‘An Ordinary Muslim’: cancerous effect of Islamophobia

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Purva Bedi, Rita Wolf, Ranjit Chowdhry and Sanjit De Silva in ‘An Ordinary Muslim’. Photo: Suzi Sadler.

NEW YORK – It’s one thing to read about Islamophobia, watch it on television and films – with interrogation and body searches bordering on the abusive and perverse at airports topping the list for shock value – and quite another to watch the debilitating, humiliating, cancerous effect it has on its victims, played out by actors on a stage.

Hammaad Chaudry’s ‘An Ordinary Muslim’, directed by Jo Bonney, playing at the New York Theatre Workshop, is a remarkable off-Broadway play on a clichéd subject – a truth bared to its bone in myriad forms, with no wiggle room for surprises anymore.

There are no physical body cavity searches for shock value in ‘An Ordinary Muslim’. The disillusionment that comes from watching reality is enough. Sitting in the audience, one knows with certainty that the story on stage is probably being enacted in real life at thousands of Muslim homes across the globe.

Perhaps, even the same dialogues as penned by Chaudry, are being uttered outside by an irate and bitter son to his father over how the world really is today, denouncing the surge in Islamophobia; an anguished daughter gathering the courage to confront her abusive parents over favoritism shown to her male sibling since childhood; a marital discord flaring up, creating an unbridgeable chasm, over religious values; a promotion in office cruelly denied because of racism; traditional, conservative Muslims trying to woo and seduce the young, modern, confused, unstable Muslim to their fold, recognizing the vulnerability that exists beneath the calm and nonchalant, but deceptive veneer of confidence.

‘An Ordinary Muslim’, set in the suburbs of London, in 2011, gives an accurate account of how a lot of modern, second generation Muslims in the West are burdened, shrouded by the exasperation and excruciating knowledge of being what they are: a Muslim. This, despite their behaving like their Caucasian peers.

For these Muslims – who are forced to live an alter life in the presence of their parents and family members, often forced to give precedence to traditional values and roots – it’s not just the color of their brown skin that’s bothersome. It’s their religion by which they are identified with the most, and often excoriated for that, as being vile, in public and private life.

However, that doesn’t take away from the fact that Chaudry fails in keeping up the momentum of ‘An Ordinary Muslim’. He struggles to explore in depth the frailties and dynamics of relationships marred by religious hues, the seductive power of the religious calling for female Muslims. The flawed script falls back relentlessly to done to death stereotypes, instead.

‘An Ordinary Muslim’ moves at its best as if a car suddenly accelerated from 20 miles to 40 miles per hour on a highway. And then stays put at that speed.

The central character in ‘An Ordinary Muslim’ is Azeem Bhatti (played by Sanjit De Silva), a middle class second generation Pakistani American on the cusp of a promotion as a bank manager. An achievement his uneducated and now retired father, Akeel Bhatti (Ranjit Chowdhry), could never have imagined in his time working as an unsung, unskilled worker, after he emigrated from Pakistan.

Sathya Sridharan and Purva Bedi in ‘An Ordinary Muslim’. Photo: Suzi Sadler.

Azeem’s wife Saima (Purva Bedi) is the epitome of the modern, naive, aspiring Muslim who lives happily in a joint family, but finds herself swaying towards conservatism, influenced by her local mosque and in principal a young man, Hamza Jameel (Sathya Sridharan), who has befriended her there. Her insistence on wearing a hijab to work is resented by Azeem, and sets up a clash of ideology, creates a rift between them.

As the teetotaler Azeem’s world starts to implode when he’s not only denied the promotion but is forced to resign after derogatory and racist comments by his boss, and hides all of that from his family, including the fact that he’s now working as a waiter in a restaurant, matters come to a head when Saima declares that she wants to quit her job because of racism. The precarious perch to perdition tears the Bhatti family apart, before they can give themselves another chance.

The talented De Silva essays the role of an anguished, angry young man up against the wall, well, but he comes across finally as a man who deserved what he got in life. The audience feel little sympathy for his pitfalls in life.

The characters of Malika Bhatti (Rita Wolf), the wife of Akeel and Javeria Bhatti-Mirza (Angel Desai), the sister of Azeem, are the most blasé, with Chaudry happy to smother them in stereotypical manner.

If scratching on the surface sounds clichéd, think of knocking on a door and expecting us to know who is within, seems to be the playwright’s mode of approach. Thrown in is the infuriating white, apologist colleague of Azeem, David Adkins (Andrew Hovelson), who seems to have the thick skin of a frog about to jump into a clear water lake.

The most interesting aspect of Chaudry’s play is the title itself. Really, what does ‘An Ordinary Muslim’ mean? Who is an ordinary Muslim in the play?

At the end of the play, when the Bhatti family has crumbled beyond redemption and relief, and dislocation – either to segregate oneself from society, or to search for a new life far away, like the patriarch of the family once did – their only choice, one is left to wonder who is the most ordinary of them all.

Is it Azeem, who crumbled despite his western upbringing, in danger of falling prey to anger spilling over to anarchy? Is it Akeel, who’s cursed from the beginning, and has to pay for the abuse he heaped on his family, to never find succor; is it Saima, a woman with little willpower? Is it Hamza, who is ‘safe’ within his mosque and conservative values? Or is it all of them?

(This post was updated on 3/20/2018, correcting the name of the playwright Hammaad Chaudry)