Saturday, March 14, 2015

An Enlightening Conversation with Playwright Rohina Malik about Muslims, Misconceptions and What Led Her to 'Mecca Tales'

(Note: This is not a review of The Mecca Tales, a play I will see soon and review separately. Rather it is a preview and profile piece about its writer, Rohina Malik, based on an interview I conducted.)

Sometimes the most gratifying surprises in life are the ones that shouldn't be all that surprising.

Before I encountered Rohina Malik--first through Unveiled, a 5-woman, one actress play that she wrote and performed, then in an excellent hourlong conversation centered around her latest work, The Mecca Tales, opening this weekend at Chicago Dramatists with a 7-member cast--I held no enmity for Muslims, nor anyone who opts to wear cultural garb or pretty much anybody who hasn't provided an overt reason why they shouldn't be treated with anything but respect & dignity.

But as tolerant, ethnologically-curious and embracing of multiculturalism as I like to believe I am, I can't deny that Rohina--from the stage and in-person--opened my eyes and broadened my mind considerably...about Islam, women, humanity, commonality, hatred and much more.

In Unveiled--which I saw at the Skokie Public Library in January as part of my hometown's Coming Together: Voices of Race program--Rohina expertly voices five Muslim women with greatly differing individuality and places of origin, largely to address post-9/11 backlash against Islam. She elucidates on why headcoverings are worn--in her own case, a hijab covering the hair due to a belief in modesty--and portrays the hardship, honor and pride of each woman. Particularly withering is when she embodies a character who is scornfully told, "Take that shit off your head."

A scene from The Mecca Tales at Chicago Dramatists
Just as powerful as the 2009 play, which Rohina continues to perform across the country, was a post-show discussion in which she forcibly imparted that "Murder is forbidden in Islam; what the extremists are doing is not in the name of Islam."

World premiering at Chicago Dramatists, where Rohina is a Resident Playwright, The Mecca Tales also features five disparate Muslim women, but is entirely its own work, not an ensemble-cast evolution of Unveiled.

"I felt free to tell a story, as a playwright who is Muslim, but not simply as a "Muslim playwright." I addressed specific aspects of the culture in Unveiled and didn't feel I needed to explain in this piece why the women wear veils; they just do.

"I think this is a more universal narrative that examines concerns that are common to everyone, as the women reveal what brought them to Mecca, often having little to do directly with religion.

"The Mecca Tales will smash stereotypes about Muslims."

Born in London to a mother from Pakistan and father from India, Rohina moved to the Chicago area with her family when she was 15.

She graduated from my alma mater, Niles North High School--several years after my class of '86--where a short play she wrote earned lavish praise from a drama teacher. Yet at DePaul University, she majored in Comparative Religion rather than Theater.

It wasn't until after she was married, a mother and into her 30s that "I noticed a void in my soul" and soon wound up taking a writing class at Victory Gardens.

"I finally followed my heart and listened to my inner voice--and I've never been happier. We all have an inner light others try to blow out, but you always have to believe in yourself."

She is now an Artistic Associate at the 16th Street Theater in Berwyn and initially developed The Mecca Tales during a residency at Goodman Theatre, where she was a member of the Playwrights Unit.

Speaking with me within the theater at Chicago Dramatists where previews of The Mecca Tales "have been going wonderfully," Rohina was effusive about how the organization noted for nurturing Resident Playwrights has brought her vision to the stage.

Lavishing praise on Rachel Edwards Harvith, the show's director, Rohina credited her with being a wonderful collaborator who is willing to try things the playwright suggests, and is "great with actors" because "she calms, listens and guides."

Sharing that The Mecca Tales is about "the spiritual journeys we take in life," as it revolves around the five women who travel to Mecca for Hajj, Rohina expounded when I asked what she would like audiences to take away from the play.

"I hope that everyone might take a pilgrimage in their own life, regardless of any religious faith or beliefs. We need to slow down as a society, to sometimes get away from it all.

"The women in the play find a connection with Earth and sky, which allows them to ask--as we all should--'What is the purpose of my life?'"

Another motivating desire is that individuals come to have a better understanding of her faith, which she notes one-fourth of the world's population follows.

"Don't put Muslims in a box. The largest Muslim country is Indonesia; second is Pakistan. Yet many people think only of Arabs in regards to Islam.

"Muslims are like everyone else. We have morals and values, we care about love, loss, family and friends and we value human life."

Rohina was also quite illuminating when I asked about perceptions some may have about Islam, given not only terrorist acts but how the media can portray Muslims as intolerant and--noting the Charlie Hebdo massacre that happened shortly before I attended Unveiled--extremely sensitive and humorless.

"The Koran is clear about [responding to] mockery. It says, 'Don't sit with them,' not 'Go kill them,'" she stressed.

"Muslims are against killing, and Islamic scholars have written open letters to ISIS condemning their actions, but that doesn't get covered enough by the media. Contrary to what may be portrayed, the Muslim community does speak out against terrorism.

"A key Islamic belief is that God will not forgive the taking of another human life. And the word Jihad means struggle, not holy war, nothing to do with violence. Its meaning has been hijacked and, in truth, terrorists are often ignorant of Islam."

As this was, to my recollection, the first in-depth discussion of its kind I've ever had with a Muslim--not due to any aversion as much as a lack of opportunity and effort--I was fascinated with how Rohina educated me about the truths of the religion that is clearly intrinsic to her being.

But as I've long been leery of any religion, including my own--Judaism--that seems to force rituals upon its followers and shame those who opt for personal choice, I applauded Rohina espousing that "Nothing should be mandated.

"The Koran says that there is no compulsion in religion."

She also corroborated my assumption that, as with Jews, there are Muslims at many differing levels of orthodoxy, whose customs and even beliefs may vary.

According to her, most Muslims felt the media brouhaha over Michelle Obama not wearing a headscarf in Saudi Arabia was silly, especially given all the far more serious issues being faced, but she did note that Saudi Arabia is the most vigilant country in insisting Muslim women cover their heads.

As much as I enjoyed Rohina furthering my understanding of Islam and the vast majority of Muslims for whom peace, security, life and love are as important as to anyone else, what resonated just as loudly was how congruent her sensibilities are with mine regarding matters that have nothing to do with religion or faith-based spirituality.

Only posing about half of my planned questions because of how much I simply enjoyed talking with her--and because she had a subsequent interview scheduled in conjunction with The Mecca Tales--I ended by asking what change she would like to see in the world.

"I pray that people stop stereotyping Muslims," was her first response, to which I'm 100% empathetic.

Yet even more acutely aligned with what I try to champion is what she said next.

"Please support live theater; without audiences there is no theater.

"It's the arts that will change the world."

Anyone who peruses this blog with any regularity should know how much I believe the same, and I shared with Rohina my dream of somehow helping teens and others realize the wonders of cultural & artistic exploration, not only as a matter of entertainment, but for emotional nourishment and therapeutic sustenance.

Clearly proud of what she's accomplished and any effect her work might have, Rohina Malik ended our talk by revealing how people have come up to her, crying, after seeing Unveiled--I imagine The Mecca Tales will prompt similar reactions--and said:

"I now know what I thought was wrong. Your play really opened my eyes."

Which left me tremendously impressed by how both of the changes this talented, thoughtful, entirely personable woman most wants to see in the world--involving cultural understanding and the impact of culture--are inextricably linked, not only in who she is, but in who we should all aim to be.

The Mecca Tales runs at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave., through April 12. For tickets, click here.

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