- Published on Thursday, 17 March 2011 14:54
- Category: Art
What is an identity? Do we zero in on physical identity, how we look, dress and style our bodies as an expression of our ‘self’? Do we focus on our creeds and beliefs, the religion we do or do not ascribe to? The political agendas we align ourselves with, or the morals that we cling to and espouse in our daily lives? The answer is that all these elements compose how we define ourselves.
Whereas there are no two identical definitions of a Christian, Jew, Muslim, or for that matter an archetypal idea of what an American, European, Arab, Asian, African, etc. is; the common thread that runs through all of them is a complexity of identity.
In the aftermath of September 11th, life in the United States and abroad changed forever. Basic freedoms and commonplace practices taken for granted by Americans ended and new legislations and customs filled their place.
The changes in culture and society may not have been more deeply felt than by Muslim Americans. Racial and religious issues asserted themselves so fastidiously that this American minority has been forced to confront their identities and how they fit in the American panorama of culture.
Pakistani-American author, Wajahat Ali, delves into the complex labyrinth of Muslims-American identity in his play The Domestic Crusaders. His characters navigate the narrow path of , on the one side, being true to one’s cultural practices and beliefs and risk being labeled a terrorist; or stripping down the layers of their lives based on societal conventions and constraints to resemble the status quo.
In an interview with Wajahat Ali he shared with me the back story on his play, how he came to become an activist for Muslim American rights, and what life was and is like for him as a Muslim American.
EJ: You’re Pakistani-American, so what was your upbringing like?
WA: My upbringing is very “American” — it's been a multi-hyphenated existence. My American values and Muslim values coexist within one identity and body. They are not mutually exclusive. My first language was Urdu. I couldn't speak a lick of English until I went to preschool. I knew three words: Shut up, Uh-Oh, and Spaghetti.
EJ: Did you ever feel that your peers looked at you as an 'other' in your early years?
WA: Well, a current poll has shown that 60% of Americans do not know a Muslim. Let that one sink in . . . So, I was always kind of the "token" Muslim and "Pakistani" growing up. Most of my friends at elementary and high school were not Muslim or Pakistani, and I was their sole representative of 1.5 billion people. I went to an all boys Catholic High School [where] I read the Bible for the first and really enjoyed learning about Christian theology.
My friends, again, were always of a different religious or ethnic background. So I had a choice to make: do I sit in a corner, isolated, in my protective cocoon? Do I completely change or hide my identity, which was so misunderstood and "exotic"? Or do I engage? I chose the latter and kind of became a cultural spokesperson for my religious and ethnic identity. I always embraced that early on — I didn't have a problem with it.
EJ: So, what led to you writing the play while an undergrad at UC Berkeley? What prompted you to delve into the topic of multi-generational family conflict with the added caveat of the family being a Muslim-American family?
WA: It was 2001, and I, somehow fortuitously, got accepted into Ishmael Reed's short fiction writing class with only about 12 other students. My first story in the class was about a female mosquito who rants about being single and unmarried. It was basically a monologue posing as a short story. Then, 9/11 happened a week later, and, of course, our lives changed.
I became like 85% activist and 15% student for that year.
I missed 3 weeks of Ishmael's class due to non-stop work and crisis response. I had to go because it was my time to deliver my second story. I wrote it at 3 am and it was about two married ogres who secretly plot to kill one another on their 50th anniversary. I did the piece and the class loved it. He said see him after class. I thought he'd yell at me for missing school. Instead, he said, "You're a natural playwright. You're wasting your time in this class with this group. In order to pass, you have to write me 20 pages of a play......I'm tired of seeing stereotypes of Muslims in the media; you guys are getting pummeled, and I have Muslim friends and I think your story needs to be out there.”
He empathized with us because, as an African-American, he said he could relate to what he perceived as the "hazing" of Muslims. So, I had no experience, I had no idea. I thought he was nuts.
EJ: How brilliant to have such a compelling mentor such as Dr. Ishmael Reed —that must have been incredible. Sometimes all it takes is one person to see something inside of us and guide us on how to extract it and share it with the word.
WA: Yes, he's been a wonderful mentor. [He] and his wife, Carla Blank, the play's director and dramaturge, they have gone above and beyond the call of duty. Without their support, the play would have never reached these heights.
EJ: The ethnic and racial stereotypes that are present in all cultures, but are extremely prominent in American culture, seem so daunting. Would you agree that the arts, music, film, visual art, and literature have the ability to transcend those boundaries and create a world where communication can take place?
WA: Agreed. Cultural diplomacy might be the most effective means right now to bridge the divides. It has had a curative and healing effect for many minority groups who have gone through exactly what Muslims are facing now. This is nothing unique — it has happened before. But, right now Muslims are the ones who are being hazed.
However, I see tremendous opportunity for some conciliation and progress towards truly embracing our American values of pluralism.… Art sometimes forces us to confront the "dirty laundry" we don’t want to uncover or face.
EJ: The play has serious issues on the table, but also has humorous moments. Do you find that laughter is a critical component to penetrating the boundaries?
WA: I believe it is a very important tool that can be used, definitely. It's not necessary but it always helps sweeten the medicine and makes it easier to swallow and digest.
EJ: Yes, humor and art creating a marriage that can bring down walls of misunderstanding.
WA: Exactly. There needs to be proactive engagement with the arts, with politics, with civic engagement, and then we shall see — as we are currently witnessing — a shift, a resurgence of a cultural renaissance.
EJ: The play has enjoyed overwhelming success and is even being performed at the Kennedy Center. What projects do you have in the works for the future?
WA: Right now, I'm working on finishing this HBO pilot that I pitched with Dave Eggers. It's about a Muslim American cop in the Bay Area. [Additionally], I write often for Salon, Guardian, Huffington Post and other outlets — ditto maintaining my blog, Goatmilk.
I'm also an attorney, so I take some clients here and there. I guess I need to sleep... that should be a project I invest some time in.
EJ: Seems like you are always on the go, developing and creating new ideas and projects. How do you manage?
WA: I am just crazy and I don't sleep.
It seems that lack of sleep hasn’t had an ill effect on Wajahat Ali. As his star continues to rise, including negotiations for international performances in Dubai and Germany, Ali has only just begun to shift cultural perceptions of what it is to be a Muslim living in America. The passion with which he delves into identity allows Ali's audiences to relate to the struggles of his characters even if the audience is non-Muslim. His witty yet penetrating inspection of Muslim life in the United States is the sort of social commentary that quenches the intangible thirst for cross-cultural understanding.
For more information on The Domestic Crusaders visit www.domesticcrusaders.com
To follow Wajahat Ali’s blog visit GoatMilkBlog.com
*Photo Credit: All images courtesy of Wajahat Ali
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