Introducing The Arab Spring Monologues:
"Fractured Lands," a nonfiction narrative by author and war correspondent Scott Anderson, tells the story of the unraveling of the Middle East following the invasion of Iraq in 2003 through the eyes of six principal characters ranging in age from 22 to 60. The New York Times Magazine devoted its entire issue to this 42,000-word article, which includes black-and-white photographs by Paolo Pellegrin. Anderson gives voice to six characters from Libya, Syria, Egypt, Kurdistan, and Iraq—an air force cadet, a mathematics professor/matriarch from a dissident family, a college student, a day laborer, a women's right activist, and a urologist "who bears a passing resemblance to a young Johnny Cash."
1. Before reading "Fractured Lands," view a map of the Middle East. Identify the areas where "Fractured Lands" takes place: Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan.
2. Watch the video with Scott Anderson: "Meet the Journalist" (the second resource). Here Anderson introduces viewers to the six principal characters in "Fractured Lands":
- Majdi el-Mangoush, a Libyan air force cadet with divided loyalties
- Laila Soueif, a mathematics professor at Cairo University and the matriarch of a prominent dissident family
- Majd Ibrahim, a Syrian college student from Homs pursuing a college degree in hotel management
- Wakaz Hassan, an Iraqi day laborer recruited by ISIS
- Azar Mirkhan, a Kurdish urologist on leave to battle ISIS
- Khulood al-Zaidi, an Iraqi women's rights activist targeted by militias
3. View the virtual reality film by Pulitzer Prize-winning filmmaker Ben C. Solomon (the third resource). Solomon embedded with Iraqi forces as they re-captured the strategic city of Falluja from ISIS in 2015. His video gives viewers a 360-degree look at the battle for the city, the inter-action among the soldiers, and the devastation left behind in what has become a ghost town, once home to 300,000 civilians. (This V.R. film can also be viewed with or without a headset on the NYT VR app, free and available for iPhone and Android.)
4. Take time to read and ponder "Fractured Lands." While reading, consider the turning point for each character—"the passage to a place from which there will never be a return." We are told that "for Laila Soueif in Egypt, it came when a young man separated from a sprinting mass of protesters to embrace her, and she thought she knew the revolution would succeed. For Dr. Azar Mirkham in Kurdistan, it came when he arrived too late to save thousands of trapped civilians near Mount Sinjar. For Majdi el-Mangoush in Libya, it came as he walked across a deadly no man's land and, overwhelmed by a sudden euphoria, felt free for the first time. For Khulood al-Zaidi in Iraq, it came when, with just a few menacing words from a former friend, she finally understood that everything she had worked for was gone. For Majd Ibrahim in Syria, it came when, watching an interrogator search his cellphone, he knew his own execution was drawing near. For Wakaz Hassan in Iraq, a young man with no apparent interest in politics or religion, it came on the day ISIS gunmen showed up in his village and offered him a choice."
How does each character personify what happened in his or her homeland?
Creating a Script:
Divide into groups of eight students. One will be the director/stage manager, six students will take on the roles of the principal characters, and one will act as narrator—an American who responds to each of the six characters. Students write their own monologues and the narrator his or her own commentary. The stage manager will write directions—outlining the mise en scene and the costume and lighting design.
(Alternatively, groups larger than eight can be accommodated by giving roles and responsibilities to more than one student.)
In writing the monologues, look for the sub-text of each of the six principal characters. What are their inner motives? What are the driving forces behind their actions? And what are the consequences? What were the turning points in their lives? Remember that each story tells of a journey—heavily influenced by history, be it the Iraq war, the Arab Spring, or the rise of ISIS. Memory, fear, courage, and resilience all play a part. As do pain and tenacity.
Examples of questions to ask while writing the monologues include the following:
- Why did Wakaz join ISIS on June 10, 2014? He tells us it was not for religion or due to an emotional connection with the group.
- On January 28, 2011, in Tahrir Square, a young man hugs Laila and tells her, "'I told you we would have a revolution.'" And yet we are told, Laila's "joy was already tinged with a note of disquiet." How does Laila explain this?
- Azar's mother gave birth to him on the side of the road, on the border between Iran and Iraq. He says his family calls him "the lucky child." Anderson writes, "Indeed, it is hard to find any people quite as unlucky as the Kurds." Why?
The class should agree on a standard length for each of the monologues. 500-750 words is recommended. (The average time of each monolgue would be from 5 to 7 minutes.)
The narrator, perhaps playing the role of a reporter, responds to each of the characters—putting their stories into a larger context, just as Anderson does, in an attempt to show us how what is happening to Majdi, Laila, Majd, Wakaz, Azar, and Khulood is affecting us all. "It is fitting that the crisis of the Arab world has its roots in the First World War, for like that war, it is a regional crisis that has come quickly and widely—with little seeming reason or logic—to influence events at every corner of the globe."
In writing instructions for the mise en scene—or stage design—including sets and lighting, the director/stage manager should bear in mind the author's words: "I have tried to tell a human story, one that has its share of heroes, even some glimmers of hope. But what follows, ultimately, is a dark warning."
Producing the Play:
The production will be as simple or as elaborate as time and interest permit. Students can choose to do a reading of their monologues, mount a full-scale production, or aim for something in between.
Consider a musical accompaniment with recordings from Arabic instruments such as the oud, tabla and dulcimer. Music can be played before the performance begins and be interspersed between monologues.
This lesson may be adapted for both college and high school. Students learn about the collapse of the Middle East by reading and studying a longform article by Scott Anderson, "Fractured Lands," published in The New York Times. They will create their own play—writing monologues for the six principal characters in the article as well as an American narrator.
Show a map of the region when introducing the project. Students will also benefit from viewing two videos: "Meet the Journalist," in which Scott Anderson discusses his reporting, and "Fight for Falluja," a virtual reality video by Pulitzer Prize-winning Ben C. Solomon.
Links to both videos can be found under "Resources."