Written by Chloe Gordon
for Prof. Alyson Grant
Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced shines a harsh light on the crisis of identity internalized by many Muslim Americans. Set in an upscale apartment in Manhattan, Disgraced captures the inner workings of wealthy liberals intent on professing progressiveness. In this environment of seemingly open-minded North Americans, Akhtar aspires for a “confrontation with the recalcitrant tribal tendencies we all harbour” (Akhtar 95). Akhtar’s protagonist, Amir Kapoor, born Amir Abdullah, is locked in an intense struggle to reconcile his identity as an American lawyer with his deeply entrenched Muslim roots. Amir, like many post-911 Muslims, fears that in order to be accepted as an American he must sever all ties with Islam. To further expose the fundamental struggle between Islam and America, Amir’s 22-year-old nephew, known both as Abe Jensen and Hussein, externalizes this crisis further, demonstrating the harsh reality of many Muslim Americans living in a world after the fall of the twin towers. Abe is initially portrayed as a young man who is desperately trying to be seen as “American,” thus his adoption of the name Abe over Hussein. Young Abe witnesses firsthand the injustices experienced by Muslims in America, which prompts him to change his name back to Hussein and to become radicalized. Through Hussein and his ultimate frustration against the country he once called home, Akhtar calls into question whether America truly is the land of the free.
Initially, Abe Jensen, like many Muslim Americans, is eager to conform to American society. The stage direction describes Abe as being “of South Asian origin. But as American as it gets” (12). Even his choice of name, Abe, is a possible allusion to a key figure in American history, suggesting that Abe is desperately seeking to be seen as American rather than Muslim. When explaining his external rejection of his Muslim heritage and his embracing of American culture, he says, “It’s gotta be one thing or the other. I can’t be all mixed up” (13). The desperate need to dichotomize his identity echoes the struggle of many Muslims who are ostracized due to fear and ignorance. Abe justifies his suppression of religion by explaining that the Quran states, “You can hide your religion if you have to” (13). Akhtar hopes to demonstrate with this statement that for many it is seen as a necessity to completely conform to American culture if they want to be accepted at all. Abe’s attempt at assimilation becomes complicated, however, when he comes to the defense of an Imam whom he believes is falsely accused of collecting money for a terrorist organization. Abe adamantly states that “Imam Fareed is not like that, once a month we’re doing a Friday prayer that’s mixed” (18). For Abe, this seemingly modern Imam is a symbol of Islam’s ability to fit into America’s unforgiving molds. However, Akhtar demonstrates that to the greater society he is seen merely as “a man who [is] raising money for terrorists” (69). Abe’s attempt to be “as American as it gets” while still respecting his Muslim roots proves to be increasingly idealistic.
Akhtar ultimately shows, through Abe’s final transformation back to Hussein or, more precisely, a radicalized Hussein, the true anger that many Muslim Americans internalize. Gone are his effervescent clothes, and even brighter ideas. In contrast, Hussein is described as “wearing a Muslim Skullcap. And his wardrobe is muted. Unlike the colours of the first scene” (77). His muted façade is a window into his internal growing state of fundamentalism. His beloved Imam is on trial and branded a terrorist, which catalyzes Hussein’s realization that his efforts to ingratiate his Muslim identity with America are futile. Further reinforcing the young man’s sense of injustice is his arrest by the FBI due to his friend who “got pissed” due to a coffee barista ignoring his flirtation. She “got snippy” and things escalated to the point “that he told her this country deserved what it got and what it’s going to get” (79), regarding the 911 terrorist attacks. His interrogation by the FBI is an obvious attempt to exploit his inexistent ties with America and his evident growing radicalization. He was asked if he and his friend “want to blow stuff up,” “believe in jihad,” “watch porn,” and finally “hate America” (80). Hussein is presumably humiliated by being branded by the FBI as a terrorist. His anger continues to grow as he bitterly tells Amir, “[The FBI] brought up my immigrant status” (81). An aspect that he held at the very core of his identity, his citizenship, is seen as fleeting. He can be stripped of his American identity, but his Muslim identity is steadfast and indelible. Hussein adamantly says, “I am not on their side” (82) and that returning to Pakistan “wouldn’t be the worst thing” (83). Hussein acknowledges that he can never be truly American as he tells Amir, “You want something from these people that you will never get” (83), mainly, acceptance. His broken spirit is fuelled by rage as his American identity deteriorates, creating a vacuum to be filled by radical ideas. He begins to draw a harsh separation between himself and Abe by using terms that separate the American “them” and the Muslim “us”. He boldly states, “The prophet wouldn’t be trying to be like them. He didn’t conquer the world by copying other people” (84). However, that is what “they’ve done”; “they” being the Western World. Akhtar uses this radical notion of “conquering” to demonstrate that Muslim Americans are driven to Islam in order to make sense of their rejection. By delving deeper into Islam from a place of anger, their reading of Islam becomes corrupted. Through Hussein’s speech, Akhtar exposes the psyche of some post-911 Muslims. Hussein loses all desire to fit into American society. When given the choice between rejecting Islam to be part of a society that will never truly accept him, or rejecting America to embrace Islam, Hussein chooses the latter: “For three hundred years they’ve been taking our land, drawing new borders, replacing our laws, making us want to be like them. Look like them. Marry their women” (85). As his choice is painfully evident, he chillingly proclaims, “They’ve conquered the world and we are going to get it back” (84). His anger towards America, stemming from his rejection and the systematic injustices that he was a victim to, fuels him in his final proclamation that “They disgraced us. They disgraced us” (85).
Akhtar eloquently and rather shockingly exposes the reality of many Muslim Americans and their internal struggles as they try to fit into the melting pot. He himself states that it is a “problematic, complex, [and] deeply troubling play” (96). Akhtar uses Abe Jensen to show that as hard as Muslims try, there will always exist a glass ceiling separating them and American society at large. As Hussein is presented to the audience for a final time, radical and brewing with destruction, he says, “They pretend they don’t understand the rage we’ve got?” (85). In an interview, Akhtar did not allude to whether this play has a message of hope or despair. What he does say, however, is that if there is to be any hope we must be able to understand the problems he strove to expose in Disgraced. He leaves the audience with a final glimmer of hope by saying, “The only way we can change the world is by recognizing what it is, now,” no matter how uncomfortable “the now” may make us feel (95).
Akhtar, Ayad. Disgraced. Little, Brown, and Co., 2013.
About the Author:
My name is Chloe Gordon. I am currently in my final semester in Health Sciences at Dawson. I hope to pursue a career in medicine, specializing in neurology. Aside from my passion for the sciences, I love creative arts and writing. I am a voracious reader and my favourite book is The Five People you Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom, which inspires me every day to make a positive impact on other peoples’ lives. When I am not studying organic chemistry or reading, I love to run, do yoga, bake, and volunteer in the Montreal community.