Nishat Kurwa on Saturday, Oct. 16th
by Nishat Kurwa
A Muslim walks into a casino, and goes straight to the slot machine. Comic Aman Ali could easily have used this scenario to set up a “man walks into a bar” joke. But the man in this story lives outside of the punchline – he’s the real-life slots manager at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and a board member of the downtown mosque. It’s one of the serious stories of Muslim life in America that Ali surveys in “30 Mosques in 30 States,” the blog/travelogue he launched with a friend, posting stories about communities they visited during the month of Ramadan.
However, Ali doesn’t consider himself a political artist. When I reached him earlier this summer to talk about the crackling “debate” over New York’s Park 51, better known to audiences of Bill O’Reilly as the “Ground Zero mosque,” he indicated he’d rather not add to the hot mess of commentary, and that the issue had been distorted and overblown.
But a week later, when his mosque-umentary project traveled to New York, he and partner Bassam Tariq produced this video…adding to the hot mess of commentary about Park51. “It was the elephant in the room that we didn’t want to talk about. Initially we were a little hesitant because we didn’t want to be the token Muslims to respond,” said Ali.
Whether, and how, to respond to virulent rashes of Islamophobia has become something of an existential question for young American Muslim artists like Ali. If they jump into the fray, it also means grappling with issues of tokenization and obligation, artistic autonomy and opportunity — all evolving inside of a fast-moving news cycle they’re expected to mount and master.
Filmmaker Hena Ashraf said the Park51 controversy was unavoidable in New York this summer. “It’s not always in your face, but they jab you here and there.” Ashraf is a hijabi who experienced several unprecedented face-offs recently: comments like, “Hey, you here to do jihad?” and “Where’s Osama?” She’s been making a film about the Iraq war, but said she feels frustrated enough by what she witnessed around Park51 to plan film coverage of the aggression it’s spawned. “The media is so biased and misinformed when it comes to Muslims and Arabs specifically. Muslims who are in the media already should step up…as a form of resistance and an agent of change to get our stories out there.”
Muslim American artists have been imprinting our culture with their works for decades; at least since the Black Arts movement of the 60s and 70s. But post-9/11 geopolitics and canny xenophobia have made Arab and South Asian Muslims, like it or not, the most scrutinized and most visible representatives of American Islam. And first and second generation Muslims in the U.S. are far more likely to engage with this visibility. Within their connectedness lies what Islamic scholar Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah calls “cultural maturity.” Abd-Allah writes, “many of them are comfortable with their American identity, while cultivating a healthy understanding of their religion, pride in their past, connection to the present, and a positive view of the future.” Hence the desire, both from Muslims and their allies, for artists to counter stereotypes that Islam and American patriotism are mutually exclusive.
Comic Aman Ali was bewildered when an interviewer referred to him and Bassam Tariq as unofficial ambassadors of Islam. “I don’t see myself as that whatsoever. It just showed me there are no voices out there,” Ali said. He said his passion is storytelling around universal issues that young Muslims face: moving back in with parents after college; depression; loneliness. “As an artist I’m talking about how Muslims interact with other people as opposed to how we’re being treated. Israel, Palestine, Kashmir…I don’t want to diminish those (issues). But they don’t resonate as hard as those of my Muslim female friends who’re criticized because they don’t cover their hair.”
San Francisco Bay Area-based playwright Wajahat Ali’s major work to date, “The Domestic Crusaders,” tackles the personal and the political in a post-9/11 two-act introduction to a Muslim Pakistani American family. Ali said although he feels that Muslim American identity is inherently politicized, the pressure to conform artistically to community expectations can feel like “a straightjacket.” And once you’re in the spotlight, Ali said, you have to contend with conservative notions of propriety. “If your art is not ‘Islamic’…it’s either seen as profane or useless. It has to adhere to an Islamic standard that is judged and upheld by a subjective norm.” Then he presented the conundrum from the artists’ point of view: “Man, sometimes I just want to get up and talk the way I talk, sometimes drop an ‘S’ bomb, or talk about sex, or unsavory aspects of life – but then Muslims may see me as a heathen.”
For comic Aman Ali, the priority is finding stories, no matter their political slant, that humanize Muslims. When Ali finally relented and decided to visit and blog about Park51, he said, “…it was on a whim. I went to the ‘Ground Zero masjid’ expecting to feel transformed. And when I walked in: bad sound system, no AC, you can’t hear anything; it’s like any mosque in America.”