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The Elephant in the Room

Date: Feb 14, 2007


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Everything Sarah Aziz does these days seems to revolve around interpretation: As a coordinator with Theatre Development Fund's Accessibility Solutions, she finds and contracts sign-language interpreters and caption writers for special performances tailored to deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences; reviews applications for TAP Plus Accessibility grants, which assist productions in mounting such special performances; and puts together the annual Interpreting for Theatre program at Juilliard.

When she's not working at TDF, though, Aziz is interpreting roles as an actress. Her current role as Robina Abdul, a mild-mannered math tutor from Afghanistan, in Carl Gonzalez's Off-Broadway comedy/drama Elephant Girls, even involves a further level of explication, as Robina must find a way to translate her experience to a group of uptight, overly suspicious housewives at a Tupperware-style party in a sleepy American suburb. While a portrait of Sharbat Gula, the famous "Afghan girl" who graced a mid-1980s cover of National Geographic, glares from an upstage wall throughout, the housewives wonder if Robina is the terrorist who broke a water main and created a minor scare in the town.

"The play gets into a discussion about stereotyping and the culture of fear that the media has instilled in us about the women in hijabs or the men with beards," says Aziz, whose father is Pakistani and whose mother is of Russian and Serbian extraction, but who doesn't practice Islam, let alone wear a head covering offstage. That might be one reason why she hasn't experienced any outright discrimination firsthand, though she knows some traditionally garbed women in her Astoria neighborhood who were harassed after 9/11.

Airport security is a whole other matter. "There must be an 'S. Aziz' on some list, because for a long time I couldn't check in on one those self-serve kiosks," says Aziz, who adds that she and her father are "always pulled out of the line for 'random' searches." That's not the worst of it, though: "Once when I was Albuquerque, their system was really old and I had to stand there with a woman on the phone for two hours while they checked my information." It took a call to a family friend who works with the Transportation Service Authority to clear that logjam.

Aziz had some background suited to the role. Her father left Pakistan in 1972, before she was born, but she has visited the volatile, officially Islamic country, mostly recently in January. In terms of Afghanistan, Aziz says, "When I was in college in the late '90s, I did a lot of protesting against the Taliban and what they were doing to women." And she read Khaled Hosseini's acclaimed novel The Kite Runner, about a Pashtun boy coming of age during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and its aftermath under the repressive Taliban.

Does she hold out high hopes for either of these embattled, postcolonial South Asian nations? She worries that both will soon end up as relatively conservative Islamist republics, less draconian than the Taliban but not far in their makeup from Iran's uneasy parliamentary theocracy. She observes that in Lahore, on the Pakistan/India border, and in Islamabad, "It's very Western--there's McDonald's, KFC, Levi's. Everyone's driving cars. And the religious population does not like it."

The controversy hits close to home, she admits: "My own family is really split about it. About half of them are very pro-Western, while the other half sort of want the country to be more Islamic; they worry that all these people are going to come over and they're going to lose their religious identity, and that it's going to be like it was under British rule."

For Aziz, one upside to the world's attention being newly focused on South Asia and the Middle East is that more plays and films are being made with characters from those regions. "Oh, I totally get typecast, and that's not necessarily a bad thing," Aziz says. "Right now it's a very hot type, because there's a lot of writing about Iraqis and Afghans and Pakistanis." It sounds like Aziz, like Robina, can stand the heat.

Elephant Girls runs through Mar. 7 at Theatre 5, 311 W. 43rd St. (212) 247-2429. Pictured above: Glory Gallo and Sarah Aziz. Photo by Jennie Zeiner.