Access the Samosa archives
The Domestic Crusaders

By Tehmina
October 8 2013




Wajahat Ali’s play “The Domestic Crusaders” made its London debut in September 2013, having won high plaudits in its native US.  It explores the tensions within a well-to-do Pakistani-Muslim family in post-9/11 California, climaxing at youngest son Ghafoor’s 21st birthday party.  The term “cutting-edge” is frequently overused, but “The Domestic Crusaders” has proved itself worthy of the title, by covering the sort of questions that necessitate a hundred policy dialogues: the integration of Muslims into Western societies, media bias against minorities, intergenerational conflicts, individual career choices, the American dream, and historical bloodshed in Pakistan.

The script is incredibly sharp, peppered with references from a smorgasbord of different time-periods, places and cultures e.g. “Studio 54 rejects.”  This adds real verve to the proceedings, and you realise the wisdom it takes to mesh them together coherently, with a long thread of biting humour throughout.

You know a character has been beautifully written when they express opinions contrary to your own, yet you find yourself warming to them anyway.  This was the case with myself and eldest son Salahuddin, whose fixation with stocks and shares was only rivalled by his casual dalliances with women.  He also insisted, much to his activist sister’s chagrin, that cooking was a better skill for women to learn than political campaigning.  Yet Salahuddin was more open-minded than his siblings on hot-button issues such as Muslims marrying outside the faith.  (This is an issue that has only received serious attention within the British Muslim scene relatively recently, with the publication of the Christian-Muslim Forum’s guidelines on the subject, and the ongoing filming of Zara Afzal’s documentary “My Secret Heart” – of which I am an Executive Producer –featuring several Muslim women who speak about the backlash they faced when they married non-Muslim men).

Salahuddin’s role was seemingly to propel the narrative of the play forward, with his over-confident body language and cheeky sense of humour.

The submissive headscarf-wearer (hijabi) is a stereotype that playwright Ali (rightly) wanted to deconstruct, and 24-year-old middle sibling Fatima does this with aplomb.  When not studying law, she could usually be found at some civil liberties demo, and was even arrested on one occasion.  Fatima reminded me of several acquaintances of mine, and while she is the character I expected to find the most relatable, at times I found her a little too pious and right-on (and not in religious terms).  That said, I particularly enjoyed the scene where she yearns to marry an Arabic-speaking black convert rather than an ostensibly secular Asian doctor of her parents’ choosing.  The consequent brief exploration of racial politics within Muslim communities was all too familiar, and helped to disentangle religious concerns from cultural ones.

Parents Salman and Khulsoom brought to mind several senior Pakistani couples I know.  Not only did they seem to have never been in love, but even after decades of marriage, they didn’t really know what made each other “tick.”  However, they professed a deep interdependence with each other, and would defend each other to the hilt in the face of threats from outside (such as the 28-year-old pretender who got a work-related promotion that only Salman had the experience for).  Superbly played by Mamta Kaash and former “Goodness Gracious Me” star Khulvinder Ghir, the parents also had an unyielding commitment to their children that often veered between genuine affection and the dashing of high expectations.  No-one bears the brunt of this more strongly than birthday boy Ghafoor, who wants to teach Islam to high-schoolers instead of becoming a surgeon.

Initially, my favourite character was Hakim, the measured and softly-spoken grandfather who has honey-dipped dates and milk – the Prophet (pbuh)’s finest foods – brought over to him every day.  In the second act, Hakim reveals a dark secret which his own family members would have preferred not to know.  I found this part rather intense.  The intelligent wit throughout the production provided a refreshing counter-balance to the weightiness of the themes, but the slide into humour after this scene came as a bit of a surprise.

In conclusion, “The Domestic Crusaders” should be required viewing for anyone who seeks an intimate, lively piece of performance art about Muslims in the West that is: a). Relatable for Muslims themselves, but steers clear of obvious stereotypes; b). Touches on politics, but makes one think rather than aiming to answer impossible questions; and c). Raises awareness of cross-cultural relations without being preachy.


Leave a Comment

Comments are closed.