Young Muslim New Yorkers Speak Out in Beyond Sacred

Friday 16/10/2015
Beyond Sacred cast – Back Row: Ryan Conarro, Maha Syed, Amir Khafagy, Kadin Herring. Front Row: Ferdous Dehqan, Sara Zatz, Tiffany Yasmin Abdelghani, Ping Chong.

Washington - Commenting on the Pope Francis’s address to the US Congress, American radio host Peter Sagal quipped: “We’re anxiously awaiting the first angry Republican to accuse the pope of being a Muslim.”
Islamophobia can be found on the American street and the presi­dential campaign trail. A school incident in Texas is emblematic of the fear-stoked hyper-vigilance that conjured a bomb scare tizzy from a young Sudanese-American stu­dent’s proud display of his home-made clock.
Amid epic turmoil across the Is­lamic world, the western migration of mostly Muslim refugees and im­ages of the savagery of the Islamic State (ISIS), Muslims report increas­ing discrimination. In the United States, memories of the 9/11 attacks still simmer, particularly in New York.
Enter five young Muslims. Four were living in New York in Septem­ber 2011 and the other emigrated two years ago from Afghanistan. They are now performing in a docu­mentary theatre project called Be­yond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Iden­tity. None are trained actors. Now young adults of colour, navigating the complexities of ethnic, religious and sexual identity, they represent the remarkable diversity of Muslims in the United States.
Wearing casual clothes, on stage in a crescent formation, three young men and two women sit in straight chairs facing music stands. The first speaker announces: “A short history of Muslims in America.” The next chirps: “A pop quiz.” And they’re off.
In a question-and-answer format, the players volley little-known facts about Muslims in the United States, illuminating characters by name from explorers to military heroes.
Against a light-suffused, rust-col­oured backdrop, a spotlight shines as each person speaks. One asks: “What book did both Thomas Jeffer­son and John Adams have in their libraries?” Answer: “The Quran.” Clap.
Another queries: “Who was the largest landowner on Long Island in 1640?” The reply: “A Muslim.” One clap affirms each answer. Based on 20 hours of interviews, the script emphasises common val­ues while exploring the players’ coming-of-age struggles. While hon­ouring their individual origins, they clearly identify as proud New York­ers, where 167 languages are spoken and public schools now observe two Muslim holidays. In dozens of per­formances, with more scheduled for 2016, the players’ deep sense of belonging and desire to be accepted for who they are touches audiences.
Beyond Sacred was commissioned by the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center and produced by the inno­vative Ping Chong + Company, un­der its founder and artistic director, Chinese-American immigrant Ping Chong. The production was partly funded by the Building Bridges ini­tiative of the Doris Duke Foundation for the Islamic Arts. “The important thing,” Chong said “is that when the audience leaves the theatre, they recognise the humanity of these people on stage.”
“We are without a doubt in a mo­ment of rising Islamophobia in the United States,” Ping Chong + Com­pany Managing Director Bruce Al­lardice said, “We produced Beyond Sacred as a counterbalance to this tide of fear, to remind New Yorkers that ‘being Muslim’ isn’t any one thing but rather a range of traditions that are as diverse as any of the great religions.”
The production won “Critics’ Pick” endorsement by The New York Times, which described it as “an exercise in empathy, not polem­ics: a lesson in human understand­ing, drawn from real lives”. National Public Radio also aired a story about the performance. But the best was yet to come.
In September, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and Ping Chong + Company, were awarded the National Medal of Arts — the United States’ most prestigious arts award. US President Barack Obama praised the foundation’s “bold com­mitment to artistic risk”, lauding the vital role of performers to “help us understand each other a bit better”.
In 2007 the foundation launched the Building Bridges programme, which funds arts and media initia­tives.
“The foundation’s overarching mission is to support the well-being of American society,” Senior Pro­gramme Officer Zeyba Rahman said. “And Building Bridges is in perfect alignment, using the lens of arts and culture to shift understanding. We’re living in an increasingly com­plex world which is becoming more polarised.
“Through thought-provoking imaginative processes, artists can reach audiences in all kinds of me­dia that uplifts spirits and creates bonds that can help reduce other­ing. We must use culture as capital to bring together people in commu­nities.”
From 2014-15 the foundation awarded $3.6 million to programmes across the United States. www.dd­fia.org.

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