Lately, actress/playwright Suehyla El-Attar seems to be the face of Atlanta theater's response to 9/11, as she frequently plays both Jewish women (the Alliance Theatre's Bluish) and Muslim ones (Synchronicity Performance Group's Women and War). In her new play, The Perfect Prayer, opening May 26 at Horizon Theatre, El-Attar mines her life experience as an American-born daughter of Egyptian Muslim immigrants raised in the Mississippi Bible Belt. Incidentally, her name is pronounced like it looks: "Sue-HY-la."
How autobiographical is the play?
The main character, Hadia, isn't me, but I'd have to say that we have a lot in common. She's 21 and gradually feels like she has to make a choice between being an American and being a Muslim. Her father teaches a class in contemporary Muslim societies, and she has to take the course to raise her GPA. And that part is true -- in college I had to take a course from my own dad. The play also deals with not being Christian in the South. The play's original incarnation didn't have a Southern feel, but I realized that in the Northeast, being first-generation born isn't a big deal, but in the South it is.
Are you a practicing Muslim?
I practice it philosophically, but not otherwise. Egypt used to be a very liberal country in the Muslim world, so it doesn't fit the stereotype. I think it's most important for me to give educational views about principals of Islam and see the similarities of everybody. It hurts when I see the differences.
What's your perspective on the fact that so many Americans associate Islam with its most extreme adherents?
I can read my way through an English version of the Koran and see the places where people skew it to their own means and ends. Misrepresentations happen in every culture. H.L. Mencken has a great quote, "When a man introduces an idea into the world, he must be prepared for it to be misunderstood."
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