As an Arab American, raised Muslim, and someone who loves the theatre, I raced to the last performance of Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar at the Huntington Theatre in Boston, a Pulitzer prize-winning play that explores Islamophobia and the self-identity of Muslim-Americans. While fast-paced and gripping, I am disappointed to report that this play does little to challenge Islamophobia and causes more harm to the Muslim community. It also misses an opportunity to link the common struggles of oppressed people. Instead, it pits oppressed people against each other in what scholar and activist Andrea Smith refers to in her paper “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy” as an ‘oppression olympics’ of sorts—an “I am more oppressed than thou competition.”
While editing my piece, I read the excellent, nuanced essay on the play by Arlene Martínez-Vázquez where she lays out the context, and poses very important questions. I agree with her that Disgraced is a racist play that mostly appeals to a predominantly white audience, leaving many others, including myself, confused. It’s because of that feeling of confusion that I had to take the time to process this play and write about it.
There are some things the play did well.
It portrayed the complex relationship Muslims can have to Islam in this country: the protagonist, Amir, for example, changes his name, both in a rejection of Islam as well as in an effort to enhance his “employability.” The play also captured the confusion and alienation of some Muslims living in the US, especially young Muslims (like Amir’s nephew Abe), and the identity conflicts some experience as they seek belonging to a country that has on the one hand taken them in and on the other hand inflicted so much destruction on the Arab and Muslim worlds (an explanation for the protagonist’s moment of pride after 9/11?) The play tries to portray the complex dichotomy of wanting to express our individuality (rejecting “tribal Islam”), only to do the opposite—assimilate—while still aware of and feeling the pull of our cultural roots and genetic programming (the beating of his wife is framed as an outcome of some religious programming that erupts spontaneously and uncontrollably—a problematic framing that I will get back to later on).
Where the play failed.
The play is honest in how it deals with the tension that sometimes exists between Jewish and Muslim people, but unfortunately the lack of subtlety in those moments in the play ends up enforcing widely held and negative stereotypes of Muslims prevalent in our society today. Yes, there is hatred for Jews in some Salafist religious communities, a hatred that is certainly fed by problematic religious interpretations that came after the prophet Mohammad. As the playwright seems to convey, these interpretations need to be rejected and discarded. After all, who would want their child to spit in the face of a little girl just because she’s Jewish, as the child Amir did because of his mother’s reaction to his friend’s Jewishness? At that moment, I was briefly led to believe that that burden is put squarely on us—Muslims—a feeling I often experience when faced with white supremacy scrutinizing us. Something akin to some Black people buying into the perceived impact of black-on-black crime, as in, “It’s your problem, not the system that is oppressing you.”
However, in reflection, I argue that as we take the time to understand the intersection of all kinds of oppression; to understand that these racist, xenophobic interpretations are thriving in a Muslim world pockmarked by the effects of colonization, past and present, and “Western” supported despotic regimes that prosper in prolonging them, we know that this responsibility has to be in fact shared.
Disgraced would have one believe that religious antagonisms are a, or the, core problem, when in fact colonization is, and religious interpretations simply feed this problem.
Moreover, although the play points out that that hatred between Muslims and Jews is partly fed by the Israeli “take over” [colonization] of Palestine, it does not make the very important distinction between Zionism/colonialism and Judaism. The play would have one believe that religious antagonisms are a, or the, core problem, when in fact colonization is, and religious interpretations simply feed this problem. Failure to point out the root cause of this problem, further propagates prejudice against Judaism and Islam.
In another point in the play, the protagonist's white wife, Emily, tries to counter the claim that Islam allows men to beat their wives. According to the protagonist, if all other methods fail in trying to correct some un-Islamic behavior in his wife, then according to a verse in the Quran, he is supposedly allowed to beat her. The wife correctly points out that the word “beat” in that context can be interpreted as leave. At that moment I was hopeful, “Yes, let's take the meaning of that word a step further. What is it in our Muslim society that allows us to choose the beat interpretation rather than leave option?” That opportunity was lost in the play, and instead when Amir discovers her infidelity, we are led to believe that it's the protagonist’s Islamic upbringing that allowed him to justify beating his wife, further confirming any Islamophobia in the room, as if patriarchy and sexism aren’t endemic to all societies. Indeed, isn't domestic abuse and violence a serious problem in this country?
The anti-Muslim stereotypes are particularly disturbing when there are rabid, rampant Islamophobic pronouncements being made by presidential candidates and their supporters. In such a climate, I think choosing to showcase plays with a more sensitive, instructive portrayal of Islam would do us all so much better. As an Arab and Muslim audience member, I felt that the playwright failed to put in the hard creative work of negotiating these issues and tensions in a theatrical piece, and instead opted for creating sensationalist and shocking moments around some issues that scream for more nuance and care.
When Amir’s wife sides with the nephew that the protagonist stand up for an Imam accused of a terror-related crime, her well-meaning “we-know-better-than-you-about-your-own-situation” ends up costing him his job and indeed, everything else that he has built. She clearly did not understand the consequences for her husband, as most self-proclaimed white allies often don’t.
There is no question that the play attempts to address very important issues head-on, but in the process, as Ms. Vasquez points out, the intent does not justify the impact. Through the wife, it’s acknowledged how often the accusation of anti-Semitism is used to silence justified criticism. The irony, however, was in realizing that the Jewish character the playwright “created” was himself problematic, verging on being an anti-Semitic portrayal of a Jewish person: he's an art dealer, and partner in the affair with the protagonist's wife, he’s manipulative, “in control” of the art scene, and deceitful, as he is exposed as an Islamophobe contrary to his protestations.
Which brings me to the most important troubling aspect of the play—pitting oppressed people against each other. The play begins with the wife creating a portrait of her husband in the spirit of a famous portrait of a slave. I found this juxtaposition very curious. It turns out that Amir has a female African American work partner, and through various quick barbs, we are led to understand that she does not work as hard as he does, always shows up to work much later than him, and that he is often left picking up her slack. After he is revealed to be a Muslim with supposed links to Islamic terrorism, she becomes partner in the law firm, and he is fired. His attitude towards her becomes overtly racist and sexist, as he shouts "You think _You are the nigger in this firm?!” An African American man sitting near me had a stupefied look on his face. I thought, “How can one compare centuries of slavery and the structural racism that still disadvantages African Americans today—whether through incarceration, or at the hands of police brutality, or polluted waters, or the crumbling schools their children attend—with the relatively brief period of oppression that we Muslim Americans experience in this country?!” This situation immediately reminded me of a similar recent moment in Aziz Ansari's comedy Master of None, when in one of the early episodes he compares the African American experience of racism with his brief moment trying to make it in the acting world as a Desi actor.
This is not to say that the oppression experienced by Muslims, Desi people, Arabs, or even Latinos is not “enough” as compared to African American or Indigenous people’s experiences of oppression. However, appropriating a symbol of another’s oppression (in this case the term nigger) should be vociferously denounced, as it is counterproductive, and amounts to participating in that group’s oppression.
Having said that, Amir is most definitely not white. This is where the work of Andrea Smith that I referred to earlier is of crucial value. Smith points out that oppressed people do not experience racism and oppression in a singular fashion that can be ranked, or upped. Rather, distinct yet interrelated logics or “pillars” constitute white supremacy for each unique experience of oppression. If we fail to recognize the interplay of the different pillars of white supremacy, mainly: Slavery/Capitalism, Genocide/Colonialism, and Orientalism/War, we fall into the trap, where even if unintentionally, our goals of shared liberation are thwarted.
In the case of Arabs and Muslims in this country Smith says:
… if we simply dismiss Latino/as or Arab peoples as 'white,' we fail to understand how a racial logic of Orientalism is in operation. That is, Latino/as and Arabs are often situated in a racial hierarchy that privileges them over Black people. However, while Orientalism logic may bestow them some racial privilege, they are still cast as inferior yet threatening “civilizations” in the United States. Their privilege is not a signal that they will be assimilated, but that they will be marked as perpetual foreign threats to the US world order.
Given Amir’s predicament, maybe that’s what the playwright intended to show us. However, the impact, as Ms. Martínez-Vázquez rightly points out, and what was lost on many I spoke to about the play, does not justify this possible intent.
I left the theatre feeling disoriented and indeed, disgraced. I found it curious that Ayad Akhtar, the playwright, chose to have the African American lawyer prefer “order” to justice—which certainly doesn't square historically with the African American experience as leaders of struggle and resistance. And what are we to learn from her vindictive, almost childish comeback in response to the most charged phrase of the play? Indeed, there may be African Americans who, rightly so, are so tired of fighting the system that they choose to be in order with the system, but in light of all this, the choices of the playwright are called into question when the African American character is portrayed as someone co-opted by the system.
The standing ovations and the great reviews show the very powerful role theater can play either by deepening our prejudices with a focus on entertainment and oversimplification, or by challenging us to question and see the intersectionality of systems of oppression.
The standing ovations and the great reviews the play has received highlight just how much more work we have to do as a society to more fully understand issues of racism and oppression. Just as importantly, it also shows the very powerful role theater can play—either by deepening our prejudices with a focus on entertainment and oversimplification, or by challenging us to question and see differently the intersectionality of systems of oppression. I wish Disgraced had done more of the latter.
I believe in our collective liberation, and it is in that spirit I write this critique. I find Disgraced deeply problematic with dangerous undercurrents that appear to have elided many of my Muslim friends who saw it. There was excitement in my small Arab community about a play with a Muslim narrative being showcased at the Huntington—an important moment for us—as our stories are being told in a climate of prejudice against us, and I am thankful for that, but that doesn’t displace the need to be critical of the mechanisms used and their final impact on our psyche.