The Foreign Crusader: An interview with Wajahat Ali

From the March 14‚ 2011‚ issue

Courtesy of Wajahat Ali

Lawyer and playwright Wajahat Ali made waves in 2009 when “The Domestic Crusaders” made its off-Broadway debut. Nobel laureate Toni Morrison called it “moving, clever, and funny.” Ali, 30, is now co-writing a TV cop show, with a Muslim-American lead, with author Dave Eggers. Newsweek Pakistan’s Sanam Maher spoke with Ali on e-mail. Excerpts:

Your play is about the obstacles a Muslim family faced in America after September 11. What challenges did you confront in getting this play staged?

In  theater, no one ever has any money. So we did our first reading in a South Asian restaurant, where we gave the audience a buffet and show for $10 per head. The following year, we got a weekend space at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. I had to ask family and friends to donate money for the play. We also got a couple of thousand dollars in grants.

We used my family’s furniture for the set, my mother cooked for the cast, and we rehearsed in the director’s backyard. Artistic directors and theaters have always told me they respect the play, and enjoy it. The only frustrating part of this journey has been that many of them aren’t convinced this play is accessible to mainstream audiences. Or they assume there will be a backlash or controversy by staging a “Muslim-American” play. Our audiences have been diverse. The producer of the play is African-American, the director has a Russian-Jewish background, and two of my actors are Indian-American Hindus. We got a standing ovation at the Kennedy Center, and the five-week run at New York’s Nuyorican Poets Café broke their 40-year box office record. The play has also been published by [Eggers’s] McSweeney’s. So we’ve obviously been successful in being “mainstream,” right? These are some of the small, annoying challenges. But, overwhelmingly, the response has been enthusiastic and very, very rewarding.

How has this work helped in changing audiences’ perceptions of Muslims and Pakistanis?

Despite the stereotypes that were paraded around in the media regarding Muslims and Pakistanis, so many audience members from different races, religions, and ethnicities said they could relate to the universal themes and topics in the play. The play is meant to create dialogue. It’s not an easy play. It’s not comfort-food theater. Some toes are stepped on and some controversial and uncomfortable issues are brought to light. For nearly nine years, we failed to have a national conversation about the role of Muslim-Americans and address the fears and stereotypes that exist in the minds of Americans about Islam and Pakistanis.

Do you see other Muslim-American voices being heard in America?

There is an emerging American-Muslim renaissance that is bringing forth exciting, engaged, dynamic new voices to the forefront. There’s the comedy tour, Allah Made Me Funny; there’s The Butterfly Mosque, a wonderful memoir by graphic novelist and convert to Islam Willow Wilson. Hip-hop has Muslim rappers like Lupe Fiasco and Mos Def who talk openly about Islam. Dave Chappelle and Aasif Mandvi use comedy to tackle ignorance. Zarqa Nawaz has created a popular TV show—Little Mosque on the Prairie—which shows that Muslims are just as normal and crazy as everyone else. Art, by itself, can’t change the discourse, but used as a tool along with education, activism, media, and civic engagement, then it has a powerful role in shaping and changing the narrative.

How has your own biography shaped your work?

The Crusaders story is fictional, created completely out of thin air. But the inspiration and characters and dialogue come from a lifetime of being a Muslim-Pakistani-American and seeing, hearing, and interacting with all these fascinating characters and communities my entire life. My family is not your stereotypical desi family. My mom makes biryani and we drink chaiand my first language was Urdu. I’ve gone to Pakistan many times and am close to my cultural and religious roots. At the same time, my parents are rare in the fact that they never imposed the holy-trinity professions—medicine, engineering, business—on me. My father read a story I wrote in 5th grade and said I should become a writer. My mom encouraged me to continue writing but said it would be wise to get a professional degree, just to be safe.

Any plans to stage Crusaders in Pakistan?

Pakistanis love the play. I’ve been asked to bring it to Pakistan, which needs to see a play where Pakistani characters in America are seen as complex, intelligent and real human beings, not caricatures. We are more than just Taliban, terrorists, and cab drivers.


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