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British playwright Hammaad Chaudry depicts a culture in conflict in An Ordinary Muslim
Family dramas in which personal relationships are refracted through religious or political convictions are not new. But there is something unusual about An Ordinary Muslim, currently running at New York Theatre Workshop. In this play by newcomer Hammaad Chaudry, we hear the distinct voices of seven Brits who embody a multiplicity of views and ways of being Muslim.
The protagonist is thirtysomething Azeem (Sanjit De Silva), defiantly secular and on the cusp of being promoted to manager of a local bank. His wife, also an upwardly mobile professional, recently started donning the hijab, the traditional headscarf Muslim women wear in public. They live with Azeem's parents, who immigrated to England decades ago from Pakistan. Domestic strife in the household is stoked by the spiritual leader of the local chapter of a Muslim revivalist movement and his devout twentysomething son.
Chaudry, a practicing Muslim, presents diverse responses to Islam in the play, but he firmly rejects any claim to being a spokesperson for the community. "I'm one writer, and this story is specific to this family and these characters," insists the 30-year-old playwright. "It is not meant to be representative of a billion Muslims. There are amazing people out there who are speaking for Muslims. I'm not one of them."
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland to immigrant professionals from Pakistan, Chaudry says he didn't initially aspire to be a playwright. He was studying for a law degree when he applied to join Unheard Voices, a program instituted by London's Royal Court Theatre that was seeking young Muslim writers for its 2008 edition. His apprentice work, an Iraq War satire titled Salaam, Mr. Bush, received a reading at the Court's 2009 Young Writers Festival. "I remember everybody listening to what I had to say, and that's a very empowering feeling," he says. "It was difficult to turn back after that."
At the time, Chaudry was already familiar with the work of one revered American dramatist. "The playwright who always spoke to me, even before I wanted to be a playwright, was Arthur Miller," he says, adding that he read All My Sons when he was protesting against the Iraq War. "To explore political issues through a personal drama was something that resonated with me." He subsequently snagged a scholarship to Columbia University and came to New York to complete an MFA in playwriting. His thesis adviser was Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America).
Kushner brought Chaudry's thesis, an early incarnation of An Ordinary Muslim, to the attention of New York Theatre Workshop, which hosted a reading of the play after the budding playwright graduated in 2014. "Tony said to me that we could tidy up the 70-minute play I had written, or roll up our sleeves, tear this thing up, and make a mess," says Chaudry. "I opted for the latter." Four years later, Chaudry is thrilled to be making his professional debut in New York. "Tony has been a great blessing in my life. I'm lucky to call him a friend."
In one way or another, all the Muslim characters in the play face the dilemma of deciding to what degree they should conform to the surrounding dominant culture. But assimilation is always assumed to be a one-way process, notes Chaudry, even though, historically, the foundations of Europe owe much to Islam and Muslims. "Britain and France, in particular, are going through a bit of an identity crisis," he continues. "[They say] we don't know who we are, but we are not them. Them being the Muslims. So we bear the brunt of it. That's a very difficult position to be in when you feel like you belong to both cultures and both value systems."
Additionally, there is the explicit racism directed against the perceived outsiders. "Growing up in Edinburgh was a very difficult experience," Chaudry recalls. "You were constantly under the threat of violence. If you got a racial slur, that was an easy day. I don't think I knew how bad it was until I got out."
In an emotionally charged moment in An Ordinary Muslim, Azeem, who finds himself unable to fit into the predominant white culture or the traditional Muslim one, cries, "Where do I call home?" For Chaudry, at least, the answer is easy: "My home is where my family and loved ones are. Although I think there's always an itch to go somewhere else, where you might be more comfortable. I'm not as displaced as Azeem is, but I get it."
To read about a student's experience at An Ordinary Muslim, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Gerard Raymond is an arts journalist based in New York City.
Sanjit De Silva and Ranjit Chowdhry in An Ordinary Muslim. Photo by Suzi Sadler.