T he latest play to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama will be remembered for a long time by those who see it at west London’s Bush Theatre, where performances begin today. And Jewish or Muslim audience members are unlikely to forget it. Disgraced is written by Ayad Akhtar, a 42-year-old American actor, screenwriter, novelist and now dramatist. Previously performed at New York’s Lincoln Centre last year, the play is set in a fancy apartment in the city’s Upper East Side.
Its hero is corporate lawyer Amir, who has forsaken his Pakistani Muslim heritage and assimilated himself into American society as a member of its professional classes. His artist wife Emily is not Muslim, the law firm where he is a rising star is largely Jewish, as is the curator of the gallery who wants to exhibit the paintings created by his wife. Amir’s is an idyllic life of urbane sophistication — until, that is, his rejected Islamic past begins to catch up with him, forcing him to confront issues of identity.
The play climaxes in an explosive scene in which Amir and his Jewish dinner guest Isaac square up over the kind of issues that have caused friction between the Muslim and wider world in general — and, it could be said, Muslims and Jews in particular.
“I’ve been thinking about that a lot,” says Akhtar when I ask if Disgraced suggests that those points of friction between Muslims and others are at their most incendiary when the non-Muslims are Jews. Without quite answering the question head on, he lays out the context pretty succinctly.
“The question is the beginning of a whole series of things,” he replies. “Amir’s relationship to Jews, to Jewish immigrant experience, to making one’s way as an immigrant in American society by looking up to or being mentored by Jews — this is the politics but also the landscape of the play.” It was those questions of second generation immigrant experience and the dual identity of being a Muslim in a largely non-Muslim world that provided Akhtar with the themes for his acclaimed debut novel American Dervish, described by the New York Times as a “modern Muslim spin on earlier stories of Jewish assimilation”. Akhtar’s 2005 film The War Within took a different tack, exploring how a Muslim student in Paris becomes a radicalised terrorist in New York.
There are similarities between Akhtar and Amir, the fictional hero of his play. Both are sons of Pakistani parents and each has decided to live a largely secular life away from traditional Islam. Akhtar’s parents, both doctors, arrived in the US in the 1960s, settling in Milwaukee. They had a secular outlook, so their son’s interest in Islam was largely self-generated as a child.
“I had an amazing teacher in high school who sort of bombarded me with all the great existentialist literature — Sartre, Camus, Dostoevsky and Kafka. I was 16 and that was a shift. There was a different way to ask questions that encompassed this larger picture but that was not about blind belief. Which is why I [now] call myself a cultural Muslim, which is to follow so many of my Jewish friends who call themselves cultural Jews.”
In the play however, Amir’s relationship with his parents is very different. We hear how, when Amir was a boy, his mother dissuaded him from having anything to do with Rivkah, the Jewish girl in his school Amir fell for.
His mother does this by spitting in his face. And it’s partly this willingness to grapple with the attitudes of some Muslims to not only the non-Muslim world but to Jews too that gives Akhtar’s writing much of its power. This is balanced by his willingness to also grapple with the way Muslims are treated unfairly in the non-Muslim world, and by some Jews also. It’s explosive stuff.
“American Dervish is actually much more directly about Muslims and Jews,” says Akhtar of his novel as we chat in the Bush Theatre’s kitchen. Downstairs, rehearsals for Nadia Fall’s production of Disgraced, which has just won the Pulitzer, are well advanced. The venue is abuzz with anticipation.
“I get asked a lot ‘what is it about Muslims and Jews that’s so interesting to you’? And to me there are a couple of different levels. The first is that you can say that Islam is many things, but one of the things it certainly is is a meditation on Judaism. And the Koran, of course, quotes so much of the Old Testament, as if the original audience for the Koran was familiar with those stories. This is to say is that the Koran emanates from a landscape that is in part Jewish and there are continuities of ideology, mythology and of sensibility and practice between Jewish and Muslim cultures. When I was 13 I was assigned My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok when I was in middle school. I loved the book so much that I read all of Potok’s books. And I had this odd feeling that he was writing about people I knew, my people, even though he was writing about Chasids in Brooklyn.”
It’s probably worth pointing out that the main dramatic relationship in Akhtar’s play is not between Amir and Isaac, the Jewish curator, but between Amir and his wife, whose art, just to load the dramatic dice further, incorporates traditional Islamic design and imagery. Amir remains a rare Muslim version of something that has existed in Jewish literature for a long time — the self-hating Jew. In fact it’s thanks to the work of two artists with Muslim backgrounds that this hitherto largely Jewish trope has found its way to the stage recently. The production of Arthur Miller’s Breaking Glass, starring Antony Sher as the self-hating Gellburg, was directed with great sensitivity by Iqbal Khan. Now comes Amir, a very different kind of self-hater, of course. But it is still no coincidence that his creator understands the Jewish diaspora experience as well as that of Muslims.
“When I was in college and discovered Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and especially Woody Allen, there was a feeling of familiarity,” Akhtar recalls. “But also a liberating sense that I could tell stories in ways that were familiar and which were my experience. There was this bridge that was showing me how to go about the process of authoring the Muslim American experience.”