Wajahat Ali Interview – PakUS Online


Wajahat Ali is a Muslim American of Pakistani descent. A writer, blogger and attorney, he is debuting as a playwright with his work, The Domestic Crusaders – the first major play about Muslims living in a post 9/11 America.  Wajahat’s blog, ‘Goat Milk’, addresses various aspects of the Muslim American diaspora and is widely seen as the playground for having intellectual debate.  In this interview, Wajahat talks about his journey and his motivations behind wearing so many hats.

Q.  Could you please give us a brief background: (place of birth, growing up, college, initial work experience)

A.  I was born and raised in Fremont, California.  My parents are Pakistani immigrants from Karachi and Pre-Partition Hyderabad and I am an only child. My grandparents have always stayed with us in the US so our set up was a mixture: traditional and yet modern at the same time.  For instance, no one in my nuclear family wears hijab but within my extended family, there are some who do.  I grew up with a strong Pakistani and Muslim identity: we pray, observe Eid-e-Milad-un-Nabi, Ramadan etc.

For the first few years of my life, I spoke only Urdu such that when I first went to school I did not speak any English. It was both humorous and ironic at the same time because I ended up graduating with an English degree. So I’ve had a very mixed upbringing: American, Pakistani, Muslim but I’ve never felt the need compartmentalize myself within any one of these identities – I couldn’t even if I wanted to.

Growing up, I became the “token” – the token Pakistani/Muslim.  There was just something about me that gave out an ‘it’ vibe that served the purpose of a stamp or tattoo.  So unwittingly I became the token representative.  But because I knew what I was talking about, I never ran away from the assigned ‘token’ role.  Growing up and going to a private school, I never really hung out with Muslims, Pakistanis or desis.  So I had a choice: either stay hidden, in a corner and not talk to anyone or to engage.  And I chose to engage and slowly my friends got it that I was their ‘Muslim friend’ and that during Ramadan, I wouldn’t eat.  That didn’t stop my friends from playing jokes on me like putting bacon bits into my salad to see if I would get swallowed up by hell.

As an only kid, I spent a lot of time doing creative stuff and staying in my own mind – drawing, reading, dreaming up epic stories for action toys.  Another friend of mine, a fellow Muslim, would come over during summers and we would make ‘movies’.  We would write our own scripts, direct and edit them.  We would lug around those 50lbs cameras.  We’d take turns being the hero.

In high school I was a good kid that got good grades so that my parents were not really after me.  I did rebel against getting a 4.0 like my other friends, and would get 3.8 just to prove that I wasn’t a nerd.  As the shy, overweight and desi kid, I did get picked on quite a lot, but at the same time, people liked me since  I was a nice guy.  Slowly but surely I realized that I could make people laugh and I could tell good stories.  That kind of keeps you alive as a fat kid. So I tried my hand at improv comedy and that went really well.

When college came, I became involved in the Muslim students Association (MSA) and did some sketch comedy theater.  We’d made the first Berkeley Sketch Comedy Troupe where we would write, act and direct in our own plays.  I was very active in college: in activism, student advocate office, etc.  Then 9-11 happened and as a board member of MSA, we felt that we were at a historical point in time where things were going to change.  So we decided that instead of extremist rhetoric and defensive posturing, we were going to use this opportunity to bridge the divide.  So about 75% of the 9-11 year, I spent in activism.

Then my last year, I took a class with Ishmael Reed. .  It was a short story writing class.  There were 12 kids in class, and you had to apply for the class by submitting a sample 10-15 page short story. .  The only thing I had written was a sketch comedy script that was no more than 10 pages.  I didn’t realize that I was submitting a ‘mini-play’.  I got into his class with that and every couple of weeks, you had to submit and read your short story in front of that 12 person class.  I read my first story and then 9-11 happened and I left for three weeks.  Being part of MSA, I felt that clearing misunderstandings and building bridges between the Muslim population and mainstream America was more important than academics at that time.

I came back to class  three weeks later to tell my second story.  I was afraid that my professor was going to yell at me for my absence, but instead he pulled me aside after class and told me that I was a natural playwright. He said he was interested in taking me under his wing and that he would help me with my playwriting, where he felt my real talent lay.  He told me to write a 20 page play that would, as he put it, be the Muslim American/Pakistani American Voice as opposed to a stereotypes that we see in the media.  And so, ‘Domestic Crusaders’ was born.

Q. Growing up in a Pakistani household, did you receive any parental pressure to not focus on English?

A.  Well interestingly, I used to be very good at math and sciences when I was in elementary school and then, for some reason, I had a mind shift towards writing, history, language and psychology.  And you know, this shift could just as easily not have happened and I would have gone down a completely different path.  My father actually recognized this shift because when I was about 9 or 10, I wrote a story and he read it and really liked it.  My fifth grade teacher also agreed.  Now, my mother did hold out hope that I would come around to ‘doctori’ but after a while even she realized and since then, they have both been very supportive.

But you know, I did share their desi practical point of view.  I understood that writing was difficult to do on its own and a person should  have a backup.  For me, law was that backup.  I never really had a passion for law but it’s a very useful degree and I’m really glad I did it.  For example, I’m taking serious risks with my career as a writer but what keeps me from being completely penniless and poor is law.  I can take a couple of clients and pay my bills whereas if you are just an artist, you’d be a waiter.

Q.  As a second generation Pakistani, what aspects of the Pakistani culture do you emphasize or maintain?

A.  My family is actually very Pakistani, very traditional: while they can’t be called ‘paindos’ as they are very much in touch with the American society, they take their religious beliefs very seriously.  Pakistani identity as a whole is very interesting because religion is such a natural part of Pakistani culture and the culture itself is such a melting pot of different cultures e.g. language, etiquette etc.  In that sense, I speak Urdu since in my family, knowing Urdu was very important.  My extended family, my cousins have all been raised fairly similarly in this regard.

My parents made it a point for me to visit our extended family in Pakistan regularly. For my parents, Pakistan was a critical part of our identity and they held the belief that just because you left it geographically, doesn’t mean that you ‘left’ it emotionally.   Caring about Pakistan as home, its history, Pakistani people as your own, is an integral part of my identity, even though my home is US.  My extended family, my cousins have all been raised fairly similarly in this regard – having pride, but not to the point of jingoism.  So overall, the message from my parents was to retain Pakistani roots and to not assimilate to the point of losing the richness of the traditions and culture.  Oh and Pakistani food is very, very important.  Biryani, Chai, daal – you can send me to Pakistan and I will fit in very well.

Q. Thanks for the clarification.  I think it is interesting to hear about how you were able to hold on to the Pakistani aspect of your ethnicity.  Often, the Pakistaniat gets shelved since it is often based almost on ‘imaginary homelands’ that immigrants create and it is often easier to go with a larger Muslim American identity as it is more tangible in some ways.

A.  Another thing to realize is that a lot of Americans didn’t know Pakistan until 2005.  I mean most people heard about it in the 1980s because of what was happening in Afghanistan but then they forgot about it.  And then the July 2005 bombing happened in London and then unfortunately, Pakistan got associated with Taliban, extremism, nuclear weapons etc.  Because of this exposure, you’ve also seen a lot of creative burst – with short stories, novels etc., people are paying attention to the Pakistani voice.

Q. You’ve worn many hats: author, activist, blogger, playwright.  How is it that you have dabbled in so many different activities?

A.  I get bored easily.  I’ve always been like this and maybe I dabble too much.  Actually, I think this goes all the way back to my childhood – I hated answering the question: what will you be when you grow up? I did not want to define or compartmentalize myself in that way.  And that is why I delayed declaring my major in College.  And desis in particular seem to be all about declarations: I am an engineer and that is my life.  We tend to define ourselves by our profession and our status: I am an engineer, I am married, I have 2.5 kids, I live in an upper middle class suburban area, I go to this masjid, and I have a BMW.  Therefore I am a success in my community.  It’s as if you are checking all the boxes and if you pass, you get an ‘A’.

This has always bothered me. I feel I am more than my degree and I want to be more than just my occupation.  A lot of people forget that people like the Rasool’s sahaba, Allama Iqbal, all did a lot of different things.  Iqbal was an attorney and yet he also wrote and he was a politician, scholar, an activist.  And this, I think, makes you more fluid and dynamic and makes life more interesting.  And because of technology, and the internet, we have so many more opportunities than our parents had that we can be much more resourceful.   So, as a ‘quiet rebellion’ against desi definitions, I’ve dabbled: I’m an attorney but I also write, first as a journalist, then blogger, then playwright.  One thing lends to another and I feel I am much more effective that way and makes life that much more interesting.

Q.  So was it during your journalistic phase that you thought of ‘Goatmilk’ your blog?

A.  Goatmilk was a ‘tukka’, much like the rest of my life! I just did it and it just kind of worked out.  I wish I could claim credit for it more seriously but I can’t.  I mean I didn’t even know what a blog was and I was actually very behind in the blogging technology when I decided to get a blog to warehouse my articles.  I pretty much learned blogging as I went along.  I didn’t expect others to read it, but I found that hits were increasing so I expanded to posting other articles and soon I did creative stuff like posting the Contemporary Muslim Women series, and the Muslims Talking Sex series, Minority Report Series and so forth.

Fast forward a year and a half and I get a call from Associated Press that they read my blog to get a pulse on the Muslim American scene.  I found that quite amazing, as was the fact that on the Muslim American scene, my blog was getting a lot of respect.  So the blog became an outlet for me to raise awareness for issues that affect Muslim Americans, whether through my own articles or through posting others.  And I have complete freedom and I can make it however I want to make it – I can post about movies, a joke, about Pakistan, about music, whatever.  The blog gives me a lot of freedom which I really appreciate.  And because it was always positioned to give me that flexibility, I am not constrained like other bloggers who target a particular audience.

That’s why I call it by its funny name: ‘Goatmilk – an intellectual playgroud’ – three things juxtaposed against each other that make no sense.

Q. But why the name ‘Goatmilk’?

A. It was my screen name for AOL in highschool and no one ever forgot.  And so I figured I’d go along with that name.

Q.  What kind of traffic does the Blog get?

A.  Well, I am more proud of the fact that we get quality folks who come to the blog.  Associated Press checks it out, CS Monitor and CNN sometimes link it up to its blog post.  I get a lot of respected writers and journalists checking it out.  And we are about to get our 1 millionth visitor pretty soon.

Q.  You used to do a lot of interviews before, and I wanted to know how you got access to some folks like Howard Dean?

A.  Yes, I haven’t done very many of those in the last six months because they take up an enormous amount of time.  And as for access, it was a lot of hustle and luck.  I was relentless in my hustle. .  Actually what you need are a couple of good interviews and once you’ve established a good track record, you build a portfolio which gets you credibility and respect.

My first major coup was Seymour Hersh.  I cold called him and he was in a good mood and he agreed to set up an interview with me.  I went to my friends at Altmuslim and asked them if they’d be interested in his interview, and they were.  I called Seymour the next week, just to remind him of our upcoming interview.  Instead of an answering machine, Mr. Hersh picked up, testy and annoyed, and obviously having no memory that he’d set up this interview.  He spent the first fifteen minutes tryinh to get out of the  interview, who I was, and then midway through the talk, he just decided to go ahead with the interview.  The interview was very much on the fly as I didn’t have all my questions set up (for an interview that was supposed to take place the next week!).  But I gave it my best shot and it didn’t turn out half bad! (http://goatmilkblog.com/2008/01/16/seymour-hersh-interview-by-wajahat-ali/)  A lot of people read and liked that interview.

Once I got that started, it set things in motion.  Counterpunch published them, and so I got a place to publish my interviews and I built my reputation from them.

As a Pakistani American, I am very proud of this accomplishment.  Someone actually approached me to write a book about Pakistan, but I don’t think I’m a scholar enough on the issues there to write about them.  But if you read my articles chronic logically, from 2007 to 2009, you get a good historical snapshot on what went on in Pakistan during that time.  I interviewed Fatima Bhutto, Ahmed Rashid, Tariq Ali, Ayesha Siddiqa, Imran Khan during that time.

Q.  I know you wrote the play Domestic Crusaders for your class.  What made you decide to put that play into production at this time?

A.  Well, actually, when I submitted the play to my Professor Ishmael Raed back in 2003, he liked it so much that he asked me to stage it.  We turned a desi restaurant into a community theater.  We did auditions for local Pakistanis, and then Carla Blank, Professor Reed’s wife and a drama director trained them for a stage reading.   We expected 50 people to show up, and 350 people showed up.  The show was sold out, we had to turn people away!

The actual staging which took place in 2004 was at a Bay Area Pakistani restaurant where we had the buffet, chai and show, all for $10.  And the reason for the cheap pricing was that I had thought that Pakistani people are not that much into arts and we would not be able to attract them if we kept prices too high (even $15!) and I threw in the Pakistani food.  Figured this way they would come.  It was novel enough that it caught people’s attention and it was a huge hit.

I thought that was that.  But then Professor Reed said let’s take this thing to the professional stage. I had already started law school at UC Davis by then.   Berkeley’s Repertory Theater allows community members to occasionally have space.  So they gave us the Thrust Stage for a weekend.  We staged a  professional show– but it was done on a shoe string budget as we had no money. We trained in my director’s backyard, my Ammi made khana for the cast I drove the U-Haul, I made chai for my cast and we used furniture and rugs from my parents home for the set.  We raised a couple of thousand dollars from some grants and that was that!  We showcased the play professionally and it was a huge hit.

With multi-cultural audiences, we got standing ovations.  Couple of months later, San Jose said they wanted the play, so we did it in San Jose University Theater on 9-11-2005.  Again, we got a great reception.  What happened was that a BBC reporter had been present at Berkley’s production. the.  So BBC World did a 10 minute feature on us.  This was pretty amazing because no one knew us, we had no major actors, we had no money, but because the story was so novel – the voice of Muslim Americans post 9-11 and post 7-2005.  So people were really focused on all things Pakistani.

After that, I continued with my law school and we kept trying to produce it on a more professional level, but everyone kept rejecting me.  So we realized that the producers, theaters were not ready yet.  Don’t get me wrong – the multi-cultural audiences who came to see the play all loved it.  But theater producers and directors were hesitant even though in private some told me that they loved the play but…So there was always this ‘but’.  And of course the ‘but’ was there because it was about Muslims and Pakistanis and people were just afraid and the Bush environment was definitely not conducive to dialogue.  That was the only frustrating part of the journey – you have a product that works, is unique and liked by audiences, yet still people were afraid of consequences and what “might happen.”

After I finished law school, I was overwhelmed with a sense of urgency.  I felt that the time was now.  And so we redoubled our efforts and finally, Nuyorican Poets Café decided that they would be willing to support our efforts.  I spent a year trying to convince the community that they should help me in my fundraising efforts.  I collected $31,000 and a year later, we put up the show.

New York Times, The Village Voice , Newsweek, all carried reviews of the play.  We played to oversold out houses, made a profit.  And now the hope is that a theater or a producer will step in and take the risk.  The interest is there and I’ve been getting calls from Dubai, Chicago, London but let’s see.

Q.   Can you give us a brief synopsis of the play?

A.   The play is a universal story about a family as seen through a very specific lens – it portrays the voice of a people who’ve never really been heard from before.  It’s one day in the life of a Muslim American Family and it takes place in the family home.  The family doesn’t have a last name, there’s no location and there’s no date.  The youngest son comes home to celebrate his 21st birthday and his mother has invited everyone back to the house for the occasion.  There are three generations gathered in one spot – the retired Pakistani Army general, the immigrant son and his wife who are now upper middle class and their 3 American born children.  What we see are lingering tensions and  the family’s dirty laundry  exposed over the course of one day.

Q.  What role does Politics play in this play?

A.  I think people get surprised at how much politics does come out in the story.  It’s a universal drama about family relationships with mundane stuff like chai and biryani but there is also consciousness  about a post 9-11 environment that permeates the whole story.  And that’s a deliberate effort on my part and it generates discussion.  In fact, the word ‘Muslim’ and ‘Pakistani’ in itself are political. And people ask me, when can we get over that and can’t we just move on? My answer is, can you actually run away from history? And the play tries to address that and makes you think that you have to at least confront the reality and the existence of history in order to move on.  And so, only through confronting the memories and consequences of 9-11, can you have a certain catharsis.

And people ask me, why can’t we just have a regular Pakistani story devoid of some of the negative and uncomfortable connotations and I’m all for that but in the beginning, when trying to introduce people to your culture and ethnicity, you have to confront it.  So the play weaves in the political with the mundane.  And maybe that’s how life is being Muslim in America post 9-11.  You can’t escape this when you are being bombarded by it daily.

Q. How can the community at large help you?

A.  I think a lot of community members have been appreciative of my grassroots efforts.  Now what we have to do is to build an institution.  Just like the Jewish Americans spent the time, effort and money into building up a presence in the media and arts, we have to also be willing to participate in getting Muslim voices out.  And the Muslim American community in the US is quite well off but we waste our money enriching ourselves rather than putting that money towards arts.  If you can’t do it through money, then you do it via encouragement – parents can support their children if they want to become writers, artists or thinkers as this is how you change culture.  If you don’t like the stereotypes of Pakistanis in media, you have to come forward and change it.

For me, it should not have taken me a year to raise $31,000.  It is unfortunate that our community doesn’t understand the importance of supporting efforts like the Domestic Crusaders to get Muslim American voices heard among the cacophony of extremist, anti-Muslim rhetoric. Having said that, there has been some level of change over the last five years, both in the younger as well as the older generation, A realization that we need to encourage members of our community to engage with the written word.  We have enough engineers, now we need more teachers, police chiefs, journalists, artists.  You can’t demand that America treat you nicely if you  you don’t participate in civic society.

Q. What’s the future of the play?

A. If we’ve done our job, I won’t have to raise money again.  It’s good to go.  Give me a couple of months and hopefully a theater or a producer will come pick it up.  Right now a theater in Dubai, London and Chicago are really interested.  There’s a lot of interest.

Q. Any advice you can give to future playwrights?

A. Writing is a skill and a craft that requires talent and energy.  Everyone thinks they are a natural- born writer.  Dedication, time, effort and passion are critical. If you don’t’ have passion, I’d say don’t do it, because that is the only thing that sustains you.  Money should not be a motivation because it comes rarely and also over time.  What I would recommend doing though is to write.  You’ll never know until you try.  If it doesn’t work, who cares? Hide it! But at least try and also keep your voice, especially if you are Pakistani or Muslim or a minority..  So I really encourage young Muslim, Pakistani writers to embrace their identity, whatever it might be, be honest and work at it.  And also have courage of your convictions because there will be a lot of people both within and outside your community who’ll be tearing you down.

So have confidence in your Voice, and in your talent; at the same time it is a balancing act to take constructive criticism and to shed negative criticism that undercuts you.  And this is key to ‘ethnic’ writers as we are told to ‘mainstream’ your voice and all that does is that it makes you abandon  everything about you that makes you interesting.  What I have found is that as long your characters are interesting, your dialogue is well written, the story is engaging, you will have an audience: white, black, asian, everyone will like it.  The reason I say this is because white writers are never asked ‘is your very white story relatable to mainstream?’  but ethnic writers will always be asked that question.  And I tell you, people get it.  My director is Russian Jewish, the people who give standing ovations are Irish Americans, East European.

Q.  What are your future plans?

A.  Well I have a solo practice and currently I am working with clients, trying to keep them in their homes.  Loan modifications, affordable payment plans.  I eat what I hunt, so I’ve done Pre-nuptial agreements, contracts, living trust.  As an attorney, I’ve been out only 2 years and I have no specialization.  If the writing doesn’t work out, well I guess I become Wajahat Ali, Pakistani Attorney.  I’m at an interesting crossroads in my life, let’s see which path I end up taking.  

Q.   Is there anything that you’d like to share that we haven’t asked you?

A.  No I think we’ve pretty much covered it all.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us and we wish you the very best of luck in all your future endeavors!

Till next time,
Khuda Hafiz!

Aaliya Naqvi-Hai

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