By WAJAHAT ALI
“Ali, write me 20 pages about a family – a Muslim American family. You ever read Long Day’s Journey into Night or Death of a Salesman? Yeah, something like that. I’m tired of seeing Muslims pummeled by the media as caricatures and stereotypes. I want to hear their story. Ok? Great. Give me 20 pages and you can pass my class,” ordered my UC Berkeley Short Story Professor, Ishmael Reed, in 2001.
A play that originally started as a student assignment premieres on 9-11 in New York, Off-Broadway, at the landmark Nuyorican Poets Café for a historic 5 week run. “The Domestic Crusaders” has been hailed as “one of the first major Muslim American plays” and compared to “A Raisin in the Sun” and works by Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill.
Such praise is humbling, gratifying and utterly terrifying. It makes me truly believe if a South Asian, Muslim American punk like me – whose stomping ground is the Bay Area – can do this, there’s no reason why anyone else can’t.
When Professor Reed forced me to write a 20 page play spec, he might as well have asked me to be a ballerina or a teapot. I scoffed. He was adamant. I was reluctant. He was confident. Finally, I realized I had to pass the damn class, so I might as well shut up and put up.
I hesitantly started the play on my 21st birthday. Having never written a play before in my life, I went to the library, Borders and Barnes and Nobles and purchased some plays; took ‘em home, read ‘em, bought some more, read ‘em, and said “Bismillah” and just pounded away furiously at the keyboard not knowing what the hell I was doing.
Thanks to fountains of chai, insomnia, neurosis, random bursts of manic energy, well wishes from the well wishers, angels of serendipity, and surreal twist of fortuity, “The Domestic Crusaders” was born and finished as a present to myself on my 23rd birthday.
Some say Obama’s election ushers in a “brave new world” where the Presidential victory of a biracial man with an Arabic last name signals an era of “hope and change.” If that’s true then it’s absolutely necessary for this generation of men and women with good conscience to stand up and speak up to reclaim their hijacked identities, cultures and heritages.
As a writer, I can always fight back and help map that course.
My weapon is my pen and words my ammunition. Words can annihilate, condemn, lacerate and slander.
They can also inspire, educate and heal.
The pen is a guide, a compass and a teacher. Celebrated and beloved poet of South Asia, Hadrat Allama Iqbal, once wrote, “The mind is the battlefield of my life, where there are armies of doubt, but conviction remains steadfast.” In the battlefield of a human’s soul, mind, spirit, and his chosen artistic medium, the pen can not only slay personal demons, but also real demons who walk the earth – they come in all shapes, colors, and sizes; they speak the same language, live by the same religion, and profit from the same money. They are called intolerance, ignorance and hypocrisy.
These agents of chaos thrived after the two towers fell on that fateful day.
The tragedy of 9-11 and its repercussions reverberated globally forever changing our political and cultural landscape. Due to the whispers of theseafreets, all of us, each in our own small way, went a little mad.
Some say premiering the play on this date is a mistake and disrespectful to the memory of the innocents who perished. I humbly disagree. I believe by proactively confronting the history of that day through art and dialogue we can finally move beyond the anger, the violence, the extremism, the separatism, the pain and the regret, and build a bridge of understanding and reconciliation.
Some toes will be stepped on. Feelings might be hurt. People might get agitated. There will be some disagreements. But catharsis never comes by inaction and silence.
It is the humble neeyat [“intention”] of the writer that the characters of “The Domestic Crusaders,” six Muslim Pakistani Americans comprising three generations of a family that reunites in the family home to celebrate the youngest son’s 21st birthday, resonate with an unflinchingly real and honest depiction of the wide array of human emotions that characterize most individuals of our endlessly fascinating species. They are flawed, contradictory, inconsistent, emotional, and angry. But they can also be passionate, resolute, firm, brave and loving.
You dissect all their “strange” customs, take away their Urdish and Arabic they mix in with their English, remove the Islamic piquancy, and replace biryani with an ethnic food of your choice, and they could – or should- resemble you, your family, or your friends. If they do not, I have failed and deserve to be called out for creating cardboard stereotypes instead of authentic human beings with all their glory, flaws, and warts for the world to see.
Some may say this play is only for Muslims and Pakistanis and Americans. I would retort by saying indeed the play is by “Us.”
But it is for “Everyone.”
When I began this project nearly eight years ago and attempted to stage it, my own family members wouldn’t pay $15 for a ticket unless I promised them a buffet dinner at Mehran Restaurant. People said I was crazy and wasting my time and should instead do something useful – like become a corporate attorney who brings home 6 figures and 3 ulcers. Aunties, uncles, friends and acquaintances stared at me cockeyed wondering why I spent a year traveling across the nation to raise the paltry $25,000 in funds needed to house the “Crusaders” at the Nuyorican.
I was a man possessed. I never gave up on my “Crusaders” and I never will. My confidence was borne from an experience of seeing these characters illuminate the stage in front of diverse, multicultural audiences – who might ordinarily never agree with one another let alone talk to one another – nonetheless stand in unison and applaud at the end of our 2005 showcase performances at the Berkeley Repertory Theater and San Jose State University.
In preparing for these shows, we exercised creativity and frugality to compensate for our lack of funds. Our rehearsals took place in Ishmael Reed and Carla Blank’s backyard. My mother made Pakistani food to feed the cast. Our living room sofas and rugs were used to dress the set. My father drove the U-Haul with all our props to the theater. Our actors were all first time, raw talent taken from the local South Asian and Muslim American community and paid $50 for all their hard work and dedication. They were met with standing ovations each and every time.
Despite receiving these accolades for nearly 4 years, no theater or artistic director would take a chance on us. Mind you, this was the paranoid and fear mongering climate of the Bush Administration where popular, White, Jesus loving, Rock N’ Roll playing Texans like the Dixie Chicks were branded as traitors and un-American for a harmless riff against President Dubya.
Ironically, most producers and theater directors emailed me telling me they adored the play and invited me to submit any new plays for consideration.
I asked, “What about the “The Domestic Crusaders?”
“Oh, um, can you change it?”
“How do you want me to change it?’
“You know…just change it?”
I later realized this was an unsubtle, code word for making the characters less Muslimy and Brown.
One Hollywood producer wanted to invest in the play and premiere it in Hollywood but only on one condition: “Can we get Ted Danson to play the father?”
I laughed sincerely thinking it was a great joke.
He wasn’t smiling.
“No, really. I mean why not? Americans like Ted Danson and I think they will feel comfortable with him playing the Pakistani father,” he replied – dead serious.
Needless to say, I never called him back.
We felt like perpetual benchwarmers, suited up, amped to play the game but never given permission to join the lineup, head out to home plate and take our one, rightful swing for the fences.
However, good things take time. And with time comes a hopeful, enthusiastic and proactive generation comprising of diverse communities dedicated to truly pushing things “forward” by finally busting out of our culturally isolated cocoons.
The play is now premiering at the historic Nuyorican Poets Café in New York on 9-11 and it’s time has come. I want “The Domestic Crusaders” (which includes the wonderful cast of actors, the dedicated crew, and the generous contributors and worldwide supporters) to tear up the dance floor and bring down the house.
And to those who ask, “Despite all your efforts and best intentions, what if it’s your qismat and destiny to fail?”
To that I sincerely say, “Then may we fail gloriously.”
I want the failure to be so awesomely epic that it lives forever in infamy on YouTube with more hits than the “Dancing Baby.”
If we are to crash and burn, then so be it – but let us at least brilliantly illuminate the sky with our passionate fire during our fantastic descent.
If that be our fate, then I want us to strike out so bad, that we violently and audibly throw out our back so the lady with the hearing aid in the upper deck stadium can hear the thud as we fall to the ground. And in doing so inspire a new generation to step out of the shadows, try their hand at writing, and improve and elevate our humble endeavors through their own stories and talents.
But, inshallah, we’re not going to fail. We’re going to step up to the plate and hit a home run. Not a homerun. A grand slam. Bring ‘em all to home plate. Swing the bat as fast and furious as we can, pealing the leather clean off the ball as it flies towards the upper deck lights.
No, you know what? Forget the upper deck.
Let’s aim higher. Let’s aim for the stars.
And see “The Domestic Crusaders” soar to those northern lights and beyond.
Wajahat Ali is a writer, journalist, blogger and attorney. His work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” is a landmark play about Muslim Americans premiering on 9-11-09 in New York. He blogs at Goatmilk. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.