Why did you decide to pursue the AMRS program at The University of Chicago Divinity School?
In 1989 - 90, I was living in Jerusalem and working as a Refugee Affairs Officer for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. It was the first Intifadah and we were providing humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugee communities in the West Bank. Jerusalem is a city where one would be hard pressed not to engage religion. More urgently, it is a laboratory for inter-religious co-existence, or lack thereof. The experience of living in what is commonly referred to as the “Holy Land,” against the backdrop of an excruciatingly painful Israeli-Palestinian war, compelled me to want to learn more about the Abrahamic traditions. The AMRS program presented itself as the perfect vehicle for doing so. I wasn’t looking for a multi-year commitment. I was looking for a religion “sampler,” a survey that I could pretty much design. But with the benefit of a world class faculty and a world class student body. That’s what I found in the AMRS program at The University of Chicago Divinity School.
What were the highlights of your experiences?
Mine was an abbreviated University of Chicago experience. The abridged version, if you will. And I feel incredibly fortunate to have experienced such an intense and intellectually rigorous environment. Cliché as it may sound, the U of C gave me the tools to love theory and to apply theory to practice. That love of theory enriches virtually everything I do.
There were so many highlights to my AMRS experience, but one in particular really stands out. I was able to design a reading course on Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Orthodoxy in America, with Professor Martin Marty. There I was, a student in a terminal master’s program, having bi-weekly, one-on-one sessions with (arguably) the world’s leading authority on Christian denominationalism! And I was afforded the opportunity to explore the faith tradition I was raised in outside the constraints of Orthodox dogma and ethno-religious identity politics. The insights gained were invaluable.
What is your current profession and how did your degree prepare you for it?
I am the Founding Artistic Director of Silk Road Rising, a Chicago-based theatre company that showcases playwrights of Asian and Middle Eastern backgrounds. My life partner, Malik Gillani, and I founded Silk Road as a response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim backlash that immediately ensued. Silk Road Rising has a strong commitment to nurturing playwrights and developing new plays as is evidenced by the fact that most of our productions are World Premieres.
How did my degree prepare me for producing polycultural, political theatre? Where do I begin? First off, there are the obvious parallels between religion and theatre. Religion and theatre are two branches of the same tree. And I say that with enormous respect for both traditions! Although we are a secular, non-sectarian theatre company, the fact that we focus on the peoples and experiences of the historic Silk Road (and its contemporary Diasporic communities), means that questions of religious identity, religious practice, and interfaith conflict figure prominently and/or subtextually in many of the stories we tell, as does the ongoing dialogue between faith and culture. In navigating conversations about religion, culture, and politics, I am forever channeling my time at Swift Hall!
Furthermore, Silk Road Rising is the professional theatre-in-residence at the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple. The Senior Pastor at FUMC, Reverend Philip Blackwell, is himself a Divinity School alum. Our partnership with FUMC is extraordinary on so many levels, not the least of which is the trust and mutual respect that characterizes our relationship. It is one in which we enjoy full artistic freedom and control over programming. Being in partnership with a progressive Protestant faith community, and being viewed by that community as a “ministry” of the church, and working closely with the leadership of that community, requires a knowledge base and a level of understanding that my AMRS degree constantly informs.
How did the program and the wider University help you attain your goals?
I believe that the AMRS program and the University of Chicago helped sharpen both my analytical and cognitive skills. It made me a more astute thinker and reader. It gave me tools to be a better and more empathic artist. It helped build my confidence both as a writer and as a producer. It strengthened my abilities to discern logic and learning and to deconstruct language.
What do you do in your non-professional life?
My professional life, my creative life, and my personal life have become, fairly seamlessly, all one and the same. Producing theatre makes me a better playwright, playwriting makes me a better producer. Running a theatre company with my life partner strengthens our relationship and strengthens our company. I honestly don’t know that I have a non-professional life! But I wouldn’t have it any other way.