The play takes place on the birthday of Ghafur, the youngest son, and masterfully portrays the complexities of three generations of characters. Ali manages to capture the lived experiences of his characters with striking clarity – be they the eldest son Salahuddin’s flagrant exploits, the father Salman’s struggle to support his family in a land that still seems too foreign to be home, or the fight against a patriarchal culture that consumes Fatima, the only daughter and middle child.
Although the play takes place on only one night, the stories told by each character’s dialogue and the family’s interaction with one another manage to span lifetimes. The remarkable secret of Ali’s play is that, with wisdom and insight far beyond his years, Ali has written an intriguing, often comical account of a Pakistani American family that, in its specificity, has managed to encompass what Ali recently called in an interview with NBC, “the universal.” In the end, although Ali’s play seeks to portray the human side of an oft vilified other, his play manages to capture the humanity in us all.
I had the pleasure of watching a live performance of Ali’s play in Berkeley in 2005. Although it has been four years since I watched the play, many of the scenes and the dialogue have stuck with me through the years. As a Muslim Pakistani-American, Ali’s play provided me with the unique opportunity to see myself through the mediums of art and literature. Suddenly, characters that looked like me, talked like me, and even thought like me portrayed the inevitable struggles and triumphs that encompass all human experiences. Suddenly Ali’s play had transformed my personal history into something approachable and relatable, something “universal”.
For me, some of the most intriguing universal issues addressed in Domestic Crusaders related to notions of gender and contentment. Contemporary feminist theory and the ongoing debate of what constitutes an ideal, empowered feminine element of society find their way into the play through Fatima. Fatima’s struggle to define herself beyond culturally imposed gender roles may seem misguided to many because she also chooses to wear the Muslim headscarf. However, despite the oppression that many associate with the head covering, the audience comes to know Fatima as one of the strongest personalities in the family.
There are many dramatic moments in the play when Fatima’s conviction and determination come to the fore – and some of the most intriguing instances of this are when we hear how drastically Fatima’s opinions differ from her own mother’s. In fact, if it is a general frustration that seems to keep the fire burning inside Fatima, Fatima’s mother, Kulsoom, seems to peacefully and happily embody much of the traditional femininity that Fatima looks upon with such distrust.
Both of the women’s characters force audiences to reevaluate who is really happier – the woman waging a war against others’ ideals or the woman who seems to have embraced and thrived in a cultural environment that many western feminists may find problematic. The contradictions between Fatima’s and Kulsoom’s understanding of womanhood are truly rich and worthy of hours of conversation and hearty debate. Although Fatima’s portrayal piqued my interest the most, all of the characters’ stories are rich with tension and aptly expose the gray areas that shade the spaces between what is easily discernable.
And it is this element of Ali’s play – this tendency to complicate matters that ought not be simplified, to expose the perpetual pushing and pulling that characterizes all personal struggles – that makes Domestic Crusaders so enjoyable and relatable. Ali does not force harmony in his play but allows the differences and discord of the American family, and the American Muslim community, to come through. In the end, Ali has managed to tell a complete story of our community by realizing that this story can only be told through nuances and idiosyncrasies.
Ali’s play is an incredible contribution to American Muslim literature, and one that our communities will benefit from for years to come. Ali’s play appeals to a mass audience while staying true to its goal of providing a groundbreaking, honest, and beautifully human portrayal of what it means to be an American Muslim.
Rabea Chaudhry is Associate Editor of Altmuslimah