Theatre Ph.D. Dissertations


Staging Belonging: Performance, Migration, and the Middle Eastern Diaspora in the United States

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Theatre and Film

First Advisor

Angela K. Ahlgren (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Kei Nomaguchi (Other)

Third Advisor

Jonathan L. Chambers (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Lesa Lockford (Committee Member)


What does it mean to be a Middle Eastern immigrant in the Islamophobic and anti-immigrant context of the early twenty-first century US? How can performance help to construct and make sense of Middle Eastern immigrant identities and their belonging to US society? In “Staging Belonging: Performance, Migration, and the Middle Eastern Diaspora in the United States,” I take on these questions to interrogate facets of “belonging” for Middle Eastern immigrants in a post-9/11 US. I use ethnographic, archival, and performance analysis research methods to examine a range of performances, from the explicitly theatrical to the everyday, to argue that Middle Eastern immigrants use performance tools in aesthetic and quotidian settings to challenge xenophobic and Orientalist meanings of the Middle East while constructing nuanced understandings of Middle Eastern identity in US diaspora.

In my attempt to learn about the diasporic formations of Middle Eastern identity through performance, I pay attention to a variety of performance types. In the first chapter, I engage with cultural citizenship theory to study the performance practices of Middle Eastern American theatre companies in producing civic participation opportunities for their target audiences. I focus on the notion of “home” in the second chapter to examine the complicated relationship of Middle Eastern immigrants with their host countries in Saba Zavarei’s travel performance Looking for Tehran (2013) and Mohamad Hafez and Ahmed Badr’s installation Unpacked: Refugee Baggage (2017). In the last chapter, I examine how post-9/11 US surveillance strategies shape Middle Eastern identity in everyday performances of border crossing at the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, Vermont. I conclude by offering a brief analysis of Wafaa Bilal’s Domestic Tension (2007) to explore how the digitization of the War on Terror leads to more violence against Middle Eastern bodies.

In a time when immigrants from the Middle East encounter xenophobic policies and hostile attitudes in the US, demystifying Middle Eastern immigrant identities and highlighting their contributions to society are crucial to creating a society based in equality. This study contributes new perspectives to theatre and performance scholarship that seeks to trouble the xenophobic views of many Americans toward immigrants and the ways they do and do not belong to US society.