Can one oppose the maelstrom of invective against Muslims in this country through art rather than logic and debate? That’s the approach of Unveiled, a one-woman play written and performed by Rohina Malik, author of The Mecca Tales and Yasmina's Necklace.
Malik performs five distinct scenarios, tied together conceptually by the hatred the characters face, and try to face down, in a post-9/11 world. Maryam is a Pakistani immigrant and clothing designer who is attacked on a Chicago street for wearing a hijab, or head scarf (“You’re in America, take that shit off your head”). Noor, a Moroccan-American lawyer, tries to persuade a reluctant hate-crime victim to testify by describing her own hesitation to bear witness to the murder of her husband, killed while wearing a djellaba, or long robe, she had given to him as a gift. Inez, an African-American convert (rather, “revert,” who left Islam and then returned), voluntarily removes her headdress on 9/11 so she won’t be attacked in her hometown, Dallas, then feels ashamed of her choice.
Shabana, a South Asian rapper in West London, won’t heed her mother’s warning that her brown skin will limit her marriage opportunities (“I won’t be oppressed, / I won’t be undressed”). And Layla, a Palestinian immigrant in a Chicago suburb, asks a policeman to not arrest a young man who has attacked her on 9/11 with his fists. “Get to know me. My name is Layla. Get to know me,” she beseeches her assailant. “Remove the veil from your heart. You see, I wear a veil on my head, but my heart is not covered. . . . Remove the veil from your heart, and you will realize that we are one.”
Malik herself embodies some of their traits. She’s of South Asian descent, was born in London, and grew up in Chicago. She is able to flesh out her characters with convincing accents and gestures. Her rapper is hard and tough, with sharp arm punches. Her lawyer, trying to convince a client, is professional, even a bit distant, through much of her own tragic tale. The clothing designer has a boldly patterned head covering and garment, with a confident personality to match; she invites a potential customer to tea to assess whether she even wants to take on the job.
Malik also plays the other characters in the dialogues, the fathers and mothers, suitors, clients, or hate-mongers, with a wide range of voices and gestures.
Complex decisions, complex reactions
The result is convincing portrayals of women in hajibs and the hurtful reactions these items of clothing incite, sometimes making the wearers stronger, other times making them cave. If there’s a weakness in Unveiled, it’s in understanding, in each instance, the complexity of the women’s decisions to wear hajibs, which has been described as more difficult than actually wearing them. But that, perhaps, is another play. This play is persuasive in showing that the decision to wear hajib has consequences that force the women into situations where they must essentially rise above themselves.
And that’s the complexity of life, which Malik signals through a motif of tea. Each character serves up a tea related to her origin: chocolate chai, Moroccan mint tea, kahwa saide, Kashmiri chai, and Shay bil maramiya. No teabags here — rather, many ingredients and steps to do it right. “I’m sorry,” Maryam says. “Tea is not steeped, tea is made.”
And of course tea is a people connector, a means of communion, even a way to reach out to potential antagonists. In the play, it’s a symbol. In life, it warms our insides; indeed, tea was served at the back of the auditorium.