Review: Domestic Crusaders

I have to imagine that writing fiction about Muslim-Americans is a thankless task. People from outside the community are already pre-disposed to like it or hate it. Unless you’re Rizwan Manji, Aasif Mandvi, or Aziz Ansari, you can’t quite draw the crowds to be able to change minds. Of course, you also get heat from inside the community. People will invariably say “it doesn’t represent me,” “it’s not my experience.” These same people will simultaneously identify with Lady Chatterly’s Lover, and support Umrao Jaan Ada, but will not have empathy with Muslim-American characters because it is not exactly their experience.

I say this, because Domestic Crusaders is not my experience. It’s not even close. Could I recognize the characters? Absolutely. But the test of art should be can you “feel” it without relating to it. Domestic Crusaders succeeds. I feel for the characters, and am invested in them.

The story of a Hyderabadi family in the US, it is the story of three generations, but one experience. That experience is one of loss, alienation, and the unheimlich . Do not mistake this description for the typical displaced immigrant fare. Although the language of immigration is there, the generational dissonance is there, these deep feelings are beyond the immigrant experience. Aside from one specific anecdote — I cannot share it without ruining the play — all their stories can belong to anyone. That is the power of Domestic Crusaders. It is billed as an immigrant, Pakistani, Muslim experience, but it is the story of any community that is trying to preserve a unique identity against the forces of a homogenizing popular culture.

I have two minor quibbles with the play itself. First, there are two Hyderabads in South Asia, one in Pakistan and one in India. The characters say they are from Pakistan, but certain cues kept making me think they were from India, usually in language construction. There was an unidentifiable disjunct in that area, but no one but the most acerbic reviewer should notice it. Towards the end of the play, the youngest son Ghafur, on whose birthday the play takes place, asks for his birthday gifts. The moment in which he asks, and the way he asks, took me out of the moment. It seemed contrived.

Now, with those criticisms out of the way… Religion is handled deftly, is taken seriously, and allows Wajahat Ali to be humorous without being offensive. Characters turn to religion without becoming “fundamentalist,” and characters turn from religion without hating it. The complexity of Islam, of Muslims’ relations to their faith, is on display.

The father is your average beaten down professional, who has one of my favorite lines: “[I am] a sepoy who did not rebel.” Hints of a broader history pepper this play, and references to popular culture help make it feel alive. The mother is an over-educated housewife; the elder son is a lusty master of the house, who does not want to be “the chosen one.” The middle daughter is lovely in her fad of religion and is studying to be lawyer. She is indignant at everything except the immediate problems around her, a point her elder brother points out to her. Ghafur, the youngest son, is still trying to find his way. When he reveals what his plan is, he gets a reaction from his grandfather that I believe is the most moving point of the entire play. The human element, the need for love, the empathy and understanding represent a finely crafted moment of character interaction.

Ali labels the play as being about Pakistani Muslim Americans. It is. However, it is more. It takes the specific story and allows you to realize how universal it is, without being generic. He will get a lot of hate for it. He deserves it. He is breaking new ground, and that is shocking. He will make people uncomfortable, but he is very respectful at the same time. I hope he does his next work on prostitutes. People seem to generally respond better to that material.