if all of rochester read the same book

writers and books’ initiative “if all of rochester read the same book” featured laila lalami’s “hope and other dangerous pursuits”. laila is a moroccan american writer based in california. her blog, which has been on my blog roll since day one, is a repository of information about books and writers, especially non-western writers who are mostly absent from mainstream best seller lists. laila came to rochester to talk about her book and i met her at the st john fisher college reading, a couple of weeks ago.

laila’s book is a panoramic narrative which explores the lives and hopes of four moroccans trying to make it across the straits of gibraltar into spain. the non-linear structure of the plot is a great hook. we start with a vivid scene showing complete strangers thrown into uncomfortable proximity. all the characters are here. this is our first encounter with each and everyone of them. they are cramped together into a lifeboat – illegals trying to get smuggled into spain. we can feel their anxiety, their desperation. we hear their thoughts. the landing is bungled and the characters are left to fend for themselves, struggling to make way in the dark, freezing water.

we then go back in time, pre-lifeboat. we get a peek into the lives of all four characters. we come to know them, understand them, sympathise with them. we become familiar with the realities of living in morocco – corruption, nepotism, red tape, non-existent upward mobility, political repression. many of these problems are characteristic of developing countries. i could immediately see the similarities with pakistan – the differences between various socio-economic classes, the corruption at every level of society, the dejection that comes with joblessness, the urgency to find a better life and become the hinge that pulls an extended family out of poverty. we also see the charm of simple lives unencumbered by greed. even in their most indulgent dreams, the characters wish only for basic comforts.

the final part of the book nudges us forward in time, post-lifeboat. here we see who made it and who didn’t and in the end, were they better off or not. laila’s writing is temperate, lucid, fluent. the book could have easily been three times its present size, packed with more details about the lives of its protagonists. but i like some of its open-endedness. like a great french film it lets you fill in the blanks and become part of the narrative. to me brevity and the natural, homespun quality of a story makes it all the more poetic.

in person, laila was animated and funny and refreshingly honest. she is passionate and not shy about expressing her views. she talked about morocco, the u.s., french colonialism, language and her love of words, the characters in the book and the process of writing.

laila lalami

geva readings: thomas repair

this last monday went to see “thomas repair” at geva. this was one of the best play readings i’ve been to so far, and i’ve been to many. truth be told, it was hardly a reading. the cast was solid and their performances absolutely electrifying.

the story unfolds mysteriously at thomas repair, a repair shop owned by jacob thomas, which advertises proudly “if it can be fixed, we’ll fix it”. it’s the middle of the night. jacob is busy tinkering with random bits and pieces of junk fashioned into a curious machine. a young girl called brenna appears at his door. she forces her way in using various pretexts but there is a sense of foreboding here. she articulates it in so many words – he should have seen this coming. she has brought her guitar with her. she painted it blue and wants the paint removed. we soon discover that she herself is literally blue, covered with splotches of blue paint all over her body. she enjoins jacob not to touch her for she infects whatever she touches with her inner “rot”. that rot is gradually revealed – a sexual relationship with a married man, an abortion, lies and deceipt, a final severance of ties with her parents. what jacob doesn’t expect is for his own family to be at the epicenter of brenna’s crisis of conscience.

her need to come “clean” is urgent and all-pervasive. slowly jacob’s daughter and son-in-law and finally his ex-wife are dragged into this emotional fray. jacob’s own life becomes more and more transparent: his hatred of his wife after she left him, the troubled relationship with his daughter whose existence he could never fully sift as disparate from the rage directed at his cheating wife or the contempt he felt for his loser son-in-law, and the self-perpetuating cycle of hate and defensive anger that his life has been reduced to since their departure.

brenna becomes the trigger that sets off this dysfunctional dynamite, to eventually create some space for truth and healing. she is an other-wordly presence with some very human problems. this touch of magic realism generates rich dramatic subtext throughout the play. similarly, recurring biblical verses speak to jacob’s religious convictions but also weave yet another fine pattern onto the play’s canvas. there are fables and edifying conclusions, mirror images and stark contrasts, metaphors, poetic prophesies, mundane realities and much humor. by electing to cast multi-racial actors in various roles the writer and director add another layer of interest.

this is the kind of play one can sink one’s teeth in. it has substance and nuance, a rich tapestry of what is humdrum and sublime, a sound dramatic arc and characters just waiting to fly off the page and walk in the door.

keith randolph smith, a terrific actor who has worked successfully both on tv and on broadway, played jacob thomas.

keith randolph smith

evie’s waltz

went to see “evie’s waltz” by carter w. lewis at geva theatre. the reading was part of geva’s american voices series.

what an explosive play – full of conflict and contradictions, bitterness, delusions, verbal violence and physical aggression. danny’s bizarre behavior results in his parents’ emotional detachment, especially on the part of his mother. it also invites persistent abuse at school. his friend and neighbor evie has her own problems. her mother has survived her father’s departure and the forced lowering of her expectations by turning to booze. evie is dangerously reckless with a long list of exploits to prove it, such as using a nail gun to pierce her tongue. she and danny have known and loved each other since they were children. together they seem to attain some sense of calm sanity, like partners in a perfect waltz. yet here they are – caught trying to buy a gun on the internet. there are detailed maps of their school stashed inside danny’s locker and a disturbing blood stain on evie’s neck as she shows up for a family barbecue at danny’s house. the play is a fusillade of words that summarizes every strained relationship in the play. danny’s parents argue the bejesus out of anything that comes their way. they have reached a place in their marriage where a spouse is just an irritant in a series of disappointments and verbal jousting is the only means of communication left. evie lashes out at them for all these reasons. she is smart but has her own distorted sense of reality. danny, whom we never see and who is perched in the woods behind his house looking at evie and his parents through the scope of a rifle, participates in the conversation through text messaging and well-timed rifle shots.

the play is well-written with a litany of intense, forceful, actionable language that brings home the clash between incongruous realities. the verbal savagery is an apt vehicle for exposing the violence inherent in 21st century american culture – whether it’s the story of the well-intentioned parents who have lost touch with their child and their own sense of self, the single mother who feels isolated and hopeless, the little girl who learns to act out to forge a sense of identity and acquire a false sense of control, and the little boy who deals with his oddity by taking revenge on the world. although the play is about more than the genesis of a school shooting it nevertheless touches a nerve, especially in view of the latest northern illinois university shootings.

here i have to say how ridiculous i find efforts to prevent such terrible tragedies by trying to identify possible assailants in their early childhood or through sensitivity training or some kind of social discourse where potential problems like violence in films, video games and rap music are happily pointed out. we can analyze our socio-cultural identity and the age we live in until we’re blue in the face. the answers need not be so broad, complex and ultimately impossible to redress. anger is natural and so is social alienation, teenage angst and mental disease. these are things we will never be able to fully understand or regulate unless we start replacing human beings with impeccably-wired robots. humans will be humans. the only thing that makes america different from other countries where school shootings are not commonplace is the easy availability of guns. anger is natural but the snappy and efficacious use of a gun to act out that anger is not!

speech at the rally

thanks to my friend, filmmaker rehema trimiew, who came to the rally on a cold windy sunday, filmed the event and put it on youtube. check out her film sticks and stones.

my speech:

We are here to show our support for the people of Pakistan in their struggle for freedom and democracy.

Civil society in Pakistan is being dismantled by the present dictatorship. Thousands of lawyers, human rights activists, judges and academics have been put under arrest. Hundreds of people who have committed no crime have mysteriously disappeared.

Shameful instances of torture against prominent lawyers have occurred and the government has even arrested the sisters of opposition leaders. Freedom of speech has been curbed and independent media have been shut down.

Martial law has been declared to supposedly fight terrorists yet the government is actually negotiating with them and every day they grow stronger. The laws of the country no longer apply in many places and people have been left to the mercies of the Taliban.

And all this after six years and billions of our tax dollars sent to the Pakistan army in the name of fighting extremism. 

What is happening today in Pakistan is NOT to fight terrorists, NOT to preserve law and order, NOT to make Pakistan or the world safer – it is a naked power grab.

I ask you to send a clear message to your congressmen, senators, the US administration and the whole world: Americans will not stand for what is happening in Pakistan. Human rights violations must be stopped. Those arrested must be released, the constitution must be restored, the judiciary must be restored, the media must be freed, and no more dictatorship.

democracy for all!

rally to show solidarity with movement for justice in pakistan

the rally to support justice and democracy in pakistan was a success last sunday, nov 18. about 50 people turned up. it was a diverse group of people from local activists to religious and interfaith groups, from lawyers to teachers and students, from pakistani americans to americans with no ties to pakistan. it was heartening to see that human rights matter to so many. there was plenty of media coverage. here is the article in the democrat and chronicle.

this is the speech i made, as main organizer and spokesperson for the rally:

“we are here to show our support for the people of pakistan in their struggle for freedom and democracy. civil society in pakistan is being dismantled by the present dictatorship. thousands of lawyers, human rights activists, judges and academics have been put under arrest. hundreds of people who have committed no crime have mysteriously disappeared. shameful instances of torture against prominent lawyers have occurred and the government has even arrested the sisters of opposition leaders. freedom of speech has been curbed and independent media have been shut down.

martial law has been declared to supposedly fight terrorists yet the government is actually negotiating with them and every day they grow stronger. and all this after six years and billions of our tax dollars sent to the pakistan army in the name of fighting extremism. obviously, this strategy is not working.

what is happening today in pakistan is NOT to fight terrorists, NOT to preserve law and order, NOT to make pakistan or the world safer – it is a naked power grab. i ask you to send a clear message to your congressmen, senators, the u.s. administration and the whole world: americans will not stand for what is happening in pakistan. human rights violations must be stopped. those arrested must be released, the constitution must be restored, the judiciary must be restored, the media must be freed, and no more dictatorship.”

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thanks to usman for these great pictures!

americans for justice in pakistan, rally on sun nov 18, 2-3.30pm, 12 corners in brighton

Rally to Support Restoration of Judiciary and Civil Liberties in Pakistan
Date: Sunday November 18, 2007
Time: 2.00pm – 3.30pm
Place: Twelve Corners in Brighton
Contact: Mara Ahmed

SOLIDARITY

PLEASE JOIN THE PAKISTANI AMERICAN COMMUNITY IN UPSTATE NEW YORK IN A DEMONSTRATION OF SOLIDARITY WITH THE PEOPLE OF PAKISTAN IN THEIR STRUGGLE FOR THE RULE OF LAW.

WE WILL HOLD A DEMONSTRATION ON SUNDAY NOVEMBER 18 FROM 2:00 PM TO 3:30 PM AT TWELVE CORNERS IN BRIGHTON.

THE PURPOSE OF THE DEMONSTRATION IS TO EXPRESS OUR DESIRE TO PRESERVE THE INDEPENDENCE OF THE JUDICIARY AND TO RESTORE THE RULE OF LAW AND THE CONSTITUTION OF PAKISTAN.

IF YOU CHERISH FREEDOM, LIBERTY, CIVIL RIGHTS AND DEMOCRACY JOIN US TO SHOW OUR RESOLVE TO THE WORLD THAT WE WILL NO LONGER ACCEPT TRAMPLING OVER CIVIL LIBERTIES AND OVER JUDICIAL INDEPENDENCE IN OUR HOME COUNTRY.

AS A SIGN OF UNITY WITH THE LAWYERS WHO ARE SPEARHEADING THE STRUGGLE IN PAKISTAN PLEASE WEAR BLACK AND WHITE WHEN YOU COME.

pakistani lawyers rally for the return of law
student protest in lahore

RIT screening

the first part of my documentary “the muslims i know” was screened at the carlson auditorium, at rit, today. it was exciting to see the first 30 minutes of my film on screen. it was also interesting to see the audience’s reaction to it. it all went well. i got a lot of questions from the audience and some feedback from malcolm spaull, howard lester and other rit film faculty. i was extremely pleased by the interest the film generated and the many comments that continued after the screening, when many of the students and some faculty approached me to talk about it. people liked the lahore collage i had put together to show the vibrance and beauty of my hometown. they also liked the muslims i had interviewed and with whom they felt a connection – the connection was different for different people but it was definitely there.

there is still a lot of work ahead of me if i want to get the film ready by february 2008 for the highfalls film festival, but during the last 11 weeks at rit (in cat ashworth’s documentary workshop class) i have gone from 30 hours of unedited footage and transformed that hodge podge into a story. cat’s input and help have been invaluable to me. not only is she an astute filmmaker but she is incredibly generous with her time and all the resources at her disposal. it has been a very hectic, sleep-deprived but also a wonderfully productive 11 weeks.

clip from “the muslims i know” coming soon…

whose children are these?

last thursday i saw theresa thanjan’s “whose children are these?” at the u of r. it is a documentary about how post 9/11 domestic national security measures have affected the lives of three muslim teenagers. the film focuses on one such program, special registration, which required male non-citizens (as young as 16) from 25 countries, to register with the department of justice. under this program, 83,000 muslim men got registered, 14,000 were deported, yet not one terrorist was found. the deportations were on account of immigration status violations, even if these constituted minor snafus.

the film follows the trials and tribulations of 3 teenagers. as we become better acquainted with them we are moved by their experiences. navila’s father is kept in a detention center for almost a year, then deported to bangladesh. all of a sudden, she becomes the father figure in her family. “i am tired”, she says later in the film, “i just want my dad back”. sarfaraz, a basketball-crazed new yorker who has already lost both his parents, is on the point of being deported to pakistan. at the last minute media attention and activism save him from being sent to a country he knows absolutely nothing about. hager, who wears the hijab, is confronted by strangers on the subway. a man calls her an arab bastard before making a quick exit. she responds to this racism by becoming an activist and educating people.

the film sheds some light on a subject that has been completely ignored by mainstream media and tells the stories of people who are lost in the deafening noise surrounding terrorism and fear. it is an admirable effort to delve into that which is not kosher by today’s standards – muslim communities in america.

what was even more heart-breaking was what many young muslim students had to tell theresa after the screening. they thanked her for making the film and for telling a small part of their stories. they talked about being held up at jfk airport every time they enter the u.s. for 6-8 hours and being harrassed in sadistic ways. they talked about being sent to a detention center in upstate ny, where they were kept for 3 weeks in spite of legal representation and without any accusation of being linked to terrorism. i found it difficult to hold back my tears. it is one thing to look at statistics and read stories in the paper. it is another to hear first hand accounts of racial profiling and the open-ended (and totally legal) persecution of communities across america. it is all the more painful and terrifying if the people being persecuted look like you and pray like you…

whose children are these?

“doubt” at geva theatre

i’ve been interested in this play ever since playwright john patrick shanley’s interview on npr. i followed the play’s fortunes off broadway and read the reviews. cherry jones won widespread accolades. all in all, the play didn’t do too badly – it won the 2004 pulitzer prize, the tony award and every critics’ award. unfortunately, i still hadn’t seen it.

imagine my joy when i found out that “doubt” was coming to geva theatre. my husband had his own doubts – the last (and only) time he had been to geva was to see a vapid “camelot”. we had just moved to rochester from the nyc area and were sorely underwhelmed by the lackluster staging of this larger-than-life arthurian legend. long story short, my husband had vowed never to return to geva.

however, i could figure that this 3-character play was going to be a completely different affair – not a big stage production, but rather a study in character acting. i bought 2 tickets and we went to see the play last weekend. it was terrific.

it’s the writing that hits you first. it has a sharpness and sparkle that’s very new york. it’s witty and profound all at once. i found the subject matter very thought-provoking – not just its reality-based depiction of scandal in the inner sanctum of a closed, rigidly hierarchical system such as the catholic church, but on a broader level, the yin and yang between doubt and certitude and the values society or religion ascribes to each. when does certitude become fanaticism? when does doubt become moral ambiguity? these are important questions to ask in today’s world.

sean patrick reilly gives a nuanced performance, undulating dangerously between the roles of charismatic, hands-on, accessible priest before his congregation; self-important, bullying man when locked in a power struggle; and perhaps morally tepid, unrepentant child molester in private life?

but it’s judith delgado who steals the show. she is a powerhouse of wit and obstinate determination. we hate and admire her. there are no cracks in her shield of arrogant conviction until the very end of the play, when we are reminded of the dangers of absolute certainty, untempered by doubt.

doubt poster

beyond belief – NYWIFT event at the little

NYWIFT or new york women in film and television’s rochester chapter opened last week with the screening of the documentary “beyond belief” at the little theatre. the film recreates the step by step progression in the story of two 9/11 widows (susan retik and patti quigley) who decide to help afghani women. there are some illuminating moments in the film – the very idea of turning hate into love, of forgiving in order to achieve “post-traumatic growth”, of realizing that we are all connected and that what happens in afghanistan affects us here at home, the concept that all the small, day-to-day decisions we make in our lives cumulatively define who we are in the world, and that our common humanity can transcend even the most striking socio-cultural differences. that’s powerful. the director beth murphy talks about compassion fatigue, a dulled sensitivity to crisis over time. viewers, when faced with a relentless barrage of snapshots showing human suffering all over the world, start to feel helpless and so disengage. this film puts the ball back in our court – instead of feeling overwhelmed by what’s going on around us, we are reminded that every action we take has a ripple effect and can change the course of the world in small but cumulatively potent ways.

as far as the overall documentary, i felt that 9/11 was the star of the film. the grief of the two widows is obviously real and palpable but as patti quigley says herself, she is ready to move beyond her role of 9/11 widow. much has happened since 9/11 – we have invaded afghanistan and killed more afghanis, we have invaded iraq and started a barbaric civil war (more than 655,000 iraqis have died along with thousands of american troops), we have legitimized torture and trampled on basic human rights all around the globe, we have reworked the laws of our country in order to curtain civil liberties, we have discovered that our government is far from being honest and that our media is far from holding it to account. with all the things that have gone horribly wrong since 9/11, shouldn’t we move beyond our role of wounded nation?

i wish that more time had been spent telling the stories of the afghan widows. we only see them as a one-dimensional horde of burqas on cnn. this film could have afforded us a rare glimpse into their lives and suffused them with some depth. there is a little bit of that but not enough. we cannot help but fall in love with some of the afghani women profiled in the film. they are honest and accessible, strong and dignified and possess a calm inner beauty. that’s a face not often seen in the media, a voice not often heard. beth murphy has made a laudable effort to show us another side, let’s hope this is just the beginning.

after watching “beyond belief” the writer june avignone sent me the link to this article she wrote called “the cure we wait for” (sun magazine, march 2003). she talks about 9/11 and compares it to her experience with cancer.

“i am not shocked at all. if anything, i am shocked about how many other people are shocked. i know that there will be a precious moment figurine about all this down the road, perhaps a cute little fireman followed by a sweet, gun-toting marine. and i know america will eat them up, unlike the truth that was there all along, the warnings ignored like a bad dream and hidden behind the correct purchases made at the mall.

and with their shock comes the talk of getting the bad guys; of killing some good to destroy the bad; of using cannons to get the thief who robbed us of innocent lives, and threatens us still; of hitting larger territories to get at the hidden problem and make it go away for good. and the language is so familiar I cannot bear it.

i do not know where all of it is going. i only know that we tell ourselves we have the cure, and we don’t. the thief is inside all of us. and part of the cure, at the very least, lies in knowing that.”

dov and ali

just saw this play reading at geva theatre. “dov and ali” was written by anna ziegler and describes the relationship between a precocious muslim student of pakistani descent and a jewish high school teacher. both are unduly burdened by their fathers’ religious dogmas and we witness some of their conflicted emotions. whereas dov reacts with lassitude by simply avoiding life’s big questions (and decisions), ali becomes a strident mouthpiece for his overbearing father. dov and ali are simultaneously drawn to each other and repelled by the recognition of their own fear and self-doubt in each other’s psychosis. ali is mortally afraid that the world might not be black and white, as his father says, and that the quran’s directives might not be enough. is being “right” more important than being “happy”? although he strikes dov as being sure of himself (and of everything else) we suspect that it’s self-hate that’s making him lash out. dov on the other hand professes that he has a mind of his own and chastises ali for being a fanatic, yet we sense that his own convictions are half-baked at best.

the dialogue between these two characters is sharp, funny and fast-paced. there are many references to william golding’s “lord of the flies” which serves to pit what’s good for the individual against what’s good for society.

the play’s turning point is based on ali’s relationship with his sister sameh. sameh acts both as the play’s narrator and one of its characters. in her asides she gently reproves ali for something he did, becoming more and more agitated as the play progresses. she also reveals her love affair with a liberal muslim boy mo (short for mohammed) and we are slowly led to think that it did not end well and that ali had something to do with it. she appears as a character in flashbacks and as a ghost-like apparition in ali’s dreams. ali finally confesses to dov that he led his father (and uncles and cousins) to sameh and mo and that she was packed off to pakistan as a result. this has been ali’s torment – his guilt and the loss of his sister have torn apart his family. the girl’s end is left unresolved. our only clue is that she now lives with an aunt in pakistan and all she does is pray – this led an audience member to think erroneously that she might have been sent to a convent. in fact, there is no concept of any types of convents in islam.

dov’s trajectory from traditional to modern is tracked through his relationship with a “blonde” (there is frequent mention of her hair color) white girl. she definitely believes in being happy above anything else – a symbol of western-style jettisoning of religious orthodoxy?

although i found the play interesting (more should be written about the interplay between different religions and cultures, especially in a country where we are proud to describe ourselves as a melting pot), much of it was hackneyed and one-dimensional. i liked the verbal sparring between dov and ali and the not-so-apparent similarities which are nevertheless explored. but did ziegler have to throw in something as corny as “israel should not exist – the jews stole it” and play into the already over-propagandized stereotype of the jew-hating muslim? maybe she was being facetious, but sometimes one has to wonder, do we always have to go there – the lowest common denominator of our so-called “free” mainstream media coverage which is sold in bulk and therefore cannot afford nuance or novelty. for some reason, in my unwaveringly idealistic mind, i hold artists to a higher standard. rather than pander to pre-existing stereotypes why not turn things around and present a topsy turvy picture of what people perceive as reality. in my opinion, that is true art.

stereotypes abound in this play – from the fanatical quran literalist, to the emotionally-distant orthodox rabbi, from the blonde blue-eyed voice of tolerant modernity, to edward said as a proponent of arab victimization in full view of palestinian suicide bombers. you will be happy to know that tossing the hijab is still very much the means to female empowerment and as a pakistani-american, i was interested to know that being sent to pakistan is the ultimate kiss of death.

all in all, it reminded me of your average story in the ny times with all its comforting clichés and facile generalizations. it’s no coincidence that ziegler’s writing process for this play started with newspaper clippings and the endeavor to write something “current”. this is why many audience members were confused about sameh’s destiny, thinking that she must have been killed because of “all the stories in the news”. five years after 9/11 and the ensuing media blitz which divided the world into those who were with us (and like us) and those who were against us (and different from us), it is time to get beyond our narrow view of what “others” are like. i think that american audiences are ready to undertake that journey.