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Seattle Playwright: Egypt Is Home But I Consider Myself American

Seattle Playwright Yussef El Guindi.
Courtesy ACT Theatre
Seattle Playwright Yussef El Guindi.

Seattle-based playwright Yussef El Guindi was born in Egypt. But he feels more at ease in his adopted home.

"Egypt is always going to a part of my background, my heritage," he says. "But I've been here 30 years now. I definitely consider myself American."

That may be. But El Guindi's plays reflect his immigrant history as well as his Arab heritage. 

His 2011 play, "Pilgrims Musa and Sherri in the New World," is the story of Egyptian immigrant Musa and his white waitress girlfriend Sherri. It originated at Seattle's ACT Theatre and was later honored by the American Theatre Critics Association as the best new play to premiere outside New York.

El Guindi was raised in England. He moved to the U.S. to attend graduate school for playwrighting at Carnegie Mellon University. That wasn't his first career choice. He dreamed of acting.

"I applied to six acting schools. I was rejected by them all," he says. "I'm living Plan B."

El Guindi spent several years on the Duke University faculty before moving to Seattle. He was looking for a city with a decent theater community and a decent public transit system. He ruled out the other two contenders, Minneapolis and Chicago, based on weather.

"I thought, Chicago, Minneapolis, the weather could kill you in the winter! And it can boil you in the summer."

Seattle looked pretty good by comparison.

El Guindi's plays don't really reflect the life he lives in the Northwest. He's more focused on depicting the stories of people like himself, Arab Americans who some might see as "other" in this society.

"I remember going to the naturalization ceremony, and thinking it was just going to be this dry, bureaucratic affair," he says.

Instead, El Guindi was moved by the experience of seeing people from so many different countries who, like him, were claiming the United States as their home. While some people might still consider them "other," officially, and in their own eyes, they were now Americans.

"I remember coming out of that ceremony thinking, I'm now part of this tradition."

And he says creatively, he began to express the emotions that ceremony ignited in him.

El Guindi's latest play, "Threesome," doesn't directly address the immigrant experience. Two of the play's three characters are Egyptian American, but the action in "Threesome" is shaped by events that took place during the Arab Spring, rather than in the U.S.

"Threesome" premiered in Portland before it opened at Seattle's ACT Theatre. The play will move to New York later this year.

El Guindi's success with his Plan B, writing plays, probably won't change his lifestyle. While many theater artists relocate to New York to pursue their careers, El Guindi has no plans to leave the Northwest.

"I always feel a little overwhelmed by New York. I don't know why, but I seem to have arguments with total strangers, frequently. And I never argue with anybody!"