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Play Offers Riveting Glimpse into Pak American Issues

By Ashfaque Swapan
Special to India-West, July 29 2005

The Domestic Crusaders. Written by Wajahat Ali. Directed by: Carla Blank. Produced by Ishmael Reed. Starring: Nidhi Singh (Vidhu Singh), Kashif Naqvi, Sadiya Shaikh, Shahab Riazi, Saqib Mausoof and Atif Naqvi.

All is not well with Khulsoom's (Nidhi Singh/ Vidhu Singh) Pakistani-American family. The family lives in a traditional subcontinental style, with three generations sharing a close attachment, and the stress of coping with two disparate worlds�one traditional and Pakistani, another the outside Western world�is beginning to tell as fractious squabbles and frequent recriminations pepper their life as they prepare to celebrate a family occasion.

Her husband Salman (Shahab Riazi) would appear to have achieved the American dream. He is a successful engineer who is a trusted, decades-old employee in an American firm, they live in their own home in an affluent suburb, and have three children who are all college-educated. Yet the clash of cultures has taken a sharpened ugly edge since the terrorist attacks of 9-11, and it is beginning to cause fissures within the family. Her children have dealt with it in different ways.

Eldest son Salahuddin (Kashif Naqvi) has bought into the American lifestyle lock, stock and barrel with one eye on the stock market and another eye, it would appear from the snide hints from his siblings, on American women, and finds his family hidebound, unduly shackled by cultural values that are a hindrance to getting ahead in this country.

Fatima (Sadiya Shaikh) deals with the cultural schism in pretty much the opposite way. She proudly sports a hijab and is active in all kinds of protests, supports Palestinian rights, and is vehement in her critique of Western oppression of Muslims around the world. Ghafur (Atif Naqvi), the youngest, is the quiet one, who is back for a break from college.

The tense family drama that is the brainchild of Wajahat Ali, a UC Davis law student who is all of 24 years old. It is the result of writing class he took with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ishmael Reed. The bad news was Reed told him he was a lousy writer, the good news is Reed saw such a strong possibility of a good play there that he egged him to turn in a play and ultimately ended up producing the play.

The dilemma the Pakistani-American family face in the play is as American as apple pie (or tandoori chicken, if you like). Notwithstanding the oft-repeated pieties regarding how immigrants have built this nation, waves of immigrants have reached the fair shores of this nation over the centuries to discover to their chagrin that their ethnic identity can be � and is � used as a pejorative marker. Whether the immigrants have been Jewish, Irish, Chinese, Korean or Spanish-speaking immigrants from the Americas, hostility and prejudice has been common and sometimes ugly.

What has complicated the plight of Pakistani Americans is the September 11 terrorist attacks and also the Iraq war, which has left in its wake a vicious brew of xenophobia and demonization of Muslims that has made life for the overwhelming majority of law-abiding Muslims in this country considerably more fraught.

Playwright Wajahat Ali throws at the audience an almost overwhelming array of combustible issues in the play, and much of it will appear familiar to South Asians. The generational conflict, gender discrimination, the love-hate relationship with the mainstream culture that often makes first-generation immigrants appear at best conflicted and at worst downright hypocritical, the frustration of their kids growing up here � all of this is pretty familiar stuff, some of it even clich�d. Yet the sense of siege and threat that Muslims face gives these issues a gripping urgency.

The play suffers from a structural challenge: All of the action happens in the same place, threatening to sink the play with the dead weight of stasis, both literally and figuratively. Full credit, then, to the admirable ensemble cast who almost make the audience forget about this by the end of the play. Though the acting has some rough edges here and there, the cast bring a passion that makes the entire ensemble connect into an organic whole, and they manage to kindle a chemistry of intimacy and kinship that lends the besieged Pakistani American family a particularly poignant, convincing verisimilitude that makes the audience relate to their joys, sorrows and frustrations, the surest sign of success of any theatre.

Speaking of verisimilitude, two oddities struck this reviewer: Khulsoom�s (Nidhu Singh) prayers on a chair (Namaaz is never offered seated unless there is an illness) and the ritual of praying before a meal�that�s more of a Christian rite than Islamic, isn�t it?

Credit must also go to the playwright Ali: He brings a much welcome complexity to his characters and etches two spirited female characters that are a joy to behold: Mother Khulsoom and daughter Fatima do not fit any stereotype though they do have some of the attributes. They also have a lot of gumption.

In fact, the play shines with a heartwarming humanity that emphasizes the universal values we all share with Khulsoom�s family: If the play has a message, it�s simply this: Notwithstanding all its piquant, exotic Pakistani Muslim cultural attributes, they have a heck of a lot in common with millions of Americans who are all trying to raise a family, to pay their bills, and to live with a modicum of dignity and decency in a world that sometimes seems to be going mad.

At the end of the day, the play seemed a bit verbose, and one could argue that it lacked the slick polish of a truly professional Broadway show, but the authenticity of voice and perspective it offered makes the trade-off worthwhile.

As Scout Finch told his brother Jem in Harper Lee�s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic novel �To Kill a Mockingbird:� �There�s just one kind of folks. Folks.�

The play will be performed Sept. 10 and Sept. 11 at San Jose State University. Interested readers can get more info at the play�s Web site at www.domesticcrusaders.com