Evening at the Theater, Shattering Stereotypes

April 4, 2010

” ‘Wow. She has a voice.’ Did I hear this, or did I imagine it? I am not sure, but I am aware of how, when I speak in settings of this kind, people tend to assume that veiled women do not speak, or that when they do, only little weak voices come out of us. I like to disappoint them. I articulate my points loudly, clearly and assertively. It’s who I am.”
Dear Papaito,

After the end of the weekend deen intensive, four friends and I went to the theater to watch a play named Under the Veil: Being Muslim & Non-Muslim in post 9/11 America, from Mind the Art Anthology. It was hosted by La MaMa Experimental Theatre, on 74 East 4th Street. The play was remarkable, and the ensuing discussion was just as engaging. Thinking about it retrospect, I was the only non-American in the group, but I didn’t really notice. My four friends and I were the only Muslims in the audience, all of us veiled (this I did notice), and the audience was not too diverse. It was mostly white American people. The play itself was composed of a number of skits, each one telling a story about Muslims and non Muslims in post 9/11 New York. They discussed stereotypes, misconceptions of Muslims, and interestingly, the effect of fear on our behavior towards others.

So at the end of the event, the floor was open to questions. I felt that, as the only Muslims in the room, people were expecting us to either validate the play, or criticize it… I looked at my friend Megan, and she looked at me.

‘Do you have a question?’ She asked me.

‘Not really…. And you?’

‘No, but I feel we should make a comment…’

‘Yes, I know…’

‘so ahead then,’

‘huh…oh its okay, you can go ahead first…’

As one man made a comment about how the characters had not really faced the question of who they really were, I found my opportunity to speak. I raised my hand. The moderator called on me.

‘I had a different experience with the characters’ treatment of that question,’

I spoke loud and clear, so everyone could hear me, ‘I would not expect the characters to be able to tell us who they are in five minutes, or half an hour… I think it is enough that they show us that they are complex beings, whose identities are composed of several layers, some of which they probably aren’t even aware of… We are all, in a way, works in progress, and there is no reason why we should have to define who we are in facile and simplistic terms…’

‘Wow. She has a voice.’ Did I hear this, or did I imagine it? I am not sure, but I am aware of how, when I speak in settings of this kind, people tend to assume that veiled women do not speak, or that when they do, only little weak voices come out of us. I like to disappoint them. I articulate my points loudly, clearly and assertively. It’s who I am.

‘So…if I may ask you…’ said the moderator to me, ‘how then do you respond when someone asks you, what are you? Or, who are you?’

The audience was completely silent. The cast sat on the stage, listening as well.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘when someone asks me who I am, and they want to figure me out in a minute, they are up for a disappointment. I sort of enjoy confusing them, if only to remind them that we are complex being. I want to invite them to engage in a real conversation with me. After all, I want a human connection beyond the usual who, what, why questions. So I may say that I am Muslim, Ecuadorian, educated in Egypt, living in New York…. And not married to an Arab. This confuses a lot of people..’

‘Oh, I sort of want to say something now…’ said Megan to my ear.

“Go for it!!’ I said.

Megan raised her hand, a bit shyly at first, but when she began to speak, Megan was just as assertive, except perhaps more jovial than me. She spoke of how she has experienced these questions, from the perspective of a white Muslim female convert to Islam. She also confuses people, especially when she is with her parents. Looking like an average white American couple, people wonder why their daughter is veiled. And how is it that she converted in Korea? And she rides a scooter down the streets of Manhattan in full Islamic garb?!

Soon, we’d lost our initial shyness, and our little group of veiled women was dominating the discussion, and engaging with the audience as if the play had been ours (Maybe it was). We laughed and made people laugh. We talked about awkward moments in the subway train, how we do not need to be married to Arab men to be Muslim converts, and how we have complex stories, which are waiting to be shared if people only asked!

At the end of the play, the director thanked us for coming.

‘You know, we’ve had some problems with the skit where the veiled character says that veiling is her choice, because people simply don’t believe that is possible… it is great that you were here, so you could tell the audience yourselves that we are not making this stuff up!’

What a rewarding evening it was, Papaito. After cupcakes and Maghreb, all of us parted ways… And I could not wait to get home to write. Forget my thesis for the moment, what was that play if not education?

J.

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