Disgraced, a play

I know it’s been a while since I updated my blog. I’ve got a half dozen half finished. Hopefully this one goes from start to finish in one day.

I recently saw an interesting and provocative play. Disgraced follows the story of an atheist from a fundamentalist family and how he navigates a wife who admires the culture he came from, a colleague who advanced past him due to affirmative action and racism, an adulterous affair, and a dinner party that devolves into drunken rage.

Amir, grown up Muslim and still tied to his family by duty and emotion, is married to Emily, a blond haired, blue eyed, all American artist who draws inspiration from Islamic art. Jory is the strong black woman who fought her way out of the ghetto into a prestigious position in a Law firm alongside Amir. Her pragmatism and Libertarian conservatism don’t interfere with her wit, sharp perceptions, and marriage to liberal Jewish Isaac. He is Emily’s colleague, gallery manager, and one-time lover; their meeting of minds over her interpretation of Islamic art paving the way for infidelity. The main action occurs during a four way dinner party at which all is laid bare. Infidelity, racism, fear, anger, self loathing, derision, love, contempt, shame, sadness all show their faces over the course of their increasingly drunken interactions. The whole play examines the effects culture, religion, and race play in the end product of a human being.

Apparently this play is well known, traveling from Broadway all over the country. The Uber driver that took us safely home after was in fact a New York native and had seen it back home. My friend who recommended it was waiting at our local bar to discuss it and it has sparked several conversations with several people since then.Conversations help me solidify my thoughts and so I have some, interesting to me at least, to share on Islam, sex work, moralizing, and feminism.

First: I identify with Amir, brought up Muslim, taught heavy racial divides and contempt for or even anger towards foreigners, Jews in particular. Having eschewed this worldview and the religion it came with, this wretched man parries the swings from both his wife and his wife’s colleague-cum-lover as they praise the beauty in art, the delicacy of culture, and the family ties he has all left behind.

I find his wife particularly odorous. She of the privileged white race, upper class, moderate upbringing, full of scientific advances and open-mindedness. It doesn’t even occur to her that a culture that produced such beautiful structures and visual art could also be close-minded, cruel, short-sighted, and her (a woman) enemy. She pressures and cajoles her husband to maintain relationships with his cousins and culture while he attempts to distance himself and explain exactly why he wishes to do so. Her cultural appropriation doesn’t end with art; she pressures him into attending a legal hearing concerning a local Imam accused of fundraising for terrorist organizations. “He’s innocent!” She pleads, “and he just wants someone like him on his legal team.” His eventual attendance and accidental quote in the paper, aided by likely racism, ends up costing him partnership in the firm and furthering his shame and rage at his own culture. Throughout discussions of wife-beating and political backwardness she is constantly badgering him to rethink his own. Damn. Culture. She thinks some mosaics are pretty and upon that subjective analysis she tries to force her husband to revoke all the decisions he has made since abandoning his religion and the culture it carries with it. Her sheltered views of Islam and history of privilege gives her this moral superiority she wields over him as she herself has an affair, albeit short, with what he has been taught is his mortal enemy: a Jew.

Isaac also has a privileged upbringing in a moderate Jewish household. He holds wealth and status, a successful wife, and his love for another man’s wife. He and Emily see eye to eye on the matter of Islamic art and swanky, naïve, appropriation of its simple geometry and so they find themselves allies in the siege of Amir. One significant difference between Emily and Isaac is that Amir had been taught to despise Jews and only hate Americans so when the infidelity comes to light and epithets fly, so does spittle; from Amir’s drunken frothing mouth onto Isaac’s face, ending the dinner party-cum-verbal brawl. His hatred of Americans and women comes out in his violent attack on his wife.

Jory represents the token black woman, the comic relief, Amir’s workplace superior, and Isaac’s condescending wife. Simultaneously embodying and breaking stereotypes surrounding black women, she is a voice of moderation, neither condemning Amir’s culture nor condoning the more oppressive traditions. She is the one who first perceives and reveals the infidelity and she is the least drunk, least belligerent, least provocative at the dinner party. She is the one blameless character in the play and as such acts as foil to the three white characters. She is my favorite because she feels, to me, the most lifelike. She is the only one I’d actually like to sit and talk with, the others being so condescending and self important or self loathing depending that they bring nothing I’m interested in to the table except as a tableau on a stage.

Watching this play was pleasurable because it was unexpected, it wasn’t unreasonable to imagine as truth, it gave me a chance to examine some of my own thoughts regarding culture and religion, and it’s always a pleasure to see good theater done well.

My first thoughts were in agreement with Amir discussing his cultural heritage. His insistence that as pretty as parts of his fundamentalist culture were, most of it was very much not. He outlines the reverence in which a world in 700AD where life was harsh, in a desert, without modern law or convenience is held by fundamental Muslims. No modern morals governed human interaction, only harsh rules that had to be in place in order to eke out life in a hard place. Fundamentalist Christianity has much the same awe for a world long gone. The endless cries to go back in time to when America was ‘a Christian Nation’ and people were kind to each other ignore the reality of the modern world. It may have been realistic to require a 14 year old bride to be a virgin but who at about a 25 year old one? It may have been reasonable to sequester menstruating women because blood carries infection but in the days of modern female health it’s unreasonable to demand. Cutting off the hand of a theif in order to shame, punish, and warn potential new victims is unnecessary when we have not only have painstaking records of humans and their crimes and ridiculous sentences and still refuse to punish CEOs that ethically steal from millions. Banning homosexual activity officially was of course necessary when eight out of ten children died and sex without procreation was wasteful (though anyone who thinks it didn’t happen is a fool). The ideals of fundamentalists aren’t just to hark back to a simpler time, it is to drag the world into a time of disease, famine, murder, and hate, a time we are good to leave behind. So far they’re doing a damn good job of it. I heard Amir talk about Islam and I heard echoes of Christianity. He spoke of the Middle East and I understood.

My second thoughts were less vehement, whimsical in one case and pointed in another.

As I walked from the bus to my incall, I passed a woman and a man watching a group of about eight toddlers playing in a park. He was graying, well dressed, somewhat preoccupied and she was elegantly draped from head to toe in black. Though I could only see her eyes and her hands as she caressed a passing child, I was struck by her beauty and grace. The black fabric draped heavily on her arm as she reached to herd a toddler and her fingers were long and fine. Her eyes were dark and mysterious and as I passed her voice sang out “Your jacket is beautiful.” I’m not one to ignore things like that so I turned in passing and told her “I was just thinking how beautiful you looked. Really.” And I meant it. Though many believe the burqa and the Niqab and the Hijab are oppressive, and I generally agree, she was still beautiful. Recognizing that beauty just a few days after watching a play that outlined exactly how cruel Islamic cultures can be towards women struck a chord, gently, musingly, in my mind. Perhaps the sunshine addled my wits, perhaps it was just my good mood dampening any leftover anger, but seeing someone seemingly happily enjoying her cultural heritage while also enjoying the benefits of living in progressive Seattle and making a big deal out of neither made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

That image rose in my mind, alongside some striking Twitter threads, when my friend who referred me to this play struck up another conversation a few days later. We were talking about the full face veil and she expressed a disapproving opinion. She felt it was inherently oppressive and that women, even when they chose to wear it, were responding not to a desire but to a social pressure, a conditioning that wasn’t the same as real choice. You won’t believe how many people use that same argument against sex work. Some argue that even we who claim to choose this, free of coercion, threat, economic duress, or emotional abuse cannot truly be choosing this since we are only responding to the patriarchal notion that women are nothing but sex dispensers. This friend of mine tried to make a distinction between the veil and my work but my response was this: You cannot tell a woman who is doing something by choice, even if you don’t believe in what she’s doing, that it is not truly her choice. You cannot remove agency from a woman simply because you take issue with her behavior and BELIEVE it to be oppressive. Only the woman engaging in that behavior can tell whether or not it is oppressive.

I hope that you, my reader, will also find that ability to temper your opinions within yourself. An individual’s choice is something we fight for here in the states. Whatever other values we hold we will always believe in that. Remember that when your children do something you don’t approve of. Remember it when a CEO makes a cruel decision. Think back on it when you read a newspaper and see inflated numbers, stories designed to incite you, the average voting citizen, to remove the choices of others. Value your own right to choose and hold sacred mine as well. Hopefully we all will hold that most sacred and learn to live together.