Islam Hasn’t Had Our Friedrich Schleiermacher: A Conversation with Ayad Akhtar




IF THERE IS A TRIPLE THREAT in writing, Pulitzer Prize–winning Ayad Akhtar is it. He is the author of American Dervish, an “immensely entertaining coming-of-age novel,” according to The New York Times, about a Pakistani-American boy’s parallel struggle with Islam and puberty. He co-wrote the screenplay for The War Within, “a taut tale of terrorism and the fundamentalist ties that bind,” according to the Washington Post, which earned a 2006 Independent Spirit Award nomination. And in the last five years alone, he wrote the plays The Who & The What, The Invisible Hand, and Disgraced, the last of which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013 and had sold-out shows on such preeminent stages as the Lincoln Center and the Lyceum on Broadway.

People wondered: Can a playwright or screenwriter sustain enough narrative tension for an entire novel? The answer turned out to be yes. Can a novelist have the economy of words to pull off an impactful 80-minute one-act play? He has proven he can. On Disgraced, The Guardian says the first act begins “on a note of deceptive serenity” and by the end, according to reactions I’ve read online, audiences left theaters confounded, crying, furious, and confronting the ugly prejudices that reside deep within them, within all of us. Akhtar is a virtuosic, once-in-a-generation talent.

And he makes it look so easy. Akhtar writes fluidly across formats and is in full command of his topics ranging from stock market futures to the visual properties of Andalusian mosaics to things that could go wrong when a Pakistani father creates an online dating profile for his daughter. The reviews of his work are glowing, and Akhtar’s writing is simply everywhere. One friend amusingly pointed out, “If you cover up his first name, you can pretend everyone’s talking about you!” (For the record, I tried it. Didn’t work).

We share a last name, but Ayad and I aren’t related. Still, when I first met him at a literary event, I felt an immediate kinship. We’re both children of Pakistani immigrants, both endured adolescence in the suburban Pakistani communities of Reagan’s United States, both drawn to fiction as a way of exploring our world and inventing new ones. But mostly, when Akhtar mimics his father, a comic interlude from the serious discussions that usually surround him, he also sounds just like my dad.

I chatted with Ayad via Skype, while he was in London preparing for the opening of The Invisible Hand at the Tricycle Theatre. He’s also in the middle of writing both a feature film script and a series pilot for HBO, a new play called Junk, and a second novel.

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JABEEN AKHTAR: Let’s get right down to it. Islam, nudity, carnal desire. These are not often associated with one another. In The Who & The What, the protagonist Zarina interprets a passage of the Qur’an in a controversial way: the Prophet Muhammad sees his daughter-in-law naked and desires her. At their eventual wedding, he is eager to be with her in the bedroom and draws a curtain between them and their guests: hijab is curtain in Arabic. Medieval and 18th-century Islamic art may have been infused with eroticism, but contemporary Islam represents a very one-dimensional image of sexual oppression. Zarina attempts to use this passage to humanize Muhammad and add more texture and nuance to Islam. Is this also your intent?

AYAD AKHTAR: We have this sanitized, almost clinical relationship to the Prophet. Zarina’s preoccupation with the Prophet’s desire and the way in which his desire is made manifest by his 13 wives underscores a patriarchal order within our religion that’s not a conversation anybody wants to have. People don’t even know that the anecdote you allude to is where the hijab comes from. On some metaphorical level, when you take the veil, you become the Prophet’s wife.

In the case of The Who & The What, the construction of the prophet as a literary figure was the big question. Islam hasn’t had our Friedrich Schleiermacher. We haven’t had a prominent Muslim voice from inside the community come along and say, “Let’s approach this scripture as literature, let’s approach it as mythological trope. Let’s use literary analysis to understand what it is.” Islam always has to be defended as some unique utterance in the history of the world, which impedes our understanding of it.

In American Dervish, Disgraced, and The Who & The What, there is this attack on the literalist approach to Muslim scripture. Whether it’s the sort of rationalistic, agnostic, drunken attack of Amir or the heartfelt, mystical challenge of Hayat in American Dervish or whether it’s the sort of literary approach of Zarina, it is the same issue. Each of these characters is working through it in their own way. That’s what I’m doing too.

I wonder how there can be literary analysis or even scholarship in Islam. Like you said, everything seems hampered by a literalist approach.

Or it becomes historical-anthropological. It’s non-Muslims who are interested in Islam as a thing that “those” people do — like “those monkeys in that forest that do these different things and order their colony like this and have these rites and rituals.” The dilemma we as Muslims have been going through since colonization, and it’s our own fault as much as it is the fault of the West, is that we are always taking our lead from what the West says about us. The real tragic dilemma of the post–9/11 world for Western Muslims is that the question of Islam lacks imagination, has taken on energy by becoming a binary one. Every question about Islam seems to be about whether it’s about peace or about violence.

All you see are polarized images of Islam. I understand why certain Americans have no idea how to approach Muslims. On one hand, they’re seeing extreme violence committed in the name of Islam. On the other, these imams come on television and they have this very serene exterior and say, “Islam is about peace.” Who am I to believe? This black-bearded terrorist burning the American flag on my TV screen or this imam who looks like Santa Claus? Islam has a terrible PR problem. Muslims cannot put out their own narrative of who they are. Like you said, it’s just reacting.

It’s always reacting, it’s always reacting. We are not this, we are not that. We are a thing that is the opposite of this, or that, etc. …

A theme that I see across your writing and at the core of The Invisible Hand is the intersection between Islamic extremism and financial gain. Again, these are not concepts you often see paired. The West sees Islamic extremists as evil, as a caliphate guided by religious fervor creating a global jihad — all grandiose ambition and purity of intent. But pointing out their financial greed sort of knocks them off their divine or satanic perch and makes terrorists seem, dare I say, all-too-human. Your writing attends to these nuanced, gray areas of Islam and Muslims.

The reality is that I’m not writing from that reactionary place. My characters are not “Muslim.” They are characters. They happen to have Islamic origins. I don’t see them, or myself, from the outside; defined by some category of identity. This is where I have run into trouble with some. There are those — both Muslim and non — who take my project as one defined by its relationship to Islam. They expect me to defend Islam, or to play the role of ambassador or some such. The literary version of this is to assume that I am preoccupied by identity politics. I’m not. I’m interested in the human. In tradition, faith, doubt, love, greed, murder, rapture, sorrow. I’m not as interested in seeing myself or my characters as “others.” But of course, in this era of rampant identity politics, that’s counterintuitive at best, immoral at worst.

There was that long debate in the Harlem Renaissance between Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston about the responsibility of a minority artist representing his or her community within the majority culture. Langston Hughes felt it was important for black artists to be very responsible because if they weren’t, the whites would take advantage and use those representations against black people. And Zora Neale Hurston said my only truth is aesthetic, so I don’t need to be responsible to the community, I need to be responsible to art. I would suggest there is a third pole, which is neither about responsibility or aesthetics, but something like truth. Socio-philosophical truth. I try to serve the truth of my experience of myself and the world.

Much of postcolonial Islamic resistance — both militant and non-militant — is deeply infused by Marxist thinking — the so-called resistance against empire. We’re talking for 150 years. The white American audience, or even the white British audience here, may not understand that history. They may think extremism is just about a bunch of lunatics who want to chop people’s heads off. They don’t see the world that we’ve created is one where contemporary terrorism is the shadow side of globalization. From a Muslim point of view, extremism has to do with our own reactionary, dysfunctional, postcolonially traumatized, murderous response to global power, with the fact that global power is equally murderous.

But that is not how much of the white majority culture sees the conflict. In any event, so much of my work sits in the space between these discourses. Uncomfortably. It’s part of why some are not sure what to make of it.

For example: In Disgraced, am I saying that Amir is right in that violence comes from Islam? Well, not exactly. The discourse only makes sense when you situate it in its proper context. Somebody like you or me, in some ways, we are the only type of people who can understand these works as a challenge to the ummah, or Muslim community.

But the play also challenges the liberal intelligentsia. Most of the time, someone is missing one half of the so-called message. In an odd way, the only people with the context to get the full picture are folks like you and me. These works are really for us. There are very few of us, but you know what they say: Build it and they will come.

But don’t you think this is the very purpose of art? In a lot of reviews I read of your work, I see that people are just confounded. They don’t know what to make of it. They are upset by it. And hopefully when they walk out of the theater or when they put down your book they try to fit it into the broader context of what they’re reading in the paper, of what they’re seeing on the news. Isn’t that the idea? It’s not to answer questions for them, but to make them confront the fact that they don’t understand the people they think they do. Even I put down Disgraced not understanding Amir. By the way, I notice you pronounce his name as A-meer, not Ah-mer.

That’s the perfect ambiguity of the entire play right there. That’s it in a nutshell. Amir [A-meer] would be a Jewish pronunciation of that name. It is an Israeli name as well. So the fact that he is calling himself A-meer all the time, and working for Jews and pretending to not be Muslim …

But, I want to get back to what you were saying about the purpose of art. I do think that there is this sense of wondering what the utility of an artist is if it’s not to somehow explain shit. That the purpose of the artist is to make us feel better about something or to illuminate some corner of what-not or make people feel empathy about so-and-so. That’s not why I do what I do; it’s not what I want to do. I do not want to be an ad guy on behalf of Islam or behalf of whatever. I am not interested in being an anthropologist. In large part, because I do not think that Muslims need to be humanized or empathized with, for God’s sake. They’re human. I’m human!

I am too! But even when I look at popular images of Muslims …

[At this point in the interview, there was a knock on my door and I went to answer it.]

I’m sorry, someone just knocked on my door.

What is it?

Jehovah’s Witnesses …

Wow.

Yeah, but back to Islam. I look at images of extremist male Muslims and I don’t think of them as human. To me, they’re parodies, they’re cartoons, they’re subhuman. In your writing, I see this other side to them. While reading The Invisible Hand, I kept thinking that Bashir, who is British and of Pakistani ethnicity, reminded me of the terrorist in the latest beheading videos.

Jihadi John.

Yes. And you see a rapport growing between him and his kidnapping victim, Nick. Even though I generally think of extremists as subhuman, I began to think of Bashir differently.

What’s interesting about that play is that by the end, most people are in love with Bashir. When you’ve got a really good actor playing that role … you know? They first feel put off and don’t understand why this guy’s got a British accent and he seems to understand the West. But then over the course of the play, he has those moments, like when he gives Dar a hundred dollars and tells him to give half of it to someone in need. You get this sense that he really is guided by something. Bashir is, in his own way, a revolutionary. We may agree or disagree — we certainly wouldn’t want to condone his act of murder.

Flannery O’Connor looks at these wonderful, eccentric extremists in the South, people who believe that a mummy in a museum is the body of Christ and are willing to do anything to steal the body. I think contemporary Islamic identity is a rich subject for exploring the paradoxes of being human. I see a universality in Islam where others see a menace. I see a universality in it because it’s part of who I am. When I was growing up in Milwaukee, the Soviets had invaded the Afghanis. Every weekend at the mosque there were prayers for the mujahedeen brothers fighting these Soviet atheists. I grew up thinking the greatest people in the world were those who were fighting that fight. I can’t forget that. And because those people are now personae non grata to the State Department, I’m supposed to forget that I had that experience?

This leads me to my next question about the concept of roots. In an interview with American Theatre, you mention that Disgraced is ultimately about the realization faced by Amir about “the ways in which we Muslims are still beholden on an ontological level to the ways in which the West is seeing us.” I thought this was an interesting thing to say because Amir feels a sense of pride over 9/11, even though it shocks his dinner guests to hear him say so. He says he can’t help it, it’s tribal pride. It’s in his very bones. So, the West may see him a certain way, and he is beholden to his roots. Does someone like Amir ever have agency in crafting his own image?

That’s the question of the play. And the play’s apparent response is that in a post–9/11 world, a Muslim cannot have self-creating agency in a Western society. Amir has preemptively and proactively defined himself as everything that the West would want to hear and see in a Muslim/non-Muslim. And even that does not accord him belonging.

He takes on the entire anti-Islamic text. He says: “It’s so bad, I’ll prove it to you. You don’t want anything to do with it.” Why is he doing this? Is it simply self-loathing? Is it an insight into the mindlessness of organized religion when practiced as a marker of identity? Is it a way of proving his Enlightenment bona fides to a group of “enlightened” Upper East Siders? Little matter. He’s still not accepted. In that moment at the dinner party, he is finally pushed to telling some truth about himself. He reveals himself. Whatever the content of his revelation, the revelation itself is a noble act. And yet, the response of his “enlightened” guests is to turn into automatons. They have these robotic responses of self-righteousness. Their own tribal identifications masquerading as civilization. “No civilized person would think that way.” And yet a few minutes later, the Jewish character in the play, Isaac, does exactly that. So, I mean, often the white American audience can’t even see the play because they assume that the reactions that the other characters are having when Amir speaks his truth, are reasoned reactions. They’re not any more reasoned!

That’s the nub at the heart of the play: Amir can’t release his animus toward this West that will never accept him, so of course he has pride. And so much unconscious and subconscious anger. And that’s the contradiction of contemporary Muslim identity. You know who understands this play? African Americans.

Really?

Yes, oddly enough, African Americans seem to find an articulation and sort of the psychic ramifications of American race politics. They can see all of the same dilemmas. Contrarily, Muslims sit in the audience and many of them are just like, “Oh my God, all these white people sitting around me, what do they think of me after seeing this play?” I have friends who said to me, “My son went with his white wife and he was very scared in the theater because he thought people thought he was like Amir.” Muslims in the West want to be free of all of this. But just because we want to be, doesn’t mean we are.

This speaks to another dimension of Disgraced, of the immigrant experience in America. I feel that the central American experience is the rupture from the old world and the renewal of the self in the new world. Americans celebrate the renewal of the self and do not mourn the rupture. Disgraced is a story of an American who can only mourn the rupture. He cannot celebrate the renewal. He cannot create himself in the new world. He can only exist as something disengaged from the old. It’s a failure of the American Dream.

Reading Disgraced prompted me to think about my own immigrant experiences. I grew up in the Washington, DC–area Pakistani community and in many conversations I overheard, there’s an undercurrent of anti-Semitism, anti-Israel, anti-AIPAC sentiment, even while, at the same time, these same people hold profound respect for and have many close friendships with Jewish people. These are somehow not mutually exclusive.

As evidenced by Disgraced and American Dervish.

Yes! We heard things like, “Jews are good people. They’re enterprising. Don’t marry a Muslim man. A Jewish man will treat a woman right.” And in the next conversation we’ll hear criticism lodged against these same people on a broader socio-political and foreign policy context …

And theological context.

Was it the same in your community in Milwaukee?

Absolutely! And again it speaks to the contradictions of American Dervish, where you have Mina who falls in love with a Jewish man. Disgraced and The Who & The What are both modeled in many ways on Jewish-American writing — on Philip Roth, Chaim Potok. In Disgraced, Isaac is basically my attempt to be Woody Allen.

My mom loved Judaism. She had Jewish friends and admiration for Jews and said all those things Hayat’s mother says to him in American Dervish. “I’m bringing you up to be like a little Jew so that you treat women right.” Same stuff you’re talking about.

I think it would be surprising to outsiders.

And I think it is surprising to many people who read the book and don’t understand how these things co-exist.

You have said that the political climate for Muslims in America has devolved since 9/11. You wrote Disgraced in 2011, before this latest election cycle. Given that some people think Disgraced is a harsh portrayal of Muslims and now you have people like Donald Trump leading the discourse about Muslim Americans, do you feel differently now that Disgraced is out there?

I feel very uneasy at times about Disgraced being out in the world. I also recognize that it is completely out of my hands and that is the nature of what I do. Do I wish I had written Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? I mean, I do! I wish I had written a story that everyone loved and people were just singing along and I was laughing all the way to the bank. That’s not the artist that I am, that’s not the artist that I ever will be.

I do believe that audiences are much more intelligent than people give them credit for. Of course there is always going to be a portion of the audience that will read your work in a reductive way. But I don’t see the portrayal of Muslims or Islam in Disgraced as fundamentally negative. I think the character Emily says amazing things that are very true about Islam. I feel that Abe articulates a legitimate historical grievance and if the audience thinks that he’s going to walk off-stage and build a bomb, that’s their own idiocy. I cannot be held responsible for the stupidity of much of the American fourth estate, by which I don’t mean theater critics, but the media portrayal of Islam. For we’re talking about the way in which media, journalism, and what passes for reflective thought within the public sphere has become entirely beholden to the making of money. In the case of covering Islam, offering a menacing contrary that keeps peoples’ systems coursing with cortisol: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

When Les Moonves, the head of CBS, says that Trump is good for business, we’re looking at a particularly American psychosis, where truth is always at the service of finance and profit. And so I can’t really do my job as an artist if I’m not willing to exist in some tension with that order.

Now for more a writerly question. One thing that I especially love about your writing, in American Dervish particularly, is how well you capture adolescence. Ten-year-old Hayat is constantly observing the adults in his Pakistani-American household. Their hypocrisy and flaws often induce in him an avalanche of emotion. But he’s just a boy, and he can only muster one-word responses or say nothing at all. Writers feel tempted to give children this precious, very articulated dialogue that’s false. I was almost waiting for that Oscar moment — for Hayat’s character to say something that would summarize everything — and it never came. What goes through your mind when you’re writing from a child’s perspective, especially one who’s trying to make sense of a socio-political climate that even the adults around him can’t make sense of?

Hitchcock once said that the purest expression of a cinematic idea is to show an immobilized man. You situate the reader in the perspective of someone who is immobile in some way, we observe what he sees, and then we observe what he does. And we don’t get much more than that. Of course, that’s Rear Window, and in a way, that’s what we have with Hayat: we have an immobilized protagonist. The kid has limited agency, so what he sees takes on a greater intensity. When he does something there’s real impact because you have been in that mute interiority all of that time. When he sees Nina naked, it’s like seeing the Venus, it’s like seeing Aphrodite.

My last question is this: You’re an entertainment industry renaissance man. You’re a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, studied directing at Brown and Columbia. Is there any medium you haven’t explored yet that you’d like to?

I have never written a TV show, so I guess that. I just finished a pilot for an episodic one-hour drama for HBO.

Disgraced is coming to HBO?

As a movie. I have to write the script for it. But this pilot is separate. Like The Leftovers or The Sopranos. An exercise in world-building. It’s been 14 months of prep. I’ve never done anything remotely as thorough in my life. Twenty characters, five different zones of the world. Right now, that’s the next horizon.

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Jabeen Akhtar is the author of the novel Welcome to Americastan. She lives in Washington, DC, where she is working on a graphic novel about a short terrorist.


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