A Closer Look: Mona Mansour and Zohar Tirosh-Polk
Take A Closer Look at The 2016 Middle East Convening at The Lark! In this series, the playwrights featured at the convening interview each other about their experiences, inspirations, and identities. Read on to see what Mona Mansour and Zohar Tirosh-Polk discussed about their work!
ZOHAR TIROSH-POLK: Can you describe your connection to the Middle East?
MONA MANSOUR: My father is from Lebanon. He came to the States in the 1960s, before the civil war. I’d say I grew up in a solidly bicultural family – Arabic was spoken all the time, and as the war went on, our cousins came to live with us, particularly our male cousins. The events taking place over there were felt very immediately in our home. So I often say I feel like the Middle East felt as far away as the living room in our Californian house.
ZTP: How does the Middle East influence your writing?
MM: For me, there was just always that other lens, that way of looking at how it was to be an American, and how that played out against the bigger world.
ZTP: Do you ever find that being of Middle Eastern descent is a burden? Is it a gift? Both?
MM: I don’t think of it as a burden. It is so intrinsic to my identity, that duality of being fully American but not quite fully American, that I sort of don’t know what it would be like otherwise. That isn’t to say it’s an uncomplicated relationship. I think many people who grow up bicultural feel sort of in between things; not fully of either world. So while it was a very Arab household in some ways – videos of Fairuz folk operas would get played during family gatherings, for instance – it was also very American. Because my mother was American, and my father came with a generation that wanted to assimilate, my siblings and I weren’t taught Arabic, something that haunts me now as I try to learn it.
ZTP: What was receiving the Middle East America Fellowship like? Can you describe what it was like developing the play and working with all the institutions involved?
MM: Getting the award was a huge honor. So far it’s been great. I was at ReOrient last winter, and got to read part of the new play to John and Torange. Now I need to finish it! Evren Odcikin and I are hoping to set up a workshop this fall at The Lark, and after that, I look forward to working with Jamil and Malik at Silk Road Rising.
MONA MANSOUR: Can you describe your connection to the Middle East?
ZOHAR TIROSH-POLK: I'm Israeli. I was actually born in Brazil to Israeli parents who were working there at the time. I spent half my life in Israel and the rest in South America and the U.S. I've been there through a lot: wars and intifadas and demonstrations and peace agreements. I was even at the peace rally when Rabin was assassinated. I used to say I'm a hundred percent Israeli and a hundred percent New Yorker, the math doesn't add up, but it does, somehow.
MM: How does the Middle East influence your writing? Do you write primarily for an American audience? Along those lines, to what degree, if at all, do you feel you have to educate audiences about the settings or historical backgrounds of your plays? I'm curious about this because I'm very aware that there are certain kinds of shorthand I would use if I were writing for a Middle Eastern audience, or certain things that wouldn't need any explanation, whereas for an American audience, there is (for me at least) the concern of, how much can you assume people know coming in?
ZTP: I end up writing about the Middle East even if I hadn't set out to do so, in some way. This is my role as I see it and why I write plays; I want to pose and explore complicated questions about Israel, Palestine and the Middle East. I try to inspire my audiences to see/think/hear/feel/experience the region and its history in more complex, multi-layered and sophisticated ways. I'm also interested in the ways the outside is a reflection of our inner lives, and if that's true, I’m curious about the "Middle Easts of our lives." How do we deal with the war-torn regions in ourselves? In our relationships?
As far as which audience I'm writing for and educating etc., I struggle with these questions often. I end up writing the plays that need to be written. I try to do so in the most theatrical compelling way possible and then find a way around those challenges. Somehow the answer is always more rooted in the theatrical, I think, than in facts and history. People can look up anything these days.
MM: Do you use languages other than English in your work? Why or why not?
ZTP: I write in English, mainly. I use Hebrew when it serves the play in some way.
MM: Do you ever find that being of Middle Eastern decent is a burden? Is it a gift? Both?
ZTP: I think the burden I feel has to do with the continuous suffering and injustice in Palestine. I believe that the occupation has corrupted so much of what I absolutely cherish about Israel. That's hard, baring witness on a daily basis to this horrible escalation of hatred, racism and violence. I'm mortified that there hasn't been a true call for resolution and peace in the last years and people are willing to live with this awful status quo.
As far as gift, I think this is all so complex because the Holy Land is so precious and profound for so many of us. Nothing tops an afternoon by the Mediterranean with watermelon and feta. That's home.
An excerpt of this interview appears in the May 2016 edition of Bird's Eye View, The Lark's monthly newsletter. If you want to receive features like this one right to your inbox, CLICK HERE to sign up for our mailing list!