Villains, heroes, and other fantasies:  imagining Muslims on and off-stage

Muslim Matters

Villains, heroes, and other fantasies:  imagining Muslims on and off-stage

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The use of theater and other popular cultural representations to idolize, demonize, or racialize a community is not a new phenomenon. In medieval and early modern European literature and theater, for example, Muslim characters have been present for centuries as protagonists, villains, anti-heroes, even heroes. Off-stage, they represented powerful surrounding empires. On stage and in books, they were present as the Christian-turned-Muslim and Muslim-turned-Christian converts who couldn’t be trusted; the princesses who needed saving; the spectacular heroines occupying the niche of exotic fantasy; the sexually insatiable, tempting and perverse; the wise and romantic sage; and the larger-than-life rulers and warriors who never cry over spilled blood.

For medieval and early modern Europeans reading about Moors, Turks, Saracens, etc.?—?racialized Muslim characters?—?their behaviors are predictable and fulfill racial destiny. Their specific stories are tenable because their related stories already existed in cultural memory. Famous writers ascribed canonical value in western literature?—?like Boccaccio, Cervantes, and Shakespeare?—?all created and included Muslim characters in their works that left an indelible mark on the European imagination later carried across the Atlantic into the colonial Americas.

There are very few new stories. We just tell many of the same stories in new ways.

Let’s consider for a moment the story of another long-time European other?—?the Jew. The play The Holy Innocent of La Guardia by the prolific Lope de Vega is based on a tale that was circulated on the eve of Muslim and Jewish expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula by Catholic monarchs. The story relates that Jewish men used an eleven-year-old Christian boy to recreate Christ’s passion by torturing and crucifying him alive. In 1491, Jews and conversos were rounded up and tortured to confess they had been involved in the killing of the child of La Guardia. Lope de Vega, more than a century later, dramatized this story and portrayed the passion of the little boy being crucified on stage. A few years after the staging of this play,moriscos?—?people who descended from Muslim families and had converted to Catholicism?—?were expelled from Spain. The play itself describes a climate of fear mounting among neighbors spying upon neighbors trying to protect themselves from imagined bloodthirsty but invisible criminals among them.

I tell this story because although the specific contexts of communities under scrutiny and facing discrimination?—?whether within the justice system, at our jobs, through the immigration process, via entertainment media, etc.?—?may be unique, the crafting and crafts of such madness eerily remain not particularly unique in human history.

What happens when those who share the religion, race, ethnicity, history, IDENTITY of such characters?—?even if in a minor company role?—?are also present off-stage? What happens when such “insiders” constitute the audience?

Such audience members will notice them; they may find at best that character is an incomplete and dissatisfying caricature; they may find at worst that character is a purposefully malicious distortion and if that happens, they may question the intent. They may look around and wonder how fellow audience members are processing this story. They may wonder how this fictional representation now occupying their imaginations will haunt them in their non-fictional lives. They, of course, experience the staged representation differently than those who believe in the fiction informing that particular character’s story. Such a representation on stage could be experienced the way racism is experienced?—?emotionally and viscerally even before one can articulate the exact words expressing a critical response.

But it’s not always that simple. Muslim villains and non-Muslim heroes in a story on stage are never completely what they represent on the surface?—?as opposing forces of good and evil outside the pages of a script. There are other less pious concerns. There are the concerns of empire, and there are the concerns of realpolitik. Simply, it was and never is all about Islam as the enemy. Sometimes, these characters are allegorical vehicles conveying indirect critique of a more direct and menacing problem of internal schisms. Sometimes, it’s about the enemy of our enemy is our friend and vice versa. For example, Cervantes’ Persian ambassador in The Great Sultana is a friend and supporter of the Spanish Monarchy. The Persian is distinguished from the villainized Turk precisely because they were political enemies who represent two powerful empires?—?and because of that, the former was perceived as a potentially powerful ally for Catholic Spain against the Ottomans.

So what does this have to do with artists and my work as a Creative Director for a theater project called The Hijabi Monologues?

This power of LIVE theater is that it not only can shape, shift and transform the way we imagine the world and connect communities by providing shared stories; live theater provides a meeting space for audiences to collectively experience stories in a community of listeners and storytellers, of performers and audience members. During a show, audience members not only see what is on stage but witness the responses of other audience members. Furthermore, it provides a space of live engagement for the storyteller adept at reading audiences to fine-tune her performance?—?and the script in progress?—?accordingly. Each run is unique, and there are so many variables that cannot be controlled. Opening night is never exactly the same as closing night, but once you perform a show long enough?—?you get better at reading your audiences and their energy.

As I reflect on my experience with past shows’ organizers, sponsors and audiences, literary histories provide exemplary and cautionary tales of how a work can create and reproduce certain archetypes as well as expand or constrain imaginative creativity for others who may want to write, perform, produce, direct, etc. For example, one organizer offered to design our stage in colorful, flowing scarves…like a harem…which we politely declined. She totally got why after she experienced the show. For another show, someone who identified as a Muslim woman who does not wear a headscarf insisted that the f-word be edited out of “I’m tired” because “hijabis represent Islam for us all” and we should be using the public stage “to educate.” At the same show, a hijabi profusely thanked us for allowing others to imagine her as a human who gets “really angry sometimes.” After another show, a man asked one of our performers why she didn’t tell “the real stories” about terrorism. Before she could respond, the entire audience, who had watched the performance, proceeded to critique his question asking him “Did you even just watch the show and not get it?”

As creators of cultural capital, we must consider how the process of racializing, demonizing or idolizing our communities are all processes that ultimately dehumanize and have real impacts on how we live in the world.

By only focusing on the stories of a specific subset of Muslim communities?—?women who self-identify as Muslims and wear headscarves in public?—?what a project like The Hijabi Monologues has done in its small way is provide people a way to puncture the image of an ambiguous singular representative Muslim character with many stories they can connect with, imagine and remember. The monologue is a wonderful form in which this can be done in a context where texts of “the ideal Muslimah” decorate masjid shelves and images of oppressed veiled Muslim women occupy our audiences’ visual space in mainstream film, television, magazines, and the web (just do a Google search of “Muslim women” images and see what shows up). Experiencing an uninterrupted five to ten minutes of a single person’s tale of a single moment?—?which is then followed by different tales?—?with very few distractions is really important for audiences who are primed to expect stories about hijab, religion and violence.

Which brings me to my conclusion.

One thing to remember is that although this medium is powerful for the purpose of combating prejudice, we should not imaginatively limit ourselves to only writing in these roles (the activist-protestor, the oppressed victim, etc.) If one begins with an already identified moral of the story before writing it?—?it can stunt creativity; it is perceptible; and in the end, it takes away from the power of the art.

Finally, this brings us to consider not only aesthetics but also ethics. Briefly, if an artist believes in upholding ethical standards, it does not necessarily mean she or he will only produce mediocre works. On the contrary, limitations can be an invitation to creativity and innovation in providing others tired of the same old stories new ways to imagine heroes, villains, and everything in-between. There is a certain pleasure in developing and mastering creative techniques to entertain, surprise, edify and possibly connect with an audience. That pleasure also then becomes a shared experience?—?and the most remarkable thing is that each participant sharing that moment does so in entirely unique ways.

It is too soon to create a canon of Muslim American works?—?and I would add, I would resist such an attempt to racialize ourselves to fit existing notions of ethnic literary production in the U.S. On the one hand, such categorization primarily addresses one aspect of difference that makes invisible other differences. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to not try to envision innovative aesthetics and a different universe of signs and language?—?drawn from specifically Muslim traditions with global and local experiences and perspectives?—?that can expand imaginations. As Toni Morrison would say, we need to stop worrying about who is reading us and dig deep into our own roots.

Editor’s note: this is an excerpt based on a talk the author gave at the Muslim Protagonist Symposium 2013. The author’s views are her own.

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