**** – 4 stars
On Saturday I had the pleasure of attending a two-act play by Wajahat Ali at the Durham Studio Theater at Berkeley University. The Domestic Crusaders centers around Ghafur, played by Adeel Ahmed, the youngest of three children in a Pakistani American family who have come together to celebrate his 21st birthday. It sounds benign, but quickly spins into a wild nuanced conflict, as the title suggests, when Ghafur brings news of his college plans to his father, played by Imran Javaid. I found the performance convincing and intimate. No stumbled lines. No Awkward pauses. No missed cues. If there were any errors in the delivery they were known only to the actors themselves. Admittedly, I am not much qualified to critique theater. The last time I saw a play was a high school field trip to the San Jose Repertory Theater. So, I’m no gauge of quality, but more experienced critics are saying this is on par with Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neil. I thought I would share my more amateur observations of the playwright’s treatment of culture.
Though not a musical, The Domestic Crusaders reminded me of The Fiddler on the Roof. Instead of a Jewish family we have a Muslim family. Instead of a backdrop of the Russian Revolution we have the War on Terror. But both stories grapple with the difficulties of traditional parents letting go of three children who are abandoning tradition. The Domestic Crusaders struggles with gender roles, racism, career ambitions, religion and even stir up family secrets that the grandfather, played by Abbas Zaid, had hoped to leave in Pakistan. Though this is a common experience for Pakistani families in America right now, it is also the universal story of the immigrant generation coming to terms with raising fully integrated Americans, or perhaps not coming to terms. In the first scene an “F.O.B.” Desi mother, played by Nidhi Sigh, turns off the Muslim call to prayer and rocks out to Tom Jones. I knew immediately that this was going to be something unique.
The play was succinct in identifying the three ways children cope with psychological injury when culture becomes destructive. I am still uncertain whether this was intentional, or if it is just such a common experience that it came naturally from the creative process. If a child experiences emotional trauma during their formative years, and then their parents tells them the injury is virtuous because it is culture, that prevents the child from fully healing, or processing the anger. Each of the children in this family personifies an archetypal mechanism of coping with that unprocessed rage, and living with the injury: emulation, transference, and internalization.
The oldest son Salahuddin, played by Kamran Khan, describes himself as a bull amongst cattle. He has abandoned all tradition and adopted a creed of hedonism and social Darwinism. He is concerned only with economics, and is irreverent toward all. He demonstrates emulation by responding to the aggression of his childhood by becoming an aggressor himself. If his injury is virtuous he will abandon virtue. The victim of emotional trauma who emulates his aggressor mitigates the risk being victimized again by victimizing others.
The daughter Fatima, played by Shiva Monisha, scoffs at her mother’s wishes for her to learn to cook and be a good housewife and instead attends law school and concerns herself with global conflict, specifically Palestine. She attends protests, gets arrested for her activism and rails against every injustice except one, her own childhood trauma. She demonstrates transference by responding to the aggression of her childhood by seeking out an insurmountable evil which can serve as a repository for infinite rage. Unwilling to confront the true source of her injury, she transfers that anger toward a foe which she can confront but never defeat. Though she claims to want to change the world she believes that people, specifically her parents, can never change.
The youngest son Ghafur is viewed as “the golden son” for his willingness to fulfill his parents’ dreams, specifically of raising a doctor. He demonstrates internalization by responding to the aggression of his childhood by allowing himself to be crushed into a meek obedient perpetual child. The child who internalizes emotional trauma convinces themselves that they deserved the injury, thus preserving the fantasy of their parent’s virtue. Ghafur alone confronts this vicious cycle by attempting to overcome his cultural scar tissue. He takes his destiny in his own hands by abandoning medical school and studying to become a history teacher, thus forcing a physical confrontation with his father, and rousing the anxiety of all.
An interesting aspect of the family dynamic is the role of food throughout the play. Salahuddin says it plainly when he observes that the family would rather sit and drink chai than address their problems. Though they will disagree on every subject they repeatedly come together to share food. Chai and biryani. Ice cream and cake. Food, especially cultural food, acts as a kind of crutch for a broken family. So, while culture may be the culprit at the center of their conflict, it also provides a release valve for the escalating tension. But it’s only a temporary solution. While food may alleviate the immediate symptoms of the family dysfunction, for the root cause to be healed catharsis is necessary, and food seems to be an easy distraction whenever the risk of real family dialogue emerges.
Although the play is poignant in identifying of the problems faced by many families, it offers no real solutions. The closest to actual healing the family comes is when Hakim, the grandfather, tells his harrowing story of life in Pakistan, but any potential instantly takes a back seat to the birthday cake. Still, there is a vague sense of optimism. Ghafur remains resolved in pursuing his own dreams. Khulsoom, the mother, gives some indication that she is softening to Fatima’s choice of spouse. Salahuddin and his father, Salman, seem poised for some kind of reconciliation. The play remains unresolved, which might seem pessimistic, but I think not being permitted to witness the healing leaves the audience to contemplate their own lives. People of any background can see themselves in these characters.
Throughout the play references are made to T.S. Elliot’s poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, specifically the line, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” Though it could be taken to mean the world at large, the global conflict, and the pursuit of destiny, I think it has a double meaning. To the child the family is the whole universe. I believe this question is meant to ask the audience, of every culture and every creed, “If you want to heal the world, do you dare disturb the family?”
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