Wajahat Ali talks about his play, ‘The Domestic Crusaders’, premiering in London…
SOMETIMES a dramatic piece can change people’s perceptions – point blank.
It helps too when that piece of drama is funny and about a family to which anyone can relate.
Almost overnight, US playwright Wajahat Ali’s debut production (2006/7), ‘The Domestic Crusaders’, caused a sensation and opened a dialogue that continues to this day.
What does it mean to be a Muslim in the West with all that is going on around us? Witness the horror of Nairobi and the simple pronouncement that the terrorists responsible were ‘Muslims’.
Ali’s play now comes to London for the first time and continues to ask questions of all of us and the drama presents a Muslim family as it really is – loving, loyal, confused.
Not unlike many others really.
Ali told www.asianculturevulture.com: “This story with its six real, flawed, multi-dimensional characters who weren’t cardboard caricatures had/has the potential to edify and perhaps, even educate mainstream audiences often ignorant about the reality of millions who share the same global real estate.”
He began to write the play not long after 9/11 amidst the anger and fury of many who saw Muslims (every single one of them) as the enemy within.
Studying at the University of California Berkeley, the play’s genesis lay in a short story writing class – not a playwriting one as he was keen to point out to us.
“My initial motivation was just to pass my damn short story writing class taught by Ishmael Reed.
“The year was Fall 2001. I turned in a few short stories the class really enjoyed,” said the English Literature graduate.
After 9/11, his life changed and he became an ‘accidental activist’ (his words), but it also helped him to formulate his story ideas.
“I missed about three weeks of school after 9-11 because I was a board member of the Muslim Students Association and had to deal with the ensuing panic, confusion, stress and hysteria of our local communities.”
Reed told him that the story would work far better as a drama and told him to focus on his strengths – in dialogue and character.
He set him a simple challenge to pass the class – write 20 pages as a play.
“As an African American, he said art and culture was the best and most influential way to fight back against fear, stereotyping and marginalisation,” explained Ali.
“He said history dictated Muslims would get hazed in the media, but he saw an opportunity to introduce a fresh story about Pakistani and Muslim Americans. He said he had never heard that story and thought I should write it.”
And so to London and September 25 when the play opens for a three-week run.
Ticket sales are brisk and Tara Arts in Earlsfield, South London, is not a big theatre, so hurry if you want to see this play which encompasses so much not just of the Muslim experience of the US, but the West in general.
The play centres around three generations of one family gathering to celebrate the 21st birthday of one of its household, Ghaffur.
While we here in Britain have more recently begun to see strong work about British Muslim identity in drama – take Ishy Din’s ‘Snookered and Nazish Khan’s recent Edinburgh show, ‘Pole Factor’ – it still is no more than a trickle, and we need more to counter not only lazy stereotyping but provide a space for dialogue and greater understanding.
Many outside, and with little experience, of Asian communities here, fail to appreciate the varied and diverse influences that exist and co-exist, more happily than not.
This is best illustrated when we asked Ali about his relationship to Pakistan and what it feels to be a Pakistani-American.
“I’ve gone back to Pakistan throughout my life. I just went three times this past year,” said the American-born daal loving writer. “I have strong contacts with my family in Karachi. In the US we grew up in a very Pakistani, ‘Amreekan’ and Muslim household.
“This means I’d eat khatti daal for dinner but play Nintendo and watch American TV and also make time to do Maghrib namaze.
“My mom loves Pulp Fiction and ghazals and my Dad enjoys his George Foreman grilling while listening to Nusrat (Ali Fateh Khan).”
A frequent visitor to the UK, he has noticed some differences between US and UK Muslims, principally around the issue of identity and education, respectively.
“I believe the main difference is British Muslim communities identify less with their ‘British’ identity,” he stated to ACV in an email exchange.
“For example, I’ll meet a British Asian Muslim who will self-identify as themselves as a Bangla Muslim from Luton. Ethnicity, religion and the city. That seems to be a common refrain, not just in UK, but all around Europe.”
Yes, many will say, London, before they ever utter the word, British, or even dare (in their eyes) to call themselves, English.
Ali continued: “The immigration wave had a different socio-economic flavour as well. Many immigrants who came to the US had the privilege of education.
“As such, they were able to procure the “American dream” due to that privilege.
“In Europe, we saw many middle to lower-class workers arrive, who were then further ghettoized due to both classism and racism. That is far more rampant in immigrant European communities than what’s witnessed in the US.”
He does feel that the US does a better job in embracing those who arrive and still adhere to the American dream.
“There is something to be said for this investment and belief in the ‘American narrative’, where an immigrant who speaks two words of English truly believe he/she is part of this cultural mosaic and will demand and find a space for their ‘ethnic’ identity, even if it’s one-bedroom apartment with crappy heating and the cabinets are filled with ingredients for Pho and Spring Rolls.”
You feel that Ali’s work avoids simple categorisations and shows the world and one particular family in all its triumph and tragedy and that it resonates far beyond the shores of any one community.
When we use the term’ ordinary American’, he baulks: “What is an ordinary American? Is Habib, son of Hussein Khan, born in San Jose, California to two immigrant parents who are both U.S. citizens extraordinary? If so, why? By virtue of his multisyllabic name, brown skin tone, excellent taste in daal and assortment of colourful jaanimaazes he uses to pray?
“I always want to challenge these boxes and categories of who/what is seen as mainstream’ versus ‘ethnic’ or ‘ordinary’ vs. ‘alien’ in America,” said Ali, who has just written a TV pilot with iconic US writer Dave Eggars and co-presents a daily show, “The Stream” on Al Jazeera America.
Let’s not forget too that this is a dramatic work, a story, a piece of entertainment that people can enjoy.
“The challenges faced by the six family members are both unique and universal.
“Unique because they are affecting a specific ethnic and religious minority in modern time dealing with the tragedy of 9-11.
“But, in the context of history, their story is also somewhat of a remake – these tests have afflicted Jews, Catholics, Gays, Mexicans, African Americans and Japanese Americans after World War II.
“The core of the story is the family relationship – the drama, struggles, passions, pain, regret, hope, dreams that unite and divide them. This is why the play has a universal and lasting appeal nearly 10 years after it was first written.”
Since 9/11, he feels progress has been made, though he is unsure of a precise destination which would equate to understanding.
“The new generation is more savvy, global, informed and less susceptible to rampant stereotyping and monolithic judgements and condemnations of all things Muslim and Islam.
“Just witness the response to the Boston Bombing tragedy compared to 9-11.
“So, we’re getting there. It’s taken a while, but we’re getting there. Now, where exactly is “there?” That remains to be seen, but it’s a much more healthy and tolerant place than where we, as a nation, started.”
He felt 9/11 had forced US Muslims to look at themselves and conduct an ‘audit’.
“We’ve evolved, mostly, in becoming more engaged, pro-active, progressive as a political and cultural community. This means there’s a realization to nurture and support more lawyers, artists, activists and budding politicians.
“Instead of hiding our heads underneath the sand and crying victimhood, the only way to change is to engage by being active participants within all spheres of America’s civic, political, cultural, social circles. There’s tremendous work to be done.”
The US Embassy has helped to bring ‘The Domestic Crusaders’ to the UK.
- Review of ‘The Domestic Crusaders (01.10.13) http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/happiness-in-faith-or-family/
- The Domestic Crusaders until October 11, 7.30pm, Tara Theatre, 356 Garratt Lane, Earlsfield, London, SW18 4ES.
- Box office: 020 8333 4457 www.tara-arts.com.
- There is a picture of Wajahat Ali on our facebook page, please click on that social media icon at the top of the page here.