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.

Continued from page 3

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.

Under the tutelage of UC Berkeley professor and playwright Ishmael Reed and direction of Carla Blank, Ali’s play has opened to stellar reviews from Muslim and non-Muslim media alike.

The story begins by going down the well-trodden road of South American cultural and generational gaps, intra-familial conflict and misunderstanding as mined in the past by other ethnic American comedians. At first this is a little frustrating. Why does Ali, certainly a gifted humorist, feel the need to sprinkle the story with one-liners poking fun of the backwardness of the older generation and the sometimes over-the-top mindset of those born or raised in America?

If Ali were to stop here, "The Domestic Crusaders" would be no better than a stage version of "Bend it like Beckham" or similar fare. But the play reaches further, and in the ways that it is different from those works gives this play meaning–dare I say, an Islamic meaning.

The story explores the life of a Pakistani-American family, whose children are struggling to find the shared ground between being opinionated, ambitious American youth and hewing to the Islamic values that they learned from the previous generation. It asks, what does it mean to be a Muslim in America? What parts of American culture can be integrated into the still-emerging American Muslim culture? Where is the line that exists between the cultural values of the immigrant generation and the Islamic ones?

Ali’s play takes place during one day in the life of a family of six that loosely parallel the lives of a typical multi-generational immigrant Muslim family in post-9/11 America who struggle (i.e. "crusade") to explore and maintain their own unique experience and identity while remaining a cohesive family unit.

The three American-born children follow archetypes that resemble many Muslim youth growing up in America: Eldest child Salahuddin, pushed by his parents to excel at everything, represses a growing resentment; daughter Fatima continually defends her unique Islamic identity in the face of family traditions and American culture; and youngest son Ghafur is determined to strike out on his own path regardless of what his family thinks of him.

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Salman, the father, feels the pressure of being the family patriarch and breadwinner but stoically carries out his duty despite his own personal needs. And his wife Khulsoom plays a fish out of water trying to maintain a cultural bubble around herself and (less successfully) around her family. Salman’s father Hakim, a retired Pakistani army officer, plays a quiet background role until a terrible revelation fills in some of the pieces of the missing puzzle and provides a bridge for understanding between family members.

While Ali has strived to make the play as professional as possible–and he succeeds in meeting all the standards of any similar production in a large metropolitan area–he was determined to cast the play with actors from the local Pakistani community, whether they had formal training or not. He coaxes incredibly convincing performances out of an amateur cast, who were blessed with an interesting and at times rip-roaringly funny script that is so true to the reality of living a Muslim life in America that it is easy to imagine this discourse actually happening in an American-Muslim home.

But this play is more than a Muslim "All in the Family." There’s serious ground to be covered, and you might find yourself checking your laughter as the play moves forward. The grandfather of the family has a hidden past that shapes everything the family is, as revealed through a confession that has each family member questioning where it is they have been and where they are going; exploring what is at stake in the relationship between Muslims and their neighbors; exploring what it means to have regrets about the past and the value of not letting go of memories, even if the scar tissue continues to irritate.

Ali’s gift for humor and cultural awareness–he has a command of many cultures that exist in America, not just Pakistani–help make the central themes in "Crusaders" understandable by all who watch it, This is one of the best things about Ali’s play–it explores themes from recent Muslim history and what we might think of as Muslim values and offers gifts from that experience to anyone who comes from a varied background, who is struggling to balance East and West. It’s also for those whose understanding of Islam and Muslims comes with a Fox News soundtrack.

To my knowledge, Ali’s "The Domestic Crusaders" is the first theater work by a Muslim (although the off-Broadway one-man play "Sakina’s Restaurant" by Aasif Mandvi of "The Daily Show" comes close) to humanize an American Muslim family rather than caricaturizing them. It’s a play that allows us to laugh with the characters rather than laughing at them. As a vehicle for dawah (spreading knowledge and understanding about Islam), it is an extremely important vehicle for turning today’s black and white world a little greyer and more human.

But dawah is not why "Crusaders" was made, and it would be a mistake to refer to it or use it in this manner. "Crusaders" was meant to tell a universal story--and showcasing the values– through the eyes of a Muslim family at home in America. Best of all, it passes the main test of a play–it is truly entertaining, makes us laugh and think at the same time, and acts as a clarion call to other Muslims whose art, beautiful as it may be, remains limited to reflections of an Islamic past that have little relevance for our non-Muslim neighbors.

Inshallah (God willing), other young Muslim artists in the West will follow the example of “Domestic Crusaders” and turn a stand-alone play into a rich genre that can be one of Islam’s great gifts to America.

An early version of “The Domestic Crusaders” premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theater in 2005 and in San Jose University Theater in the fall of 2005. The play will have its world premiere off-Broadway at the Nuyorican Theater in New York on 9-11-09 for a five weekend run until early October. For more information visit http://www.domesticcrusaders.com/

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