By Adeela Kasoojee
The recent wave of attacks that have engulfed a number of countries across the world such as France, Turkey and Bangladesh have given rise to a number of protests and vociferous criticism against Islam that has been steadily increasing post 9-11. The unwarranted criticism, based on the propaganda disseminated by far right movements and anti-Islamic political factions has sparked a spate of Islamophobia, racism and bigotry across the globe. Women wearing hijab and men in dress to reflect their faith are being attacked. Masjid sites are being bombed and many Muslims live in fear of reprisal because of their faith. And yet this uneasy political and social climate has seen some predominantly Christian based communities show solidarity with their Muslim brethren and other have even gone so far as to protest against the treatment being meted out to those of the Islamic faith.
It follows that engagement and discussion are key in fostering any kind of support for and understanding of Islam. Unveiled, a solo theatre piece by Rohina Malik, directed by Wayne Maughans sees South African-born Gulshan Mia, playing a number of roles in a unique and quirky show designed to engage with theatregoers. It entails Mia playing five different women, each from a different cultural background and race with Islam as the common denominator. Each woman shares her story and experiences as a Muslim post 9-11 in America.
Gulshan has been travelling and in the short space of time that I managed to chat to her we had the following exchange:
So tell us a little about Gulshan Mia, the woman as opposed to Gulshan Mia, the artist?
I was born in Estcourt KZN, and studied drama at Natal Tech. I left for Dubai in 2003 and worked as a flight attendant for Emirates for three years. Then I moved to Taiwan to teach ESL, where I met my husband, Lee Griffin, who is from Pennsylvania, USA. We now live in Brooklyn, NY. Lee is a musician, and I have been working as an actor off-Broadway.
Let’s talk about the reasons behind “Unveiled”. Rohina Malik wrote this solo piece as a response to 9/11 and the Islamophobia that she encountered after the attack. What made you choose to play the roles in Unveiled – was there some empathy? Did you also encounter Islamophobia?
I chose to perform UNVEILED because I felt represented seeing Rohina Malik – a brown, Muslim woman – perform these roles onstage. It is a beautiful, moving piece of theater that needs to be shared. I don’t wear hijab, and therefore haven’t experienced any direct confrontations. However, I think the women who wear hijab are seen as easy targets for racists, bigots, and Islamaphobes. I have been discriminated against just for being a brown woman, so I can relate to the struggles of each of these characters.
What are some of the themes of the play?
The play is not only about racism and discrimination against Muslims, but also there are universal themes of love, motherhood, loss, tolerance and family. The common thread uniting each of the scenes is the sharing of tea. Each character serves a different tea that is representative of her culture.
Wayne Maughans feels that it is especially important that “Unveiled” is very necessary to South Africa and pertinent to many countries across the world, do you share his sentiment and why?
Absolutely! Muslims are a rich part of the South African culture and history, so there isn’t as much anti-Muslim sentiment here as in the U.S. and around the world. But issues of cultural equity, xenophobia, and even homophobia are still very much a part of the conversation here at home.
What was your reception in the USA like, given Donald Trump’s political stance on Muslims and Islam?
UNVEILED has been well received in the US. Rohina Malik has performed the play all over the country at theaters, synagogues, churches, and mosques. People are very receptive to the message, and representations of Muslim women onstage are pretty rare. However, in the current political climate, the message of the play becomes more important. Mr. Trump’s stance does not reflect the majority of Americans. His voice is just louder at the moment.
What would be the relevance to our South African audience?
Being such a diverse, multi-cultural society, the themes of tolerance, understanding, and openness are integral to South Africa’s future. Considering the struggles we have been through as a country, a message of hope and peace is always important to reinforce.
You’re South African born. As a South African, what’s it like playing to audiences who may not be as culturally diverse as our country is or are you feeling the converse and seeing diversity across the global audiences that you play to?
I see diversity in audiences both here and in the U.S. There is a great variety in ages, race, and cultural backgrounds. After one of the performances in Brooklyn, I was greeted by a mixed race couple – an older white gentleman and his Indian wife. She hugged me and told me how much she could relate to the play. On the day of the 9-11 attacks, she was confronted in public and told to “go home” because of her brown skin. That sort of sentiment lingered for a long time in the months and years after 9-11.
Tell us about the cultural diversity of the characters in “Unveiled”:
The five women of UNVEILED demonstrate Muslims of varying races and cultures. Maryam is a Pakistani immigrant living in New Jersey. Noor is first generation Moroccan-American. Inez is an African American revert from Texas. Shabana is first generation South Asian living in London. And Layla is a Palestinian immigrant living in Chicago.
So it follows that each of these women speak from a different space. Do you find that this resonates with the audience? Do the characters relate to the audience in different ways?
Yes, each of the characters resonate differently. They are funny, quirky, and familiar. After the first show in Grahamstown a Jewish woman came up to me and told me how much the characters reminded her of her own family. The college students love Shabana’s character. She is a rapper, and is edgy, confrontational, and dealing with issues of identity. And Layla is just lovable.
Are there elements of humor in such a heavily politicized topic as Islamophobia? Does the piece tackle the issues head-on with some elements of fun or is it all dark and somber?
There is a great deal of humor in UNVEILED. Rohina has crafted the play to be accessible and not too heavy handed. There are some very funny exchanges, broad characterizations, and laugh out loud punch lines. The characters are very human and real. They’re just telling their stories and the comedy of each situation arises from the recognition of ourselves in each of them.
Do you feel that more progressive thinking and culturally aware people are likely to attend a showing of “Unveiled”? If so, doesn’t this defeat the purpose of the play itself?
Are we preaching to the choir? I don’t think so. Of course there will always be a number of audience members who are already sympathetic to the message of the play. But it opens the conversation up, gets people thinking and talking. And if we manage to change one person’s mind, then won’t it all have been worth it?
How can we create a cultural awareness and respect amongst people who actually need it?
Cultural engagement is the key. The message of this play is to invite the audience to “get to know me.” We only hate that which is unfamiliar. By sharing our stories we create common ground.
Many thanks to the organizers of the National Arts and the 969 Festivals in South Africa for recognizing the need for engagement and discussion.
UNVEILED has played at National Arts Festival, Grahamstown 6-10 July and was well received by audiences. Further shows will play at the 969 Festival Wits University, Johannesburg 14-17 July. Get your tickets and prepare to be enthralled!