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Playwright In Spotlight: Take On Pakistani-american Family Wins Praise

Fremont Native Brings Production To San Jose State Stage This Weekend

By Katherine Corcoran
Mercury News

Wajahat Ali has played many unwitting roles in his mere 24 years: The token Muslim in South Bay private schools; the ''minority of the day,'' as he calls it, now that terror arrests here and in Britain have put a new spotlight on western-born Muslims of Pakistani heritage; and sudden caretaker of his parents' business when they were swept up in an FBI sting.

But no role has stunned the Fremont native more than his current one: acclaimed playwright. While an undergraduate at the University of California-Berkeley, Ali began work on ''The Domestic Crusaders,'' a comic-tragic look at three generations of a Pakistani-American family that will be staged at San Jose StateUniversity this weekend -- the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Though Ali has been working on the play since the 2001 tragedy, the onslaught of post-Sept. 11 events only recently forced the former improv comic to think of himself as a serious playwright.

''I'm not a proselytizer,'' Ali told the audience after a staging of the play at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in July. ''But when you have a piece like this coinciding with this moment in history, with the tragedy in London and the revelation that it was done by Pakistani Brits . . . sometimes you feel a burden on your shoulders. Not just from the cast, the producer and the director, but from 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide and 300 million Americans.''

The play is a bitingly funny look at an immigrant Muslim family that has achieved the American dream. The middle-age couple, their three grown children and a grandfather gather for the birthday of the youngest son, who is expected to become a doctor. Instead, he announces he is dropping pre-med to become a teacher of Islam, and the family dynamics descend into chaos.

''You like kids? Become a pediatrician,'' his mother barks. ''Teach them Islam as you give them their lollipops.''

The play ends with the revelation of a tragic family secret. Along the way, Ali spins a story that is universally American, taking on fault lines of race, class, gender and religion -- leaving no viewpoint unscathed.

''It's not a propaganda piece. It's not a political piece,'' Ali said recently over a plate of biryani, a spicy dish with a central role in his play. ''It's not pro-Muslim, or pro-American or pro-Pakistani. It's not 'whitey is bad' or 'please white man, accept me.' ''

Instead, the play illustrates the diversity and complexity of being Muslim in America -- something Ali says gets lost in most media depictions.

Zingers fly among the eldest son with a penchant for blonds and Jewish women, an ardent feminist daughter shrouded in a hijab, a father who loses a promotion to a more ''authentic'' Muslim named Abdullah, and a mother who scolds the birthday boy for boarding an airplane wearing a beard and a kufi skull cap.

''Why didn't you hold a sign saying, 'I'm an extremist,' '' she exclaims. ''One way ticket to Abu Ghraib, please'?''

Surprisingly, the play is not autobiographical. Ali is an only child, and his parents encouraged him to write rather than choose among what he jokingly calls the ''Trinity'' -- doctor, engineer or lawyer -- acceptable to South Asian parents.

Matters of choice

Though he is a second-year law student at UC-Davis, it was his choice, as was his need to craft a layered and complex look at Muslim American life in a War-on-Terror world.

''It puts into actual scenes what Muslims find hard to express after 9/11, the internal divides,'' said Reema Dodin, a Palestinian American and UC-Berkeley classmate. ''Most Muslim Americans are not polarized, but hybrids of all these different factors. . . . The daughter wears a head scarf, but she's not obedient. She's a brilliant, strong woman.''

Ali grew up in Fremont, where his parents once caused a stir for proposing a 16,000-square-foot home that was turned down by the city.

He was the Muslim kid with strange dietary restrictions at San Jose's exclusive Harker elementary school. He recalls classmates spiking his salad with bacon bits to see if eating pork would cause him to be swallowed into hell.

''I was an exotic,'' Ali said about pre-Sept. 11 life.

But Ali's greatest childhood trauma came from being fat. ''Even the kid who eats boogers makes fun of the fat kid,'' he quipped.

Years of schoolyard ribbings honed his gifts of observation and wit. By the time he reached Bellarmine College Preparatory, he was thinning and quick on the uptake.

''He was . . . very endearing,'' said Bellarmine English teacher Tom Alessandri, who is urging students and faculty to attend the performance.

''If there is any trait carried from youth that ties directly to Waj's success today,'' said Constant Gaw, a friend from Bellarmine, ''it is his ability to tell you the hard truth while making you laugh at the same time.''

Foray into comedy

When Ali got to Berkeley, he dove headlong into improvisational comedy and the Muslim Students Association. In the 2001, he was admitted to renowned author and poet Ishmael Reed's creative writing class. But when Sept. 11 happened, he disappeared for two weeks. Reed thought he was afraid to come to class. In reality, Ali was at the center of the mayhem, meeting with the chancellor, the media and planning an interfaith prayer session.

When he returned to class, Reed asked him to write about being a Muslim American in the wake of Sept. 11. The seeds of what became ''The Domestic Crusaders'' were sown.

Reed, a MacArthur ''genius grant'' recipient, was so impressed, he continued working with Ali after graduation and decided to produce the play, with his wife, Carla Blank, directing. Reed unflinchingly says it could become an American classic alongside ''Death of a Salesman'' and ''Long Day's Journey Into Night.''

''When the towers fell, Waj knew immediately that the lives of Muslims in the U.S. and the world weren't going to take a step forward,'' Ali's friend Gaw said. ''If you sense any fatigue in his look, it is likely because he feels the enormity of the tasks before him: to humanize the Muslim community and to make sense of the forces that have shaped our world.''

In spring 2002, as Ali was about to graduate, another seminal event changed his life. His parents were rounded up in what the FBI called a computer piracy ring, and were held for nine months in Alameda County Jail as potential flights risks before being allowed bail. Ali dropped his studies to save the family business. His parents still face charges of defrauding Microsoft and vehemently fight them to this day.

At one point in the ordeal, he found himself with $10 in his pocket, 3 cents in his checking account and a mound of bills to pay.

''All I could do was smile,'' he said. ''With all my money, friends, credit, and property gone, I realized I had lost only transient, material items. However, in their place, I gained confidence, self-reliance and at least 20 years worth of life experience.''

Today, with the London transit bombings by British-born Muslims, and an American-born Muslim in Lodi accused of lying to investigators about involvement in a terror camp, Ali sees the misunderstanding of Islam deepening. The latest incidents give people license to express what they've always thought: '' 'The problem is Islam. The Koran is terrorism,' '' he said.

His play provides a different, clarion voice.

''All we're getting from the media is hate mail,'' Reed said of the treatment of Muslims in America. ''We know if we're going to make a change in people's thinking, it won't be through the tabloids . . . but through theater and the arts.''