I am thinking back to my own high school experience today. I found out that my (former) school district’s superintendent decided to cancel the high school student production of Kismet, a 1953 Broadway musical set in Baghdad, because “people might be a little more sensitive perhaps to the (play’s) content”, given the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Apparently Kismet is about a poor street poet whose daughter falls in love with the wealthy Caliph. I have many fond memories of playing my flute in the high school musicals when I was a student there.
United Flight 93 landed very close to my hometown on 9/11, so although it is far from New York City, people rightly feel a connection to the tragedy. Still, I am baffled by the decision. Beyond being set in Baghdad, the musical really has no political content from what I can tell, and it was written nearly sixty years ago. A former classmate told me that the school put on Kismet in the 1980s when her older sister was in high school.
I sometimes wonder how schools that are racially homogenous can teach students to be culturally sensitive. Usually the schools that come to mind are upper and upper-middle class suburban settings. But, I can see from this instance how the issues are similar in small towns such as my own, as well. How can we expect students to be culturally sensitive when the superintendent of their schools avoids mention of the Middle East for fear of sparking “sensitivity”. One brave step the superintendent could have taken would have been to address the critics of the musical choice head on, and to start a community conversation on why folks were upset, and what their worries were. I would hope that this kind of discussion would also draw supporters of the musical, who could hopefully allay their peers’ concerns. Judging from the comments on the story in the local newspaper, many in town do not support the superintendent’s decision.
The almost comic irony is that the musical has apparently been replaced by Oklahoma!. Hopefully that won’t spark protest over the connection to the Oklahoma City bombing.
Of course, Oklahoma! won’t, because the Oklahoma City bomber was white. This is one way in which racial inequality operates. White Christians who commit heinous crimes are simply people who have done something terrible, while Muslim Arabs who do something terrible are seen as representatives of all Muslims, and, in the case of Kismet, a particular region and its history get swallowed up in that identity as well.