“Disgraced”, the Pulitzer award-winning tale by Ayad Akhtar of an American of Pakistani descent, who grew up Muslim, and his white, privileged wife and their relationship toured China in April. I was lucky enough to be able to watch it and was incredibly struck by how relevant this play felt to my own life as one half of a WWAM couple.
Feature Image Courtesy of Ping Pong Productions
Here is a short synopsis of the play from stageagent.com:
Corporate lawyer Amir Kapoor is living a wonderful life: he is happy, in love with his wife, and about to land the biggest promotion of his career. But when he briefly helps his nephew with a case defending a man of Muslim faith, Amir’s career and personal life begin to slowly unravel. When Amir and his artist wife, Emily, host an intimate dinner party with their two colleagues and friends, he begins to realize that the life he has built for himself may be a façade. Does achieving a Western ideal of happiness mean that Amir has denied his true Pakistani heritage? The friendly dinner party soon escalates into an intense conversation involving religion, race and violence. Accusations are spoken, truths are revealed, and Amir’s life will never be the same again. The Pulitzer Prize-winner for Drama in 2013, Disgraced questions whether we can ever truly escape the confines of our upbringing and our heritage.
While for some the focus may have been on “how did America come to be the place it is today, with all its issues around integration of Muslims citizens and violence by both white supremacist and extreme Muslim groups”, for me personally the play really resonated on a level of the relationship between the two protagonists – an American man with cultural Pakistani heritage (who has abandoned his Muslim faith and is trying to live the “American dream”) – and his wife, a privileged white woman who is an artist and in love with traditional Muslim art and culture. Aside from being absolutely pleased that here is a play that not only includes a WWAM pairing in its story arch, but makes their relationship the focus of the entire play, the performance left me deeply pensive because it was just so worryingly relatable. Here are 4 ways, in which the play struck a chord with me:
- Her relationship with his culture
Disgraced made an incredibly fascinating but also uncomfortable viewing experience for me because I recognised a lot of myself in Emily, the white wife. When we meet her she is an artist, who is drawing on traditional Muslim imagery to create art, and is utterly enthralled by Muslim culture, which is naturally completely misunderstood by anyone but her. She is full of passion for this “Oriental” culture, from which her husband Amir stems, but which he actually tries hard to deny. Fast forward, and by the end of the play she has become completely disillusioned. Her conclusion, delivered full of pain and disappointment, is: “I was naïve”.
There are a couple of interesting things at play here: For one, Emily is being praised for her Muslim art, something that has happened in white mainstream culture for many years. When a person from non-white culture wants to present their own art, no one looks twice at it. But if a white person – especially a white woman – appropriates said cultural elements, then it becomes a celebrated thing.
Secondly, her relationship with his culture is very blue-eyed in the beginning – she sees only the positive side, the exoticism, almost the Orientalism, and part of the reason is because she has not actually been that deeply immersed in the culture. Yes, her husband has Muslim roots, but they live in America, on her turf, he is trying to fit into her culture, rather than expecting her to adapt to his, and – this is key – she doesn’t live with her in-laws. (Just kidding, or am I?) When I was a university student, looking back, I was very similar. I took the calligraphy courses, I watched the movies, listened to the music, and was completely fascinated by Chinese culture. Both Emily and myself then go through a phase of – let’s call it disillusionment – when you realise that not everything about this exciting new culture is butterflies and unicorns.
Finally, her separation from Amir ends with a separation from the Muslim culture she previously adored. And this is the thing – for many WWAM’s breaking up with the husband/boyfriend can also equate breaking up with a culture. The difficulty is to keep an open mind, even when it isn’t happily ever after, and find a balance where you can come out at the other side and still love your adopted culture, warts and all.
2. The uphill battle of trying to fit into a culture that only pretends to accept you
Now, my husband was not born in England by all means; but he did live there for 6 years and when there, always tries his darndest to fit in – even to the point where he was starting to lose himself over his worry to not stand out. But the sad matter is that he will always stand out. The years spent in England did not go by without racism – young kids threw stones at him and shouted “Chink, go home”. 20-something women spouted the same nonsense. And so did a crazy old nutter, who followed us screaming down the road we were walking along in London. There will always be people in these white-dominated countries who think that just because you are yellow, or Muslim, or whatever, you can never be a “true” American, Brit, “insert nationality here”. For people like Amir, who have grown up in places like America, this rejection is a horrible reality that is the biggest ill of our society. The fact that he will be overlooked for promotions just because he appears Muslim. The fact that ignorant idiots look at his face and think “terrorist”. Of course, in China, white people will also never be considered real Chinese; but we hardly experience racism as Muslim and Asian men do in the West. On the contrary, we mainly experience positive racism, whereby overall our lives are easier as internationals in China than they are for local citizens.
3. The Culture Clash
“My mum didn’t like you. She thought all Western women are loose.” As Amir tells Emily what his parents really thought of her in the beginning, she is thunderstruck. However, this stereotype of the loose Western woman is one that also exists in China. Some potential parents-in-law do speak out against their sons dating a Western woman, because they believe she will definitely cheat on him or has loose morals. Of course, this isn’t every Chinese parent – but it’s very similar to the whole “Chinese eat dogs” idea we have in the West. Somewhere, at the very heart of it, a cultural difference does exist: Western women do maybe in general tend to be more “open” about sex, though that doesn’t mean we jump into bed with any passer-by. The same thing goes for eating dogs in China, there is a minority that does this, less than 1% of the population. But then these realities are completely blown out of proportion and not representative of an entire culture.
Emily on the other hand seems to be of the “I don’t see colour” persuasion. This idea that educated white people aren’t racist at all and treat everyone the same. She does even admit that they never talk about the question of race in their relationship. Yet, in the process of not seeing colour, we are denying a) our inherent racism and privilege and b) are denying the experience that people of colour have.
4. Affirming stereotypes?
The ending of the play leaves a bitter-sweet taste in one’s mouth. If you are a WWAM looking for a happy-go-lucky love conquers all type of story, then “Disgraced” will leave you just about ready to jump off a building. There’s no happy ending to be had here. It’s messy, it’s emotional, it’s real and raw.
An interesting discussion that occurred after the play, when we had the honour of discussing it with the cast and its director Timothy Douglas, was an audience question of whether the ending affirmed the stereotypes each culture had of the other. So the idea that Western women are loose – Emily ends up having an affair with the artist who has been helping further her career – and the stereotypes around treatment of women in Muslim cultures – as Amir ends up hitting Emily in an emotional rage when he finds out about the affair. Fajer Al-Kaisi, the lead actor playing Amir, felt quite strongly that the play “only affirms stereotypes to those who believe them to be true”, while he saw it just as a play about two individuals and their actions, which do not necessarily speak for their whole culture. The irony is that even as WWAMs, who have married into and almost by default are deeply engaged with Chinese culture, there are still moments where we can find ourselves irritated with what we perceive to be “Chinese culture”. But the most difficult part in talking about cultural differences is the murkiness and the blurring of what constitutes culture and what is simply individual behaviour. Because, yes, not everything is cultural, but at the same time pretending that culture does not influence our values and concepts of what is right, wrong, or appropriate or important in life is also over-simplifying.
And that’s what “Disgraced” does so well – bring out the complexities of the human experience. Through Emily and Amir’s story we are forced to confront our own inadequacies and the stereotypes that rage within us. It’s not comfortable viewing, in fact, it can be an experience that leaves you painfully self-aware. And that’s exactly why it is such a great play.
“For the most part, what we see of Asian male sexuality is the assertion of a stronger Western virility at the expense of Asian masculinity. In short, the imagery takes Asian men lightly, as less-serious competitors for women, and less-competent fighters.” Sheridan Prasso, The Asian Mystique
The “Where’s Wang” tag allows us at WWAM BAM! to review how present this bias is within sitcoms and other tv shows having come out of the Hollywood machine (and other media) over the past few years, and review any media through an AMWF lens.