Will Silk Road Rise Again? Will We?

Jamil Khoury and Malik Gillani
Jamil Khoury and Malik Gillani

I’d been thinking about Silk Road Cultural Center, the mission-driven performing arts company founded by Jamil Khoury and Malik Gillani in 2002, before I got an e-mail from Khoury last week.

Since the pandemic shutdown, every arts organization I can think of has been throwing content up online—trying, desperately, to keep a connection going with their audiences. But Silk Road, which moved seriously into online programming a decade ago, had a leg up on that. During a 2011 interview, Khoury had told me that they were intrigued by the dissemination opportunities of the Internet and were aiming to produce video plays that would expand their reach to an international audience. It seemed like an appropriate time to check back in with them.

“Things are good, all things considered,” Khoury said, when he picked up the phone, leaving room for an ocean of trouble.

There’s the macro hit the arts are taking from the pandemic. According to a Brookings Institution study by Creative Class guru Richard Florida and urban planner Michael Seman, the fine and performing arts are among the industries suffering the most COVID-19 damage. In “Lost art: Measuring COVID-19’s devastating impact on America’s creative economy,” they looked at national data from April 1 through July 31 of this year, and estimated that half the jobs in fine and performing arts (including freelance work) are gone, and that we’re in for “a protracted period of restrictions on live performances.”

According to Arts Alliance Illinois (citing a survey by Americans for the Arts), 42 percent of Illinois arts organizations “are not confident they will survive the impacts of COVID-19.”

Like everyone else, Silk Road shut down in March. They were one day away from preview performances of a world-premiere play, My Dear Hussein by Nahal Navidar. But that’s not all they’ve been dealing with:

“In September of 2019, my husband and Silk Road Cultural Center Co-Founder and Co-Executive Artistic Director, Malik Gillani, suffered a heart attack and stroke,” Khoury wrote in an e-mail to the Silk Road community last week.

“The double whammy of heart failure and neurologic damage has reset our journey, particularly as the stroke caused significant impairments to Malik’s expressive abilities.”

If you’ve ever been to Silk Road’s intimate theater in the depths of the historic Chicago Temple, chances are you’ve been greeted by Gillani—a quietly welcoming presence with a smile and a handshake for everyone: the yin to Khoury’s exuberant yang.  

On September 13 last year, Khoury told me, Gillani, then 49 years old, collapsed with a heart attack in the 150 N. Michigan Avenue building that houses the Silk Road office, and was rushed to Northwestern Memorial Hospital. A week later, still in the hospital, he was hit with a life-threatening stroke that left him unable to use the right side of his body or to speak. After 55 days of hospitalization (at Northwestern and the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab), and months of intensive outpatient therapy, a lot of the paralysis is gone and his mind is intact, Khoury says, but the speech will take time to recover.

Gillani made it to one of the last performances of Silk Road’s production of Fouad Teymour's Twice, Thrice, Frice . . . last year. “The second he walked into the lobby and saw an audience, he kicked into Malik mode, and even though he couldn’t shake hands properly he was shaking people’s hands, greeting people, speaking a kind of unintelligible language,” Khoury says. “I think most people had no idea what was going on, but they just worked with it. Some asked me if he was speaking Urdu or Arabic.” That play is now Jeff-nominated, but for Khoury there’s an ironic edge: “We run a theater that’s about giving voice to people who don’t have a voice, and now he’s lost his voice.”

“It was several months before he could say my name,” Khoury says, but in December he spoke his first full sentence: “I love you.”

Silk Road had to cancel three plays this season, but will survive financially if they’re able to resume live theater production in the fall of 2021, even with reduced capacity, Khoury says.  Meanwhile, the videos on their website—all available for free viewing and all with prescient relevance—include Not Quite White, a 2012 documentary with a narrative that describes whiteness as like “an automatic upgrade to first class,” and a flash to an image of Donald Trump.

“We know that the road to recovery is long, arduous, and complicated,” Khoury wrote in his e-mail. He was predicting a positive outcome for his partner, but his words are also apt for these troubled times.

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Silk Road Cultural Center is a dba of Gilloury Institute, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization
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