By Holli Harms
In the play, An Ordinary Muslim, by Hammaad Chaudry, Azeem Bhatti (Sanjit De Silva) and his wife Saima (Purva Bedi) are seeking a balance between their Muslim upbringing and the Western life around them. Struggling to live in the gap between the two worlds, Azeem wants to assimilate, at least in public, as a Londoner having drinks with fellow employees, dressing according to Western culture, and having facial hair according to Western culture. He and Saima live with Azeem’s parents who are conservative Muslims, conduct the household as Muslims, but also bend the rules according to their whims. Saima’ s desire to live her life as a Muslim grows as Azeem’s desire to assimilate reaches a fevered pitch. A gap grows in their relationship, an argument where there is no middle ground, where both believe they are completely right.
Also in the family punchbowl is the struggle between Azeem’s sister, Javeria, and his mother Malika. The tumultuous mother/daughter relationship intensified by Malika’s deep belief that men are superior. This belief causes mom to belittle her daughter and disregard her granddaughter in favor of the grandson. This particular relationship is so stereotypical I found it distracting. There is no nuance here, and that unfortunately is the problem with much of the play.
The first act is long. We get to know the family and their fears and desires as Muslims living in London, where because of their religion they are held back. Promotions are unheard of in the workplace and because of this there is anger and bitterness and resignation, and then, more anger and bitterness and resignation, and eventually acceptance. Again and again and again.
The second act brings theatrical promise, action and drama as new characters are introduced bringing conflict and new insight. The second act is the gem hidden inside this conglomerate stone.
This is a story that indeed needs to be told, to inform and remind : Muslims are like everyone else. They laugh and curse, tell bad jokes, watch sports, hang out, party and dance, flirt and have family squabbles that lead to slamming of doors. This is a family drama where the family just happens to be Muslims, and family dramas are a touchstone in the history of storytelling. We love to see how other families are struggling, enduring, or not enduring, how they are marching through their lives with the all the ups and downs of the family dynamics.
This is also a drama of history. A history of a peoples kicked out of their home country and trying to live in a world where who and what they are can be an obstacle and a trap.
I’ve had construction work outside of my apartment on the building behind me for the last two years, scaffolding outside of all three of my windows. The scaffolding is so close that I could stand on my fire escape and hand the workers a cup of coffee without having to stretch that much (I didn’t, but I could have). They work Monday – Saturday, climbing up and down the scaffolding yelling and talking and laughing and drilling and hammering and power washing and playing music – loud loud music. If I had kept my windows bare, as they had been for years when the building was empty, then the construction workers would have been privy to me and my family and my home. So I put curtains up and black out screens. For the last two years I have had no natural light in the apartment. I have stayed hidden behind the curtains. I have felt at times trapped in my own home. Yesterday the scaffolding started to come down. The workers were louder than usual and worked from 6am to 6pm, but no one in my building complained because the scaffolding and its occupants were leaving.
This morning my curtains were pulled aside allowing light and freedom back in my home.
That is the feeling the characters in this play and many Muslims have. They are trapped, unable to be themselves in the world they find themselves in. Saima chooses to wear a hijab to work. (The hijab is the veil worn by women in public to show modesty and privacy, its wearer showing respect for her religion and others. I can correlate it to Ash Wednesday for Christians, but an every day choice.) But when her fellow employees, all westerners, are exposed to this “new” Saima, they are uncomfortable and feel threatened. She must decide to either stop wearing it and end the harassment, or wear it and deal with the consequences. She wants to be herself, be who she is and honor it. She is tired of hiding herself behind the curtains of Western culture and not allowing her light in.
This is an important play in understanding a culture that is in a struggle with the world they find themselves in, but the over-writing can get in the way of the story and become a curtain we have to struggle to see through.
An Ordinary Muslim Written by Hammaad Chaudry and directed by Jo Bonney.
Scenic design by Neil Patel, Costume design by Susan Hilferty, Lighting design by Lap Chi Chu, Sound design by Elisheba Ittoop, Fight direction by Thomas Schall, Dialect coach Dawn-Elin Fraser, Stage Management by Lori Ann Zepp
Running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes including One Intermission
Closing Date March 25th.
The New York Theater Workshop, 79 East 4th Street New York, NY 10003
Between Bowery and 2nd Avenue 212-460-5475
Purchases tickets HERE