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The Power of Storytelling

An Interview with Wajahat Ali

Sally Steenland interviews Pakistani-American Wajahat Ali, the author of one of the first major plays about Muslims living in a post-9/11 America.

Part of a Series

SOURCE: Domestic Crusaders

Wajahat Ali

Video: Young Muslim American Voices Interviews Wajahat Ali

This interview is part of the Young Muslim American Voices Project, a CAP project launched late last year that seeks to strengthen the voices and visibility of young Muslim American leaders.

Listen to the full interview (mp3)

Wajahat Ali is an artist, activist, and attorney. His play, “The Domestic Crusaders,” is one of the first major plays about Muslims living in a post-9/11 America, and it played in New York to full houses and positive reviews. The play will be published by the literary journal McSweeney’s this fall, as well as in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #36. Wajahat’s first movie, “Ms. Judgements,” was a LinkTV finalist.

Ali is an associate editor of Altmuslim and GoatMilk, his personal blog, and a frequent contributor to The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Guardian, Salon, and Counterpunch. He currently practices law in the Bay Area, California.

Ali spoke with Sally Steenland on August 31 about recent anti-Muslim rhetoric, Pakistanis, and the power of storytelling.

Sally Steenland: Wajahat, you are a Pakistani American, born in this country. You are also a Muslim American, and in addition you are a lawyer and an acclaimed playwright. I’d like to get your views on the alarming spike in anti-Muslim hate speech in recent days.

Wajahat Ali: I do have a multihyphenated experience and identity. I think that makes me an American. It’s not mutually exclusive to be Muslim, Pakistani, and American. Sometimes that very simple message gets lost when fearmongering is stoked by individuals with selfish agendas.

What’s happening now is sadly something that’s had a pattern in American history. Right now, it seems like “Tag, you’re it.” And it’s Muslims, Pakistanis, or Middle Easterners who are “it.” Japanese Americans who were born and raised here were put in relocation centers and camps. Jewish Americans were forced to change their names. An Irish Catholic, John Kennedy, had to prove when he ran for the presidency that he wasn’t loyal to the papacy over America.

It might seem bleak and ugly, but there is an opportunity for healing and bridging the divide. It is up to us to work as a community. Americans need to know that Muslims have always been here. We are your neighbors and doctors. We are your cab drivers and dentists. We are your students. We are your teachers. I am hopeful that out of this ugliness with Park51 [the proposed mosque near ground zero] we will see a moment of healing.

S: Daisy Khan, the wife of Imam Feisal [chief organizer for the mosque] and one of the organizers of Park51, recently said that we as a nation have never had a conversation about 9/11 and that we need to do so. What do you think about that?

W: It’s a good point. The conversation feels like it’s simmering under the surface. Nobody wants to touch it. Conversations have happened on a local level, which explains why many Muslims are so integrated into their communities. But on a national level, it has been lacking.

Obama tried to make it work on an international level when he went to Cairo last year and did his first major international interview with al-Arabiya. It seems to have made a small difference—a change of tone and posture. But nationally it seems like something is simmering, as we see in the mosque protests in Tennessee, California, Staten Island. For those who say Park51 is a very sensitive issue because it is so close to ground zero, what do you say to a mosque that has been existing in Tennessee for 30 years?

S: You recently wrote an essay on the power of storytelling and I want to quote some of what you say. “Despite a rich history of active participation in American society, many Muslim Americans feel trapped by the shadow of 9/11 and condemned to being viewed as suspects by neighbors in their own homeland.”

And then you say, “Around the world, the clichéd story also paints Americans as the bad guys who arrogantly stroll into town and bully anyone who opposes their might.” Can you talk about the power of narrative? How does that shape our perceptions and politics?

W: As human beings and societies, we learn about ourselves and about our values and ideals through stories. Stories have a protagonist and an antagonist. They have an arc. They have meaning. The parables of Jesus are one example. There are also the hadith of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and the Sunnah.

Who tells the story? Who are the characters? How are they portrayed and what is their journey? These are important questions to ask when hearing a story.

Unfortunately, we as Muslim Americans have not been telling our own stories. We have either not been given the opportunity or availed ourselves of the opportunity to inform others about our lives. So there is a vacancy. Others grab the microphone and tell our stories through a skewed lens, and sometimes from their own political agenda.

The narrative that has been popularized in the American mind is that Islam equals violence. Muslims equal stealth jihadists. Muslims cannot be trusted. When there is a story with a Muslim character, it is framed around violence, extremism, radicalization, female oppression, the burqa. We don’t have stories showing Muslims being regular people. Say, the wife who comes home and cooks some “biryani” after a hard day’s work as a corporate attorney and the husband with the beard who comes home from being a school principal. That is an interesting story that we have never heard.

When people feel like they can’t tell their own story—that their voice is being outsourced to others who are incorrectly telling their story—they feel helpless, victimized, angry. On the other hand, when people who are the characters in the story get to tell it themselves, it is very empowering.

Usually there are two emotions that spur a renaissance in storytelling—pain and love. It’s no surprise that some of the greatest American storytellers and artists have been African Americans and Jews. African Americans had their voices and identity taken away from them but still found through oral history a way to keep their traditions alive. With Muslims post-9/11, you see a renaissance of creativity. Muslims are stand-up comedians, spoken word artists, punk rockers, play wrights. The beauty of storytelling is that it gives you an avenue. It gives you a channel, a means to benefit everyone around you. That is why my motto is “by us, for everyone.”

When we [Muslims] go mainstream, we are told to whitewash our experience. But I have always said that you need to throw in the “mirch” and the “masala”—the nuances, the details. Throw in the hijab and the arab-ish, the urd-ish—the half urdu, half English. That makes it real. That makes it resonate with people.

We are not a miserly religion. Our faith truly portrays the magnanimous spirit of America. We are the land of the free. We take the immigrants. Everyone who flees persecution—America will take them. America will be your home.

The Muslim American identity shows great similarities between Muslim and American values. For instance, Rumi, a 12th century Muslim Sufi scholar, is the bestselling poet in America 800 years after he lived. His poetry and his art were inspired by Islam and are giving benefit to everyone. To teenagers trying to flirt with one another on Valentine’s Day. To the Facebook user who needs a quote. To the woman going through depression. Rumi heals hearts.

S: You are a storyteller and playwright. I’d like you to talk about your play, “The Domestic Crusaders,” which played in New York and was very well received. What inspired you to write it? Did you feel any pressure in portraying the Muslim-American community in a positive light since there aren’t that many stories out there? It’s the pressure of a polished positive portrayal versus a portrayal with warts and flaws. Propaganda versus art.

W: I’m glad you picked that up. My job as an artist is never to create avatars or demons. Many times minority communities want to portray the best picture, not air the dirty laundry. Clean. Happy. White teeth and smiling. There is a reason for that. A sense of keeping our secrets inside because it is already hard enough.

If you want to create art that resonates with people and touches their hearts, you have to be honest. If I am putting on flawless characters who are parroting talking points, that doesn’t resonate with anybody I know in my life.

S: And it’s boring.

W: Exactly. Happy, good characters are some of the most boring characters. You need conflict. You need warts. I made a deliberate decision with “Domestic Crusaders” that it was going to be complicated, messy—just the way human being have always been. And if I do this properly, what I do is humanize Muslims, Americans, and Pakistanis. When audience members see “Domestic Crusaders,” they are reminded of themselves, their families, and neighbors. They begin to trust the storyteller.

Once you have that trust with the audience they can settle in and focus on the story. The beauty of stories is that we internalize the struggle and the journey of fictional characters. Isn’t it amazing that you read a book and cry at the end when a character dies? The character doesn’t live anywhere except on the page and in your emotions. You have made a connection. If you make that connection with a story, especially one like “Domestic Crusaders,” which takes on greater meaning in these times, people come up to me and say, “That is the first time I have heard a Muslim American story, and that story is very similar to mine. That family reminded me of mine.”

The core of good stories is the same. Generational strife, marriage problems, sibling rivalry—this happens in every culture and religion.

S: Tell us what is happening with “Domestic Crusaders” now.

W: “Domestic Crusaders” is being published by McSweeny’s on December 1. It will also be published independently so you can buy it on Amazon and in bookstores.

S: I’d like to ask about your Pakistani American heritage. What most people know about Pakistanis is what they see in the headlines—terrible flooding, dangerous tribal areas—but they probably don’t know much about the Pakistani-American community in this country. Can you be our tour guide?

W: Pakistanis have been painted with a broad negative stroke due to the violent actions of a deluded minority, both here and abroad. There is Faisal Shahzad with the foiled bombing in Time Square, the five naive Virginia kids who went to Pakistan apparently to join a jihadist group, the subway bombing in London, the Taliban, political instability in Pakistan, corruption, and so forth.

People don’t see any other story. They don’t hear other voices. According to polls, many Americans are averse to giving aid to Pakistanis who are suffering one of the worst humanitarian crises in modern history. They say, “Why should we help these people who are so anti-American?”

Pakistani Americans like me are U.S. citizens and immersed in western culture. There are 170 million Pakistanis in Pakistan. There are maybe a million here in the United States. The overwhelming majority of us are moderate, peace-loving people. Most Pakistanis, if you poll them, loathe the Taliban.

We are interesting people. We have a mostly moderate conservative spirit and are more in tune with our religious identity than many would assume. Many of the Muslim organizations and mosques in America were either founded by Pakistanis or have active Pakistani membership. Our incomes are above average compared to other Americans.

Food is very important. I will tell you this, if you ever go to a Pakistani wedding or social event, these are pretty much the conversations you are going to hear. There is going to be a discussion about Islam. A Pakistani-American uncle is going to have the “how to save or reform Islam” conversation even though he has no scholarship. But he will tell you his theory. Second, there will be conversation about the food—when the food is coming, how good the food is. Even if the food is terrible, people will still eat it. The party will be judged by the quality of the food. The third conversation will be about the state of Pakistan. And it will always be a very depressing conversation.

These days, [Pakistani] people are becoming more progressive and socially active—involved in social charities and political campaigns. Believe it or not, I was mocked when I started writing my play. People said it was a waste of time. Fast forward five or six years, and now the same Pakistani uncles who used to mock me say, “I wish I made my son be a journalist or storyteller. I have lived here my entire life. I have lived a good life. I turn on the TV and they see me as a terrorist. If I had made one of my sons into an artist or a journalist, he could have told our story and things could have been better.”

S: Can you talk about the projects you are working on now? And as you look ahead what are some of the challenges and opportunities facing Muslim-American communities?

W: Let me take the last question first. I think there is an opportunity for Muslim Americans to redefine their identity and narrative for the 21st century. We can make a break with our negative baggage and evolve as a community. In order to do that, we need to embrace a big-tent American Islam. Within our community, we need to reach out to different religious and socioeconomic groups. We can’t use “piety” as a litmus test of whether or not you are useful as a Muslim American. It is a defining moment for us to broaden our horizons and have a generous spirit among Muslims.

Secondly, I think it is imperative for Muslim Americans to change from being reactive to proactive. This new generation can lay our hand out, even to our enemies, and integrate culturally. Muslim Americans have an ability to remind Americans what is best about America by teaching them what is best about Islam. We can show Americans that this country is messy and nutty, it’s this great multicultural experiment—a mosaic with threads connected together. If Muslims tap into their traditions and embrace them—specifically the spiritual traditions instead of politics—that will be a defining moment.

In terms of what I’m working on, I have been approached by three or four agents to write a novel, and I need to get off my butt and write it. I have been approached by a comic book company to write a graphic novel. Right now I’m working with Dave Eggers on an HBO pilot. We pitched a pilot. They accepted our pitch. We are writing it as we speak. We hope that they like it and that in six to eight months, or maybe a year, you guys will see a television series.

S: Wow. Can you tell us more?

W: All I will say is that it will have a Muslim protagonist.

S: A little more?

W: It is set in the Bay area. It will be authentic and something different. I am excited. Dave is excited. HBO is very excited. It’s a series. If they like the pilot, they will get a series. And if not, I can always tell stories to you guys of how I got the pitch.

S: That is very exciting. Congratulations.

W: Thank you. I hope it does some good.

S: Thanks for telling us first. And thanks for talking with us.

W: Take care, Sally.

Listen to the full interview (mp3)

Sally Steenland is Senior Policy Advisor to the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at American Progress.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

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