagina Monologues? You can admit it. Did you feel embarrassed watching women talk about their most private parts? Well, imagine staging such a play for an Arab audience, in a part of the world where many women spend their lives covered from head to toe. In a country where government censors outlaw, even the use, of the Arabic word for vagina.

Lebanese playwright, Lina Khoury, rose to that challenge when she waged a nearly two year battle to bring her play Hekeh Niswan, or Women's Talk, to the stage in Beirut. Her work was inspired by The Vagina Monologues but tackles issues that she believes speaks more to the Lebanese experience. Her characters talk openly about issues like sexual harassment on the street, and even premenstrual syndrome.

Since it opened in Beirut, her play has been playing to packed houses of both men and women. Khoury says the success of the play has been a welcome surprise and the play will continue running as long as people keep filling seats.

If you have a question for Lina Khoury about her work and the challenge of breaking cultural taboos in the Arab world, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. Our email address is talk@npr.org.

Lina Khoury is professor of television and advertising at the American University College of Science and Technology in Beirut. She joins us from the BBC studios in Beirut, Lebanon. Welcome.

Professor LINA KHOURY (Television and Advertising, American University College of Science and Technology): Thank you. Hello. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: What was it about The Vagina Monologues that inspired your play?

Prof. KHOURY: Well, when I first watched The Vagina Monologues being performed in Chicago, I was high for days, because it felt so good that other women shared such experiences. And that was it. I watched it again in Arkansas, and then Eve Ensler's performing it on HBO, and that was it. And then I came back to Beirut, like about two and a half years ago, and I was wanting to do a play. And when I started doing a play I really wanted to talk to the people, not just any(ph) - if I do even Shakespeare or Sophocles, I would like it to talk to the people.

So I was searching for a play, couldn't find any. And then I thought again about The Vagina Monologues and I thought how about doing that. And then I started adapting some of the monologues and my friends in the media, in the field, laughed at me and was like, not in a hundred years you can do that. So, all right, I mean, I don't really stop when I hear something…

MARTIN: Are you one of those sort of waving a flag before a bull people? Somebody says you can't, you know, you're immediate response is, no I'll show you?

Prof. KHOURY: Yeah, but understanding the circumstances again, because I was away from Beirut for four years. I was in the States. And then you have to understand really the situation. It's - we didn't just raise the flag just for raising it. I would want to raise the flag if it can do some good and some change. So I thought I'll change and switch and shift, you know, my intention, so that it's accepted and it can do the same affect.

So, I thought why don't I do it socially, like a social issue and not sexually. Not the vagina talking but the women talking. Because women here - I mean, Lebanon - I just want to say this, Lebanon is not similar to the rest of the Arab countries. Lebanon is really, I mean, very much open-minded and democratic, and really has both cultures of the East and West. So it's much more comfortable to work here and do art here. It has a history of…

MARTIN: Were you - I know, I was going to say that people think of Beirut as the Paris of the Middle East. Very cosmopolitan, very - just, you know, just very urbane, very sophisticated. But it is actually fairly conservative, wouldn't you say, in some areas - in the area of women's rights and sort of sexual freedom, and at least the sexual expression, that people consider sort of commonplace here in this country?

Prof. KHOURY: Yes and no. Because the good thing about Beirut, it has different cultures and different religions, and different - the mix between east and west. There are a lot of people who are conservative and wouldn't talk about sex or even - and there lots of other people who are more open-minded, are free, are more cosmopolitan, very artistic. So it has this mix, which makes it magical for me. So it's yes and no at the same time.

MARTIN: But so - but tell, why did it take so long to get your play approved? And tell me about the process of getting the play past the government censors?

Prof. KHOURY: Yeah, after that, I decided, let's do it socially. So I was - my question was - for myself and for the women that I interviewed - what is your problem as a woman in Lebanon? That was my question. So I started searching and researching what are the main problems that women face; and then I decided on twelve different issues and started interviewing people who have these problems.

So it's not The Vagina Monologues. It's the same style and inspiration, but it's about the women, Lebanese women, talking about PMS, about menopause, about rape, about marital violence, about the sexual harassment on the streets; those issues that stem from our society.

MARTIN: You did, though, come up - but you do have some reference to the earlier work, and you finally came up with the word Coco to describe a woman's vagina. How did you arrive at that word?

Prof. KHOURY: Well, I wanted to name things by their names, but when you mention it in Arabic it's really heavy on the ear, because you're only - you listen - you hear it only when you're cursing. And that's it. You cannot, even if you're having an intimate conversation with your partner, you cannot say it unless you say it in English or French. In Arabic it's heavy, you're not used to hearing it unless in curses, as I said.

So first I just wanted to say it, but it was shocking. I don't want to shock people. I want them to get the real message. So I thought, let's name it something else, and I started searching for names. And I searched and searched, and every time I come up with a name, it has such a kind of religious connotation or a regional connotation. I don't want that. So I changed it and I changed it until I came - I thought I came up with the perfect name, which was (foreign language spoken), which means beautiful in Arabic. And I thought, yes, this is the message that I want and it's acceptable, and it doesn't have any other connotation.

And then the night before I was applying, giving my script to the censorship, it turned out that the head of the censorship's name is Zemeal(ph). So I was like, oh my God! My friends told me, like, what, didn't you notice that before? So that same night, I just had to switch something and put something in. Coco came up and it stayed. And apparently people are loving it. Every time I walk on the street, people are saying coco. So...

MARTIN: Well, it's catchy. I think that's a compliment. I think. I'm not for sure.

Let's go to a caller. Let's go to Saratoga, California, and Jim(ph). Jim, what's your question?

JIM (Caller): Hi, thanks for having me on. I'm actually a former Muslim. I spent the first 26 years of my life as a Muslim. My question - first of all, I think it's great, what you're doing and I think it's really excellent.

But as I went through the Koran for the first time at the age of 26, I was very shocked by a whole lot of things in there. Not the least of which was the portrayal of women and, including in the Hadids. And I'm wondering if you agree that the text of the Koran itself, along with the Hadids, really create this kind of situation for women where they cannot speak freely, they cannot go places freely, and basically, they live a life without liberty, I guess.

MARTIN: Jim, thank you for your call.

Prof. KHOURY: I think it does, a lot. I mean, it's not the only reason, but it has a - such a great impact, such a big impact. Because in the Koran and the Hadids, everything in the society - I mean, it's religious and social at the same time. Everything is - everything has rules; how to do that and this, and how to think, and how to behave, and it has a lot to do with women, and the control of women. And I think it has a lot to do - yeah, but it's - I want to say it's not the only thing. Because the community we live in, it's a patriarchal society after all, and it's not just from Islam. It's from the whole society, from Islam and Christianity and just the culture, how it came up to be.

MARTIN: This is often this debate about those kinds of issues, is it the religion or the culture, which is the dominant force. What would you say, particularly given that Lebanon is multi-religious?

Prof. KHOURY: It's both. I mean, it's both; and religion has a such a great power on people. And the religious men, in my opinion, religious people use that power to keep their control on the people.

MARTIN: In fact, you had said that some of the actresses you had hoped to cast actually declined, citing family pressure.

Prof. KHOURY: Yes. Yes, that's true. Because the - here a lot of the - what do you call it - a lot of the talk about somebody affects that somebody. If you say, like, she went out with this person or she did this or that, it will follow her and it will affect her life later on, especially with a marriage thing. So a lot of people do listen to what others - other people say about them.

MARTIN: But you're saying that appearing in such a play might actually damage the reputation of an actress?

Prof. KHOURY: Yes. I mean, what did happen is on the contrary. It's boosted their reputation so much, we have, I mean, so many offers. But before knowing that it was going to be a hit, they were scared; because it's a very, very daring play, and it's the first of its kind in the country.

MARTIN: Were you scared, though? Now that you're on the other side of it, were you ever scared?

Prof. KHOURY: I wasn't at all, because this is what I believe in. I thought, I believed that, like, half of the audiences will stay and love it and the other half will just leave. And I was prepared for that. And, actually, we have been playing for a month now, and probably around ten people left and that's it.

So I'm impressed and in shock. I mean, a lot of people are talking bad things about it, saying this is not allowed, this is not our society, this is not our culture. How can you allow somebody to do something like that? But there are a lot of other people, the majority of the people, are really loving it and saying good comments about it.

So I was not scared, no, at all. I was even prepared to go to jail. I was, yeah - no, because I struggled. It usually takes five days to ten days to have an okay for a play; it took me a year-and-a-half. I struggled a lot, but I was prepared even to go to jail, because I believed what I was doing and I believe it's about time to talk about these issues, because they're the causes of a lot of problems - personal problems and societal problems. So I wanted to do that. Plus, I knew I was tackling the issue with maturity, with intellect, with education, not vulgar at all.

But because we're not used to hearing these kinds of issues, we're not used to talking about these taboos, it is very much scary for a lot of other people. But for me it wasn't.

MARTIN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go to Ithaca, New York, and Eric(ph). Eric, what's your question?

ERIC (Caller): Well, I have a comment. I simply want to thank the author for doing this play. I'm a single parent, father of two girls. And I want to thank her for pushing back the blanket of oppression that covers women in this world. Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you for your call, Eric.

Prof. KHOURY: Thank you so much, so sweet of you. Thank you, appreciate it.

MARTIN: Let's go to another caller. Let's go to Madison, Wisconsin, and Mohammad(ph). Mohammad, what's on your mind?

MOHAMMAD (Caller): Well, I just want to ask, because it seems she wants to educate the women in that part of the world about something. Why would you choose something that comes out of western culture, that's basically a clash against the norms and the morals of Muslim or Arab or Middle Eastern society?

Prof. KHOURY: Okay, I would...

MARTIN: Mohammad, can you stay with us and listen to her answer please?

MOHAMMAD: Well, does she...

MARTIN: No, let her answer please.

Prof. KHOURY: I have two things to say over here. First, its not western, it's the same style - I was inspired by The Vagina Monologues. And what I did is the same style of interviewing women and letting them speak, but all the issues are purely specific to us in Lebanon, specifically, and, in general, in the Arab world; and they're more general because a woman is a woman in the whole world. So that's - I did not take any western ideas in this play, especially.

But the second thing I want to say, why not? If I was doing that, why not? Because I believe - I mean, we live in a world now, in a globalization world and a world that is open. Whenever you find something good in China or in Korea or in Zimbabwe or in Australia, why not bring the good things and work on it? If you find something bad, and you don't believe in it, leave it alone. If something does not fit your culture and your society, leave it there. But if it fits, and if it's good, why not?

MARTIN: Mohammad, what do you think about that?

MOHAMMAD: Well, I just, I mean...

MARTIN: I mean, I think her point would be, if you, if airbags were invented in Lebanon and they were a good idea, would you refuse to have them in your car?

MOHAMMAD: Well, no, but you, Michel, you know the problems we have in the west with, you know, issues around that subject in culture and young people. And I just find it strange that, you know, as liberating some of our ideas seem to people in other parts of the world, sometimes I don't know if they know, sort of the - it's sort of (unintelligible) being can of worms that goes with when you want to try to mimic or replicate, you know, western values and mores.

MARTIN: Okay. Thank you. Thank you so much for your call, Mohammad.

You talk about - in fact, I want to talk a little bit more, Lina, about some of the issues you deal with in the play. And one scene, which deals with the issue of unreported rapes, the actress playing the part of an 11-year-old girl raped by a friend of the family says, I could tell my parents that Israel has invaded Beirut, but I could not tell them that your friend has invaded me. What was this story based upon?

Prof. KHOURY: Well, the story was the truth - the story is very, very true. It's exactly as the woman told it.

And it's related so much because her age was during (unintelligible), when she was young, it was during the war. So a lot of our experiences have to do with the war. So with the horror of this - so the way this monologue goes, it has this - she's saying - she's speaking up like she's in her 30s now, and she's saying, like, I want to get out of this story. I want to get - I wanted to get it out of my system, and I can't.

I mean, we've all said the horrors and war, of war, and we're over it now and trying to build something better. Why I cannot get over this thing and build something better? So this is how she's telling her story. She's kind of talking to herself about that, even the monologue itself does not really go into the details of the rape, it goes into the details of the affect of that rape on her.

MARTIN: Lina, we're down to our last couple of seconds, and I just wanted to ask you; do you think that your play could travel beyond Lebanon? Do you think that there are other places in the Arab world where you could reasonably mount your work?

Prof. KHOURY: I think in festivals, yes, but not, like, open up in another country, because, as I said, Lebanon is the most democratic and free country around, and here it was such a big struggle. So over there, I'm sure it's going to be bigger.

MARTIN: And you're saying your audiences have been very loyal to you; they've said through the whole play. But what have your audiences been? Are the mainly women, men, mixed? What?

Prof. KHOURY: All ages, men and women. It's amazing. I mean, I have people come in - senior citizens on their walkers, you know? And everybody, I mean, artists, university students, ministers even, came to watch the play. And I told them, I'm sorry there is no places; and they said, like, it's okay, we can sit on the stairs.

MARTIN: That's wonderful!

Prof. KHOURY: Yeah! I'm, like, wow!

MARTIN: Congratulations.

Prof. KHOURY: Thank you.

MARTIN: Lina Khoury, author of the play, Hekeh Niswan, or Women's Talk, inspired by The Vagina Monologues. She joined us from the BBC studio in Beirut, Lebanon.

This is Michel Martin on TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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