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Interview with Playwright Rohina Malik

The Unveiled playwright talks about diversity within the Muslim world and the power of theater

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Unveiled, a one-woman show by Chicago-based playwright and actress Rohina Malik, introduces characters one doesn’t often see on the American stage: Muslim women. There are five of them, all but one American: a Pakistani seamstress, a Moroccan-American lawyer, an African-American “revert” (the character prefers the term to “convert”), a South Asian rapper, and a Middle Eastern restaurant owner. Each delivers a monologue—at times embellished with music, dance, and supporting characters—while serving a type of tea favored in one region or another of the Muslim world.

Malik, who is Muslim herself and of South Asian heritage, says she intends for the play to be a chance for people to learn about the complexity and diversity within the Muslim community without feeling they are attending a lecture. “Though it may sound like it is a serious play, there’s a lot of humor,” she says. “Humor’s really great at making people relax and enjoy their time.”

Judging by the response, the play comes off as more engaging than didactic. Unveiled has received one glowing review after another since its premiere in 2009. Among the accolades: The Chicago Tribune called it “intellectually engrossing” and Chicago Reader dubbed it “riveting.” Malik has been invited to perform at theaters, universities, and high schools across North America; after Unveiled premiered, she was given a one-year residency by Chicago’s prestigious Goodman Theatre to work on a new commissioned play. (This one, The Mecca Tales, is “a sort of Islamic Canterbury Tales,” she says.)

Rohina Malik was tending to several of her four kids who were home sick from school when City Paper caught up with her by phone.

City Paper: So what prompted you to write this play?

Rohina Malik: First, I wanted to sort of share who the Muslim community was, because I think in many ways the images we see in the media do not at all represent me or my community. Those negative images create negative stereotypes, so I wanted—as a Muslim woman who is a part of the American Muslim community—to create these five women. They really represent women that I know and that I love. . . . I think people get stuck on certain regions in the world such as Afghanistan and the Taliban, and granted, that’s a real situation with real problems, but it certainly doesn’t represent the entire Muslim world.

CP: The characters are all very different from one another.

RM: Exactly. You’ll find rappers, you’ll find hip-hop artists, who wear the hijab, the veil. It was interesting because after the show came out, there would be Muslim women in the audience who wore the veil, and they’d be upset with me and say, “Oh my God, enough already with the veil. It’s not a big deal, get over it. We wake up in the morning, we put on our jeans, we put on our hijab, and we walk out the door.” I totally understood where they were coming from. . . . It’s just a part of modesty, and it’s really no different from the modesty of a nun in a habit, but a nun is not going to be labeled “oppressed” and “downtrodden” and all these negative stereotypes the same way a Muslim woman is. So I felt like their point was valid, and believe you me, if I could have avoided the hijab issue, I would have loved to, but I knew the reality was that at its core it’s such a big issue for many Americans. . . .

I remember speaking to an Iraqi woman who said people didn’t want to talk to her about the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan. They wanted to talk about the veil, and it would blow her mind. So in the play, some of the women talk about what it means to them and why they wear it, and even that differs in the Muslim community. Some people wear it for God, for modesty. Others have a more feminist approach: I am not a sexual object and you’re not going to look at my body. For some women it’s a cultural thing, nothing to do with religion. I wanted to share that diversity, just within the reasons to wear the veil.

CP: You wrote this in the aftermath of 9/11. How does that play into the piece?

RM: It deals with post-9/11 hatred. Not all the stories, but a big part of the play does deal with it, women really sharing how their lives changed after 9/11. I grew up in London, England, and I always say that not even the racism of London, which was bad, compares to the backlash after 9/11 in the U.S.

CP: Did you personally feel a change in attitudes after 9/11?

RM: I think many people would say it kind of brought out what was already there in terms of racism or negative thoughts toward the Muslim community. . . . One of the points that I bring up in Unveiled is that, you know, Timothy McVeigh is this white dude who did an act of terrorism, but we didn’t demonize all Christians, and he is a Christian. So my point is please, people, don’t demonize all Muslims because of the act of some madmen, who just supposedly happened to be the same religion. I don’t know, I think a lot of Muslims would debate whether you can call [the terrorists] Muslim after doing what they did.

CP: How do you get into your characters? The accents alone seem really difficult.

RM: That’s just theater training, and I think it’s something that’s always been in me since I was a child. I really didn’t enjoy school very much but I loved drama class. It was really interesting, because there was so much racial tension in London. I went to an all-girls school, and there were the minority girls that were black or South Asian, and the majority were white Caucasian girls and there was always sort of a divide. But something pretty magical would happen in theater class. I remember performing and everybody laughing, and not at me, but enjoying what I was doing. And in that moment, I felt the power of theater and how it brings people together. So that had a big impact on me as a child.

CP: That fits very well with what you’re trying to do with Unveiled.

RM: Yes, I think there’s something very profound about a group of people sitting in the same room experiencing something at the exact same time. Just throughout the ages, the power of storytelling. I’ve really felt that power. I’ve had grown men crying and coming up to me and telling me things like “I hated Muslims” and apologizing to me. I remember this young man from Ohio. He was like, “I hated Muslims, and I thought that you wore the veil to celebrate 9/11.” And he was sobbing and he said, “I’m so sorry.” I think that the biggest weapon of mass destruction really is ignorance and fear.

CP: How did you come up with the tea format?

RM: It happened by accident. I had written the first story, the Pakistani seamstress. Her story is based on something that happened to me at my best friend’s wedding. So I started from a very personal place, but to give myself distance I created the character of the seamstress. And when I brought it into the theater to workshop, somebody made the comment, “I really love how she begins and ends her monologue with Pakistani chai. Maybe you should think about chai as a theme in your play.” And in the Muslim world—tea is just all over the Muslim world. And there’s a range, and they’re all made differently. I’d been to Morocco, so I knew I definitely wanted Moroccan mint tea. Some of my family is Kashmiri, and in Kashmir, they have this pink Kashmiri chai. It’s so beautiful, that pink color. It takes hours to make, and I somehow wanted to bring that into the play. And it helped me frame each monologue, because then I could decide, OK, where is this woman from? Where is her family from? Where maybe is her husband from? It really helped in creating the characters.

CP: What sort of reaction have you gotten to the play?

RM: Are there negative responses? It’s art. So there’s always going to be good and bad. There was one man who said, “This is Islamic propaganda” and was outraged. There was a woman who was furious, who said, “You clearly have a message, and I have a message for you: Go tell your people that they need to make it clear that they’re not gonna hurt us, because how do we know?” So it’s not always positive, but I would say overall it’s been really positive.

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