08 July 2016
Despite being a weighty topic, anti-Muslim bigotry, racism and Islamophobia is dealt with in a surprisingly light-hearted manner in the one-woman show Unveiled at South Africa's National Arts Festival.
Held in the university city of Grahamstown every year for eleven days in June and July, the National Arts Festival is the biggest annual celebration of the arts on the African continent. The programme comprises drama, dance, physical theatre, comedy, opera, music, jazz, visual art exhibitions, film, student theatre, street theatre, lectures, craft fair, workshops, tours (of the city and surrounding historic places) and a children's arts festival.
The play Unveiled was written by Rohina Malik and performed by South African born and raised activist and actor Gulshan Mia. The one-woman performance gives vignettes of the experiences of five Muslim women after the terror attacks in New York on September 11, 2001 when two planes were flown into the World Trade Center’s twin towers.
This South African premiere of Unveiled, which was originally produced in the United States, is supported by Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation through USArtists International in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Unveiled originally premiered at Chicago’s 16th Street Theatre and has since been performed across the U.S., where its message of tolerance and understanding has been embraced by people of all religions, races, and cultures. Voyage Theatre Company presented the New York premiere in 2015 at Fourth Street Theatre, where it was hailed as “often fierce, always deeply intelligent”.
The props of the play are basic, and the change from one character to the next is signified by a change of hijab and accent. Each character at some point also discusses their custom of serving a different form of tea – perhaps to drive home the warmth and hospitality of Islamic culture.
In the first skit, a Pakistani immigrant fashion designer relates how she can’t bring herself to design wedding dresses anymore after being verbally attacked by an American man outside a wedding venue.
“Take that sh*t off your head. Go back to Afghanistan,” he told her in front of her two young children, almost physically attacking her.
Malik said this story was based on what had happened to her at a friend’s wedding. “The incident almost became violent and felt like one of the worst days of my life. It’s interesting how that painful day became the seed that would later become Unveiled. Art can sometimes be inspired by ugly things that scare us,” Malik said.
In the second skit, a lawyer of Moroccan descent, Noor, tells a client of the brutal attack on her and her new, American husband, who had converted to Islam before meeting her. She was raped during the attack and her husband, who was stabbed several times, died of the injuries inflicted during the hate crime.
Another story details how a pregnant African-American convert, Inez, was treated in her town moments after the 9/11 attacks.
“We’ve got to bomb those Arabs back into the Stone Ages,” said the owner of her local store as he watched the attack on television. Another made a slitting-throat motion at her. Inez removed her hijab after an American woman told her it was not safe to wear it.
“I felt weak, like a coward. In one day it felt like our rights as Americans were taken from us by other Americans.”
Malik said the message of Unveiled is simple.
“Get to know me. If you get to know someone, it becomes very difficult to hate them.”
She remembered the reaction from one American man after seeing her show in the US.
“He asked to speak to me. He told me that he hated Muslims and thought women wore the veil to celebrate 9/11. I will never forget the tears streaming down his face as he looked at me and said ‘I’m sorry’. It was one of the most powerful moments in my life.”
The show got a standing ovation at the festival in Grahamstown.
Gabi Falanga, "Unveiling the sad truth of hate crimes" IOL July 8, 2016
"Unveiled" National Arts Festival July 8, 2016