Approximately 600,000 Muslims reside in New York City, but precious few appear on our stages. Heather Raffo has played several Iraqi women in her own 9 Parts of Desire and another in Judith Thompson’s Palace of the End. More recently, in Christopher Durang’s Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, Amir Arison helped reveal the lighter side of terrorism. And once in a while, a script demands the presence of an Iranian or Palestinian or Egyptian. Meanwhile, Americans continue to manifest abundant anxieties about Islam. Last year, when an Islamic group launched a subway ad campaign seeking to educate riders about the religion, the New York Post printed the headline, “Jihad Train!”
Last week, the theater issued a modest corrective, two plays sympathetic to Islamist experience. In Aftermath, a documentary piece at New York Theatre Workshop, nine Iraqi characters—eight of them Muslim—offer their stories. Several blocks east, at the Nuyorican Poets Café, Wajahat Ali’s The Domestic Crusaders features a Pakistani-American family beset by internal tensions and assimilationist pressures. During this play’s first scene, the keening call to prayer is heard, then the mother switches on the radio, replacing the adhan with Tom Jones’s “It’s Not Unusual.”
In a not unusual follow-up to The Exonerated, their play about falsely imprisoned death-row inmates, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen turn their attention to another unfortunate population, the Iraqi refugees of Amman, Jordan. Derived from interviews with 37 civilians, Aftermath focuses on eight narratives, with occasional comments from the Iraqi whom Blank and Jensen employed as a translator and fixer.
In the first sequence, we hear from Rafiq (Laith Nakli), a pharmacist and former resident of Fallujah. As he tenderly describes that city, he offers a depiction far removed from reports of bombings and sectarian violence. “There are no hotels,” he says with pride. “Whoever comes to visit, we have them as guests in our house.” Of course, Rafiq has had to abandon Fallujah, though not before suffering through his nephew’s violent death at the hands of American soldiers.
The play moves deftly from one narrative to another, most as harrowing as Rafiq’s. Two bakers have lost their home, an imam has been imprisoned in Abu Ghraib, and a young mother has seen her family die: “We have left everything behind,” she says, “our kings, our stories, our possessions, our wealth. I have been—we have been—darkened.” Occasionally, the show gives off a somewhat sanctimonious tone, but that doesn’t render Blank and Jensen’s work any less important or necessary.
Ali’s The Domestic Crusaders started as an assignment for a college writing class. Eventually, he secured a showcase at Berkeley Rep, directed by the professor’s wife. Yet, as Ali remarks in a program essay, no other theater would produce it. He credits the “paranoid and fear-mongering climate of the Bush administration.” Perhaps he should blame the play. Though heartfelt, lively, and possessed of a wealth of detail, it is also overwritten and structurally crude—awkward flashbacks, a climax involving overturned chai. Nor is there anything actually controversial about this dysfunctional family dramedy. Nevertheless, our theater has so few portrayals of Muslim Americans that one more, even if amateurish, is welcome—and certain scenes do suggest that Ali may write quite good plays in the future. So no need to cry over spilled chai.