Saleem Azzouqa remembers the shock he felt when a Hollywood casting director looked him in the eye and said, “You’re too nice to be an Arab.”
He didn’t land the part of a crazed Arab terrorist in that big-budget action flick. Instead, the slim and sweet-natured Saleem (as he is professionally known) turned to his abiding passion: making art his own way.
Saleem’s crowning achievement — the award-winning 1995 play “Salam Shalom,” premieres in the Bay Area next week at the New Conservatory Theater Center in San Francisco. Saleem, who revised the play for this run, stars in the new production.
“Salam Shalom” tells the story of two gay men living in America — one Israeli, the other Palestinian — and their improbable love affair. Improbable, except that it really happened to Saleem.
“We always see the clashing, the hatred,” he says, referring to the never-ending Middle East turmoil. “But there is another side — the human side. My play shows that tender side.”
The real-life story stems from Saleem’s two-year relationship with an Israeli American man he met after moving to the United States. Each introduced the other to his respective culture, and, in their own “West Side Story” way, broke down lingering suspicions through the power of love.
It could never have happened had Saleem not grown up in an open-minded household. Born in Saudi Arabia to Muslim-Christian parents of Palestinian origin, Saleem was raised to respect other cultures and religions. But he was also expected to follow the prescribed life path of a middle-class Arab man.
He came to America to earn his MBA and to launch a business career. He even married a Palestinian American woman. But Saleem harbored two explosive secrets: the business world bored him, and he was gay.
Saleem describes two parallel attitudes towards homosexuality in Arab culture. “The first sees it as a fetish, and if you live the proper life, people look the other way. The other is the gay lifestyle, which is not accepted.”
He ultimately chucked the corporate world and came out as a gay man. He also came out as a creative type, launching multiple careers as a writer, actor and dancer. In fact, Saleem just might be the only professional gay male Arab belly dancer in California — or the world for that matter.
That long-ago affair with the Israeli further opened his heart and mind. “We shared many things,” he recalls. “He took me to Chanukah parties. He was deeply rooted in his Judaism. It was eye-opening.”
Eventually, his lover moved back to Israel, but the relationship changed Saleem forever. He decided to channel his feelings and insights into a play.
Thrown together as college roommates, the Israeli and Palestinian don’t get along at first. But over the course of the play, the barriers come down. The relationship faces a harder test when they travel to Israel and the West Bank, where family and politics intrude.
The play premiered at L.A.’s Open Fist Theater in 1995, and enjoyed extended runs throughout Southern California and in Sydney, Australia, with Saleem in the role of Nabeel, the Palestinian. “Salam Shalom” went on to win an award from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
A gay-themed play isn’t likely to shock too many theatergoers these days, but the Arab-Israeli love angle still arouses strong feelings. Which is just fine by Saleem.
“I was lucky that I hit upon a subject that hasn’t been talked about,” he says. “As an artist, I like to provoke in a tasteful way. In the Arab community, there’s more resistance to the gay issue than the Israeli issue.”
As for his own political outlook, Saleem sees both sides. “I’m proud to be a Palestinian,” says the playwright, “but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for coexistence. I believe Jews have a right to that land as much as Palestinians. We’re two clever people. If we ever get together, we could rule the world!”