In the opening moments of Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced, we see an intimate image: Emily, a young, white artist, is sketching her husband Amir, a well-to-do Pakistani American lawyer. Emily reveals the idea for this new sketch was inspired both by a minor run-in with a racist waiter the night before, as well as Diego Velázquez’s 1650 portrait of Juan de Pareja. “You made him see that gap. Between what he was assuming about you, and what you really are,” Emily says of the interaction with the waiter. Emily also notes original viewers of Velázquez’s portrait of de Pareja, who was his slave and studio assistant, thought they were “looking at a picture of a Moor. An assistant… [But] that portrait has more nuance, complexity, life than his paintings of kings and queens.” Both inspirations have to do with brown skin, with Orientalism (a Western stereotyping of the cultures of the Middle East, Asia and North Africa) or its progeny Islamophobia. Both inspirations deal with the difference between appearance and truth.
That Emily’s figurative drawing of Amir is the first thing we see on stage is telling of Amir’s relationship with Islam, the religion taught in his home during his youth. In many cases Islam as a religion is traditionally aniconic, eschewing figurative art, and instead embracing elaborate geometric patterns and calligraphy (though there are exceptions to this, especially from cultures within the Mughal Empire). Creating images of God and the Prophet Muhammad is strictly forbidden in nearly all practices of Islam, but many Sunni hadith (reports of the deeds and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad) are interpreted, especially in more conservative practices, as forbidding man-made images of sentient beings in general. “Angels of mercy do not enter a house where there are pictures,” says one hadith. Another translation reads, “The people who will receive the severest punishment on the Day of Resurrection will be those who try to make the like of God’s creations.” God is here likened to an artist, a creator, and humans striving to imitate God’s act of creation commit heresy. To attempt to show the living “truth” of a person or project one’s soul in something man-made can be sacrilege. There is a similar aniconic prohibition against the imaging of God in the teachings of Judaism, though for the majority of the history of the Christian church, there is a rich tradition of the imaging of Jesus and other holy figures.
In Disgraced, Amir describes himself as an apostate—in his adolescence, he shed the conservative Islamic traditions taught by his parents. Emily is also irreligious—she serves pork during a dinner party to other agnostic characters raised Muslim and Jewish, though both religions forbid the consumption of pork. Today, people often confuse race and religion. Even in the secular world of Disgraced, Amir must deal with how others see him, as they wield racial prejudices and the expansive USA PATRIOT Act, to mistake his ethnicity for his religious beliefs.
In a representational society where skin color can determine one’s fate far more easily than skill or character, “optics” have great power.
Though Emily is not Muslim, her art practice usually engages with forms traditional to Islamic art—geometry, patterning, tiling, tessellation, developing incredible ingenuity and complexity from a simple grid—that celebrate Islamic tenets of unity, peace, perspective and universality, and avoids idolatry. One such piece hangs in her and Amir’s living room above the mantle, all blues and whites, “lustrous and magnetic,” as the script describes the art work in the stage directions. This new portrait of Amir stands out from the rest—it’s figurative, representational. Compared to her other art work, the portrait is unusual and certainly from a more Western tradition. Emily’s friend Isaac, taken by her Islam-inspired work, playfully accuses her of Orientalism. “You’ve even got the brown husband,” he jokes. She counters, saying, “We’ve all gotten way too wrapped up in the optics… We’ve forgotten to look at things for what they really are.”
Of course, Emily’s statement can also apply to the prejudices, fears and power dynamics of the world of Akhtar’s story. Orientalist beliefs target “Eastern” ethnicity, but starting in the 1990s (and especially after the September 11 attacks of 2001), we’ve seen a cultural and societal shift in some areas from American Orientalism to American Islamophobia: destructive stereotypes of the ethnic “Arab” (like the Arab oil barons in the 1981 film Rollover or the Arab terrorists in 1976’s Black Sunday) have transitioned to hateful stereotypes of the religious Muslim, regardless of the actual religious beliefs or ethnicities of their targets. The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 allowed the US government to target and prosecute non-profit Muslim charities sending aid to the underserved in predominantly Muslim areas, based on charges that they were supporting “terrorist” organizations. Simple figural traits, like having brown skin, or wearing a turban or veil, can incite hate and violence. In the months following the September 11 attacks, for example, reports of murders and assaults of not only practicing Muslims but also Sikh Indians, Indian Hindus, Coptic Christians and others increased 1500% as anti-Muslim sentiment swept across America—despite the fact that some of these attacked victims did not practice Islam or were not of Arab descent. At that same time, a disturbing Gallup poll showed that roughly one third of Americans supported the idea of internment of Muslim Arab Americans. Muslim immigrants were targeted and surveilled through the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System. In the 2008 presidential election, then-candidate Barack Obama was repeatedly accused of being secretly Muslim and therefore unfit for national leadership—something he denied but stopped short of calling problematic and racist.
In Disgraced, Amir made the personal and complicated decision to separate himself from his religious and cultural upbringing many years prior to the beginning of the play. He married a white woman and has a high-paying job at a mostly Jewish law firm. He wears high-end suits and crisp $600 dress shirts. And yet, despite all efforts to seem wholly Western, Amir still must submit himself to manual searches at the security line in the airport. When he makes an off-hand comment to the media about a local imam in legal trouble, eyebrows raise. In a representational society where skin color can determine one’s fate far more easily than skill or character, “optics” have great power.
Misrepresentation begins first with simplified representation—these are the building blocks of stereotyping and, further, racializing—whether in 2-D art or in popular society. In his blistering play Akhtar challenges our perceptions of what it means to misrepresent and to be misrepresented: what are we showing when we depict another person, whether in art, word or deed? What are we showing when we reveal or hide depictions of ourselves? Amir’s ancestral culture placed great value on character, on belief, on truth, shunning representative figuration, relying instead on principles of unity and universality. On what sort of representation does our own culture place value?
Goodman Theatre thanks the following Donors for their generous support of Disgraced: