The Hooves Belonged to the Deer revealed itself to me in layers.
Partly because I had so much to say that I needed to meticulously sift through my thoughts, and partly because I had the strange luxury of time during two years of social isolation that I spent cooped up in my Edmonton apartment.
The first layer started with a question.
In 2017, I was seeing a counsellor, and I told him the first person I came out to was a Christian youth pastor who I was very close to in my teenage years. We had met under the banner of his “youth lounge” in the small town where I grew up, which provided Xboxes, pool tables, movie nights, and all sorts of alluring teenage fun. I would later understand it was a ploy to convert the lost and sinful toward Christianity. When, at fifteen years old, I told him I might be gay, the pastor had me convinced that it was demonic energy that was making me have these “desires.” According to him, my true calling was to be saved by Christ.
Somewhere in that conversation, I told my counsellor, “he has a beautiful family now, I see them on social media from time to time,” to which he replied, “why do you still have this man on your social media?”
This relationship became the foundation for the story I set out to write. The play follows Ishmael (Izzy), a queer, Arab teen whose family immigrates to small-town Alberta. Shortly after, he becomes the salvation pet project of the community youth pastor, Isaac. In his attempt to reconcile his sexuality and the many conflicting faiths coming toward him, he invents an imagined Garden of Eden where the lives of Adam and Hawa (Eve in Arabic) are turned upside down with the arrival of a beautiful, white-skinned northerner named Steve.
I thought I was writing a play about Christian domination over the queer and Muslim spirit. And in some ways, that’s what this play is. But mostly, as layer by layer revealed, The Hooves Belonged to the Deer cracks open my confrontation with shame. At its heart, I’m trying to illustrate a portrait of how queer and gay shame is impressed upon our spirit by forces that believe they are doing good.
Perhaps that’s why I still have that pastor on my social media to this day; despite thoroughly understanding that what he did was, in all dimensions, Christian white supremacy over a queer spirit, I can’t ever shake off the fact that I think he was deeply well intentioned and led by his sense of love. That’s a difficult thing to contend with, but I think we can only find a meaningful justice if we accurately engage with the mechanics of oppression.
And the fun part is, I wasn’t only queer, I was — and will always be culturally — also Muslim. Denominationally Druze, to be exact. So, I think, for him, he would really win a nice tree in heaven if he converted my sinful little ass to Christianity. The complexity, however, was that my Druze and familial upbringing didn’t offer an oasis from queerphobia: it contributed to it. Also by good, loving, caring people.
So where does a queer, sort-of-Muslim, brainwashed-ex-evangelical-Christian teenager find themselves in adulthood?
My journey diverges from Ishmael quite a bit. But the emotional truth of this illustration stays honest. Several drafts into the play, the emotional truth began to crystalize sharper and sharper. This is a play about shame. And as with all things, shame: it resists being spoken of. But somewhere amongst the throes of a new draft, I dared to contemplate how my internalized shame permeated into my activism. And more importantly, how it permeated into my sense of justice. I heard Maya Angelou caution a crowd against “a longing for justice turning into a lust for revenge” (ironically, in a conversation shortly after the 9/11 attacks happened).
Another layer revealed.
“Why do you have him on social media and when does your longing for justice turn to a lust for revenge?”
These are the unanswerable questions that frame this play. Alongside a pandemic, the race awakenings post-George Floyd murder, the Beirut blast and the revolution and economic destruction of Lebanon, the Indigenous land defenders demonstrations, all the way up to the Iranian protests of late. A pretty subtle backdrop.
I wasn’t alone in parsing through these layers — the play was rigorously developed with the support of Evan Medd, the play’s dramaturg and my friend, as well as the director, Peter Hinton-Davis, a friend and mentor of mine.
Their close relationship to the meandering and bold revisions I dared to take with each draft ensured that the spine of this story stayed honest. I recall writing a draft in an Airbnb in Barcelona in the fall of 2021, absurdly during a time when international travel was in chaos. It was my first time in Europe, and I remember thinking it was absolutely bizarre to see white people as indigenous to the lands I was on. Whether it was earlier in my trip in Amsterdam where a cute man showed me around for three days, or when I was getting touring tips from my Spanish Airbnb hosts, I couldn’t help notice but a strangeness about their “whiteness” compared to that of North Americans.
Strangely, they all impressed on me in the same way that Lebanese people do when we’re in Lebanon. They reminded me so much of the Middle East, from the casual cigarettes everywhere, the boisterous spirits, and the appetite for life over work. Maybe I was just on vacation, or maybe North America carries the huge burdens of an active colonization and our life there, in its current way, is unsustainable for a conscious spirit.
I don’t know how this affected the story, but I am convinced it was another layer.
Later, sitting in my Edmonton apartment on Zoom as I shared the draft with Evan and Peter and our fine team of actors, I remember looking out over the very prairies that so inform the play. Inevitably, this was a layer that painted the psychological imagination of these characters, as it has impacted my life profoundly. Edmonton, Calgary, and Oyen (the small town I grew up in) are a permanent curvature of my spirit, for better or for worse. Funny how a colonized land (‘Berta) can feel like the homeland of a displaced person (me) who has escaped their own land (Lebanon) due to neo-colonization by the very same forces (the Brits and French) that colonized the colonized land that the displaced person is at home on.
Actually, it’s not that funny at all.
Like I said at the beginning, this play is also about the Christian (white) supremacist domination over Muslim peoples.
With all these layers, it came as no surprise to me when both Peter and Evan began to describe the play as a tapestry. At times, the parallels and mirroring that weave through the story are intentional and narratively embedded. Other times, the tapestry is ephemeral, conceptual, and thematic. Layer by layer, I am trying to reveal something to myself. I use the Quranic and Biblical Garden of Eden mythology as the template to explore the desecration of a queer spirit by the hegemonic voices of these faiths. I’m not trying to create a queer theology in this play — that’s the celebration of my next play, Small Gods (at the Start of the World). I am simply illustrating a pain that is so often ignored, silenced, and unaddressed. Maybe a pain that I often ignore, silence, and refuse to address within myself.
After three years and a tremendous heap of support by Evan, Peter, the Alberta Queer Calendar Project, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Tarragon Theatre, the Playwrights’ Guild of Canada, Hannah Moscovitch, Jordan Tannahill, and waves of tremendously skilled and beautiful artists who have touched this play, we are ready and eager to present this tapestry to our communities, first in Toronto, then later this year in Edmonton.
This play may speak to anyone who is a queer-sort-of-Muslim-brainwashed-ex-evangelical-Christian, obviously. But it may also speak to queer people yearning for their spiritual pain to be witnessed. It may speak to white Christians’ reckoning with the responsibility of power thrust upon them. I hope it will speak to Muslims and non-Muslim Middle Easterners — hopefully a contribution to the calls to action by other queer Middle Easterners that we urgently need your support. It may speak to anyone who likes larger than life stories. And anyone who wants to build toward a more equitable and just future by engaging in hard and transforming conversations.
I feel a deep responsibility in sharing this story. And I also hope to be met with grace. We can, and we must, have these conversations.
I hope you are a part of this one with me.
The Hooves Belonged to the Deer runs at Tarragon theatre March 28 — April 23, 2023. Tickets are available here.