Mosque4Mosque is not a monolithic representation of the Arab American Muslim experience, and perhaps that’s exactly the point.
Written by Omer Abbas Salem and directed by Sophiyaa Nayar, this charming production challenges all preconceived notions of a play about an Arab American Muslim family.
In this sitcom-esque dramedy, Ibrahim (played by Salem) and his family navigate their lives in Chicago prior to and after Trump’s inauguration. Ibrahim is a queer Syrian American millennial working through his first relationship ever, with his white boyfriend James (Jordan Dell Harris). Having helped raise his 18-year-old sister Lena (Gloria Imseih Petrelli) after his father died from cancer, Ibrahim is accustomed to taking care of his family first, even if that means living a hushed life. His mother Sara—“Sa like sorry, Ra like ramen”—(Rula Gardenier) on the other hand, has other plans; she is determined to find him the perfect Muslim man to marry.
Mosque4Mosque Through 12/17: Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 3 and 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Wed 12/14, 7:30 PM, no shows Thu-Fri 11/24-11/25; Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee, aboutfacetheatre.com, pay what you can ($5-$35 suggested)
Salem, who is also Syrian American, first wrote Mosque4Mosque in 2019 through Jackalope Theatre’s Playwrights Lab. In July 2020, the play was workshopped and performed virtually through the Criminal Queerness Festival and Dixon Place, directed by Sharifa Elkady. Steppenwolf Theatre Company then selected the play, under the direction of community advocate Arti Ishak, for its SCOUT New Play Development Initiative, a groundbreaking accomplishment for MENA artists like Salem and Ishak. But a seat at the table is not enough. “They have made it very clear to us they are ill-equipped to predict what our needs may be because they’ve never worked with a group of Arab actors and they don’t have any Arab actors in their ensemble,” Salem said in an interview with the Reader.
Now produced at About Face Theatre and supported by Silk Road Rising, Mosque4Mosque deconstructs stereotypical and harmful media portrayals of MENA communities and Muslims. The Den’s Bookspan Theatre becomes Ibrahim’s family kitchen—the heart of an Arab home. The subtle details can be easy to miss but are indispensable. In front of the shoe rack, a pair of cream balgha—traditional heelless slippers from the Maghreb region—sit next to a pair of hot-pink fluffy sandals. Vibrant oriental rugs cover the wooden floors and complement the Arabian vermilion armchair. A hookah and a massive jar of pickled green olives rest on their white refrigerator, which is decorated with family photos and receipts. Some props almost feel ironic, like the ceramic camel by the kitchen sink. (Steven Abbott designed the set, with props by Lonnae Hickman.)
But it is Salem’s witty writing style that shines throughout this production. Through his use of comedic relief, Salem drives sensitive topics forward in a way that allows the audience to lean into the conversation. We first meet Ibrahim in a church. Ibrahim’s holy confession is amusing, but it is a monumental scene because it instantly forms a reverent connection between religions and dissects the contrasts between Catholic and Muslim guilt.
In his depiction of an Arab American family, Salem avoids creating unrealistic portrayals by poking fun at the family’s eccentricities. Gardenier’s heartwarming performance as Sara is an enjoyable representation of the hospitable, lovable, and sometimes quirky nature of Arab, Muslim, and immigrant mothers. She immediately wins our hearts, and we recognize her controlling behavior as a form of love. Sara’s naiveté is hyperbolized to reflect her desire to be a part of Ibrahim’s life. Who else would google “famous Muslim gay men” to better understand her son?
In just two hours (including an intermission), Salem even manages to weave in subplots to highlight the multifaceted complexities of these characters. Lena, for example, is a walking paradox. We first see Lena coming home late, fumbling to put her hijab back on, which she occasionally wears, mainly for her mother. As she struggles to tell her mother that she quit the Scholastic Bowl to join the cheerleading team, she reflects the internal pressures children of immigrants experience to please their parents.
In between two cultures, young Arab Americans often struggle with the fear of disappointing their parents and their aspiration to live shamelessly. This message really resonates when Ibrahim says, “There’s a little bit of a lie in every truth I tell her,” referring to his mother. Still, this is a play about identity and belonging, highlighting universal struggles that everyone can relate to.
Even with all the hardships, Salem never forgets what makes these families so special. It’s the chaotic family dinners. It’s the unbreakable sibling bond between Lena and Ibrahim. It’s Sara’s willingness to create a dating profile for her son on a queer Muslim “rearranged arranged marriage” website. This play also addresses the immigration issues caused by Trump’s Muslim ban, but it skims the surface. In the end, Sara returns home after her trip to Damascus but is stopped by immigration. While this story line felt rushed, its call to action couldn’t be clearer. In an era where Arabs and Muslims are either invisible or perceived as problems, Mosque4Mosque demands for us to be seen as whole. At the same time, it sends a message to MENA and Muslim communities that they are seen.