The Trial of Dara Shikoh: A Symbol of Hope and Potential Unity
By Kaitlan Peterson
Ambassador Akbar Ahmed addresses the gathering at The Buxton Initiative
Entering the sunlit room on the top floor at the Case Foundation in Washington, DC, the friendly atmosphere was immediately evident. The event was a Buxton Initiative luncheon held to discuss and celebrate their newest reading, “The Trial of Dara Shikoh”, a play by Dr. Akbar Ahmed. The Buxton Initiative is an organization formed in the wake of 9/11, with the purpose of creating a safe forum for candid discussion of difficult issues with the objective of recognizing similarities and appreciating differences among people of different faiths and worldviews.
Dr. Ahmed’s play “The Trial of Dara Shikoh” is set in South Asia during the 17th century. It is the story of the conflict between Dara Shikoh, a mystic, and his conservative brother Aurangzeb for the throne and future rule of the Mughal Empire. This conflict is representative of the current contention between ideologies within the Islamic world.
I was struck by the diversity of the mingling crowd. There were Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Hindus; Pakistanis, Indians, and Americans; and attendees that ranged from young interns to experienced professionals. As one of the first events I have attended as a research assistant to Dr. Akbar Ahmed of The American University, it was immediately clear that these interactions were something both unique and valuable.
After greeting and mingling we were encouraged to partake of the table of kabobs, hummus, salad, and even baklava. The buzz of conversation continued as everyone filled their plates and began to take their seats.
Everyone I spoke with was brimming with genuine interest: a young man new to the culture of dialogue was eagerly absorbing everything he heard and an enthusiastic reporter from the BBC was full of new ideas and questions about our office’s projects.
Several conversations later, Ambassador Douglas Holladay, Co-Chairman of the Buxton Initiative, rose to welcome the wide range of guests. He spoke of the need for “a safe place to talk about things that are uncomfortable.” The Buxton Initiative strives to provide this safe place through friendship and trust, he explained. Holladay, a Christian, initiated the theme of friendship, as he spoke of the work of his good friend and colleague, Dr. Akbar Ahmed: “Akbar is God’s gift to America.” [In response Charge d’ Affaires Aslam Khan of Pakistan later referred to Dr. Ahmed as his country’s “great gift to America.”] Virtually every speaker throughout the afternoon would echo this theme of friendship, mutual admiration and respect.
Senator Bill Brock then spoke to a major problem hindering global understanding: a lack of listening, especially to those different from ourselves. “A major part of the problem is we seem to be losing the ability to listen, really well. That’s really dangerous. You can’t learn from talking. You learn from listening; and you can’t learn from someone else who agrees with you on everything… To the extent that we don’t know each other and refuse to listen, we endanger our children.”
The Senator then described “The Trial of Dara Shikoh” as a “terrifically powerful metaphor for where we are today.” It discusses the conflict between the two brothers with drastically different visions of Islam in South Asia. This conflict of equality and identity is something “all cultures, all members of the Abrahamic faiths, all of us, have gone through this process.” The story in this play “gives us a small sense of the questions we have to deal with today,” and stories are the best way to listen and learn he explains.
Dr. Ahmed, the author of “The Trial of Dara Shikoh,” spoke next. He extended the theme of friendship as he described it as “meaningful to be sitting and talking and breaking bread with you” of the “Buxton family.” The theme of mutual admiration continued as Dr Ahmed referred to Doug Holladay as a “rare man of action and intellect.”
Dr. Ahmed spoke of America’s tragic lack of knowledge of the variance in types of Islam and about South Asia in general, despite the importance of the area to the United States. Both of these themes are represented by the conflict between the brothers in the play, whose namesake he dubbed the “forgotten man of history.”
Dr. Ahmed was followed by Manjula Kumar, the director of the play, Philippa Thomas of the BBC, Charge d’ Affaires Muhammad Aslam Khan, and Ambassador Cynthia Schneider of Georgetown University. Each spoke with great enthusiasm about “The Trial of Dara Shikoh” and the difference telling a story such can have on the world.
Philippa Thomas mentioned that she was particularly impressed by the group gathered today and the “many different dialogues going on.” Khan referred to the importance of understanding different cultures.
Ambassador Schneider discussed the inevitable question some will ask: ‘A play? So what?’ She responded by explaining that people change their opinions through their emotion and stories cause people to become “swept up with the story, involved with the characters” and change their views.
The event closed with words from both Dr. Ahmed and Doug Holladay. Ahmed referenced the great hope he draws from the variety of people in attendance and Holladay discussed the visual age in which we live and the profound power of a visual work such as “The Trial of Dara Shikoh.”
As an American, a student, and a research assistant to Dr. Ahmed, this event invoked admiration, pride in how far we have come and an urgent sense of how far we still have to go. I admire the bravery of those who came together in the tense months following the tragic events of 9/11 and embraced their differences through the mutual goal of increased understanding. It was with a commensurate pride that I recognized the safe and friendly dialogue here, not in spite of the vast differences between those present but because of these very same differences.
I was invigorated by the contagious level of comfort in this unique group. The theme of friendship was not only reflected in its repeated mention by the speakers, but also by the entire atmosphere of the event. Everywhere were warm conversations, enthusiastic interests in one-another’s most recent projects, and genuine handshakes and hugs; all inspired optimism and hope for the spread of amiable dialogue.
The highly anticipated premier of “The Trial of Dara Shikoh” was held Friday March 21st in The Katzen Arts Center at American University in Washington, DC and Saturday the 22nd. While the cast was composed of amateur actors (impressively, Manjula Kumar, the director, even played the role of Princess Jahanara), the passion and enthusiasm of the cast was palpable. Both performances were sold out and followed by lively panel discussions moderated by Louis Goodman, the Dean of the School of International Studies at American University.
The panel discussions featured very distinguished guests including Ambassador Martin Indyk, the Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings Institute; Smita Jassal, the Professorial Lecturer of the School of International Service at American University; Aslam Khan, the Deputy Chief Minister of Pakistan to the United States; Ambassador Cynthia Schneider, the distinguished Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University; Arif Mansuri, the Managing Editor of the Pakistan Link; Harvey Oyer the Chairman of the Historical Society of Palm Beach Florida; and Akbar Ahmed, the playwright and Ibn Khaldun Chair in the School of International Service at American University. Also featured was Ambassador Raminder Singh Jassal of India who gave his appreciation following the panel after Friday’s production.
The panels after each performance were especially meaningful as each of the illustrious guests commented on the meaning of the play. Mr. Mansuri (who also published a beautifully illustrated version of the play) came all the way from California to eloquently share his ideas on Dara Shikoh and the story’s relevance for contemporary issues. Harvey Oyer thought enough of the play to invite the entire cast to Palm Beach to perform the production in partnership with the Historical Society of Palm Beach. Ambassador Martin Indyk called Ahmed the “living embodiment of Dara Shikoh”.
Personally, as a student who has read of and studied the culture and history of the Mughal Empire, I was especially moved by my experience of the time period as it came to life through the passion of the actors and their embodiment of the emotions of the culture and time period. It was fascinating to not only envision the complexities of the Mughal Empire as described by the written word, but to be able to see actually the traditional dress, mannerisms, and passions of the time in front of me.
The production and publication of “The Trial of Dara Shikoh” holds value as more than a play relating the history of South Asia: Its true value is found in the embodiment of the theme of friendship discussed at the Buxton Initiative luncheon and broad range of those who came together to make the play a success. Written by a Pakistani and directed by an Indian, the production overcame the divisive conflicts which have historically plagued South Asia. Not only was the collaboration of those behind the play significant, but also the willingness of ambassadors from both Pakistan and India to sit on a panel together and engage in open dialogue was unprecedented.
“The Trial of Dara Shikoh” serves as a symbol of hope and potential unity.