Making Muslim American Theater

Domestic Crusaders


“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 Crusadershas 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. Continue reading

Why artists of the Muslim world need to get on with the story

Wajahat Ali

Pep Montserrat for The National

During the time of the Prophet Mohammed, the storyteller was valued more than the swordsman. Through poetry and eloquence, the speaker used his artistry to weave words and rhyme like magic, often enthralling the audience as he used fiction and history proudly to narrate his tribe’s triumphs and tragedies.

Yet many modern Muslims have decried creative endeavours such as music, filmmaking, acting and theatre as “un-Islamic”. However, the watershed victory of President Obama in 2008 ushered in a new generation comprising vibrant, progressive Muslim artists who use their talents to redefine a bold new vision of art. One that reclaims their hijacked heritage, restores dignity to Islam and Muslims, deconstructs stereotypes and uses art as a means to build bridges of understanding.

When the two towers fell in New York, they took with them the inhibitions of many fear-mongering and prejudiced Islamaphobes who were given a licence under the Bush era to publicly spew vitriol against Islam and Muslims as harbingers of terror and cultural stagnation.

A narrative was immediately set, casting the protagonists as the West – a nebulous and nonsensical term referring to America and select parts of Europe – and the antagonists as Muslims and immigrants.

Unfortunately, Hollywood often tried progressive open-mindedness, but routinely failed, aside from the excellent Syriana starring George Clooney. In trying to portray Muslims positively, most mainstream Hollywood features can only muster depictions of Arabs against a backdrop of terrorism and extremism. It should surprise no one that a 2009 ABC poll revealed that 48 per cent of Americans don’t hold a favourable opinion of Islam; more than 50 per cent don’t know a single Muslim; and nearly 29 per cent believe mainstream Islam advocates violence.

However, because of the backlash against Muslims after 9/11, many Muslims renounced the traditional career path and opted for more challenging roles in the arts and media. Throughout history, marginalised groups and oppressed minorities have used art as a means to fight back against intolerance. The ingredients that fuel such sentiments are generally political – random profiling at the airport, for example – as well as a renewed respect for one’s identity, culture and people. The phase that many Muslims went through from 2001 to 2007 was a necessary step for artistic evolution, as it contained righteous indignation against inequality, vocal affirmation for one’s religious and racial identity, and healthy doses of political activism.

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Crusading for Modern Islamic Art

Beyond calligraphy, geometric designs and classic Islamic poetry, there’s Wajahat Ali, who with his new play “The Domestic Crusaders” is rewriting the book on what is modern Islamic art.

BY: Shahed Amanullah –

The Domestic Crusaders

As majestic as the history of Islamic art is and as celebrated as it is in today’s world, it has never been able to really extract itself from history. While the intricacies of Arabic calligraphy, geometric shapes, and varied architecture of the Muslim world are required subjects in any reputable school of art or architecture, they are taught more as history rather than an art that is living or relevant to the 21st century.

The state of Islamic art today has, with few variations, changed little from the classical art of centuries past. Beyond calligraphic arts, geometric designs, and certain musical forms that have existed in various parts of the Islamic world, there are few expressions of Islamic art today that venture outside these areas.

But is there more to Islamic art than what we have come to expect? A few artists have tried to expand the meaning of Islamic art in today’s world to areas such as music, film, and theater, but with limited success (at least in Muslim circles). Some have abandoned the idea of creating artistic expressions with an Islamic foundation and have resorted to creating secular or modern kind of art that has a few Islamic references.

But one artist, Wajahat Ali, has attempted to create what can loosely be called a Muslim play, although the themes embodied in it can be appreciated universally. Drawing on the tradition of storytelling that has permeated the Muslim world–yet has remained dormant for centuries–Ali’s play “The Domestic Crusaders” attempts to tie together themes of Muslim history and American Muslim culture, as much as such a culture exists today. Continue reading

A Muslim family takes center stage – The Domestic Crusaders

The Domestic Crusaders [] – The First Major American Muslim play will make its New York premiere at the Nuyorican Theater on 9-11-09.  This is an interview with Altmuslim done for the play’s Berkeley Repertory Theater premiere.

Do you think the American Muslim experience can be mined for material to make an engaging theater experience for all, Muslim or not?

WA: The unique experiences of any specific ethnic group can be mined for a rewarding, rich, and moving artistic experience provided there is an engaging script, well written dialogue, real characters, and themes which resonate with the audience; basically, the typical ingredient needed for any play to succeed. There is absolutely no reason why a compelling story, whether it take form in the shape of a comedy, drama, thriller, or tragedy, be any more or less engaging simply because the characters or actors do not fit the common, mainstream mold of being European, Judeo-Christian, or the minority du jour. An ethnocentric piece straddles the fine line of trying to be both true to the cultural heritage yet not excluding mainstream audiences. The way you avoid failing is to be as honest and true to your characters and dialogue, but also touch upon universal themes that are shared and experienced by all of humanity.

I visited Thailand in my youth and was surprised to see near poverty level boat merchants chilling in their bamboo stick houses – which sit about 8 feet above the water – watching American TV via a satellite cable that ran above their shack! In Pakistan back in the day, Baywatch was all the rage! I’m sure for the enlightening storylines and deep, profound characterizations… yeah, right. Point is, the Thai and the Desis weren’t American, European, white, or spoke English as their main language. Yet the American media still affected them. The American Muslim voice is especially unique considering the current geo-political cultural climate of the post 9-11 “us vs. them” mentality. People are talking about Islam, Muslims, and Muslim Americans – pundits on the left and right. Yet, we rarely hear and see an authentic Muslim American voice. As Muslims we follow a religion and thus have certain principles and moral guidelines that are shared by many other members of humanity who might not know of these similarities – and trust me, many dont! Also, due to the war on terror and the recent London bombings, people in America and the world sincerely want to know how American Muslims view these acts of terror, whether or not they condone or renounce them, and so forth. We are dealing with religion, culture, current politics, a war, civil liberties, the media, family drama, ethnic roots, and on and on. Now all we need is some miners. Continue reading

The Beheading of Aasiya: A wake-up call for the community

The murder of a Pakistani-American woman forces us to confront uncomfortable truths about the prevalence of domestic violence

The brutal beheading of Aasiya Hassan, a Muslim Pakistani-American mother of four, will finally force a community to confront and remedy the overwhelming – but frequently ignored and intentionally hidden – demon of domestic violence that has persecuted its silenced women for far too long.

The entire world reacted with shock and outrage as Muzzammil Hassan, a Pakistani-American businessman and co-founder of Bridges TV, was arrested for the gruesome murder of his estranged wife. Aasiya Hassan, an architect and MBA student, had recently filed for divorce and received a restraining order against Muzzammil as of 6 February 2009.

Contrary to some spurious reporting, this was not an “honour killing”, a barbaric practice that has its own unique motivations and historical culture, rather it personifies the all too common phenomenon of domestic abuse. Asma Firfirey, the sister of the deceased, stated Aasiya suffered last year from injuries that required nearly $3,000 of medical bills – allegedly the result of spousal abuse. Continue reading