Finding peace through art

A new play in Washington DC brings together South Asian actors from countries in conflict to promote harmony and unity.

The author's play has resonated with war-torn Muslim communities

As the world’s focus remains on the unfolding events in Syria and the Middle East, history was made for South Asia as Nawaz Sharif and Manmohan Singh, the Prime Ministers of Pakistan and India, respectively, are met while attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York City.

To most Americans, these two nuclear powers have a history of a difficult and often violent relationship, having fought three wars with one another over the disputed region of Kashmir. President Bill Clinton referred to this region as “the most dangerous place in the world”. This perpetuates the stereotype that India and Pakistan are two nations standing at a constant level of readiness for war with one another. The reality is far more complex.

There are a number of areas of cultural cooperation and even synthesis between Indians and Pakistanis. An excellent example of this, which created pride in the South Asian community of Washington DC, was the performance last week of my play Noor, at the Katzen Arts Center at American University, with an Indian, Pakistani, and Afghan cast, and an Indian director.

A spirit of harmony and unity

With Indians and Pakistanis having recently exchanged gunfire across the Line of Control in which lives were lost, and Afghans and Pakistanis blaming each other for the violence in their areas, the production of Noor became a symbol of South Asians being able to work together in a spirit of harmony and unity.

Noor tells the story of three young Muslim men who are faced with the kidnapping of their younger sister, Noor, by unidentified soldiers, during Ramadan. As the brothers grapple with how to rescue Noor while preserving their honour, they undergo the same crisis within Muslim society that is occurring throughout the world as literalism, mysticism, and modernity clash. This play is an exploration of the different reactions of the three brothers, all drawing from their  interpretations of Islam, and their attempts to bring Noor home.

Murad reflects the ultimate message of the play, the Sufi saying sulh-i-kul or ‘peace with all’ – peace across borders, religions, sects, communities, and within families.

Amidst the national and political turmoil today, it is the disruption of the family itself which proves the most shattering. If we descend below the surface of this near global violence and examine the lives of the nuclear family, we will find mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, merely trying to survive with their dignity and honour intact. As Daoud, one of the three brothers, reminds us in the play, “There may be mercy for the dead; there is none left for the living.”

Noor is about of one those families; a family struggling to keep itself and their faith intact while dealing with corrupt bureaucrats and an unjust system seemingly imploding. This family could be found in Kabul, Karachi, Baghdad, or Damascus, in any urban centre undergoing this chaos. This viewpoint gives us an insight into the lives of ordinary people in order to make the “other” comprehensible. The  cast was so successful in embodying the Muslim characters and their struggles today, that after one performance a Pakistani journalist asked  Sridhar Mirajkar, from south India, playing Daoud, if he was from Karachi.

The distinguished director Manjula Kumar, who is also a director at the Smithsonian Institute, took on the play with passion and commitment. Earlier, she had staged my play The Trial of Dara Shikoh. Pakistanis were well represented. Ali Imran, the APP journalist, was convincing as a Sufi Sheikh and Mossadaq Chughtai, a well-known community leader, hosted a reception for the entire production afterwards. Imran’s powerful dialogue in which he explains that God is Noor or Light and embraces all with His love was a reminder of the universal message of Islam.

Opening a dialogue

The performances were sold-out events and prominent academics, state department officials and leaders of the interfaith community were spotted in the audience. The panelists included Imam Talib Shareef, who heads the oldest mosque in Washington DC, the Reverend Carol Flett who represents the Bishop of Washington’s interfaith initiative, Dr Abderrahim Foukara, Washington Bureau Chief for Al Jazeera Arabic and Dr Rosa Jalal, wife of the Indonesian ambassador.

This same spirit of brotherhood and dialogue can be found in the 2012 performance of Noor in northern Iraq at the American University of Sulaimani, directed by American professor Peter Friedrich – who was at hand as the moderator of a panel in Washington DC.

Despite the turbulent history of this war-torn region, a young Kurd in the play, Mahdi Murad, wrote to me not with bitterness or anger but with love in his heart: “As I am writing you this email, my eyes are full of tears … if you could have seen the audience, you would have known that almost everyone had lost someone very close to them in a war. I say a war because there have been many of them since the day we were born. However, none of us have had the opportunity to cry for the people we have lost. We, Kurds and Arabs in the ‘Noor‘ cast, are joining hands together to shed the light of the life of every single person in our country. We gather together to shed our last tears for the sad events our people have experienced so far. We cried for all these thing, but most of all, we cried for every Noor in every home, wherever she was.”

In this message, Mahdi reflects the ultimate message of the play, the Sufi saying sulh-i-kul or “peace with all” – peace across borders, religions, sects, communities, and within families. Daniel Futterman, the hero of the film A Mighty Heart, and an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, wrote of Noor: “Listen in rapture to the voices of modern Islam. I am in awe of this tremendous, important work.”

Professor Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and the author of The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (Brookings 2013).