<%-- Page Title--%> Theatre <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 121 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

September 5, 2003

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A Social Comedy about Spiritual Struggle and Love

Aasha Mehreen Amin

A new play by a Bangladeshi writer is making waves in New York City's theatre scene. Originally written in 2001, Raisins not Virgins is a social comedy of a 29-year-old Muslim-American woman in New York City. Sahar is a spunky, irreverent young Bangladeshi New Yorker who is rattled by the seeming contradictions in the way Muslims practice their faith and plagued her terrible luck in relationships. At first she is quite disillusioned by the religion preached by fellow Bangladeshis in her city but eventually she finds her faith through a series of debates with various characters and herself. The play was shown from July 3 to July 13 this year at an off-Broadway theatre in New York City. In an exclusive interview with SWM, the playwright Sharbari Z. Ahmed who also plays the lead character, talks about her play and the message she wishes to convey through it.

Sharbari Z. Ahmed, playwright

SWM : What is the play about?

It's about a young Mulsim-American woman's spiritual struggle set in the year preceding 9/11. In a nutshell it's about jihad in the purest sense of the word.

SWM: The play is about a Bangladeshi Muslim woman living in NY. Why did you choose this theme? Is it autobiographical?

Yes and no. It definitely mirrors my life in certain ways. I am a Bangladeshi American raised and living in NY and have grappled with spiritual/idelogical issues as Sahar Salam the protagonist has but it diverges sharply in other ways. I was never a late twenty something single who placed a flashy career ahead of marriage and family. That is not me. I am honestly baffled even though I created her; why Sahar would be so shortsighted and fearful of a real life that is multi-dimensional.

I always wrote about things I know or things that plague me. I was plagued by the idea that I wasn't or couldn't be a Muslim in this country. That somehow being Muslim and being American were mutually exclusive.

SWM: The title of the play is the same as the title of a controversial article in Newsweek Magazine? Did you name the play after that?

No I wrote this play way before the Newsweek article came out--in 2001.

It's about the concept of re-interpretation and layers of meaning. Arabic is a multi-faceted language. One word can have several meanings. Also there are root words--prefixes and so on that one can build upon attach stuff to and change the meaning of. The whole idea is that in the ancient Aramaic and Syriac the word for raisins or raisins of startling white clarity can be exchanged with fair skinned maidens.

I read about this two years ago in the Guardian and in US News and World report.

SWM: Writing a play that is critical of Islam is quite a bold step. Were you not afraid of repercussions from Islamic zealots?

Almost everyone has told me that what I did was very bold but I don't see it that way. I wanted to tell a story, a good solid story, about a young woman at a spiritual crossroads in her adult life. She could have been the offspring of Icelandic herring fisherman and the essence of the struggle would have been the same. She would still ask, who am I? Where do I go from here? Does God even figure in the equation? In order to fully explore these questions one has to dissect his/her immediate environment and influences. In Sahar's case these happen to be Islamic, American and funnily enough, Jewish. She was raised in Flushing, Queens after all.

I thought fleetingly about backlash, negative fatwas and all that. But then good old George W. helped me out. He and his buddies at the Dept. of Homeland Security (really the dept of let's promote xenophobia) have made it very difficult for extremist Islamists to move about freely in NY and the US. They are laying low for now so I figured this was my chance to make my point and unveil (forgive the expression) a different aspect of Islam and Muslims in general.

SWM: What is the most important message in this play?

That re-interpretation, even after two thousand years, is not out of the question. And frankly that Islam is a complex religion that has been whittled down, taken out of context and beaten so that even real Muslims cannot recognize its true nature. Also that we are all connected by our common confusion about the way of things.

SWM: What has been the reaction of the audience? How was it received? Where was it played?

I'm not objective so I think the audience loved it! We did play to sold-out houses in a great little off Broadway theatre in Manhattan called the Producer's Club II for many nights in a row. It's a comedy and people love to laugh and laugh they did. I figured if I can make them laugh and then hit them with some heavy ideas then I have succeeded. One girl a Bangladeshi American came up to me and started crying because she was so moved and because someone was finally telling her story. The deshis supported me in droves but so did the non-deshis. There is a Jewish character in the play whose experiences seemed to speak to the Jewish members of the audience. One night I had a large female contingent from an Islamic center in Long Island, some of whom were in hijab, who laughed the loudest and the longest even at some of the bawdier aspects of the piece. They asked me to come and perform for them out in Long Island. This is NY so we had an eclectic audience most of the time.

Unfortunately we did not have a big media presence. I produced this myself with money I raised and then found another producer and a director and all that. This was really a test run to see if I had anything worth pursuing.

SWM: What are your personal feelings about this play and the way it has been received. Did you expect this? What were your fears?

It was a labour of love and hell. I am happy that the audience loved it as much as they did and of course I did not expect it to be as well liked as it was. Artists usually go in blind and hope that they get a hit. I was worried that it would be misconstrued but that did not happen.

SWM: What is your next project?

A NY theatre company the Workshop Theater Companyhas invited me to join them and will produce the play for a second run in the near future. As soon as I give it a fresh re-write. Also I am currently writing the screenplay version Raisins Not Virgins, which is slated to start filming in NY in May of '04. I am playing the lead, Sahar, for the film as well but thankfully not producing it. I am also putting the finishing touches on A Small War, a novel. It is a first person narrative set in Dhaka during the 1971 struggle for independence. I researched it heavily and now just need to fine tune.

SWM: Are you proud to be a Bangladeshi?

Absolutely! I speak fluent Bangla which is unusual for an American bred deshi. My parents instilled in me a strong sense of love and appreciation for this land and it's struggles.

SWM: Are there other Bangladeshi writers who have had a breakthrough in American Theatre?

Well, I'm not quite sure I have even made a breakthrough. I am really at the beginning of my career and consider myself a neophyte still. Now that I have produced even this tiny play I feel I can do anything except sing, I'm tone deaf. I know of West Bangali playwrights and writers who are making names for themselves but not one of Bangladeshi extraction per se. I am sure she's out there though because we Bangalis are all artists and revolutionaries at heart.





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