Monday, May 13, 2019


Betty Shamieh

Tarek Khan & Katrina Yashar
In opulent sultanic robes, one man nobly declares that in future generations, “I will be praised.”  Opposite him, a Crusader predicts that he will be lost in the footnotes.  Between them, a young woman in the full attire of a royal member of a long-past Islamic dynasty with a touch of sarcasm knowingly remarks, “No one will think to write down my name.” 

And so it went, and so it has mostly gone in most recounting of historical events of all cultures: Only the men are remembered.  In this case, much is written about the twelfth-century Sultan Saladin of Egypt and Syria and a Crusading French Prince Reginald of Châtillon whose Second Crusade siege Saladin brought to a halt on July 4, 1187 at the Battle of Hattin.  While there is a rumored mention of a sister of Saladin who was captured by Reginald’s Crusaders en route to a Haji to Mecca, history books now say that such an event cannot be substantiated.  So not only is the sister’s name not remembered, a key event in her life is long forgotten – an event we learn in Betty Shamieh’s fantastically intriguing play, Territories, may have helped shape history. 

The Arabian Shakespeare Festival brings to the stage yet one more untold piece of history about a forcibly strong woman in a play that supposes what very well might have happened but can never be proven, given remaining written accounts.  In doing so, ASF’s Territories is a powerfully conceived and performed reminder that the histories we know have universally been written by men who only wanted their and other men’s names remembered by us today.

Suzanne Dean directs Betty Shamieh’s Territories in a production that might be seen as a dream, a fantasy, or a series of forgotten memories.  Scenes play out on the tiny stage of the intimate, forty-seat Royce Gallery where an ancient palace of the Sultan resides on one side, a stark prison of the Crusaders on the other, and a dusty, desert trail divides the two where the abduction of Saladin’s sister (Alia) takes place.  Malcolm Rodgers’ effective set design is enhanced by scene and mood setting projections by Brad Caleb Lee.  The opulent, historically rich costumes of Lisa Claybaugh; the haunting yet alluring Middle Eastern music of Cinthia Nava’s sound design, and both the desert bright and the prison/palace dark and shadowy arenas of Emma Satchell’s lighting design complete an excellent production team’s touches in establishing a setting for an heretofore, unknown history to unfold – one important even if it may not be totally accurate of what actually happened over eight hundred years ago.

Alia is a woman who has barely left her teens but is a woman whose strength of character, of purpose, and of resolve is that of someone much her elder – by they man or woman.  Katrina Yashar brings an intensity to Alia that is evident in her set, resolved eyes, in her petite body that stands firm like a giant, and in a voice that immediately cuts to the core to communicate its message and intent.  Alia sees herself as a freak, shunned by the men of her kingdom even though she is sister of the mighty Sultan – all because she is prone to violent seizures.  She boldly admits, “I am not a believer in a God who makes me a cripple” – a declaration that both enrages and terrifies her religious brother – but she has still decided that she should make the Haji to Mecca because even though not devout, “maybe a pilgrimage will lead to a cure.” 

Her affliction causes often her hand to shake uncontrollably even as Alia faces head-on her brother in strong argument; but when the seizure’s full force hits, she quickly collapses in a heap of tremors.  Even then, Alia rises, looks at us, and says quite resolutely and sure, “It is not me shaking ... It is the world ... I am the only one not moving.”  Alia is a force not easily to be reckoned, no matter what adversity she faces.

Her brother, Saladin, resists her pleas for his required permission for the journey to Mecca, given the route has been cut off and now controlled by the invading Crusaders.  Alia, who already sees her brother as “too lenient” on the Crusaders, persists in both bantering him to return to the fight and evict the Christians and also to allow her in the meantime to make the journey.  Tarek Khan portrays a Saladin who is hesitant to act and who is both protective of his sister’s condition but also a bit overwhelmed by a courage stronger than his from a woman who is physically much weaker than he.  His Saladin is one more worried about the opinions of others than he is convinced of his own power and position (“I am going to look like a fool if my own sister is captured.”)

William J. Brown III & Katrina Yashar
But Alia’s persistence becomes more than he can resist; she leaves; she is captured; and she subsequently finds herself in a prison where quickly she becomes the focus of much attention by her captor, Reginald.  William J. Brown III superlatively brings a Janus-faced Reginald in this story.  On the one hand, he is a villainous invader whose regard for the lives of those he captures is near nil.  On the other hand, he is seductively attractive with a streak of vulnerability that intrigues over time – as we see in her slightly crooked smile – the always stronger in will and cunning, Alia.  The interactions between the two are a game being played out where each intends not to give in an iota to the other but one where there is not doubt to us that the one in true control is Alia.

As events play out toward history’s recorded and thus inevitable battlefield show-down between Saladin and Reginald, the entire, sixty-minute recounting of this both true and imagined history plays out in short sequences where time and place leap back and forth between palace and prison and between Sultan and Crusader, with Alia always being the connector.  Scenes sometimes switch more than once in the course of a minute, with Alia being a physical bridge between the scenes of two different times and locations that are occurring back-and-forth at the same time.  Suzanne Dean’s imaginative direction is superbly executed by this fine ensemble, especially in the ways Katrina Yashar casts aside one emotion or expression to don immediately another in the split of a second.

The beauty and power of Betty Shamieh’s script is that Territories proposes a what-if where the historically forgotten Alia plays the puppeteer who controls and leads to her unstated purpose both her captor and her brother to their destinies.  Whether this is the way the story went in truth is not important because the fact is of course it went this way, time and again in histories throughout the ages that never made it into the written accounts we have today.  The roles of women like Alia in the turning points of history – both big and small – may not be known specifically; but they should never be forgotten.

Rating: 4.5 E

Territories continues through May 19, 2019 in production by the Arabian Shakespeare Festival at Royce Gallery, 2901 Mariposa Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at

Photos by Gregg Le Blanc

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