Interview with Yussef El Guindi
Conducted by Pilgrims Dramaturg Salma Zohdi
1) What inspired you to write this modern-day fable?
Most inspirations come to me via voices that percolate up from whatever region such things percolate into consciousness. In this case, this clear voice came into audio range, so to speak, complaining about climbing the stairs. I knew she was accompanying a guy up to his apartment, and that it was around 2 AM. Immediately I wondered who these people were, and what they were doing at that time of the night. With the answers came the trajectory of the play.
Within the first few pages of any play, I usually have a sense of where the play’s heading, its particular dramatic arc. I have no specific personal agenda when writing a play, outside of following the needs of my characters. Though, not to be disingenuous, it’s more than likely that what concerns me as a citizen will also find its way into my characters’ needs and circumstances, as it does in this play with its themes of immigration, displacement and search for home, etc.
2) Pilgrimage is in the title, also a theme in the heart of the play, physically, spiritually, religiously, and romantically—beautifully and subtly woven in the narrative. What is the significance of pilgrimage to you as an Arab-American playwright living in the US? And what attracted you to utilize it as a potent storytelling device in this work?
The emotional adjustments immigrants make in their new country has always interested me. We survive emotionally by telling ourselves stories. How do we frame the journeys we’re on? Are we fleeing something? Persecution? Are we seeking asylum? Economic rescue? Do we feel “less-than” and are journeying to better ourselves? Why are people from the south who seek out economically advantaged Western countries called “immigrants” and Westerners who go live abroad called ex-pats?
How we contextualize something can be crucial, both in terms of how others view and treat us, and how we view and treat ourselves. If you refer to an influx of immigrants as an “infestation”, then, well, that’s really bad and “immigrants” had better watch their backs. But if we think of immigrants, as this play does, as “pilgrims” on a personal journey to improve their lot — not just to improve their lot, but to meet other “pilgrims” along the way and create community — then the journey of peoples crossing borders becomes less threatening and more inspirational, and aspirational. Pilgrimages in the past were always hazardous affairs, as is an immigrant’s journey. With pilgrims, as with immigrants, you braved the odds in the hope of finding succor, blessings for the people back home (economically for immigrants), a new community at your destination, and the doors that may open up for you (spiritually, materially) if you’re willing to risk the journey.
3) Published back in 2014, the play deeply examines the immigration diaspora and struggles. And yet today, we are still entrenched in deep immigration conversations and escalating controversies with no clear resolutions. Had the play been written today, would you have changed or added anything to the work?
I think the friction and rhetorical combat that takes place around the subject of immigrants in the U.S. is a perennial thing. You only have to point to any time in U.S. history and you’ll find heated debates around the subject of new arrivals. Every group that has come into this country and established itself has wanted to close the gates and not let anyone else in. The U.S. is always at war with itself around this topic. Given that outside of the indigenous populations everyone else just got here, relatively speaking, and is an immigrant, or a descendant of immigrants, then these heated debates are sort of like family arguments (in this case, bonded not by blood but by the aspirational impulse that motivates all immigrants) about who can be counted as family and who shouldn’t. Of course, family arguments can be the most frightening and the most deadly.
So to answer your question specifically, no, I would not really change anything.
4) From my reading, this work can be signified as a modern-day romantic intercultural fable, with all it encompasses; beautiful discoveries at moments and ideological collisions at others. How would you imagine the fate/future of Sheri & Musa’s union?
Ah, yes. What happens to Musa and Sheri — and to Gamila and Tayyib for that matter? I have my particular ideas. Someone once objected to the idea of Gamila going from one relationship into another, and wondered why she couldn’t just strike out on her own. Maybe she does. Though I do hold hope for Gamila and Tayyib. I think there’s much respect and affection between them. As for Sheri and Musa, I don’t know if their relationship will survive. It could. Or maybe their coming together becomes one of those matches that was needed in order set these characters off on different paths from the wrong ones they felt they were on. I have often thought that Sheri, a few years on, could well convert to Islam. She alludes to God and spirituality more than a few times. I think she may be the most spiritually hungry character in the play. And if she does convert, I wouldn’t be surprised if she went back and sought out Gamila. If just to chat and compare notes….With Musa, I think he wants to leave behind what he knows and reinvent himself. And then see if he likes being unmoored from all the traditions that shaped him.
5) Except for Sheri, all other characters in the play are of African-Muslim origins. What is the significance of focusing on those nationalities, as opposed to characters that come from Arab-Muslim origins—which is what is commonly portrayed in the US?
Egypt, as well as being a Middle Eastern country is also very much an African country. I think that’s sometimes elided or glossed over as Egypt is more often mentioned in its political relations with other Middle Eastern countries. I think Egypt, along with the countries south of it, is very much a child of the Nile. I feel there is more affinity than is acknowledged or encouraged between the countries of that region. In Pilgrims I wanted to highlight that.
Also, as an aside, when it comes to the portrayal of Arabs and Muslims in Western media, I’m not sure the word “common” is applicable, unless one is referring to the barrage of negativity and menace that accompanies most mentions of either Arabs or Muslims in the news or in fictional portrayals. Outside of those negative portrayals, our presence in the stories told in this country is unfortunately very uncommon.