An item on the agenda of a 3-day annual celebration of South Asian culture in downtown Toronto, Canada, instinctively caught my eye. With a title like ‘Dirty Pakistani Lingerie’, how could it not?
Wonderful I thought. The lone item representing Pakistan had to be something that came with an ‘adults only’ warning from the organisers.
Armed with skepticism I landed up in the packed auditorium, expecting something crude and vulgar about the cross-cultural experiences of Pakistani-American women, as the blurb described. Instead, what I saw was by far the most creative, genuine and entertaining one-woman performance on stage. And the content was wholly PG, although the six separate stories portrayed, made many wince more than once.
The brains behind this gem is Aizzah Fatima, a Pakistani-American theatre artist from New York City, who has made it her personal agenda to change the way people think about Pakistan and Muslims in the West. Directed by her collaborator-in-arms Erica Gould, who happens to be Jewish, DPL sees Aizzah playing six different Pakistani-American women simultaneously, all struggling with issues of identity and acceptance in a post 9/11 world.
Ameera is visiting the US from Pakistan looking for the ideal Pakistani-American husband; Selma is a hijab-clad soon-to-be-wed Muslim feminist, torn between her fantasy of being a young wife and her dream of attending Harvard; Asma is the very “desi aunty” desperately trying to find a suitable boy for her “32-34” year old single daughter from the Urdu Matrimonials section; Raheela is the modern young business woman, searching for that like-minded partner who isn’t just looking for a one-night-stand; and Humeira is the middle-aged mother of two who finally has the courage to walk out of her loveless arranged marriage after more than 20 years.
These are the characters Aizzah portrays during the 60-minute performance, moving effortlessly between the prose of Ghalib, a cocky American accent, and a desi dialect that sent audiences rolling with laughter. But the one thread that runs through each of these stories, is that Pakistani women are still vulnerable, manipulated and under-appreciated, wherever in the world they might live. Its an unfortunate reality that Dirty Pakistani Lingerie, a play of words on airing one’s dirty laundry in public, captures brilliantly.
Born in Saudi Arabia and having lived out of Pakistan all her life, Aizzah, whose family originally hails from Punjab in Pakistan, has made it her goal to move beyond what typically represents a Pakistani-Muslim in these near apocalyptic times. An IT professional at Google by day, Aizzah’s love for theatre and acting was born from a very young age and prompted her to eventually attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA), to hone in her natural talent.
The inspiration for the play was born out of Aizzah’s desire to portray Pakistani- Muslims differently from what was normally the case. “When I started writing this play, it occurred to me that there was a lot I wanted to say about being Muslim-American. I woke up one day shocked to realize that parts of the country I call home had developed virulent Islamophobic sentiment”, she explains.
“I was tired of seeing images of terrorists, beheadings, and bombs going off every time I heard the word Pakistan in the news. I wanted to show everyone a different side to Pakistani culture”.
The choice to portray Pakistani-American women, in particular, women who are constantly struggling, was an unusual one. Aizzah defends her decision to focus on more repressive stories. “As an artist, it's my duty to tell these stories about the female Pakistani-American experience since no one else is doing it in theater, film, or TV”.
As testament to the lack of visibility of Muslim-American talent, the play debuted in New York City at The Midtown International Theatre Festival in July. It was the first time in the 12-year history of the festival that a female Muslim writer or a Pakistani had performed a show there.
As stereotypical as Aizzah’s characters may at times seem, the truth is, that these stories still ring extremely true, not just for Pakistani’s or South Asian’s, but women in general. “I had a Japanese couple once tell me how similar the issues in the play are to their culture”, she recounts. “My favorite one is an African-American woman from the Bronx who told me the character of Asma reminded her so much of her own African-American mom”.
And that is the heart of DPL. The play has sparked a tremendous response in New York and Toronto, including among Pakistani’s and South Asians alike. “I think people sometimes don't know what to make of the title”, she says. “Humor can be lost on the Pakistani community at times. [But] Once people come in and see the show, they absolutely love it”.
The title has had its share of negative publicity though. The play was originally called ‘Dirty Paki Lingerie’, but organisers in Canada were fraught to revert to the more diplomatic “Pakistani”. “In the US "Paki" is not a derogatory word at all. It's just slang for a Pakistani. [But] I know in other parts of the world such as Canada and Europe, the word "Paki" can be as offensive as the "N" word”, explains Aizzah.
Strangely enough, several people in the US had an issue with the word 'lingerie' in the title, and not so much 'dirty Paki,'.
"Conservative Muslim women in my social circles have suggested I change the title to 'Dirty Paki Laundry' to make it more politically correct, she says". But Aizzah has stuck to her guns and the title remains.
In her quest to try and bridge communities in the US post 9/11, Aizzah is now preparing for a performance of her play on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, running September 9-11 in NYC, with each performance followed by an inter-faith dialogue. The issue is close to her heart. “I have lived in New York for 11 years now, and consider myself a New Yorker. I was here, and saw the plane hit the second tower,” she recalls. “I would love to reach as many people as I can with this play across the globe. At the end of the day, we are all people who want to protect our families, live in a nice place, and go to good schools. This is what the characters in the play want, and this is what anyone can relate to Muslim or not”.
The bold step taken by Aizzah to shatter common stereotypes of Muslim women in today’s hostile environment is laudable. With perfect comic timing, a crisp and fast-paced script and a brilliant one-act performance, DPL, is a creative step in the right direction. One hopes it is able to achieve the goal it has set out, one performance at a time.
I for one, also hope that Aizzah is able to bring her performance to Pakistan one day. If there is anyone who needs a good dose of reality, it’s us.