Ayad Akhtar: On Muslim identity, and life in America

July 17, 2014

To appreciate the relevance of playwright Ayad Akhtar’s work, you need look no further than two eerie coincidences that shadowed his debut drama, “Disgraced.” The play, which portrays the downfall of a Muslim American lawyer, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2013. The day the award was announced, two Muslims deposited pressure-cooker bombs near the finish line of the Boston marathon. A second grisly coincidence came a few weeks later. On the day “Disgraced” opened in London two Muslims murdered and tried to behead a British soldier on a busy street in what one said was revenge for the British army’s killing of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nobody linked these attacks to Akhtar’s play, but they were nonetheless chilling reminders of the violence that hovers at the edges of the territory he explores. “The work I’m doing is in direct dialogue with what’s happening in the Muslim world,” he said recently over dinner in New York.

‘A process of coming out’

By some measures, Akhtar is thoroughly American: born on Staten Island and raised in the Midwest. Both his parents are doctors who emigrated from Pakistan in the late 1960s. A Muslim identity pervaded his family to varying degrees — his father abstained from practice while his grandmother was so devout she lowered her eyes every time the prophet was mentioned. Young Ayad was drawn to his faith and went through a period of intense religious commitment. As he got older, he wanted to fit into American life but often felt invisible among the white kids in his suburban Brookfield, Wis., neighborhood. “I didn’t have a place in the culture in the same way that my white friends did,” he recalls.

Akhtar turns an introspective eye on Islam’s tough questions. Like the daughter Zarina in “The Who & the What,” he has long wondered about the true nature of the prophet Muhammad. In the play, Zarina has written a novel portraying the seventh-century founder of Islam as a real man; her aim, as she puts it, is to consider “who he really was” — to view him not just as a figure of worship but as a human. In considering the prophet, Zarina raises questions about the treatment of women under Islam. “I hate what the faith does to women,” she says. “For every story about [the prophet’s] generosity or his goodness, there’s another that’s used as an excuse to hide us, erase us.” Her father, Afzal, is outraged not only because of her blasphemy but because of the dangerous implications for a daughter he loves beyond measure. “In Pakistan, she would be killed for this,” he cries. Then, trembling at such a prospect, he adds: “If anything happened to her . . . .” But in the end, his ire gets the best of him and he wants to erase Zarina from his mind, telling her: “You make me regret the day you were born.” Akhtar has been obsessed with the prophet since he dreamed about him at age 8. He fully understands Afzal’s frenzy, but he also is in sympathy with Zarina. “I’m still trying to understand what the Prophet means not only to me but to our community,” he says.

Woman in Burqa Refused Entrance to Dutch Performance

November 10 2010

A woman wearing a burqa was refused entrance to a performance by Moroccan comic Anuar in the Dutch city Boekelo. The theatre had initially publicized a promotion in which the first ten women wearing burqas to the performance would be granted free entrance. Three women attended the performance in burqas- while two removed the garments when requested the third refused and was consequently denied admission. The theatre claims that she was denied entrance because of her behavior, not her dress.

Dutch News- http://www.dutchnews.nl/news/archives/2010/11/woman_in_burka_banned_from_the.php

Radio Netherlands Worldwide – http://www.rnw.nl/english/article/press-review-thursday-11-november-2010#4

Amsterdam theatre group promotes multiculturalism

Radio Netherlands Worldwide this week features a story on Jong Rast, a theatre project aimed at integrating youth in the multicultural Amsterdam West neighborhood.

The project holds auditions and recruits students from 15-24 years old from local schools, with the goal of finding “promising young actors from various cultural backgrounds who can relay their own experiences from different perspectives.” Sufyen, a participant in the program explains, “Everyone here has one passion: acting. We don’t care if people are black or white, what kind of clothes they wear or if a girl does or does not wear a headscarf.”

More and more young Muslims call for an end on the debate on French national identity

The debate on national identity in France became more focused on young French Muslims following the comments of Nadine Morano at Charmes. The president of the CFCM (the French Council of the Muslim Faith), Mohamed Moussaoui, critiqued the stereotypical image promoted by Morano.

A spokesperson for the Union of French Jewish Students called the debate on national identity a “theatre for the expression of prejudicial racism”. Leftist parties in France have also pointed to how “dangerous” the debate is for cohesive national identity.

Along these lines, Dominique de Villepin called for the end of the “terrible” debate which should have never begun. The former prime minister stated, “In a period of crisis, we have more important matters to attend to than creating further division.”

Festival brings faiths closer together

Organisers of a festival celebrating Islam in Sheffield built bridges of understanding about their faith with discussions, theatre and poetry. The event at Mount Pleasant Park, Sharrow, gave people an insight into contemporary Muslim life with a chance to discuss spiritual issues, culture and religion. Talks included a focus on what Islam teaches about jihad, meaning _to struggle’ in Arabic and not _holy war’, and the faith’s stance on terrorism, with questions and answer sessions. For those interested how the religion is practised there was a chance earlier in the week to discover what the Friday prayer is about, what is preached and there was a chance to listen to a sermon at the newly-built Madina Masjid. Other issues discussed at the festival were around Islamic finance and an explanation about why Islam forbids interest, and what the alternatives are when dealing with money.

German theatre stages Rushdie’s Satanic Verses without incident

A stage adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses debuted without incident in Germany Sunday, despite worries about the controversial production before opening night. German police were dispatched both inside and outside the Hans Otto Theatre in Potsdam, located southwest of Berlin, for Sunday’s nearly four-hour-long performance. Some German Muslim groups had publicly complained about the production before the curtain went up on what is billed as the first stage play of Rushdie’s novel. The adaptation, for which Rushdie gave his consent, was created by the theatre’s director Uwe Eric Laufenberg and playwright Marcus Mislin. Police said that there were no direct threats or disturbances surrounding the event, but that uniformed and undercover officers had been assigned as a precaution. Indian-born British author Rushdie has long been the target of extremists for his novel, which was deemed blasphemous by many in the Muslim world.