His war story

Sinan Ünel drew from his own background to write 'Cry of the Reed'

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Megan Tench
Globe Staff / March 27, 2008

When Canadian journalist Scott Taylor was kidnapped by Muslim extremists known for beheading their captives in war-torn Iraq, he was tortured for days before being told that he, too, was about to die.

"I was chained to the bed," Taylor says from his office in Ottawa, the details of his nightmare - from the sharp pummeling of his legs and feet to the strips of tape sealing his eyes shut - etched unmercifully in his mind. "You're just there facing death," he says. "There was no way out."

It was 2004 when Taylor and Turkish journalist Zeynep Tugrul were snatched by masked men. Tortured, accused of being spies, and ordered to embrace Islam, they were held in captivity for four days. As their horrifying ordeal played out in the headlines, millions were captivated around the world - including local playwright Sinan Ünel, inspiring his drama "The Cry of the Reed," which makes its world premiere tonight at the Huntington Theatre Company's Wimberly Theatre.

Ünel, who was raised in Turkey by a Turkish father and American mother, says that at the time, he had been contemplating a play about Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi poet and philosopher. Sufism, a religion extolling the virtues of tolerance and oneness with God or Allah, figures prominently in Ünel's childhood memories, he says, though his parents were not particularly religious.

But the despairing headlines compelled him in a new direction. "I went to Turkey and I interviewed the young woman, and I also interviewed the Canadian man. I met a lot of sheiks and Sufi scholars," Ünel says.

Ultimately the two ideas merged in "The Cry of the Reed." Set in 2004 in Iraq and Turkey, with the sounds of bombs raining overhead and the beauty of whirling dervishes on the stage, the play, directed by Daniel Goldstein, is based loosely on true events. In it Ünel, 49, explores religion, hope, family ties, and what one clings to while facing mortality.

In the play, two journalists, a Canadian named Philip (played by Darren Pettie) and Sevgi (played by Lisa Birnbaum), who is Turkish-American, end up on a roadside on the outskirts of Tal Afar, in Northern Iraq. Hearing rumors of an insurgent attack to come, they rely on a police officer who organizes a ride for them to a safe house. But it turns out the taxi is filled with armed masked men who take them to an undisclosed location, where Muslim extremists accuse them of being spies.

Convincing her captors that she is a "good Muslim girl" while her colleague, who is Jewish, is beaten in a room nearby, Sevgi is allowed to make one phone call to her mother. The problem is she hasn't spoken to her mother in more than 10 years, and her mother, Ayla (played by Cigdem Onat), is a Rumi devotee and follower of Sufism - a philosophy considered heresy by the brutal kidnappers. Emotional wounds and great losses are revealed as time begins to run out for everyone.

Church and state

Ünel, who is soft-spoken with short salt-and-pepper hair, reflects both broadly and deeply about his own identity as he discusses the play.

A former Huntington Playwriting Fellow, Ünel says he always wanted to explore Sufism onstage. He has been particularly interested in Rumi and his philosophy of Islamic mysticism - that everything is God and God is everything - which has continued to resonate, especially in parts of the Middle East, 800 years after the poet's death.

"I grew up in Turkey and it was always in the background, that philosophy of love and tolerance, and so it was really a part of me," Ünel says, smiling gently while sitting with a cup of tea in a small conference room at the Calderwood Pavilion between rehearsals, taking a break from grading papers for a playwriting class he teaches at Emerson College. "It's such a different aspect of Islam than what we see in the media today about what's going on in the Middle East," he adds.

But what also fascinated him, he says, is how people come to identify themselves, whether by nationality or religion, and how that very personal thing could end up killing you in today's world.

"I come from a dual nationality, so in my mind it was always like, 'Am I an American or am I a Turk? And what does that mean and how do I switch back and forth?' " he says. "Am I Christian or am I Muslim? Because my father came from a Muslim background and my mother came from a Christian background and I lived in a family where there was no real religion, but we still celebrated Christmas."

He ponders a second.

"When I was born, my Turkish identity card - they give you an identity card, and there is always your religion on it. It says Muslim on it," Ünel says. "Never in my life for a moment did I think of myself as a Muslim, nor did I ever think of myself as a Christian. So I see these people around and they are like, 'I am a Jew,' 'I am a Muslim.' What does that mean? If somebody defines themselves as something, how does that change their actions? How does it change how they relate to the world? How does that change their relationships?"

In the play, as in real life, that defining identity can come with dire consequences.

"There's a young girl in the play, and whether she is a Muslim or not in that moment is a matter or life and death," he says. "This play is really about religious identity, and why is religion so essential and so necessary. We have a character in this play who has suffered such huge losses in her life and feels such a despair and meaninglessness.

"I look at those moments and I realize people need something beyond what we can see and touch," he continues. "We have this yearning for meaning that's beyond our ordinary lives. It makes sense to me that people have a sense of spirituality. What the play is trying to do is try to make sense of this yearning for a spirit that we have and how it translates into this horror that we are going through."

A deeply personal process

A Provincetown resident for more than 15 years with his partner (they are in the process of relocating), Ünel, an AIDS survivor, says his thoughts and feelings about his own mortality also drove his interest in "The Cry of the Reed."

When asked about his health, he responds cheerily, "My health is great. I feel good." But not wanting to be defined by his disease, Ünel is quick to point out, "It has nothing to do with what I am doing now, but it's great."

Ünel regards his spirituality - that thing he clings to in moments of hope and despair - as just as deeply personal as his writing.

"I couldn't tell you what I am in terms of religion or all that stuff," he says. "But I do believe there is something that's internal, just like I describe writing a play, I think it is so personal and so private. . . . This thing is growing inside of me, and that's what's so precious. I feel a spiritual life is the same kind of personal thing, and it evolves. Now I am 49 years old and the way I look at it is very different than when I was 20. The more you approach mortality . . . and these moments of faith and the question of death, this thing begins to evolve in you."

As a writer, he says, it has been hard to break down the doors of "success," but adds that he is much more focused on the work of writing than ever. His other plays include "Pera Palas," "Tolstoy's Den," "Thalassa My Heart," and "The Three of Cups." He has been produced in New York, Boston, New Haven, Los Angeles, London, Germany, and Austria.

"This play has been particularly draining," Ünel says, noting that it took about 2 1/2 years to write it. "It takes me a long time to have this private thing in my head, but that's the part of writing that I love."

As for Taylor and Tugrul, both continue to work as journalists.

Tugrul, reached by e-mail, wonders just how distinct she is from the character Ünel created. Though she says she's very curious about the play, she has little time to chat: "US vice president Dick Cheney will be in Ankara in an hour, so I have to rush to the airport," she writes.

Taylor, editor of Esprit de Corps military magazine, says that even though he was not particularly religious at the time of his captivity, the one thing he wanted to do when told he was about to be beheaded was recite The Lord's Prayer as they were doing it. Certain that his captors were going to videotape the killing, he wanted the prayer to send a message to his parents, who are devout Christians.

"I was trying desperately to remember the words, but I just couldn't," Taylor, 47, says, laughing. "I could see my parents: 'In his final act, he even got this wrong.' "

Taylor, who is married and has a young son, says he doesn't plan to return to Iraq, though he has gone to Afghanistan.

"You know how some families practice what to do in case of a fire?" he says. "Mine practices what to do in case Daddy gets kidnapped."

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