The Assimilation Stage
My Name Is Asher Lev and Disgraced bring to New York stages Jews and Muslims struggling with identity
Emily (Heidi Armbruster), whom he has taken with him on trips to the Middle East, is inspired by Islamic art and in general by things Islamic—the purity and integrity of its abstract designs and its “submission,” not to the religion, but to pattern, repetition, and to finding something larger than oneself through its constraints. But Amir clearly isn’t buying it. When his nephew Hussein Malik—who has renamed himself Abe Jensen—comes to enlist his help as a lawyer for an imam who he claims is being unjustly imprisoned on terrorism charges, Amir reminds Hussein and Emily of some of the less appealing aspects of the world he has left behind—the “backward way of thinking, and being,” the prejudice against Jews, and even his mother’s bare toleration of his marriage to a non-Muslim Western woman. Amir resists getting involved in the imam’s case. “What does any of this have to do with me?” he asks, proclaiming his distance from the cause and community that keep trying to reclaim him.
Succumbing to Emily’s pleas, he reluctantly agrees to help. When the New York Times quotes him during the imam’s court appearance—making it appear, inaccurately, that he was acting as the imam’s legal counsel—and identifies his firm, Amir senses that this spells trouble for him.
The play’s emotional climax occurs during a dinner party that Amir and Emily host for another equally upwardly mobile couple—Isaac (Erik Jensen), a Jewish art curator at the Whitney, who must decide whether to include some of Emily’s work in his next show, and his black wife Jory (Karen Pittman, another jewel), who is Amir’s colleague at the firm and who also wants to be a partner. When Isaac expresses enthusiasm for Emily’s new Islamic-inspired art, Amir bridles. They should read the Quran, he suggests—which he calls “one very long hate mail letter to humanity.” When Isaac suggests that one must distinguish between Islam, the religion, and Islamo-Fascism, its political use, Amir replies that Islam makes no distinction: There is no separation between religion and state. He is an apostate, someone who has renounced Islam, he tells them proudly, as the women try changing subjects by discussing Emily’s salad of fennel and anchovies.
As the dinner progresses, the couples spar over whether wife-beating is permitted by the Quran—centuries of practice suggest that it is, Amir argues—and whether France was correct to have banned the veil. Finally, Isaac accuses Amir of being a self-hating Muslim. In response, Amir keeps drinking and argues that it’s not enough for a Muslim to believe that the Quran is the literal word of God, he must “fight for it, too”—as well as stone adulterers and cut off the hands of thieves. “So,” he plows on, “even if you’re one of those lapsed Muslims sipping your after-dinner scotch alongside your beautiful white American wife—and watching the news and seeing folks in the Middle East dying for values you were taught were purer—and stricter—and truer. You can’t help but feel just a little bit of pride.”
“Did you feel that way on Sept. 11?” Isaac shoots back.
“If I’m honest, yes. I was horrified by it, OK?” Amir adds quickly. “Absolutely horrified.” But he is honest enough to acknowledge that although he has renounced Islam and despises the terrorism conducted in its name, he cannot totally divorce himself from the traditions, culture, and values of the faith in which he was raised. He confesses to having felt a tinge of pride that “we were finally winning.”
The silence that follows is deafening. Emily senses, probably not for the first time, that she may not really know the man she has married. Instinctively rushing to his defense, she insists that he does not really mean what he has said. He does, of course, and he doesn’t. Just as Asher Lev understands himself to be an observant Jew and a traitor to his faith, Amir too is an apostate who believes or fears that at some level he cannot totally abandon his identity.
From this moment of explosive honesty, Amir’s life—his marriage, his job, and ultimately, his sense of who he is—starts unraveling. Unlike Asher Lev, Amir cannot escape the world of his fathers, not only because an America traumatized by Sept. 11 singles out Muslims at airport security lines and takes other measures to ensure that assimilation for Muslims may always be conditional. Amir cannot escape because he is not comfortable with, or even certain of his own identity. He has misled his employers about where his parents were born, it turns out, consciously, or subconsciously, to avoid the stigma of militant Islam. Akhtar has written a compelling character who remains suspended between two worlds. Unlike Asher, he is not a star, not quite good or confident enough to be accepted by the secular American society he so yearns to embrace.
The play has its weaknesses. (Minor spoiler alert: Someone should teach the super-talented Aasif Mandvi how to do an effective stage slap.) And there are a few too many predictable moments. When Amir senses that he is failing professionally—for complex reasons that are partly his own fault—and carries his scotch out onto the terrace, you pray he will not smash the glass against the wall. But these are quibbles. Disgraced is a bold, powerful foray into a world that most writers hesitate to enter and an exploration of themes that most fear to explore. Sensitively acted, crisply directed, and written with piercing, honest prose, the play will close all too soon in this limited run. It should not be missed.
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A tribute to the free-associating genius of the Silver Jews, whose work has flowed in and out of my life