Open Tent Offers Breath of Culture

Sept-Oct 2002  |  Washington Report  | Pat & Samir Twair

On a sultry July evening, Open Tent LA offered a new cultural experience to Angelenos of Middle Eastern origins when it hosted a reading of Egyptian master playwright Tewfiq al-Hakim’s “The Tree Dweller.” The event was all the more memorable for being in the newly opened Pacific Arts Center of Shida Pegahi.

The audience sat in director’s chairs facing a mirrored wall, so that they saw their reflections as well as the readers—all dressed in black—front and back.

Open Tent LA founder Jordan Elgrably coordinated the reading salon with Jawad Ali, a doctoral student in English literature at the University of California at Irvine. They selected Denys Johnson-Davies’ translation of the “Tree Dweller” for the universality of its theme.

“The play was written in 1962,” Ali commented, “and because Tewfiq was the most successful Egyptian playwright, he could write about the ills of society and wasn’t confined to churning out state propaganda.”

When asked why they decided on the reading of an Egyptian play, Ali explained, “The lack of a gathering place for writers and artists to foster a sense of literary community is pronounced among foreign students and expatriates who come from cultures where the arts are a necessary fabric of everyday life. Growing up in Karachi,” he recalled, “I remember the ubiquity of emotion-soaked songs that wailed from street corners, and at night there were ghazals and mushaiaras (poetry readings) on TV; all this while everything else in Pakistan seemed to be falling apart, what with dictators and military regimes.”

While the characters in “The Tree Dweller” are mired in their idiosyncrasies and prejudices, they don’t make long moralistic speeches about the ills of society, and struggle to do the right thing even though they aren’t always successful.

The reading was well-received, and Open Tent LA is discussing the possibility of staging a more elaborate production of the play that would emphasize its allegorical aspects.

Pat and Samir Twair are free-lance journalists based in Los Angeles.