By Jane E. Goodman
When I got a call last spring from the Center Stage program, I never imagined that it would lead me to drop (well, postpone) everything I was working on and start a new digital book project. The previous fall, Center Stage had announced a competition to bring music and theater troupes from Algeria and Tanzania to the United States for a month-long tour. I had been working with several Algerian theater troupes since 2008, and I put them in touch with Center Stage. The upshot: one of the troupes, Istijmam, was selected and will be touring the U.S. in September 2016.
I knew I wanted to make something of this. The opportunity to tour the U.S. with a troupe I had already been working closely with was too good to pass up. So for the past several months I’ve been submitting proposals to more funding agencies than I can keep track of. I’m happy to report that so far, I’ve been successful. I’ll be joining Istijmam in Algeria for their month-long rehearsal residency in August. Then I’ll fly back with them to the United States to embark on the four weeks of touring, video camera in hand. (Never mind that they’re 30 years younger than I am – this will be fun!)
Right now, I’m framing the project in terms of anthropology’s time-honored mandate to “make the strange seem familiar and the familiar seem strange” (aaanet.org). It’s not just “other cultures” that are strange; we often have to make familiar things “strange” to ourselves in order to explain them to someone who does not share our assumptions. In other words, the process of “making strange” can occur when we make explicit the behaviors or assumptions that we usually take for granted – when we understand what we do as cultural rather than inherent or natural. Here’s an example. Istijmam will be producing the play “The Apples,” written by the Algerian playwright Abdelkader Alloula. Now, in Algeria, there are no apple trees – it’s not the right climate. You can get grapes right off the vine, succulent oranges, juicy watermelons, but no apples (except as imported luxury products). In this play, set several decades ago, a pregnant woman develops a craving for an apple, and her husband chases all around town trying to find one. He succeeds in locating a market with shiny red apples, but they’re not actually for sale. They’re only there for show. An Algerian audience would know implicitly that an apple represents all that is foreign and unavailable – and thus an ultimate symbol of desire. This does not need to be stated anywhere in the play. But how will Istijmam convey this to Americans, who can buy a cheap apple in every corner market? The actors will first need to hold up the apple reflexively – that is, make it “strange” to themselves by explicitly identifying what they had always taken for granted about what apples represent. We often make things “strange” by using a comparative process – in this case, setting Algerian understandings of the apple against those that are common in the United States. Next they’ll need to figure out how to make Algerian experiences of the apple come to seem “familiar” (or at least comprehensible) to American audiences by helping them understand that the apple, in the Algerian context, is as rare as caviar is in the United States. How will they accomplish this? That’s their job. Mine is to translate what they do into ethnography.
Historically, the anthropologist was the one to mediate the relationship between familiarity and strangeness. That is, the anthropologist saw his or her role as explaining unfamiliar or “strange” practices from other cultures to Western audiences while also enabling readers to denaturalize their familiar habits and beliefs by comparing them to related practices from other places. In recent decades, scholarly focus has shifted to the anthropological encounter as collaborative, co-constructed, and multisited. Yet resource and mobility issues almost always result in the ethnographer traveling abroad to encounter and then write about those she is working with. I want to reverse the lens by focusing on how U.S. culture is being envisioned and encountered by young North Africans before and during their tour of the United States. As the actors move between the two countries and across roles of artist, cultural translator, tourist, consumer, and North African Arab citizen in the United States, precisely what constitutes the “familiar” and the “strange” – and how they are interrelated – will be continuously shifting ground. By conducting fieldwork with the Istijmam actors before and during the tour, I hope to develop an account of the specific ways we all move into and out of a range of relationships of familiarity and strangeness with both our own cultures and with those whom we construe as cultural others. Will the tour reconfigure familiarity and strangeness in unexpected ways? Might it unsettle the very distinction between familiarity and strangeness that has informed so much of our anthropological history?
“The Apples,” of course, is about more than finding an apple. It conveys the explosive frustrations that Algerians experienced in the aftermath of that country’s 1988 uprising, which toppled 30 years of single-party dictatorship but led to a decade of civil war. While U.S. audiences are familiar with recent Arab Spring events in Tunisia and Egypt, most are unaware that Algerians experienced similar developments and still contend with the aftermath. The play foregrounds the hardships and frustrations that permeate daily life in Algeria and much of the Arab world while commenting on the dangers of political ambition, the value of freedom, and what it means to love one’s country while rejecting its rulers – issues that resonate with particular poignancy in contemporary public discourse surrounding the Middle East and North Africa. Playwright Abdelkader Alloula was assassinated by Islamist terrorists in 1994; he was the father of one of the Istijmam actors and the uncle of another.
I’m also excited to be exploring new publication mediums with this project. I’ll be publishing an enhanced digital book with embedded video about the tour with Indiana University Press (currently titled On Tour: Algerian Actors in the United States). I also look forward to developing several pieces of digital public scholarship.
Istijmam will be in residency at Indiana University Bloomington (IUB) September 8-10, 2016. They will present “The Apples” at the Wells-Metz Theater on Friday, September 9, at 7:30 pm. Mark your calendars now for this one-time opportunity! The IUB residency is generously supported by the College Arts & Humanities Institute; the Office of the College Dean; the Hutton Honors College; the Departments of Anthropology, Comparative Literature, Folklore & Ethnomusicology, and Near Eastern Language and Cultures; and the Programs in African Studies, Cultural Studies, and Islamic Studies.
For more about the tour, including a video excerpt of “The Apples” (in Arabic) and a full tour itinerary (anticipated in April), please visit the Center Stage website.
The presentation of Istijmam in the United States is part of Center Stage, a public diplomacy initiative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts in cooperation with the U.S. Regional Arts Organizations, with support from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. Center Stage Pakistan is made possible by the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. General management is provided by Lisa Booth Management, Inc.
Jane Goodman is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University. She is the author of Berber Culture on the World Stage: From Village to Video (Indiana University Press, 2005) and the editor of Bourdieu in Algeria: Colonial Politics, Ethnographic Practices, Theoretical Developments (University of Nebraska Press, 2009, with Paul Silverstein). In her spare time, she sings.
As a French prof whose research focuses on Algerian/transnational theatre and exchange, I am greatly interested in your work – I’ll be attending the Sept 5 performance by Istijmam in DC. Is there any possibility to briefly meet you and/or the group? I will be in Paris next month to present a paper on translation/adaptation.