Different Races and Cultures, and Lead to the Rise of Islamophobia in US of America
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After the monumental attacks of September 11, 2001, a decade of international upheaval followed, making a profound and lasting impact on culture in the United States. The U.S. government soon executed a “War on Terrorism” in Afghanistan aiming to take down Al-Qaeda, the Islamist organization responsible for this calamity. This caused millions of Americans to develop discriminating attitudes towards people of different races and cultures, and lead to the rise of Islamophobia. Numerous authors have brutally construed the impact this adversity had and continues to have on Muslim-Americans. Among many of the post 9/11 works, Disgraced offers insight into the struggles Muslim-Americans face from the culture and bureaucratic rhetoric of society. This anti-Muslim sentiment and predominating fear of terrorism triggered new socio-political policies, causing the majority of Muslim-Americans to feel forced to give up their religion in order to “fit in” to American culture, or to be ashamed of their religion. Ayad Akhtar, a Pakistani-American playwright, novelist, and screenwriter, wrote about the power and impact this tragedy had on millions of individuals throughout the world. In his play Disgraced, Akhtar’s shift in setting, demonstrated by the changing seasons, ferociously upfront diction, and symbolic theatrical property calls into question the line between the American set of socially constructed morals and the values of religion. At the same time, it suggests the importance of remaining faithful to culture over succumbing to the desire of conformity.
In the exposition of the play, the playwright immediately establishes America’s perceptions of racial minorities through the setting. Set in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, New York, Akhtar highlights the main character’s unique cultural and social positioning. He depicts the elegant apartment they live in as having “high ceilings, parquet floors, and crown molding” (Akhtar, 5). This description immediately provides the reader with a respectable perspective of the main characters. At this time in post 9/11 America, few, if any, Muslims or individuals of color were able to succeed and become wealthy. The Upper East Side of New York was a place for predominantly white men and suggested an upper class status. For the two main characters, Amir, a Muslim born American, and Emily, a Caucasian woman, their ability to live in “a spacious apartment on New York’s Upper East Side” (Akhtar, 3) indicates their high level of success financially, and also their positive portrayal in society. However, while they may have had the ability to be upwardly mobile on the social ladder, the ideal, fixed apartment setting conveys a sense of tension between Amir and his wife, highlighting their differing views on Islam. As the play progresses, the staging, seasons, and property in this apartment play a crucial role in portraying the unraveling of Amir’s conflicting identity.
The staging and theatrical property in the first scene of the play serves to portray Amir’s inability to find direction in life and his dissatisfaction with his Islamic culture. In the description of the apartment setting, the playwright indicates that at upstage right, “an open doorway leads to a hall that disappears from view” (Akhtar, 5). This suggests that although Amir has achieved his career goals, he is unable to accept his true culture and identity. He is incapable of focusing on his own self-acceptance, thus the hall “disappear[ing] from view” (Akhtar, 5), and at the same time, he feels forced to uphold a “narrow” portrayal of being a rich and successful American. Additionally, the furniture choice is described as being “spare and tasteful, perhaps with subtle flourishes of the Orient” (Akhtar, 6). By staging the furniture in a spacious fashion, the playwright again highlights Amir’s lack of direction in life. Similar to how easy it is to get lost in a vast home, Amir is lost in regard to how he perceives his culture. He is constantly reminded of his “Orient” background, despite being in line with American culture.
Later within the first scene, the motif of alcohol and upfront diction reveal his resentment towards his Islamic religion. When he is asked to attend an imam’s trial, he is angered by it and is fearful of how it will affect his image. Emily criticizes him when she argues that “But when it comes to the imam, it’s like you don’t care. Like you don’t think he’s human” (Akhtar, 20). Through this quote, it is apparent that Emily believes that he should be supportive of Islamic culture and should not allow his workplace’s condemnation of Islam to prevent him from helping the imam. However, Amir snaps back, claiming that “I’m not one of his own people” (Akhtar, 21). This resentment towards his past and lack of identity contributes to his downfall, as well as his inability to find a median between his Muslim and American culture. Finally, his struggle of being a Muslim-American is symbolized through the motif of alcohol. Towards the end of the description of the setting, the playwright indicates that “to one side, [there is] a small table on which a half-dozen bottles of alcohol sit” (Akhtar, 5). Throughout the play, alcohol serves as an escape to Amir’s problems, and his desire to forget about his past. He fancies to be respected by his coworkers as an American, not as a Muslim, and as a result of not coming to terms with his identity, he caves into the poison of alcohol. Since alcohol is “haram,” or forbidden in Muslim culture, it further represents his desire to forget his core belief system.
In the second scene, the season of summer and the symbolism of a doorway calls attention to America’s discriminatory attitudes. While the staging and setting highlights the struggles of the main characters, it is also utilized to condemn the values America held after 9/11, and still holds today. In Disgraced, the second scene takes place in the summer. This serves to represent the tension created between American and Muslim culture, as summer heat is still and rigid. Not only does this convey the challenges Muslims face on a daily basis in attempt to comply to American culture, it also establishes the tension between Amir and his wife. This tension has called into questioning the morality between practicing Muslim culture or sacrificing one’s beliefs in order to feel welcomed in the ‘land of the free.’ After discussing the possibility of showcasing her paintings, Emily suggests that “the Islamic tiling tradition is a doorway to the most extraordinary freedom” (Akhtar, 31). Through her paintings, it is evident that Emily believes the only way to change society’s views on Islam is to encourage people to not conceal their beliefs. It is essential that these post 9/11 attitudes are broken down through creativity and learning how to find a median between American and Muslim culture.
In scene three, Amir’s ongoing struggle to find his identity is conveyed through the stage directions. Before the dinner scene begins, Amir “SMASHES the glass on the terrace floor” (Akhtar, 33). This line again reinforces Amir’s frequent drinking, revealing his bitterness towards his Muslim background, and his continuous desire to mask his discontent. Alcohol is the only way for him to express his true opinions without any restrictions. In this introductory setting, the reader also hears, “KEYS” (Akhtar, 33). These keys are utilized to highlight Amir being “trapped” in his apartment, or American culture. His desire and determination to be a successful American has resulted in a loss of his own Islamic beliefs. Since only one key is designed to open a door, the playwright further suggests that only American culture is accepted in the United States. Later, Islamophobia and the discrimination Muslims experience is again emphasized when Amir painstakingly states to his company, “On top of people being more and more afraid of folks who look like me, we end up being resented, too” (Akhtar, 49). This quote demonstrates the pain Muslim-Americans feel; they are not only feared, but they are also begrudged. Akhtar instead desires for Americans to be more accepting of cultures, and to uphold the value as being a free and welcoming land, but sadly, this has not been encouraged. Later at the dinner table, Amir announces that he is “not a Muslim. [He] is an apostate. Which means [he] renounced [his] faith” (Akhtar, 57). This statement reveals the changes Amir has gone through in order to climb the social and economic ladder in post 9/11 America. America instantly associated the entire Islamic culture with violence and hatred; as a result, shame caused Muslims to desert their core beliefs.
Towards the end of the dinner scene, the season of fall suggests the destruction of Amir, revealing conflict between American morals and Islamic religion. When confrontation between Isaac and Amir arise about the Muslim and Jewish faith, Isaac questions his belief system, asking, “Did you feel pride on September 11th?” (Akhtar, 62), in which Amir replied that he did. This scene calls to question whether it is safe to live around individuals that support the mass killing of hundreds of people, as well as the justness of making people feel ashamed of their beliefs. Towards the end of the scene, Amir remarks that he “forgot which we [he] was” (Akhtar, 63). Similar to the season of fall, this event marked the beginning of his demise. Amir grew overly consumed in American culture and strived to be highly looked upon by his coworkers and society, causing him to lose his morals and his identity. Consequently, Akhtar suggests that in order to have a thriving America, there needs to be an acceptance of all religions, but also compliance with American values.
In addition to the dinner scene set during fall, the variety of races present at the dinner tables serves to convey America’s growing inability to view diversity as a benefit to American culture. When Jory, an African-American woman is promoted over him at the law firm, Amir exclaims, “You think you’re the nigger here? I’m the nigger!! Me!!” (Akhtar, 72). Although people of color are still oppressed today, Amir suggests that America continuously recreates a culture to target and discriminate against. Similar to when the African Americans were exploited during the Civil Rights Movement, the post 9/11 culture encouraged discrimination against Muslims. It is because of this oppression that there is violence in America, and why people are unable to truly be free. If society wants a just and equal world, then there needs to be a way to intertwine the culture of America and of other countries.
In the final scene, the theatrical property of a picture and the season of spring calls America to have a new perspective on culture. After physically assaulting his wife when Amir found out she cheated, Emily and Abe, Amir’s nephew, come back to the apartment to collect more of her belongings. Abe tells Amir in private that he was arrested for defending his faith at a Starbucks, and disgustedly states that “For three hundred years they’ve been taking our land…making us want to be like them…marry their women” (Akhtar, 85). Through this statement, it is evident that Americans have forced their culture onto others and have insisted that this is the “right” culture. As a result of this inability to coexist, Abe argues that “They disgraced us. They disgraced us. And then they pretend they don’t understand the rage we’ve got?” (Akhtar, 85). When cultures are oppressed and people are forced to sacrifice their beliefs in order to feel welcome in a free country, it prevents a society in which individuals can coexist peacefully. In the end of the play, Akhtar stresses the important of understanding different perspectives. Amir is left face to face with a painting of himself and tells Emily that he “finally understands what [she] was seeing” (Akhtar, 86). In this scene, Amir experiences a sense of rebirth, similar to spring. He finally realizes he can find a median between his two cultures. He is not only a Muslim. He is not only an American. He is a Muslim-American.
Disgraced stresses the importance of putting an end to the reinvention of racism, and instead calls for the reinvention of equality. Written after the tragedy of 9/11, America felt hatred and fear towards the Islamic religion. What they failed to understand is that not all Muslims support violence, and consequently, accused all Muslims of wanting to destroy America due to their faith. Through the setting, stage directions, change in seasons, and theatrical property, Akhtar unravels Amir’s journey to find his true identity, and America’s journey towards acceptance. In order for America to uphold their values of freedom, there needs to be a way for people of different cultures and religions to coexist; the way to do this is to learn how to see from another person’s perspective.