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Play Highlights Muslim Family’s Beliefs

June 8, 2006

ATLANTA (AP) _ As the college-age daughter of Egyptian immigrants living in Starkville, Miss., Suehyla El-Attar felt isolated.

``The only idea I had was, ’I just need to get out of here,‴ said El-Attar, who turned those feelings of isolation and culture clash into a play, ``The Perfect Prayer,″ developed and on view through June 25 at the Horizon Theatre Company.

``The Perfect Prayer″ is the semiautobiographical story of a college student named Hadia who lives in the South and who wants to break away from her strict Muslim parents.

``It’s not that she has a problem with Islam,″ El-Attar said. ``It’s a problem with the culture. Everything is against God. There is no questioning.″

Hadia’s parents aren’t perfect Muslims. When her father chides her mother for not praying, she responds, ``I pray in my own way.″ The father, asked whether he has read the Bible (as required by the Quran), replies, ``I have referenced it.″ But they hold Hadia to a standard of behavior she does not want to meet.

Hadia tells her mother she wants to move out of her parents’ home. ``God would punish me and your father if we let our unmarried daughter live on her own,″ her mother declares. Hadia’s mother also warns her, among other things, that any part of her body she allows a boy to touch will burn in hell.

To pull up her grades, Hadia takes a course called Contemporary Muslim Studies. The professor is her father, which allows El-Attar to demonstrate some of the basics of Islam while exploring Hadia’s conflicts with her family.

There’s also a discussion of violence and terrorism and its relation to Islam.

Meanwhile, Hadia meets a Catholic student named Adam, who isn’t afraid to talk back to her father and disputes some of the professor’s contentions regarding religion. Hadia and Adam soon become friendly, then start seeing each other outside the classroom.

With Adam’s help, Hadia defies her parents, and does something previously unthinkable _ she eats pork. She leaves home and her father disowns her. Eventually, there’s a reconciliation.

Director Lisa Adler, also co-artistic director at the Horizon, said that originally all the play’s information about Islam was in one long monologue by the father.

``I felt it would be more powerful broken up into pieces,″ she said.

To emphasize the play’s structure, the set is designed with five pillars (referencing the five pillars of Islam), two on one side in an American style and two suggesting Islam, while the one in the middle combines elements of each. There’s also a hint of a cotton field, something Egypt and Mississippi have in common.

In one classroom scene, the professor characterizes Judaism as the religion of justice, Christianity as the religion of forgiveness, and Islam as the religion of tolerance. ``A lot of people are coming up and saying, ’The religion of tolerance? How can that be?‴ Adler said.

El-Attar, 30, likes the notion that her play provokes discussion of Islam _ a faith she has not given up.

``Philosophically speaking, I practice,″ she said. ``The teachings of the religion make absolute sense to me. Do I pray the five times a day? No. Do I cover (the head)? No. Do I fast? Yes. Do I donate money? Yes. Do I donate my time to help charities? Yes. Do I believe in the idea of God is one and Muhammad is his messenger? Yes. So I don’t know what that makes me, but there I am.″

While she was growing up, El-Attar’s family spent some time living in Egypt, Iraq and Kuwait. She has lived in Atlanta, working in radio and theater, since 1998. The family in the play is similar to hers, although there are differences _ her real mother does pray five times a day.

El-Attar said her parents are supportive but are not sure whether they will able to travel to Atlanta to see the play, which the playwright hopes will get productions in cities with large Egyptian-American populations, such as Dallas and Detroit.


On the Net:

Horizon Theatre Company: http://www.horizontheatre.com

Suehyla El-Attar: http://www.suehyla.com

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