What a time to be staging The Domestic Crusaders. We sorely need Muslim voices to be heard! Then again, that could be said of any time in the recent past. What is it about the Muslim identity in America that makes this play relevant almost 15 years after it was first penned? What does it mean to be an American Muslim? A Pakistani-American Muslim?
Let me break it to you, The Domestic Crusaders doesn't have the answers. What it does have is the potential to spur introspection. It tries to bring granularity to the monolithic identity of "being a Pakistani-American Muslim" through its quirky characters. A mother who draws courage and dignity from her Pakistani Muslim heritage, a father disgruntled by racial micro-aggression at his workplace, a capitalist stock market broker, a leftist hijab-wearing lawyer, a young man who uses religion to theoretically explore the meaning of life, and the unfazed grandfather who tries to diffuse the unending family squabbles with learnings from the Quran.
A day in the life of this Pakistani-American Muslim home brings out the idiosyncrasies of each character, their relationships with religion and politics, their struggles and, indeed, their biases.
Why is this granularity important, you ask? According to a recent Pew Center Reseach survey (2011), 30% of American Muslims describe themselves as white, 23% as black, 21% as Asian, 6% as Hispanic and 19% as Other/Mixed Race. Meanwhile, we are constantly inundated with opinions through articles, tweets, snapchats, and memes about the Muslim identity. In a time where it is all too common to see headlines that include "Muslim Americans are...", or "most Americans think Muslims are...", shouldn't we reflect upon how we are grouping people together into these simplistic categories? When we hear stories of passengers on flights being harassed for wearing turbans, speaking Arabic or sporting beards, it's useful to think about why they are singled out and assumed to be Muslim. What are the flight attendants, employers, neighbors, and police officers seeing? And where do they get their ideas of who Muslims are and what they look like? Responses to such incidents, tend to spark outrage clarifying the differences between Sikh, Middle Eastern or South Asian identities that are *not* Muslim. What does this mean for the passengers "correctly identified" as Muslim who routinely endure ordeals such as extra security at airports?
Back to the Domestic Crusaders. As we labor over constructing each scene and make claims as to what's beingsaid, it's fascinating to watch how we each simultaneously interpret the string of words on our scripts to mean different things. We spend hours debating if the character in question is sad, angry, defiant, cynical, resigned, hopeful, or some mix of everything as she looks out at the audience and bares what being Muslim means to her. The fiery passion with which we each argue our cases may stem from our dedication to putting up a great show. Certainly, this active contesting of meaning and intentions by the team makes for a well thought-out and more complex, life-like rendition. But more interestingly, it strikes me as a reflection of how we constantly contest the values and meanings associated with our social identities in real life.
Fatima, the character I'm playing is a headstrong, idealistic and confrontational law student who carries the weight of many intergenerational disagreements in her interactions with her parents throughout the play. These range from her parents' unease with her decision to wear the hijab and boldly hold her ground at political rallies, to her resistance to their coaxing to "find a nice boy and get married". However, to me, the most important idea that Fatima champions is solidarity with the struggles of other people. She does this through stinging jibes targeted at her parents' and elder brother's casual dismissal of the dignity and/or oppression of people of various cultures, religions, nationalities and gender identities.
Fatima unapologetically forces us to contemplate the role of South Asian Muslims in the social justice movements against existing structures of discrimination against African Americans, Middle Easterners, LGBTQ persons, working class people of color, women, etc. In particular, her disbelief and anger at her parents' refusal to accept her choice of a Black Muslim partner, forces introspection about the negative stereotypes perpetrated by one marginalized identity against another. Unfortunately, being a minority doesn't prevent us from trying to be superior to other minority groups. Fatima reminds us to keep this in check, and that discrimination in all forms must be fought against through dialogue with other groups in search of liberation. It is this solidarity among groups with intersecting identities and issues that will help achieve more equitable social relations. Of course, Fatima herself isn't immune from her own biases and judgements about social relations. I take this as a reminder of how learning is never complete.
As I noted, we don't have all the answers!
Afroz Zain Algiers plays Fatima in The Domestic Crusaders. Tickets are now on sale.