Islam may be trending on the streets of New York

Thirteen years after the events of September 11, 2001, New York is ready to begin its cathartic process. News of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Qaeda may still dominate the majority of the news, but the feeling of the streets is more of intrigue rather than fear.

Most of the food carts in the city are halal, and the number one street cart in the city is called ‘Halal Guys’. To see people have chicken over rice from these carts has never been surprising but now some bars are also exclusively serving halal meat, ‘halal’ food is being embraced by hipsters for being more organic.

In the city, subway announcements about stations in Pakistani dominated areas are also published in Urdu. In the capital, a Friday prayer was held at the Washington Cathedral.

One of the top rated shows on television, Homeland, started four seasons ago with the premise of a US Marine converting to Islam and the current season is based in Pakistan.

Last week, while walking in High Line, I noticed art work engraved with the word ‘Allah’ as part of an art exhibition. There is graffiti with Arabic calligraphy at the corner of my street.

On Saturday, I headed to a theatre in East Village to see a play called ‘My Wife in a Chador’. I was very apprehensive about going to watch a play with the tagline, “Can a novelist with an Islamic wife win the mayoralty of New York City?” I assumed the word ‘chador’ referred to a chaddar (headscarf) but the French pronunciation of the word, sounding like ‘Shadoor’ threw me off.

Written by Claudio Angelini, a political correspondent of the Italian National Television, the play completely fails to capture anything to do with Islam. But at least he tried, and for that he must be lauded.

The play asked the right questions. And even though characters in the play reacted with disgust at the prospect of a candidate with a Muslim wife running to be the mayor of New York City, the audience did not.

The story revolves around a novelist, John Mayor, with a wife who is looking to embrace her Islamic roots. She changes her name from ‘Rosa’ to ‘Abeera’ and starts covering her head with a scarf. The costume choice of having the headscarf but maintaining the skirt for the first half even made me question my own sensibilities.

I felt a possessiveness about Islam I have not felt before, any misrepresentation had me jumping at my seat. As a playwright, I know the best characters are flawed and a play is not a sermon, but the lack of research on certain issues was jarring. Abeera serves her husband a “traditional Islamic meal”. I was born Muslim and I have never had a “traditional Islamic meal”, my first inclination was to think of iftars and dates but the unveiling of a goat curry was anti-climactic. The idea of the existence of any traditional Islamic meal was as ill-advised as a white blonde haired woman dancing on stage to Arabic music in attempts to be more ‘Islamic’.

The lack of a dramaturge on the team could be responsible for many of the mishaps.

The play had its faults, the acting was not believable and the plot lingered on unnecessarily. The comedy was forced; the punch lines made you cringe more than laugh. The only thing running riot were the clichés. However, the audience seemed to whole heartedly embrace the Islamic wife and actively cheered for her husband to win the elections. To throw a Bollywood twist, it was also revealed that his opponents had ties to ISIS.

Theatrically speaking, I felt the idea of the terrorists not being representative of the religion were forced into the story but maybe it served purpose for a largely American audience.

Running down on opinion polls, John’s head of staff asks him to ask his wife to take off her headscarf to increase opinion polls. The refusal of John to force his wife to change religions and agreeing to have a traditional nikkah with her is the moment of recognition and reversal in the play.

The acceptance of a mayor with a Muslim wife in a play in a dingy theatre in East Village cannot be said to be a microcosm of a larger trend in society but such plays serve a cathartic purpose by causing a purgation of fear and pithy in the audiences.

The ISIS headlines are designed to instil fear in the residents. Many New Yorkers lost loved ones on 9/11, the scars have not yet healed, but a full house of people willing to open themselves up to the possibility of being amused and entertained by a play asking the right questions about Islam can only be a good thing.

There is also a bigger Pulitzer Prize winning production by Ayad Akhtar called ‘Disgraced’ starring Josh Radnor (Ted Mosby from How I met your Mother). Same questions on Broadway and the use of Islam in art in the city can potentially lead to more awareness about the religion in the city and should be encouraged. It is going to be a slow process fixing the tainted image of Islam, but this is a drop in the ocean.

Written by Shehzad Ghias

A graduate from the LUMS Law School and is running his own theatre production company, Cogito Productions. He works as a theatre teacher at various schools.

*This article was originally published on The Express Tribune Blogs on 17 November 2014. Read the original article here.

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