When actor/playwright Aizzah Fatima was in eighth grade, about a year after she and her family moved to Starkville, Mississippi from Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, she saw a high school production of A Thousand Cranes. The play tells the story of Sadako Saski, a 12-year-old Japanese girl who had died of leukemia in 1955, the direct result of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
“It was the first play I’d ever seen performed live and I was immediately awed by theater’s power to move people and teach them something at the same time,” Fatima recalls. “There I was, sitting and crying because of what a girl on stage was showing me. I saw that through theater you can create change.”
Nearly two decades later that realization prompted Fatima to develop a one-woman show that has been performed throughout the U.S., and at the Masala! Mehndi! Masti! festival in Toronto, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and in Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi, Pakistan. Dirty Paki Lingerie introduces audiences to six Pakistani-American females—although Fatima was born in Saudi Arabia, both of her parents are from Pakistan—a diverse crowd that includes a little girl in the throes of sibling rivalry; a hijab-wearing feminist; a 55-year-old who is finally putting herself first after a lifetime of being a dutiful mother, wife, and daughter; a young woman who worries about whether it is permissible to wear a sexy red negligee on her wedding night; and a middle-aged mom whose main concern is marrying off her “32, maybe 34-year-old,” daughter to a suitable Muslim gent.
Fatima’s humor is abundant as she jabs at anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistani racism. What’s more, the play is also intended to encourage both Pakistani-American and Muslim women to venture outward, taking advantage of the many career and family life options that exist throughout the Western hemisphere. The messages are never heavy-handed. Nonetheless, several times during the hour-long production, a voiceover reminds the audience that “once upon a time there was a girl who had two stories and she could not decide which one she liked best.” It’s something of an age-old tale, albeit with a womanist twist, highlighting the pushes-and-pulls of maintaining ties to one’s cultural heritage while simultaneously assimilating.
Fatima insists that Dirty Paki Lingerie is not autobiographical but is instead an amalgam of previously untold stories about the diverse lives of Muslim women in the U.S. As she sought to write about what it means to be Pakistani-American, she says that she realized that no one was telling stories from their point of view. For the most part, she continues, when Muslim women—there is virtually never any ethnic specificity—are portrayed on TV or in movies, they are oppressed or in bad domestic situations. Worse, they are usually depicted as dupes, the unwitting girlfriends or wives of terrorists or religious fanatics.
Fatima rolls her eyes at the absurdity of this limited portrayal but acknowledges that these stereotypical images are damaging. They further fuel one of her pet peeves, being asked about her nationality and then being given funny looks when she tells the questioner that she is American. Perhaps it’s a residual after-effect of coming of age in tiny Starkville, Mississippi, home of Mississippi State University (MSU). “When you are neither black nor white in Starkville, you are considered exotic,” Fatima shrugs. “But it was okay at the time because I had wonderful friends and loved my teachers. My experiences there were nothing but lovely. Starkville is also somewhat diverse because of the university. I studied microbiology and medical technology at MSU and the department of microbiology was completely run by foreigners. There was also an active Pakistani student association that I was part of.”
Fatima describes being completely comfortable at MSU; at the same time, she knew that her options would be limited if she stayed in Starkville. “You either work at McDonald’s, Shoney’s, or MSU,” she laughs. Still, Fatima made no plans to leave Starkville after finishing her undergraduate studies. In fact, she began graduate school at MSU, intending to complete a Master’s in Information Technology before deciding whether to stay in Mississippi or move away. Her plans went awry, however, thanks to a chance encounter while visiting one of her brothers in Manhattan. A somewhat random conversation, she says, led, first, to a paid internship in the city, and then to jobs in the IT departments of Brooks Brothers and at a small start-up that ultimately failed. A subsequent position at Google New York lasted for seven years. While she loved it—“Oh my God, I was at Google”—she says that it didn’t take long for her to begin wishing for something more artistically creative.
“A few months after I started the job, one of my coworkers told me that he was leaving to pursue his passion, singing opera. His example made me question my life,” Fatima says. “Was working at Google enough? In junior high and high school I’d done a lot of theater, singing and dancing in several productions. I was on the fast track in college, rushing to finish in three years, but I’d always squeezed in some acting. Now, there I was at Google, and I figured that, just for fun, I’d try the acting thing again.”
Fatima got her feet wet by taking several adult education classes at N.Y.U. and then enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, completing their two-year program in 2009. She also studied with Matt Hoverman, who has been teaching “Create Your Own Solo Show” workshops since 2001; it was in Hoverman’s class that the idea for Dirty Paki Lingerie began to germinate. Fatima left Google in 2011 and has been performing ever since; among other roles, she snagged a part in a 2012 episode of The Good Wife. Dirty Paki Lingerie debuted at the 2011 Midtown International Theatre Festival and Fatima was the first Muslim playwright to have work featured in the 14 year-old program.
Under the direction of Brooklyn Heights resident Erica Gould, the play is continually being reworked and updated. A recent addition, for example, reminds viewers that it was the Michigan legislature—and not the government of a Muslim country—that banned lawmaker Lisa Brown from speaking in the statehouse after she said the word vagina in a public debate over abortion. Similarly, the play hones in on the fact that the U.S. has still not passed the Equal Rights Amendment. And that’s not all. “The Republicans are just like the Taliban,” one of Lingerie’s characters rails. “And the Taliban doesn’t practice true Islam. Islam gave women the right to own property while women in Europe were still being treated like cattle.”
Not surprisingly, these statements resonate with some domestic audiences while shocking others. Less predictably, however, Fatima reports that Dirty Paki Lingerie was well-received in Pakistan. Fatima was there this spring as part of the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs, the same entity that oversees Fulbright Scholars. In addition to performing her original work, Fatima ran workshops in a wide array of public and private high schools and colleges. “We did an exercise where each person was asked to pair with a partner and talk about their lives. As first, they couldn’t do it because they’d been taught not to focus on themselves and no one had ever—ever—asked them to think that way before. Eventually they began to open up and they’ve been emailing and IMing me and reaching out on Facebook and Twitter ever since.”
Fatima calls the trip eye-opening—she had not visited Pakistan since she was an 11-year-old child—and is proud to have initiated dialogue on topics like women’s roles in the family and in society that are frequently glossed over. In addition, she believes that she helped her students recognize that “every human being has a story to tell and understand that there is value in the telling.”
As for U.S. audiences, Fatima and Gould want viewers to walk away from Dirty Paki Lingerie with a renewed awareness that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants. “The turbulence and discrimination that the Muslim population, and Pakistanis specifically, have recently experienced is fairly new, but it is similar to what the Irish, Italians, Jews, Chinese, and other immigrant populations went through in previous eras,” Fatima concludes. Nonetheless, she is determined to use her characters to chip away at anti-Muslim sentiment. Her goal? “I want to get to the point where I no longer have to put out art to show that Muslims are not the Other, that Muslims are just people,” she says.
Director Erica Gould, who is white and Jewish, acknowledges that the roots of anti-Muslim bigotry run deep. For her, the underlying message of Dirty Paki Lingerie is that non-Muslims need not be fearful of newcomers, regardless of whether their heads are covered by hijab or they pray five times a day. “I want to use theater to enlarge the soul and increase empathy without being pedantic,” she says. “I’m not interested in creating a soapbox, but if Dirty Paki Lingerie helps people see the human condition in a new or less narrow way, it will have done something incredibly powerful.”
Dirty Paki Lingerie will be performed at the Flea Theater, 41 White Street, NY, NY from July 31 – August 18, 2013. For more information call the Flea at 212-226-0051 or visit www.theflea.org. You can also check out Dirty Paki Lingerie on Facebook.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader