In recent years—and especially since 11 September—many self-proclaimed experts have tried to place Muslims in the United States under a microscope for examination and analysis. But this 11 September, The Domestic Crusaders, one of the first major Muslim American plays, will present complex Muslim American characters on stage, in contrast to the simplistic caricatures portrayed by Hollywood or political propaganda.
The Domestic Crusaders is a loaded title. The word "crusade" brings to mind the tragic potential of religious division and intolerance, whether in medieval times or presently. The play defuses the explosive power of the term by showing the humanness of Muslim Americans who straddle both East and West. They are people simply trying their best to live their lives, strive for their dreams and understand themselves.
The six characters in the play represent three generations of one family who gather to celebrate the youngest son's 21st birthday in their suburban home. The family dynamics illuminate the triumphs and struggles of individuals dealing with faith and identity in a globalised and ever-changing world.
There is the grandfather, Hakim, an eccentric, retired Pakistani general who dispenses humour and wisdom while enjoying his daily cup of tea. His granddaughter, Fatima, is an outspoken and strong-willed 24-year-old law student and activist who wears the hijab, or headscarf, much to the annoyance of Khulsoom, her Pakistani immigrant mother. Khulsoom disapproves of her daughter's newfound religious and political activism, wishing she would find a nice husband instead.
Fatima, neither oppressed nor submissive, is critical of the men in her community and prefers to spend her time protesting at political rallies despite her older brother, Salahuddin, mocking her activism as a "crusader fad faze".
Their father, Salman, is a successful corporate engineer who is obsessed with making sure his sons follow in his footsteps and take "high-status" jobs. The youngest son, Ghafur, struggles with his identity as a Muslim American and with his father's vision for success: going to medical school and then earning a high salary. Ultimately, Ghafur decides against becoming the family's first doctor and resolves that he will chart his own course, a conclusion he comes to soon after he is racially profiled at the airport for having a beard and wearing a traditional kufi, or cap, on his head.
Regardless of apparent familial, cultural and religious differences, audience members can easily identify and empathise with the characters' triumphs and tragedies—sibling rivalry, generational divides, parental expectations and trying to hold onto one's faith and culture in a pluralistic society. All issues that are tackled in the play transcend barriers and speak to issues that every family—whether Muslim American or not—deals with.
The Domestic Crusaders began as a short story for a writing class when I was a student at University of California, Berkeley in 2001. The play's journey reflects something of America's journey in a post-9/11 world: moving from fear to hope. Since the inaugural 2005 performance in Berkeley, my team and I have tried to bring the performance to other venues but artistic directors around the country, who in private said they loved the play, have been hesitant to host The Domestic Crusaders, reflecting the politically sensitive atmosphere of the time.
But now, times are changing.
The landmark Nuyorican Poets Cafe, a cultural staple of the Lower East Side in New York City, agreed to house The Domestic Crusaders.
After spending a year travelling the country to raise funds and generate awareness for the play, we have created a multicultural, national grassroots movement dedicated to hearing these crusaders finally speak on stage—where they belong.
Good things take time. And on this 9/11, a fateful day forever reminding the world of the tragic consequences of extremism, madness and violence, The Domestic Crusaders will make its New York City debut and remind us that stories not only have the power to entertain and educate, but can also create bridges of understanding and healing.
* Wajahat Ali (www.goatmilk.wordpress.com) is a writer, journalist, blogger and attorney. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).