Disgrace on Stage

Since I came to Boston College Law School in the Fall of 2013, the dialogue on campus about race and culture has moved front and center. This semester, part of that continuing dialogue has included BC Law’s promotion of Disgraced, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Muslim-American Ayad Akhtar. Huntington Theater Company summarized the play:

In Disgraced, high-powered New York lawyer Amir has climbed the corporate ladder while distancing himself from his Muslim roots. When he and his wife Emily host a dinner party, what starts as a friendly conversation escalates, shattering their views on race, religion, and each other.

As an American who was raised Muslim, I am acutely aware of how rare it is to find a central, three-dimensional depiction of our community in the mainstream media. The closest I can recall was the short-lived TLC reality show All-American Muslims, which went just eight episodes before succumbing to backlash from bigoted interest groups, cowed advertisers, and low ratings.

Even President Obama, in a touching speech during his recent historic visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore, briefly mentioned our conspicuous absence in mainstream storytelling:

Part of what we have to do is to lift up the contributions of the Muslim-American community not when there’s a problem, but all the time. Our television shows should have some Muslim characters that are unrelated to national security because it’s not that hard to do. There was a time when there were no black people on television. And you can tell good stories while still representing the reality of our communities.

So of course, I was excited to learn that Disgraced even existed. There is much to explore about the Muslim-American story, especially given how fundamentally it changed after 9/11. Since then, Muslim-Americans have been forced to reconcile our identities, both privately and publicly, in the wake of every atrocity carried out in our name. It has been distracting, dehumanizing, and exhausting to endure, not to mention frightening.

Finally, Disgraced was one of us earning the chance to share our story, truthfully and unapologetically; to humanize ourselves in a way that only great art can, warts and all.

I headed into Huntington Theater feeling optimistic and hopeful.

I left feeling betrayed, ashamed, and angry.

Spoilers ahead.

There are two representative Muslim characters on stage in Disgraced. The first is the main protagonist, Amir, who no longer practices Islam and takes every opportunity to disavow aspects of the religion that he finds distasteful. The second Muslim character is Amir’s young nephew Hussein, a practicing immigrant Muslim who, while devout, takes pains to hide his Muslim identity for fear of cultural backlash. Hussein even goes so far as to change his name to the more inconspicuous “Abe.”

Hussein/Abe, along with Amir’s wife Emily (a non-Muslim white woman), Amir’s co-worker Jory (a non-Muslim black woman), and Jory’s husband Isaac (a Jewish man), all try to convince Amir that his view of Islam is skewed and unfair.

Hussein does so by appealing to Amir’s past devotion, questioning why Amir would turn his back on a religion that he once believed in so deeply, only to be called to task for doing so himself by changing his name and hiding his identity. The non-Muslim characters’ defenses of Islam are, by design, not couched in the substance of the religion. Rather, they engage in a cultural defense of Islam—its art, its history, and its contributions to humanity. Amir has none of it, insisting that his view of Islam is reality and all else is whitewashed, willful ignorance.

The tension builds to a climax during the central dinner party scene, featuring Amir and the non-Muslims. Fueled by liquid courage, Amir acridly rejects everything he hates about Muslims: the way they treat women, their racism, their anti-Semitism, their sense of entitlement to the world, and the violence they enact on that world in response. 

These are familiar notes to any American, the very base stereotypes about Muslims we hear on television everyday from pundits, activists, and leaders of political parties the world over. We also see these lazy stereotypes reflected widely in mass media, whether on television dramatizations like Fox’s 24 or in films like Tina Fey’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Within Muslim-American communities, however, these notes have never resonated particularly well. Rather, these are the types of depictions of Islam that we worry about in our homes and mosques, wondering how in the world it ever got to be this way when the truth of the families and community we inhabit could not be more broadly different. 

So Amir’s words struck me in a very personal way. They were unsettling and saddening.

Of course, Disgraced is fiction, and my reaction was likely the intended one. After all, Amir is a fictional character playing a role to serve a purpose. He is the self-loathing Muslim-American who rejects a fringe version of Islam that certainly exists and that the vast majority of Muslims and non-Muslims alike find repugnant.

Amir is the vehicle by which Akhtar could have challenged these simplistic views of the Muslim. Perhaps the Muslim isn’t Emily’s benign Muslim, contributing nothing but inoffensive beauty to the world, but the Muslim certainly isn’t the malignant Muslim described by Amir, who contributes nothing but evil.

As taken aback as I was, I watched on expectantly, hoping for this cartoonish foundation laid by Amir to give way to something more realistic, more familiar, and more nuanced about the Muslim experience.

No such luck.

Instead, I watched in disbelief as Amir goes on to exemplify every one of those base stereotypes about the malignant Muslim, with the non-Muslim characters as the target of his wrath. In short order, Amir spews anti-Semitic comments to his Jewish guest and spits in his face, calls himself “the real n*gger here” in a heated exchange with his black guest, claims there was a part of him that felt “pride” when the towers fell on 9/11 as revenge for the West taking away the world to which his people were entitled, and viciously beats his wife in a fit of sudden anger after learning she had cheated on him.

What drives Amir to all of this outrageous and offensive behavior? Some might point to the fact that he is never allowed to integrate into America, never fully accepted, despite his meticulous attempt to shed the skin of Islam and assimilate. Amir is a victim, they might say, ultimately rejected as an other and forced to embrace a twisted version of his roots.

But that explanation is problematic for any number of reasons. Most egregiously, it presupposes that the Muslim, even the American-born apostate next door, has that savage malignance in him somewhere and is just struggling to repress it. Amir has just been playing American this entire time in a vain attempt to hide that undeniable truth.

“It’s tribal,” says Amir. “It’s in the bones.”

By this point in the play, I was completely shaken. Art is meant to be provocative, of course, and this play is lauded in part for its controversial and challenging nature. But this, a story of the Muslim-American written by a Muslim-American, is not challenging. It is lazy and reductive.

This is not the internal struggle that millions of Muslim-Americans suffer, it’s the internal struggle that so many Donald Trump supporters think Muslim-Americans suffer because all they know of us is the fringe–the 9/11 hijackers or the Boston Marathon bombers or the San Bernardino gunners. I recognized nothing here but the same, tired old fiction we have been force fed about ourselves for fifteen years, made doubly painful by virtue of its insider source.

Then I remembered Hussein. He is the Muslim character that seemed more level-headed about Islam. Though he feels the cultural pressure to hide his name, he is still involved in the Muslim-American community and even urges Amir to defend an imam unfairly targeted by the government. Hussein understands that there is a middle ground to be found between the benign and malignant Muslims. Maybe young, hopeful, grounded Hussein would be the counterbalance to the bitter, despicable caricature of Amir.

Hussein returns to the stage in the final act, having shed his fake name and his Western look for the traditional beard and kufi cap. So far, not bad–I know many devout young Muslim men who dress modestly and traditionally but are still just normal dudes. It is demonstrably possible to be both, though I imagine many Americans don’t know that. Maybe this is Akhtar’s moment to finally start to subvert the audience’s expectations.

But again, no such luck.

Hussein, it turns out, also succumbs to the ostensibly inherent evil of Islam, turning down the road to radicalization as another hopeless victim of the Muslim experience in America (specifically, a laughable off-stage experience with a Starbucks barista that somehow leads to detainment and questioning by the feds).

So, to recap, one Muslim character turns out to be an impotent, anti-Semitic, alcoholic, racist, wife-beating cuckold and the other a jihadist-style radical.

And scene.

Following the performance, Huntington Theater Company conducted a Q&A with the audience in attendance, most of whom had risen to their feet in a standing ovation for what we had just witnessed. This audience was mostly older, mostly white, and based on their questions and reactions, quite sophisticated. They celebrated the play and its message, interpreting it as sympathetic to the Muslim-American experience that was so unfamiliar to them and their victimhood to whiteness. It felt “authentic” and “real,” audience members said, because it came from the source.

But it was not authentic, I told them, and in my twenty-nine plus years of experience as a Muslim-American, it was not real. It was lazy, exploitative, and largely unrecognizable from the inside. Maybe the stage was not the place for a truly nuanced exploration of a minority community, but this felt like a fabrication.

My impassioned reaction was met with graciousness and support by many of the audience members at that Q&A and in the lobby afterwards. It was cathartic. It felt as though I had undone the damage Akhtar’s play had imposed, at least in part. If only I could attend every performance and attempt the same.

Of course, there is more to this play than what I have written here, including some commentary on workplace discrimination, colonialism, and cultural appropriation, and a through line involving a painting of a slave in his master’s clothing. But to be frank, I could not be bothered with those cloying, superficial attempts at poetry given the overwhelming missed opportunity that lingered above it all.

Every Muslim I know of that has seen this play had a similar visceral and critical reaction to mine, including childhood friends, fellow BC Law students, and experts like Dr. Noor Hashem, a contemporary Muslim fiction scholar from Cornell University.

Indeed, Disgraced has been harshly criticized by Muslim-Americans since it was first released in 2012. In an interview with CBS, Akhtar seems to think this backlash is rooted in the fact that he was “airing dirty laundry.”

That is quite a telling misinterpretation of the criticism. The implication is that the Disgraced version of Islam is rooted in some internal truth that Muslim-Americans want to keep within the walls of the community until we can get it under control. The reality is that Disgraced speaks very little to truth at all.

I did wonder whether I was missing something, though. This was a Pulitzer-Prize winning play, after all, and the most-produced play in the country. Something about Disgraced resonates with American theater audiences and critics. Did I miss the forest for the trees? Every character in the play was despicable in some way, and the stage is not known for subtlety. Perhaps this was just dramatic allegory at work.

If Disgraced was one of a dozen popular plays, television shows, or movies about Muslims in America, I might feel inclined to appreciate it at face value. But it is not. For many audience members who know nothing of the Muslim-American experience, this play might even be borderline definitional. To be sure, even that sophisticated, sympathetic audience at the Huntington Theater Company initially came away believing that what they saw on stage was authentic, even though it was only a degree or two removed from the Trumpian view of the Muslim. 

So no, the disservice done to the Muslim-American community cannot just be washed away by an invocation of poetic license. I detest that Disgraced is the most popular depiction of the Muslim-American experience that has ever existed in this country. It wields the legitimacy of its author’s identity to reinforce every terrible stereotype about us and in the process paints us as some hopeless victim savages that are trying to whiten up but cannot.

The only way to counteract the damage done by Disgraced is for Muslim-American artists and those who really know us to speak more loudly. I hope someone in our community does better than Akhtar did, and soon. I hope that those who decide what version of the Muslim-American story is worthy of praise and production give us the chance to tell our truth. I hope that audiences seek out our stories, too. 

As I continually reflect on Disgraced, I keep wondering why my reaction was so surprisingly severe. I think the reason is not that I identify as a Muslim, but that I identify unequivocally as an American, as my late immigrant grandfather did before me. In my experience, there is absolutely nothing questionable about that identification, and certainly not anything “in the bones” that has ever suggested otherwise.

President Obama said it best at that mosque in Baltimore (perhaps while quoting my esteemed colleague Zain Ahmad):

And here, I want to speak directly to the young people who may be listening. In our lives, we all have many identities. We are sons and daughters, and brothers and sisters. We’re classmates; Cub Scout troop members. We’re followers of our faith.  We’re citizens of our country. And today, there are voices in this world, particularly over the Internet, who are constantly claiming that you have to choose between your identities — as a Muslim, for example, or an American. Do not believe them. If you’re ever wondering whether you fit in here, let me say it as clearly as I can, as President of the United States: You fit in here — right here. You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America, too. You’re not Muslim or American. You’re Muslim and American.

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