THEATER | “Zafira the Olive Oil Warrior” imagines a dark future dystopia for Arab-Americans

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Lebanese American playwright Kathryn Haddad was watching a PBS documentary on the Japanese internment camps one night and an idea came to her to write a play that turned out to be Zafira the Olive Oil Warrior, a play that imagines the United Sates in a not-so-distant future where Arab and Muslim Americans are imprisoned in internment camps following an attack by multiple suicide bombers across different cities in the United States. The play is presented by Pangea World Theater at the Avalon Theatre; it opens on September 11, the ten-year anniversary of the attack on the Twin Towers.

“I’ve been working with the Arab-American community for years and am aware of so much anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment,” Haddad says, so when she saw the documentary, the idea clicked.

In the play, Arab- and Muslim-Americans are official enemies of the state and have been ordered into internment camps, according to a press release. The main character, “Zafira,” played by Taos Claire Khazem, is an Arab-American school teacher who is sent to a camp. She tells her story in a present where she is homeless and living under the rebuilt 35W bridge in Minneapolis.

“In this play there is a switch in time from past, present to future of the play,” Haddad says. “But the entire play takes place in an imagined future and then goes from there.”

Haddad developed the play at Pangea World Theater, where it was presented at the Alternate Visions Festival this past spring. Pangea’s Alternate Visions Festival aims to provide immigrant, minority, and Native American writers a chance to develop their craft leading to main stage productions, according to their website. According to Haddad, the workshop process “was helpful in seeing the script and visualizing what should be changed.”

Haddad also took a trip to Manzanar Internment Camp in California in April. Manzanar is one of ten camps where over 110,000 Japanese were imprisoned during World War II, and is now a national historic site, according to Wikipedia.

Haddad says she’s not sure whether her imagined future will come true. “Do I think it could? Yes, of course,” she says.

Besides Taous Claire Khazem, cast members for the play include Sam Issa, Heidi Berg, Sarah Broude, Antonio Duke, Fatima Zahra El Filali, Garry Geiken, Jose Manuel Hernandez, Iman Mefleh, Emma Palmer, Nadia Boufous Phelps, Katie Herron Robb, Sophia Sarenpa, and Aamera Siddiqui.