By Ali Imran
When author Akbar Ahmed offered me an opportunity to play the role of a spiritual character in his drama ‘Noor’, staged at the American University in the middle of September, I wondered how I would transition myself smoothly from the objective work of reporting to a persuasive Sufi.
But as heartbreaking events unfolded in Egypt and Syria, I felt I must take this as a challenge to perform the role of a spiritual figure that is meant to appeal to emotions and intellect at once because Sufi’s message of love, peaceful coexistence and ‘compassion with humanity’ is badly needed in the time of internal Middle Eastern conflicts and international wars.
The play revolves around the abduction/seizure of a young girl named Noor (which means light in Arabic, Persian and Urdu) by security agents and her family’s response to the troubling event. Particularly her three brothers – Abdullah, spiritual, moderate and disciple of the Sufi Sheikh, Ali, a trained lawyer, and Daud, a militated and reactionary medical doctor, talk it out forcefully.
The high-pitched dialogue between the three brothers on how the family should rescue their young girl and resolve this matter of honor for the family brings out the struggle among various approaches between members of one family in a Muslim society grappling with the challenge of militancy. Their intense dialogue also brings into a probing focus the roles of the states and the apathy of international response to terrorism.
As I rehearsed on the directions of Manjula Kumar, a seasoned Smithsonian director/artist, I began to read into the deeper meaning of the play. With incisive portrayal of characters, juxtaposed in starkly different approaches to resolving troubles born of the autocratic regimes’ ham-fisted repression of democratic aspirations of the people, the playwright had infused so much meaning into Noor.
I have had a keen interest in the Sufi’s message of love, peace and harmony in the society as articulated in the poetry of Sufi figures who won over millions of hearts in Punjab, Sindh and many other parts of Pakistan and India over the last many centuries. Then there is this message of humanism in the works of Rumi and Iqbal’s powerful Urdu and Persian poetry. And that helped me.
But still the challenge for me lay in the way I had to see myself standing in a place, quite distinct and apart from my daily work of reporting on international developments from the State Department and think tanks, which demand a fair degree of objectivity.
The persona must simultaneously reach out, not just to one particular community but the multicultural citizenry Washington and its American University are home to. At the personal level, playing the role of edifying Sufi Sheikh, the name of the character, demanded a kind of reflective pause from regular life.
Meanwhile, a succession of tragic killings in Egypt and Syria inflicted sufferings and sorrows on the justice-seeking citizens there. This in addition to daily militant bombings in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan and the human suffering as a result of Arab Springs in the Middle East present an environment where people are craving for peace, harmony, rights and development.
Interpreted in a larger perspective, the Sufi has appeal for both Muslims and people of other Abrahamic faiths and indeed for followers of all religions, and human beings who want to send out the message of peace and love. And Washington provides perfect multicultural setting for such a drama role.
And ‘Noor’ precisely captures what is going on in the broader Middle East where in some cases the apathy and in other cases intrusive interference of major international powers like backing for so-called strongmen has exacerbated the predicament for the common people.
As expressed by many members of the audience in the post-play discussion, one could see things actually happening on ground, come alive on stage.
In this climate of chaos, conflict and suffering, the job of the Sufi and his disciple Abdullah is to convince the frustrated people that the way out lies in seeking enlightenment in teachings of Islam, adhering to values of patience, tolerance, and striving for peaceful resolution to disputes, and not in waging aimless militant fights against innocent people.
The play is replete with instructive thoughts. At one point a character, Daood, who is deeply troubled with the state of affairs the Muslim world finds itself in, says: “There may be mercy for the dead, but there is none left for the living.”
He seeks to avenge the disappearance of his sister with some kind of retaliation but is persuaded in the end by his sister Noor to give up that plan. Noor, returns home apparently wounded but pure and reminds him of the important things he can do for the society through educational causes.
The play has many references to implications of foreign interference in Muslim countries. While expediencies of the international politics and wars play out, the play reveals that the common man in the Muslim world appears to be caught in an almost intractable dragnet of retaliatory bombings, domestic and foreign challenges that crisscross the airwaves of the media-driven world, often with deadly consequences. At times, the American audiences may find some of the statements controversial but protagonists in the play cannot deny injustices happening within the Muslim world and the harmful effects of past overt interference in their domestic political affairs.
It also throws some light on how the disillusioned segments could easily be misguided since they find it almost impossible to wriggle out of the situation. In such cases, young people are too easily brainwashed by the militants to take law into their hands.
The play seems to emanate the message that in the end, it is the divine light of God that can nurture the noble qualities of sharing and caring, tolerance and mutual respect and harmony and defeat extremist tendencies and violence.
It is like inviting people back to the basic message of love and brotherhood, which is common to Abrahamic faiths. It is like emphasizing mutual bonds of affection and respect for humanity in the time of war and the grossly gone-awry conflict – the war on terror – which was defined in ideological terms.
True to the universal theme of the play, the cast is diverse including actors of Afghani, American, Indian and Pakistani origins.
Ali, the lawyer brother of Noor, draws attention to the fact that it is through enlightened education that long-term reforms can take root, when he reminds his brother of the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) saying that the ink of a scholar’s pen is more sacred than the blood of a martyr.
An unending spate of bombings in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and recent tragedies in Palestine and Kashmir formed the background when the cast performed the play at the Cultural Arts Center, Montgomery College in Silver Spring, Maryland on October 4. It was another call to peaceful coexistence in all societies and at international level highlighted the need for countries to balance the much-hyped national security interests with fast-diminishing respect for humanity.
This piece first appeared in Pakistan Today on October 22, 2013
Categories: Arts and Life