Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced failed to see that Muslims do have a robust tradition of talking back to their texts
I saw Ayad Akhtar’s difficult play Disgraced this weekend at the Seattle Repertoire Theatre. The performance, which has been extended in Seattle and is featured elsewhere in the U.S., will be the most produced play in the country this coming season. I had been asked to participate on an after-play panel to reflect on what we had just seen, not realizing that reflecting on this particular rendition would have been better at a longer emotional distance. After all, for 80 minutes I watched a Muslim-American character, Amir, all but implode on stage—poorly-integrated shards of his identity knocking over the wine glasses and the pulled pork the author induces us to imagine simmering in the kitchen. My attempt at instant commentary was thus mainly a repetition of how painful this all was to watch.
The play’s resonance has only sharpened in today’s “post-Trumpian” world, which has made the environment for American Muslims and other minority groups worse than it has ever been in the United States. Indeed, some of the references in the play to anti-Muslim political speech seem hopelessly quaint in comparison to what has been uttered as of the early days of 2016.
Amir is a successful New York lawyer who has a particular version of “it all”: $600 work shirts, a Manhattan apartment, expensive brandy, successful friends, and a white wife. A Fox News meets Sam Harris-eque rejection of Islam holds this bounty together in Amir’s fragile psyche. His wife Emily, a painter influenced by abstract Islamic and Arabesque geometric form, is the reasonable, good-willed foil to Amir’s conviction that Islam is merely an authoritarian tool by which to control a cowed and weak herd. All they do, those Muslims, is submit; at least Jews have argued with their tradition in the Talmud. Enter Isaac, here, a Jewish curator with impressive psychoanalytic skill who teams up with Emily to defend Islam against such superficial analysis, and to suggest that perhaps Amir is self-hating. Later we realize that Isaac is replete with his own shadows, but less adept at turning his analytic power on himself.
With more drinking comes the realization that “Islam” for Amir contains Pakistan, and for that matter, India, which his family had to leave. It contains poverty, irrationality and anger. It contains historic humiliation. And finally, Islam is Amir’s own rage as a man who can not escape not only how others inevitably see him, but, more disturbingly, can not escape some specter of another person, another civilization, worldview, philosophy and history that is somehow also him. Amir’s nephew articulates this humiliation most searingly in one of the play’s most moving scenes. It is as if there is always an available pile of humiliations of Muslims at the hands of outsiders that has mushroomed in modernity. This toxic narrative of one humiliation after another is perpetually there for the otherwise disgruntled to claim as their own, or for the powerful to hoist upon the weak.
It so happens that I watched the play and wrote this now in the midst of teaching the history of the modern Middle East in careful detail. On the recent schedule was Egypt, Syria and Jordan’s 1967 war with Israel. The Arabs’ crushing defeat was the end, it seems, from this vantage point, permanently, of a particular form of existential optimism. From that point of devastation and shock, Islamists, who were only a short while ago leftists, would wonder why God was punishing Arabs and Muslims. A new set of pathologies would set in. One can only imagine how the partition of India leaves its mark on subsequent Indians and Pakistanis. Can this all be erased by folding “Islam” into a silly little origami shape and casting it aside? Can we just decide to slough off our heritages and with them our pathologies and irrational dietary restrictions? Is this an intellectual decision to make? Is even the asking of that question laughable? Amir makes us wonder all of this, and this is the play’s triumph.
None of the characters are totally sympathetic. Perhaps Jory, a tough-minded African-American attorney, comes the closest, but she too seems hardened, albeit in a different and decidedly less dysfunctional way than Amir, by her own struggles with race and identity. And it is the extremity of Amir’s dramatically fractured self that is one of the play’s flaws. Though all of the characters harbor ugly aspects of their own character, they are not able to consciously grasp, Amir’s problems. Though written in pre-Trumpian days, this is an unfortunate echo of our culture’s “Muslim exceptionalism” trope that is fast shifting from dangerous to very dangerous. It must also be pointed out that Amir is wrong: Muslims do have a very robust tradition of talking back to their texts—similar to the Talmud, in fact—a point that the well-meaning though ill-informed Emily and Isaac are not able to make. This is not just important to understand as a point of academic clarification. If Amir, or the audience, would have understood that the Islamic tradition and how to relate to it is as vast as the millions of human subjectivities that have interacted with it, Amir might have been able to ask: How much of this is just me?