Anger. Hatred. Shame. All of these are feelings felt during the play ‘Disgraced’ by Ayad Akhtar. And yet, in the beginning there was hope, idealism, and near worship. This play winds itself through the American psyche as it details a fictional life of a non-practicing Muslim and his artistic wife as they struggle through the difficulties of life in America after 9/11.
Amir is a successful lawyer at a firm in New York City. Of South Asian origin, he changed his name to Kapoor when he moved to America and left who he used to be back home. He americanized, changed his name to Kapoor, and fights a daily struggle to not have his main identity as that of being Muslim.
Emily is Amir’s wife, and an artist of great talent. She finds inspiration through Islamic structures, noting the elegance by which they were conceived. She has a fascination with Islam, perhaps because it is not her past, but something that she can explore and contest in a way that is different from her husband’s.
The play shows a new take on the downfall of an American family. The marriage of Amir and Emily is mixed in blood, religion, race, things that even today scandalize some people in America. When Amir’s nephew, Abe, or Hussein as Amir calls him, comes to beg that Amir help his Imam, it is the beginning of the end. Eventually Amir concedes after Emily takes a stance that shames him into helping this Imam, someone who, to Amir, symbolizes everything that is wrong with his religion.
Islam is like many of the great religions of the world; it is born out a people persecuted, a people who have toiled. As in many religions, there has been blood and war. Violence and mayhem. Despair and distrust. And yet, there are redeeming aspects. Islam has changed over time, much like Christianity and Judaism, Different sects divide the religions, each sect looser or stricter in adherence than the others.
In America after 9/11, many Muslims were persecuted. Unrelentlessly, innocent people were killed, murdered in cold blood. We have seen the news coverage, and yet we try to hide ourselves from the shame. Today, we have cries of “Black Lives Matter,” contrary to “All Lives Matter,” and yet, where was the propaganda for “Muslim Lives Matter” when American citizens were hurting other American citizens, simply because of their religion?
This is a troubling question. As a collective society of Americans, we just remembered the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, a day we’ll never forget. And yet, we try to forget the violence that we rained down after it happened. We are still in the War on Terror, but it no longer fills the radio stations, American citizens don’t have to ration, we turn our backs on veterans. Instead, some Americans have taken it on themselves to pursue vigilante justice against the people that they have deemed to be worthy of violence.
America harbors a bigoted fear of Islam, and yet it is not alone. Islamophobia has contributed to the rise of right-wing ultra-nationalist groups. Le Front Nationale in France is a contender in many elections, as is Donald Trump in America. Supporters of such groups consider drastic means a necessity to keep out a “Muslim Threat” that, quite frankly, isn’t appearing.
In the play, Amir says how the religion of his people came from the desert, “From a group of tough-minded, tough-living people,/ Who saw life as something hard and relentless,/ Something to be suffered…” He makes a case that Islam is something to be ‘submitted’ to. He brings up the idea of Shari’a law, in that, “In Islam there’s no difference. There’s no distinction of church and state.” He argues and makes a monolithic statement that all Muslims think that this, with the understanding that to be devout one must conform to a hive mind.
What he doesn’t state is that all countries practice Islam differently, that there is no universal way to practice Islam that is consistent with all peoples, of all ages, across all lines.
In America, we so often separate along the lines of gender, age, race, and class. We see this as male, female, young, old, black, white, rich, and poor. We simplify issues that really shouldn’t be, we try to essentialize things that we can’t. We hurt people because we can, and ostracize those who we conceive as not being able to fit into the “American” mold.
How can we be a melting pot when we don’t want to let anyone else in?
So often, Americans are likely to cite jihad as the things they are so scared about when pertaining to Muslims. And yet, the Prophet Muhammad said that the highest jihad one can commit is jihad against the self, to become a better Muslim.
There is no jihad in this play. Indeed, religious differences and old hatred that linger between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East play out, but not at the forefront. The way these are brought to the reader’s attention is more malicious, and cuts deeper than if the writer were to have made a base line about it. The reader grows close to the characters, due to the special care that the writer has injected the play with.
Everything is choreographed, everything is meant to be poured over. Every microaggression that Amir has faced in this play is a reflection on the larger American society as a whole.
Even the beginning of the play is a new host of microaggression. When Emily uses Amir as inspiration for her own take on the Velasquez painting of his Moor Juan de Pareja, it can be seen as a symbol for the way that so many Muslims feel as though they cannot express themselves, nor truly even be themselves, since the main society of their nation pushes them down and tries to make them conform. American society shames people to conform, and when they act out, are disgraced in their communities by trying to be more.