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“To think that we can understand Islam through current headlines and the conflicting opinions of political pundits is sheer illusion. But the misrepresentations embedded in many scholarly tomes from prestigious institutions create even more problems.” — Richard Martin Oxman

Some citizens in Europe and the United States have engaged in ugly debates about whether or not they ought to welcome refugees from places like Syria, while their political leaders wearily contemplate the possibility of getting further involved in yet another war in the Middle East, and continue to contribute to abominations they’ve already set into gear.

Ayad Akhtar, a well-known Pakistani-American writer, has given us a Pulitzer-winning drama (Disgraced) that — supposedly — addresses Islamophobia and questions of Muslim-American identity, but does not (in my humble teenage opinion). Does not do an adequate job of that, I should say.

There is a need, I believe, for some new dramatic fare which will dare to address issues that are not being acknowledged. And I do hope someone will heed that call soon. For the potential for spot on theatrical productions to help the general public to self-educate is enormous.

Shakespeare  made widespread suspicion of Islam one of the implicit concerns of Othello, and he conflated race and religion way too much in that oft-produced classic. But for Elizabethan playwrights, including Christopher Marlowe (whose Tamburlaine includes a burning of the Koran!), the relationship between Islam and Christianity was of mostly theoretical interest, since England was far removed from the Muslim-dominated portions of the world.

For other countries, such as Spain, however, there was more of an immediate threat since cultural memories of the Reconquista (and subsequent expulsion of Jews and Muslims) lingered. The Spanish and Portuguese battled with Muslim rulers over the possession of territories in North Africa for a very long time. And these conflicts obviously lent themselves to drama, with perhaps the best-known example being Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s The Constant Prince.

Today, the play largely owes its prominence to the legacy of Jerzy Grotowski’s production in the 1960s, which served a showcase for his ideas about “Poor Theatre.” However, it’s also a grueling examination of religious conviction, in which the title character Ferdinand allows himself to be starved and worked to death by his Muslim captors, rather than allow himself to be exchanged for a city held by the Christian Portuguese. Although Calderon was writing in a deeply Catholic society, and would himself become a priest later in life, the play doesn’t depict Muslims in a uniformly negative light. Ferdinand’s sometime jailer Muley was captured by Ferdinand in a previous battle and treated well, which throws him into a conundrum over where his loyalties should lie. In the end, Ferdinand dies, but Muley’s kindness to him leads to a happy ending in which he is allowed to marry the princess whom he loves as a reward for his goodness.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that one of the most positive views of the relations between the Muslim and Christian worlds in the Western dramatic canon was written during the Enlightenment. In addition to creating the role of the modern dramaturg, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was also one of the most well-known Germany playwrights of the eighteenth century. His Nathan the Wise, which is set during the Crusades, offers an optimistic outlook on our ability to reach out across religious divides. The action of the play begins when the title character returns from a journey to discover that his house has burned down. Luckily, his adopted and much-beloved daughter Recha has been saved from the flames by a Templar, a Christian warrior-monk who is being held captive (albeit very loosely) by the sultan Saladin. It turns out that all of the main characters are somehow related: Recha and the Templar are actually long-lost siblings, and Saladin is their uncle. However far-fetched this might seem, it fits the play’s overall function as a parable about the close ties between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Lessing underscores these ties in a scene in which Nathan, asked by Saladin which of the three faiths is the true one, tells a story about a father who loved his three sons so equally that he made indistinguishable copies of a precious family heirloom for each of them.

Of course, this brief rundown of plays dealing with relations between Muslim cultures and the West only tells one side of the story. Akhtar’s recent popularity is an encouraging development, but it’s striking how little attention other work from Muslim Americans has received.

As the current federal administration in the my country continues to raise worries about how Muslims are treated in the United States, it would be worthwhile to examine the work of playwrights such as Heather Raffo and Rohina Malik, whose one-woman shows 9 Parts of Desire and Unveiled examine the lives of Muslim women both here and abroad; and plays like Yussef El Guindi’s Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith, which looks at Arab-American life in the years since 9/11. By bringing newer works such as these into dialogue with the older plays described in this piece, we can hopefully begin to change the conversation.

That said, nothing that’s been written that I know about (or that my well-read mentors at Flannery O’Connor Academy are aware of) deals nearly well enough with the major issue facing Muslims today.

And on that note, I ask for a proper play about Muslims to be written. One that will decently address their collective crises. The dire challenges they face.

Flannery O’Connor Academy is mainly a home schooling setup for teens devoted to the kind of Liberal Arts education which makes the honoring of life effortless. This author and all the students and mentors can be reached at aptosnews@gmail.com. Authors of its articles choose to be anonymous.

 

 

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