Thanksgiving Catch Up: NOOR at AU

It’s a been a long good day of family and eating and catching up on writing so now to reflect ever so swiftly on Akbar Ahmed’s play NOOR that was read at American University’s Katzen Arts Center’s Recital Hall last Monday and Tuesday… Two sold out performances. Strong presentation. Excellent panel discussions. Made some real money for the theater (we’re not just Middle East dialogue do-gooders here; not anymore!). And much more important than all this entrepreneurship, we made some real progress on the play! Mostly cuts. We got rid of 18 minutes between Monday and Tuesday; 14 minutes on the first act alone. It was a thrilling feeling – to cut the play as we did – in less than a hour in the lobby of the Center and then see it all play so well in front of an audience.

The play itself may always have its detractors (on both the left and right). But there are most passionate advocates for it too. A play about the crisis of modern Islam as it impacts on a family whose young member has been kidnapped by unidentified paramilitary figures in a modern Islamic capital can’t help but come across as either “special pleading” for victimized Muslims, or too balanced and careful a debate play to have any real outrage to shout out. That’s the range of complaints we’re hearing. But mostly we’re feeling and hearing the warm embrace of people appreciating that this story is getting told — that dialoguie is being forged; and that a Jewish theater has spent all this time nurturing an important play, all while preserving the authentic voice, the superb scholarship, the didactic integrity of this debate play while still holding true to the precepts of drama and norms of kinetic dialogue. More and more the play is finding its own confident dramatic voice and its own stylistic idiom, in the spirit of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and The Maiden; a useful play involving a kidnapping that ratchets up the tension by use of a claustrophobic setting and speaks to global issues with characterz taking on paradigmatic roles, representing forces within their respective society’s, as a debate unfolds and a life hangs in the balance. The illuisiveness of the sense of place – we’re told it’s any Islamic capital – could be Kabul, could be Cairo, could be Kabul – mirrors the same illusive setting in Death and the Maiden – which could be any besieged country with an autocratic government, most likely in South America, but not necessarily.

The detractors (including a few of my young staff members) find the play too didactic; a bit old-fashioned or predictable in sending the extremist brother Daoud on a straight-shot trajectory to his ultimate action; a bit stiff in its reverential language for the Sufi and Jihadist brothers; raw political meat, as my in-laws put it, as the play makes the case that Islam has been unfairly tarred and feathered by the West in one condemning brush; a bit bald in the execution of its character writing.

But a far greater number find something incredibly moving, not to mention enlightening, about this play that educates as it illuminates what’s going on inside the Muslim family today.

Here’s one superb and balanced comment written by Uzma Farooq, Vice –President of the Muslim Women’s Coalition and Director For The Greater Washington DC Area Muslim Women’s Coalition.

She writes:

Asalamu’aliekum, Dr Akbar Ahmed

I attended your play Noor last evening at the Katzen Art Center at AU with my husband Zafar and daughter Mehreen (she is studying at School of International Service at AU) and wanted to congratulate you on this powerful and brave presentation! Since time was a factor and I didn’t get a chance to ask a question or make a comment I thought of sending you an email.

Three points of interest:

1) The playwright took the initial steps of identifying who a Muslim isin the current world for the audience:
a) she/he can be a mystic
b) a modernist or
c) a fundamentalist.
This identification was very important, timely and it came through very clearly to us. As mentioned the Muslim community is complex like any other faith community. We have our orthodox, fundamentalists and peace loving Sufis and modernists in all denominations who interpret their faith from their vantage point. 9/11 happened and it allowed us to look within and accept that we have a disease that is growing bigger and feel no shame in “airing the dirty laundry” because it is time to seek reconciliation within and without. Justice cannot happen without true acceptance of others within and without. Acceptance goes beyond as you
know tolerance. One can tolerate but still not accept. The play is raw,
powerful and a brave step toward the right direction and we applaud you for that!

2) We liked the way some verses from the Quran and sayings of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him) were choreographed for the audience. It was both informative and light.

3) The last point is a regret that this point: distinction was lacking:
the similarity between the fundamentalist and the Wahabi/Jihadi movement in Islam. Two sides to the same coin. Perhaps by mentioning it the non-Muslims audience would have understood what is happening in our community

– Uzma Farooq
Muslim Women’s Coalition
Director For The Greater Washington DC Area

More news on NOOR. The next round or rewrites will beget another major presentation – at Washington Hebrew Congregation, if all goes well and they’re able to a find in February. We’re excited to be asked. We thought WHC Rabbi Bruce Lustig was fabulous on our panel last Tuesday night.

whether or not it makes it onto our mainstage as part of an extended run or not, NOOR is destined to become a very important part of our outreach and engagement efforts at the theater, diversifying our base, drawing from outside the usual suspects.

Have a wonderful thanksgiving weekend to all.

And did I mention SPEED is closing and SHLEMIEL is opening? And that I’m going to Israel on Tuesday late afternoon and will be seeing 25 plus plays in 8 days plus other readings and panels (one of which I’ll be a part of). What a wonderful whirlwind it might be.

4 thoughts on “Thanksgiving Catch Up: NOOR at AU

  1. Hi there, thank you for your review about the play NOOR. I would have loved to have seen it as i am a big fan of Mr Akbar Ahmed and read some of his books. Is it possible to get a hold of the text of the play ? i would love to read it.

  2. A play about a Muslim family “whose young member has been kidnapped”?!

    Doesn’t it matter — a lot — that it was
    the young *sister* whose abduction and presumed/potential rape triggers the brothers’ debate here, and their concerns for *their* honor being at stake. Several
    sorts of politics in this meta-Muslim family.

    Or maybe it doesn’t…

    I’m sorry the Muslim Girl editor was not, after all, part of the Tuesday night panel: perhaps she would have added something on this topic. There were certainly women in the audience who felt more was needed
    to respond to the gender issues present —
    or not.

  3. A bold move to get the isues out. As a play, I saw Noor as a work in progress. On the opening night it was a shade too long and wordy. Needed a subtext to tell more of the message and the story.

    But that is where I see professional assistance coming in and helping Akbar pare it down to the essentials. Once it is staged, it will be less wordy and some of the acting and movement will add to its draw immensely.

    As an old friend and fan of Akbar’s intellectual output, I am glad to have seen this play and look forwrd to to the next one.

  4. Well said, Shuja. You’ll be pleased to know that on the following day, we were able to cut 16 minutes out of the first act and another 5-7 out of Act II. there is still more work for Akbar to do now, strengthening Act II, Noor”s entrance, and the ending, in particular. But with all the good cuts and discoveries he made, the play’s future is still bright. thanks for your comments. – Ari

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