The American-Pakistani playwright, actor and novelist, Ayad Akhtar, has two plays showing in New York during this busy tourist season. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Disgraced, and the powerful ,The Invisible Hand, explore complex relations between religion, social and political values and the global financial system.
Both plays also depict common threads in the complicated US-Pakistani connection, with a strong emphasis on Islam.
Yet, the two plays have different situations and the plots are completely separate.
I happened to watch both productions recently.
Disgraced is the story of a hardworking corporate lawyer, Amir Kapoor, who is born in a Muslim family that immigrated to the US from Pakistan. Amir retains a Hindu identity to rise in the corporate world. His wife Emily, an Islamophile, shows extensive interest in Islamic art, culture and history while Amir is critical of his Islamic heritage.
The show starts with a scene in which Amir – standing in a $600 crisp white charvet shirt and boxers showing his bare thighs and legs, and drinking pricey single-malt whisky – models for a sketch by his artist wife. Emily asks Amir to help a local Imam who is in prison for charges of supporting terrorism. Amir is reluctant and shows no interest in anything related to Muslims’ rights.
Eventually though, pressured by his wife and a 'radicalized' cousin, he relents, which leads to a disastrous situation where he accidentally becomes a target of Islamophobia and loses his job as well as his wife.
In one of the play’s most dramatic moments, a dinner with another couple (an African-American lawyer and her Jewish husband) turns volatile when radical Islam is criticized...
In summary, the play highlights issues of identify that American Muslims face and how religious profiling impacts social and professional lives; in the multicultural NYC, people from different racial and religious backgrounds appear to be in harmony but beneath the surface lie deep and dark layers of hatred, prejudice, and racism mixed with religious profiling.
Soon after seeing Disgraced, I was able to attend another Ayad Akhtar play, The Invisible Hand in an off-Broadway production. I was only too happy to be watching the play with my friend Raza Rumi, a good friend of Ayad.
This passionate play employs a minimalist set but big money in the virtual sense. The plot revolves around Nick, an American captive of Islamic radicals who has been working for Citibank in Pakistan. The terrorists demand an exorbitant $10 million ransom and the captive himself raises the money on the internet by playing the futures market in Pakistani commodities.
“Cutting off my head is not going to accomplish anything,” says Nick, promising the militants that he could earn the money with his investment banking experience.
In another ironic moment he also says, ”Forbes, will put me on front page, if they know about this.”
The main protagonist of the unnamed terrorist group is a British Muslim, Bashir, who came to Pakistan to join the radical forces. There is an interplay of tension between the ranks of the terrorists when Nick is able to raise over $7 million in a matter of days.
The money finances the terrorist organization as Bashir, the head of the terrorist militia, and the guards are all seduced by the easy money. Bashir, who has a common British accent, is a fast learner and in matter of a few weeks, organizes suicide attacks which lead to enormous gains in the stock market.
The symbols of drones and the American dollar remind the viewer that the war is less about religion and more about money and power. Enemies of America, who criticize her for its capitalist financial system, are also lured into making money at the expense of civilian lives.
In a very abrupt ending, the play shows a soft corner for militants, actually making them seem a bit kindhearted, by freeing the highly prized American citizen.
Over the past few years, different art forms emanating from Pakistan have made their mark in New York and the larger international market. Terrorism and radical Islam seem to be the most prevalent (selling) themes in these expressions.
Novels like The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Home Boy, among others, narrate stories of young, conflicted Pakistani Muslims in America, just like the character in Akhtar’s Disgraced.
Artist Imran Qureshi’s 2012 installation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC also commented on the wave of terrorism in Pakistan.
Not to undermine the quality of the art being produced, but I feel it is a legitimate question to raise whether artists and writers should move beyond the newsy and stereotypical theme of terrorism?
There is much more to Pakistan and the region.
Earlier, A British Subject, an off-Broadway show presented in 2009 focused on the justice system of Pakistan and showed the lives of ordinary people in Rawalpindi.
More recently, a group of eminent Pakistani artists such as Ali Kazim, Noor Ali and Irfan Hassan presented their work at the Leila Heller Gallery in NYC, evoking a rich range of themes on the everyday realities of life in Pakistan.
In Toronto, the Aga Khan Foundation has recently opened a museum of Islamic art with contemporary and ancient Islamic art pieces. This is a welcome development since it presents the layers of our rich heritage and present life.
None of this can take away from Ayad Akhtar's achievement. Born in New York and raised in Milwaukee, Ayad graduated from Brown University with a theatre major and a Master's of Arts from Columbia University. He deserves full credit for putting Pakistan into the mainstream theatre and bringing out the complexities of Islamophobia, racial and religious profiling, and the need to accept that all human beings matter.
For any playwright to be showcased simultaneously at two theatres in NYC, with its extremely rigorous standards for theatrical productions, means his talent and skill have been acknowledged as amongst the best in America.
All the same, I think it is time to showcase the many trends in the performing arts, as well as the time to present a more rounded image of Pakistan to art-loving New Yorkers.
Very soon, the global market might become tired of the clichéd emphasis on radical Islam and Pakistan’s terrorism problem.
(The author is working as a child and adolescent psychiatry fellow at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, NY. He is a marathon runner and his interests include art, culture, gender, human rights, mental health, and education. - Courtesy Dawn)