Azeem is angry. The title character of “An Ordinary Muslim,”a British-born son of Pakistani immigrants, is angry at his wife Saima for her wanting to wear a hajib at her office, fearing that announcing her faith by covering her hair would expose her to bigotry, and could jeopardize her job. But Akeem is also angry at his colleague David at the bank where he works – a man who is helping Akeem get promoted as a manager — because “you colonized my country for two hundred years.” He is angry at his parents, and at the local Muslim community, and maybe, just maybe, he’s angry at himself.
Written by Hammaad Chaudry making his professional playwriting debut, “An Ordinary Muslim,” running through March 11 at the New York Theatre Workshop, explores some of the same themes of Muslim assimilation and alienation in secular Western society as Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning play, “Disgraced.” Chaudry’s play is less satisfying dramatically — plodding, overlong. here and there a tad schmaltzy — but it is fascinating nonetheless for the authentic-feeling glimpses it gives into an adapting community. “An Ordinary Muslim” is reminiscent of the kitchen sink dramas in Great Britain in the 1960s, full of angry young men. But this is a changed Great Britain; its angry young man, as Azeem puts it, has a brown Muslim face now.
The play begins with playful banter between Azeem Bhatti and his sister Javeria Bhatti-Mirza — sparkling dialogue that promises a level of sophistication that is only intermittently realized over the next two and a half hours. Javeria is comfortable wearing her hajib, but she’s aware of the problems of practicing Muslims in a wary secular society. She tells Azeem’s wife Saima: “I’m not going to bullshit you, if you wear your hijab to your office, suddenly, expect some aggro, every moron will ask you why you wore it, did your husband make you wear it, you’ll be seen as the ambassador for Islam. But sod’em, you don’t have to explain who you are to anyone.”
Javeria, who lives some distance away with her husband and children, is on a rare visit to the Batti household in West London in order to invite their father Akeel to stay with her for a while. She is inviting him to get him away from his wife Malika, her mother. Akeel hit Malika the previous night. It’s been years since Akeel engaged in such domestic abuse; he hit her routinely when Azeem and Javeria were growing up.
For her part, Malika favors her son Azeem over her daughter – indeed, seems to have a prejudice against all females; she buys gifts for her grandson but not for her granddaughter. Nevertheless, Malika used to beat Azeem.
As if for balance, Akeel favors his daughter over his son, and in truth resents his son’s success and his assimilation. He is angry that Azeem scoffs at the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic religious revivalist movement (as an insert in the playbill explains; it’s one of the many Islam-related words and phrases sprinkled throughout the play that add a sense of verisimilitude.)
“You don’t see how the Jamaat protected us, you don’t know the days of Paki bashing,” Akeel says to his son. “You, Azeem, are an educated professional. You work in an office. Not on buses or stalls like I did. You haven’t had to work three jobs at once. You haven’t worked with your hands. You don’t know the sacrifices – Just know we are where we are today thanks to them, thanks to those…”
Azeem interrupts. “Where are we Dad? Huh? Where? Before we were hated for the color of our skin, now we’re hated because of the color of our skin and our religion.”
It’s frankly difficult to stay on Azeem’s side. Yes, some of his anger and alienation seem justified. In a vulnerable moment, he reveals to his wife his feeling of helplessness in the face of the British backlash and bigotry: “I can’t protect you from a whole country, a culture…” But he lashes out at everything and everybody without apparent distinction. He seems to criticize Hamza, the leader of the neighborhood mosque, for being both too Muslim and not Muslim enough. As Saima jokes: “You’ve gone from no Islam to Nation of Islam in five seconds.” And he is self-destructive, at home and on the job, to an extent that is difficult to fathom, or believe. Some of it can be attributed to a drinking problem that he tries without success to control. But his downward spiral starts to feel less a result of flaws in Azeem’s character than in Chaudry’s script. Why does Azeem deteriorate as the play unfolds, when he is doing so well as the play begins – completely sober for six months, planning to take his wife to Paris for their first anniversary, up for a big promotion at work? How has he been able to rise so high in a conservative British bank if he’s all along had such an obvious chip on his shoulder; and if he hasn’t had it all along, why does he suddenly have it now?
Given a character who is so self-contradictory, confused and confusing, Sanjit De Silva does what he can with a role that calls for a surfeit of tirades. The rest of the eight-member cast has an easier time of it. Ranjit Chowdhry and Rita Wolf make the parents, for all their imperfections, feel lived in. Andrew Hovelson, burdened with having to represent all of White Liberal Britain, does a fine job portraying a reasonable, easy-going bloke. Angel Desai has the lucky role of Javeria, the best-adjusted and most likeable member of the Bhatti family, and she does it justice.
Neil Patel’s set, aided by Lap Chi Chu’s lighting and Elisheba Ittoop’s sound, locate the action in separate, isolated playing areas – a narrow counter stage left represents a local pub where David and Azeem meet; a couch stage right suggests the Bhatti living room; carpets and sliding screen center stage represent the local mosque – as if to emphasize the separate worlds Azeem must navigate. At the end, though, a spotlight focuses on Azeem, while the windows of businesses and residences above him light up one by one, and traffic noises intrude, to remind us that, as isolated as Azeem feels, he is part of England; these are not separate worlds; they all collide.
Click on any photograph by Suzi Sadler to see it enlarged.
An Ordinary Muslim
Written by Hammaad Chaudry
Directed by Jo Bonney
Scenic design by Neil Patel, costume design by Susan Hilferty, lighting design by Lap Chi Chu, sound design by Elisheba Ittoop, fight direction by Thomas Schall, dialect coach Dawn-Elin Fraser
Cast: Purva Bedi as Saima Khan, Ranjit Chowdhry as Akeel Bhatti, Angel Desai as Javeria Bhatti-Mirza, Sanjit De Silva as Azeem Bhatti, Andrew Hovelson as David Adkins, Harsh Nayyar as Imran Jameel, Sathya Sridharan as Hamza Jameel, and Rita Wolf as Malika Bhatti.