A Social Comedy about Spiritual Struggle and Love
Aasha Mehreen Amin
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
Z. Ahmed, playwright
: 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.
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.
The title of the play is the same as the title of a controversial
article in Newsweek Magazine? Did you name the play after
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.
read about this two years ago in the Guardian and in US
News and World report.
Writing a play that is critical of Islam is quite a bold
step. Were you not afraid of repercussions from Islamic
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.
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.
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
What are your personal feelings about this play and the
way it has been received. Did you expect this? What were
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.
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.
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.
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.