From a cartoonist’s pencil to a playwright’s pen, satire can be wielded as a potent weapon against malignant forces, such as ignorance or extremism.
“Amrika Chalo,” running this weekend as part of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics’ Myriad Voices festival, aims to tackle both these oppressive elements, with a comedic take on the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. The production, from the Lahore-based Ajoka Theatre, is set in the visa office of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, and features a spate of stereotype-embodying characters.
“Humor makes people relaxed, and through it you can reach out to people beyond their prejudices and hurdles or blocks they have created because of their rigid social, religious or political positions,” playwright Shahid Nadeem, the executive director of Ajoka Theatre, said. “Obviously the U.S.-Pakistani relationship is a very complex matter. There’s a lot of double standards and hypocrisies involved on both sides, and people are so sensitive on some of the issues on both sides of the divide. The best way to address this complex and sensitive issue is through satire.”
The play makes its U.S. debut amid an atmosphere of grief. The Jan. 7 attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris left 12 dead and led to the rise of the “Je Suis Charlie” movement, concentrated on the protection of the freedoms of speech and expression. The terrorist attack, perpetrated by two al-Qaida-affiliated gunmen, infused a harrowing edge of fear into the realm of humor, drawing attention to the risks even professions trading in levity can face.
“We realized even before the events in France the implications and complexity of programming something like ‘Amrika Chalo’ that uses satire to expose stereotypes in U.S.-Pakistani relationships, the kinds of stereotypes that get carried on both sides,” Lab Co-Director Derek Goldman said. “The events in France put into such immediate and shocking relief the immediacy of the political danger and personal cost that artists are at the center of so frequently. … Figuring out how ‘Amrika Chalo’ was going to land on this campus, we needed to directly address this issue. We had to connect the dots.”
To that end, Goldman will host a panel entitled “Politics, Comedy, and the Dangers of Satire” on Friday with Nadeem, Iranian-Canadian cartoonist Nikahang Kowsar, who was imprisoned in Iran’s Evin Prison of “Rosewater” infamy, and Imam Yahya Hendi, the university’s director of Muslim chaplaincy.
Pakistan, too, has recently weathered more than its fair share of tragedy, with the Dec. 16 Tehrik-i-Taliban massacre of over 130 schoolchildren at the Army Public School in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
“In Pakistan, there have been so many attacks on theater activities and music performances, and also on sectarian issues or issues relating to various ethnic groups and people attacking each other,” Nadeem said. “This kind of horror and insane violence is not new. We have been subjected to it for the last several decades. This obviously impacts our work. This creates fear, this creates frustration, and also anger, and it motivates or inspires us to challenge these notions and create an uproar, or a mood in the country to fight and eliminate such groups from society.”
Ajoka Theatre was founded in 1983 during the regime of General Zia-ul-Haq, a repressive military dictator who undertook a program of Islamization of Pakistan. Nadeem, in political exile at the time, continued to contribute plays to be shown in his home country. The group was founded under the very oppression that it seeks to excise with its performances.
“I realized that I could do a better job in changing minds or making a just and more enlightened society by writing. So I started writing, and then I realized theater is an effective medium of communication, and I could do a good job by doing theater,” Nadeem said.
The playwright did, however, criticize the manner in which certain artistic groups choose to express their beliefs to elicit change.
“Instead of building on the solidarity which emerged after the Paris attacks … it was immediately followed by the reprinting of the cartoons, which I thought was unnecessary,” Nadeem said. “They were making a point about freedom of expression, but they didn’t realize that if you have negative reaction in many Muslim countries, and for people like us who were working in those societies, it will become even more difficult to mobilize them against terrorism and against incidents like the Paris massacre.”
Here, Nadeem believes that this two-way lack of understanding has only further alienated these cultures from one another.
“We see a certain kind of divergence between how the freedom of expression is perceived in the West and how it is perceived in the Islamic world,” Nadeem said. “It’s what they call the clash of civilization, which I think does not really exist, but in these such activities you are creating a gulf. You are making life for secular, democratic forces in Muslim countries more difficult with such reactions.”
With the current media attention centered on extremist militant groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State, American public opinion tends to oversimplify Islam and cast it off as an uncompromising and hostile religion.
This minority of radical and violent Islamist militants has overshadowed the subtleties and differing ideologies of the various sects of Islam, and “Amrika Chalo” confronts this stigma head-on by showing a side of Muslim-dominated Pakistani culture that extends beyond these common stereotypes.
“Although we are passing through a difficult time when an irrational and insanely violent group, small but very vocal, is trying to dominate the scene, the society has come out of these crises. Don’t just at look Pakistan from the mirror of media depots of extremist activities. We are people who love culture, who love freedom and who love to be a part of the world,” Nadeem said.
Islam is the official state religion in Pakistan, comprising about 95 percent of the population. Within this overarching religion are two primary sects: Sunni Islam, which makes up the overwhelming majority of the Islamic population, and Shia Islam, which comprises less than 20 percent of the population.
Delving further into these two sects, one finds a plethora of beliefs regarding the Quran and the Islamic faith of which militant Islamists only constitute a small percentage.
“My group and I are totally secular people. We don’t believe religion should be confused with politics, social or economic activity. It should be a matter of personal belief and should not intervene in your social relationships,” Nadeem said.
The general kind of Islam that dominates Pakistani culture is far from the skewed depiction that dominates the media. Through its performance, “Amrika Chalo” shows that artistic expression can and does often coexist with Muslim values.
“[In the play,] there’s a lot of singing and dancing, which, you see, is already destroying a certain kind of stereotype. The kind of Islam that Saudi Arabia has funded and perpetrated all over the world, which is only one type, the Wahhabi version of Islam, says that singing and dancing are not good. Some extreme versions say it’s forbidden,” Lab Co-Director Cynthia Schneider said.
This once-suppressed relation to song and dance has been countered by a blooming, creative community in Pakistan that accepts these elements as inherently part of its religion and identity.
“For all practical purposes, dancing and singing are such dominant elements of our cultural scene and our entertainment industry that nothing is possible — no cultural, social or religious activities, without an element of music or rhythmic element,” Nadeem said. “In a South Asian society like Pakistan, dance and song have been a very important part of our cultural since the beginning with our folk arts. There will invariably be music and dance. It makes people enjoy themselves, and while they are enjoying a certain tune, they are also getting a certain message without even knowing it.”
The message of “Amrika Chalo” is one of broken-down stereotypes and finding common ground. It is about acknowledging one’s faults and values as well as the beliefs of others and then coming to an understanding through a shared appreciation of humor and artistic form.
“Satire is a wonderful way of holding a mirror up to authority, of pointing out the mistakes, the shortcomings of people in usually powerful positions. What I think is special about satire is that humor is something that brings people together, so satire is a kind of gentle way of criticizing, but in the same time it’s very powerful, because making fun of someone very much undermines their authority,” Schneider said. “It’s on the one hand humanizing and something that people of many different cultures and ages and backgrounds can relate to and understand.”
The Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics was founded by Schneider, a professor of diplomacy in the School of Foreign Service and former ambassador, and Goldman, a professor of theater and performance studies and artistic director of the Davis Center for Performing Arts. The pair intended the initiative to marry performance and international affairs to further cultural understanding. The Myriad Voices project, in particular, aims to facilitate understanding of countries with Muslim-majority populations.
“The biggest lessons are ones about commonality. It’s impossible to exist in the world without inheriting a lot of stereotypes and reductive assumptions about even those of us who see themselves as the most open-minded,” Goldman said. “We carry all kinds of stereotypes, and I think the function of performance in this context is that it serves a truly humanizing function. It allows people to see themselves more complexly and their own blind spots and it allows people from those parts of the world where all we know about or hear about are certain kinds of headlines, it enables human encounters, intimate realizations.”
In April, Georgetown will play host to the multimedia “Generation (WH)Y” weekend summit, featuring the stories and interactions of youth from the United States and countries of focus.
“The students are going to build up scenarios based on things they care about in their lives. What people will see again is the commonalities and differences between the Georgetown student and the student at the National Academy in Pakistan, or the student in Doha, or the student in Palestine,” Schneider said. “We’ll find some things that people share in common or are concerned about. We’re going to look at themes like what is home to you, what makes you laugh, what makes you cry — these basic human things.”
The two-year Myriad Voices festival hit a snag early in the academic year, with an indefinite suspension of a performance of “Syria: The Trojan Women.” The event was to bring Syrian refugees, currently living in Jordan, to Georgetown to perform an adaptation of Euripides’ “The Trojan Women,” but the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs in Amman denied the performers visas, citing failure to demonstrate non-immigrant intent.
The Lab replaced the September event with “Voices Unheard,” a summit with panelists and a video chat with the performers that highlighted both the plight of the Syrian women, as well as the ramifications and state of policy.
“What was so moving in all the challenges, frustrations and heartbreak was the community outpouring that was experienced through the summit and the relationships that were built — the women’s sense of connection to the Georgetown community that was embracing them in this experience,” Goldman said. “In some ways, it’s kind of perfect that that project is set in a visa office in Islamabad. The conversations about the Syrian Trojan women opened up conversations about just access and identity and the [United States’] own rhetoric as a free nation and a place securing the world.”
The community similarly seems to be embracing the upcoming performance of “Amrika Chalo.”
“Both nights are sold out, and we’ve probably sold out the matinee … so I think there’s a great deal of enthusiasm. Pakistani-Americans realize that these voices are very seldom heard. Instead, all you hear about is the Taliban and the ISI, and they exist, no question about it. But there are a lot of other dimensions to Pakistan as any country, so the community here is very pleased that we are doing this,” Schneider said.
There will be security at the events, and Goldman alluded to the establishment of a campus protocol.
“We are in a very particular moment culturally and we just want to make sure that you can’t be too careful. I don’t get any sense from the artists and from Shahid that they feel a heightened sense of risk,” Goldman said. “Ajoka has a long history of doing work that goes way against the grain in terms of the politics of Pakistan. Shahid is incredibly deft and artful and articulate about how satire has actually created a space for people on both sides of the politics to come together and recognize things.”
The positive reception of the forthcoming production realizes the inherent goal behind the both the Lab and the festival — commonality.
“We are a Pakistani group raising issues in Pakistan, and our expression is cultural, artistic expression meant for a Pakistani audience. There are very few groups like ours. There you get tremendous response whenever we perform. When we go to India, we get even more enthusiastic responses, because we share the culture, the language and the issues,” Nadeem said. “But in the West, obviously there are certain restrictions or disadvantages when you talk about theater, the language and the cultural background. So when you get such enthusiastic responses in a city like Washington, this is very encouraging and exciting.”