A Pakistani-American Family Is Caught in Some Cultural Cross-Fire


September 9, 2009

For Khulsoom and Salman, hard-working immigrant Muslims from Pakistan, life in the American suburbs in the post- 9/11 era is not working out the way they had planned.

Their oldest son is an unmarried playboy, and their daughter has become a student activist who wears a head scarf as a sign of her newfound religious fervor and is dating a devoted Muslim who happens to be an African-American. And now their younger son, the good, obedient son, comes home on a college break and announces that he is abandoning premed courses to become a history teacher so that he can help correct the misinformation being spread about Islam.

“You will get the blessings of my work,” the younger son tells his parents.

“We have enough blessings,” his mother says. “You can bless us by becoming a surgeon. You like kids? Become a pediatrician. Teach them Islam as you give them their lollipops.”

This family is at the center of “The Domestic Crusaders,” an envelope-pushing play that opens on 9/11 at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and runs for the next five weekends. When the family reunites for the younger son’s birthday, conflicts erupt over everything from biryani to sex roles to Middle Eastern politics to airport security checks to racism.

The play was written by Wajahat Ali, a young Pakistani-American who grew up in Fremont, Calif. He started writing it in the weeks after the terrorist attacks as a paper for a college class taught by the poet and playwright Ishmael Reed.

The actors, all South Asians, are playing roles that echo their own lives. Some will be performing while they are fasting for Ramadan.

Very few dramas about the contemporary Muslim experience in America have made it to the stage. Muslims from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh have been slow to embrace writing and acting, which was not considered a viable profession by the older immigrant generation. Mr. Ali and the actors in “The Domestic Crusaders” are among a younger group interested in mining their experiences for theater. These are dramas not about terrorism or war, but about the cultural cacophony that ensues when you drop three generations of a Pakistani family into Silicon Valley.

“In the older generation there’s a hesitancy to support artistic endeavors,” Mr. Ali said. “They respect the holy trinity of doctor, engineer and dubious businessman who somehow makes a lot of money. And now finally, lawyers are acceptable, but only if the lawyer has a lot of money.”

He said that his “aunties,” the community’s doting busybodies, were not interested in finding a match for him even after his play was staged at the Berkeley Repertory Theater in 2005 and won some acclaim. “I’m the only playwright in history who got no play for writing a play,” he said.

But when he graduated from law school in 2007, he said, “my mom got all these calls from the aunties saying, ‘So, have you found anyone for Wajahat yet?’ ”

The play was born of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001. Mr. Ali, then a 21-year-old undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, stopped going to classes and spent the next three weeks organizing rallies and forums with friends to respond to what they saw as a growing tide of vitriol about Islam.

When Mr. Ali finally showed up for his English class, his professor, Mr. Reed, pulled him aside. Mr. Ali thought for sure that he had failed the class. But Mr. Reed told him that if he wanted to pass he had to write a 20-page play.

“I said, “Do a family drama,’ ” Mr. Reed recalled in an interview. “That’s how immigrant playwrights have always dealt with these issues. I told him, read Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night,’ and Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman,’ about a Jewish-American family. You write about a Muslim-American family.”

It took Mr. Ali more than two years to finish “The Domestic Crusaders,” with Mr. Reed prodding him along. Mr. Reed proposed that his wife, Carla Blank, a choreographer and director, become the director and dramaturge. It played in Berkeley and San Jose, to ethnically and religiously mixed crowds. Now it will be staged in New York, a Muslim-American play with a South Asian cast, a Jewish American director (Ms. Blank) and two African-American producers (Mr. Reed and Rome Neal).

“Take away the religion, take away the Islam, take away the politics, the Arabic and the Urdish,” said Mr. Ali, referring to the Urdu/English hybrid words that pepper the play. “What remains are universal themes like sibling rivalry, expectations of parents, conflict between the generations.”

Getting the production to New York has been a communal effort, with Muslims across the country pitching in. Mr. Ali made appeals for contributions at small gatherings in six cities in the last year, scraping together $31,000. The actors are essentially volunteers, receiving only $300 each for the entire run. Mr. Ali’s mother consults on costumes.

After a rehearsal last week, on an upper floor of the Nuyorican, the actors, still in character, jumped into a debate about whether the mother in the play would expect the daughter, who is in law school, to stop working when she had children. Some of the men in the cast insisted that Pakistani mothers are tradition-bound, but the actresses playing the mother and the daughter, Nidhi Singh and Monisha Shiva, said they thought it was more complex.

“I sacrificed my master’s degree for my children,” Ms. Singh said of her character, the mother, “so of course I am proud that my daughter is going to be a lawyer. I just want her to learn how to cook, but it doesn’t mean I want her to stay home.”

Adeel Ahmed, 21, is cast as the younger son, also 21. Like his character, Mr. Ahmed disappointed his parents when he abandoned premed in college. He wanted to study acting and, as a backup, sports management. When he told his parents, his mother took off her slipper and slapped him three times with it.

Now she has begun to accept his choice, Mr. Ahmed said, and is even helping make props for the play. Last week she sent over to the theater a toy box she had made from a cardboard carton and pillow covers cut from a shimmery golden quilt.

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