Samer Al-Saber joined Stanford in the 2018-19 academic year as an assistant professor of theater and performance studies and an affiliate of the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies. Below, he participated in an interview as part of the Abbasi Program's annual newsletter.
My study of the Middle East was always a journey of self-exploration and a quest for intellectual, artistic, and political liberation, just as it was my way of contributing to the production of knowledge about a misunderstood area of the world. With the constantly changing political landscape of the region, which continues to be determined by state politics and a history of Western imperialism, I became increasingly drawn to Arab cultural production as a counter force, resistant act, and coping mechanism. Although the pan-Arab nationalism project failed politically, pan-Arab culture continues to be a powerful uniting force. Similarly, recent projects of pan-Islamic governance efforts failed, but Islamic arts, heritage, and cultural production connect Muslims. Where state borders, divisive politics, and economic greed separate peoples, culture creates lasting bonds and transcends the borders of the neoliberal state. Despite a history of colonialism, occupation, and war, the rooted cultures, arts, and languages of the Middle East continue to grow, shift, change, thrive, and inspire. I became interested in the theater of the Middle East because it consistently succeeds where politics and militarization fail.
As a scholar/artist, the foundations of my work are in postcolonial theory, and its conceptions and critiques of nationalism, race, and ethnicity. Because questions of identity and representation are at the core of my work as a director and scholar, I am constantly exploring an ongoing conversation between how we might perceive ourselves in relation to the way we are represented. If I am to represent someone in a performance of any kind, I have to confront how I see them. Thus, the two roles are never discrete and are always in conversation, one informing and challenging the other in a feedback loop in teaching, theater making, and scholarship. At Stanford, I am able to teach interdisciplinary classes in theory, history, and practice, as well as courses that bridge all three. The culture here encourages this kind of creativity, which is very exciting.
My current research is on Arab theater in the Middle East, but more specifically, theater in the levant across several periods in history, including the antiquity. I have primarily written on Palestinian theater and performance since 1967. While the majority of my focus has been on theater taking place in the Middle East, I have also taken an interest in productions that have toured in the United States and Europe, as well as Arab American theater. The representations of Arabs and Muslims in the diaspora has also been a preoccupation for me, and it led to broader questions related to casting. Because of the Bay Area’s rich theater scene, I have become interested in the way diversity is perceived, represented, and played here in the region. Other topics of interest include activism, refugee theater, visual culture, historiography, and ethnography.
My research asserts that performance practices are a nexus of historical trends, artistic productions, and ceaseless exhibits of religious and racial identity in everyday life. By changing the site of a research question or inquiry away from traditional venues and into theater and performance, the potential answers fundamentally change and become much more expansive.
I attempt to achieve two main goals in my work. The first, and more difficult one, is to document and narrate the region’s more recent history through the lens of cultural production. The foundations of this research are in a combination of ethnographic and archival research. The second goal is to analytically interpret creative ephemeral artifacts and to communicate these findings in ways that dispel myths about the region. Despite the violence and unrest often seen on the news, Arab and Islamic societies are not merely byproducts of the modern state, colonial oppression, and their politics. Artists show us that a place is much larger and more complex than narrow nationalisms through their resilience, resistance, and refusal to limit their imagination. By looking at the region through the expansive lens of culture, we can go beyond the limitations of the state.
I’ll be teaching two courses that I think will be of interest to SGS students and the Abbasi program in particular. I have a new intro-seminar, TAPS 22N: Culture, Conflict, and the Middle East, which explores how we might encounter the region through cultural production, such as the arts, poetry, food, theater, performance, film, and music. In addition to learning about the region itself, we’ll also consider how it’s available to us here in the Bay Area through fieldwork. The class will be immersive and experiential as much as it will be rigorous. I am also teaching TAPS 157S: Edward Said, or Scholar vs Empire. In this course, we’ll look at the life’s work of an imminent scholar, his journey, writings, battles, growth, and intersections with the arts in scholarship and practice. Can a single scholar take on empire and win? The goal of this course is for students to explore the role of the intellectual and their capacity to change how we see the world.
When I turn on my television at home, I have access to over 1000 Arabic speaking channels. About 100 of these channels present remarkable performed works and would be considered a staple of the Arab household. Arabic is the fifth most spoken language in the world. Before long, we’ll be counting half a billion Arabic speakers. This contemporary moment is far from the “Arabsphere” I grew up in, when we anticipated the population of Arab league to exceed 200 million before the year 2000, awaited Channel One to broadcast starting at 4:00 p.m., and sought the VHS tape of the latest Egyptian comedy. Being audience to this immense and growing culture through theater and performance is such a privilege. I am motivated by the creativity of Arab cultural producers. What will they make next?
I am also inspired by the nature of the field of performance as an art and scholarly pursuit. Built into the form is the rehearsal process for an opening night and perhaps an indefinite performance of the self. The combination of my area of research and field of inquiry probably inspire me most these days. The possibilities are limitless in both.
This article is part of a series of interviews with recently hired Stanford faculty with expertise in South Asia and Islamic studies.