by Nasha Khan
It’s a clear day, the sun is out, and I’m with my sister on the familiar, winding road leading straight to the heart of Laguna Beach. We talk of sisterly things, note my quarrel with punctuality, and sigh at the sea of taillights ahead — realizing even this feels like vacation without the sum of our raucous offspring. Everyone seems to be headed to the beach today — but not us. Preened and heeled, with no kids in tow, we’re on our way to a quaint, little playhouse — a stone’s throw from the boardwalk — to watch a play about Muslim women.
I’ve come to learn of the play perchance, in the way distant family members hear of passing news from faraway relatives. It’s a natural consequence of my detachment with the Muslim community of late. I’ve been away — far longer than the three years I was actually gone.
Swaying on doubt’s unsteady platform, I made a move forward some years ago, by moving away — to the desert. Under the pirouetting shade of powdered dunes and towers built on sand, I desperately hoped to unearth the bones of my fragmented and lost identity, reattach them, and secure my now intact self to a place of belonging. I was only partly successful, but not for want of effort. Foot-dragging my way back home with a heavy heart, I ultimately recognized any hope in relocating that errant sense of self and its rightful place in life could only be found here — at the very berth of my loss.
As I tap my fingers on the steering wheel in rising impatience, I’m not sure why I’m here anymore. Increasingly reclusive, I find large social gatherings cumbersome — and I know nothing of the organization or the people hosting this play. I feel Old Man Anxiety aiming for my throat while my sister texts the gaggle of friends meeting her there. I look beyond the dysphoria to the clearing traffic, hit the gas, and carry on.
Walking toward the playhouse later, I learn that all those Moroccan tea party photos plastered on Facebook’s newsfeed belong to the organization behind the play — GiveLight Foundation. The words, “Dian” and “orphans,” find their way into my newfound knowledge. I’m interested, but more focused on getting there.
The Laguna Playhouse — a seemingly tiny retreat flushed against the hills, promising breathtaking views of the ocean — is a treat for any art enthusiast. Formed during the mid-1920s, it has long been a refuge for theater readings and performances. I immediately appreciate the venue selection for this particular play.
Ambivalence at rest, I enter the courtyard to a comforting sight. A slew of 20 to 30-something women in black, with blue scarves, welcome us in true Muslim form — smiling, laughing and small-talking throughout the check-in process. My awkward humor blunders in acknowledgement. Entering the theater building, I spy complimentary refreshments, Unveiled book-stacks, and a three-tiered cake with the words “Give Light.” I also notice a small woman in a turquoise scarf and an embroidered jacket huddled behind the information table, and try to recall my sister’s chatter — something about orphans and tea parties. My memory is rubble lately.
Once inside, we take our seats immediately and absorb the crowd — a predictable majority of (presumably) Muslim women from the soup-pot that’s America. But every few scarfed and un-scarfed heads later, a male one hovers over the information booklet. Presumptuous as it is, I silently applaud him for venturing into veiled and “unveiled” territory. Throughout the play, my eyes meander over, hoping to capture an “epiphanic” reaction. Sometimes I’m rewarded with an enraptured stage-stare or a thoughtful head-bob.
Despite championing the arts, I’m no theatergoer and find one-act plays boring unless the actor is understatedly extraordinary. Looking around the small theater with a lone table and two chairs sitting center-stage, I prepare myself for a battle in concentration while toying with the smartphone imprinted on my fidgety palm.
Hosai Mojaddidi — a name I often see on social media — welcomes the audience in eloquent, warm and soft affirmations. I can see why her name pops up so much. She alerts us to the booklet I’ve been browsing, and again, my attention’s drawn to “Give Light.” There are too many organizations lining up for the needy, Skepticism whispers, standing cross-armed and purse-lipped over my shoulder. I’m wary of empty promises. But my compassion runs far deeper than I let on — and I’m alerted nonetheless.
Like most Muslim-American events, this too begins with a stunning recitation of the Qur’an in all its lyrical, spiritually uplifting, and intellectually sound Glory. I recognize the verse though I understand only some words. Mojaddidi returns on-stage to translate then introduce the founder of GiveLight Foundation — the show’s beneficiary. My drifting attention catches the woman in the turquoise scarf and embroidered jacket walking purposefully toward the stage. Arriving at the microphone, her expression dissolves into a smile as open as her words. Dian.
She stands center-stage, bathed in a light all her own. Her face is earnest, her voice direct and open. She speaks of the career she abandoned in the corporate village for the life she embraced in an excessively tortured world. “It didn’t fulfill me,” she says. I know that feeling even without the material success. As she continues, I realize I know no one who could leave the multimillion-dollar career track for nonprofit work — but many who believe they would. When she recounts the tsunami that devastated nearly one-third of the globe, my chest clenches. I consciously harden myself to avoid the crushing impact of a profoundly personal pain. Then I think of the children playing on the sand right before the wall of water swallowed them whole, and my breathing labors. “Losing one family member is hard. Losing 40 was unbearable,” she says. We blink back tears in reflection. I ask the girls dabbing their eyes behind me for some Kleenex, with nervous laughter. My emotionally controlled sister appears stoic, but the moist glisten in her eyes betrays her.
Listening to Dian’s story of loss and gain reminds me of my own life lessons and the missed opportunities to turn them into something more lasting than persistent melancholy. I decide I admire her.
Her life’s purpose, she says, is to serve the orphans left behind after the tsunami’s merciless onslaught. A muffled gasp follows the statistics — which has less to do with the death toll than the number orphaned. My mind strays to the children on the sand again, then to the castaway expressions on the tear and muck-streaked faces of the young, long after the ocean’s cold retreat. I “uh-oh” satirically to suppress the overpowering emotion this evokes. A barely audible repertoire of sniffles ensues behind me.
“The heart’s drawn to beauty and goodness,” she reasons. She believes in people more than I do. They’ve given her dream wings — not her idea alone. Were it not for them, the 800 orphans the foundation supports across the globe would be homeless. I recall the remarkable details of the orphanages screened before Dian’s introduction, and feel my armor collapsing. Courtyards, pillars, marble floors — the architectural details astound me. There are computers and educational resources in every home. Every orphanage is built with such loving attention for the child obscured in the deluge of inconceivable loss.
Wrapped in my thoughts about Dian, the foundation, and the orphaned children, I nearly forget why I’m here again. Then the lights dim around me and the stage comes alive.
A cloaked table, a tea set, and a chair inhabited by five women. This is the play in a nutshell. Cracked opened, the shell reveals astonishing layers to this one-woman act. The five characters are distinct in origin, appearance, mannerism, and voice; yet the same in identity and plight. They veil by choice, despite opposition. They reason, even when the absurd screams racial slurs into their faces. They exercise compassion under duress. They use their minds to think beyond what’s being said, and their voices when too much of nothing lingers in the acrid air of fear and distrust. Through a finessed storytelling, each character finds her thread of light in the gloom of disbelief, and raises the self out of despair to learn and impart necessary, transformative lessons. Their words hang between the audience’ rapt silence and the muted recognition of foul reality — cloaked in bigotry, intolerance, fear, and ignorance.
British-born, Chicago-based Rohina Malik, of South Asian descent, is the quintessential western Muslim woman, simply by definition — as are the characters she breathes to life with her compelling performance. Even when her solo-act dances around clichés and cultural stereotypes, her delivery remains powerful, convincing, and therefore, forgivable. We may not all confront the extreme circumstances of Malik’s strong-willed, tea-totaling heroines, but we share the same challenge of defining ourselves under intense scrutiny and pressure — and finding a safe home for our anomalous identities.
The drama unfolds my own internal conflicts that sit patiently in their musty corners — awaiting resolutions amid silken cobwebs. It occurs to me that being here has served a purpose I hadn’t foreseen. It dares to suggest that after everything’s been said and done, and my heart has healed of its unspoken inflictions, it’s possible I belong here.
After Malik’s encore, Mojaddidi invites the foundation’s team on stage. I compare the lineup to a print ad representing Muslim-American women — each standing apart in outward appearance and together despite it. This is what people should look like everywhere. And none could be better than the other when viewed in plain sight. A remote but familiar sensation swells within me. It may be pride.
Leaving the auditorium buzzing over tea and cake, my sister and I walk into the chilled dusk. My head pulses with ideas, and my heart is full. I think of my life’s work in creating learning opportunities for children. I remember the Afghan “coolies” with baskets larger than them at Sunday Bazaar, preadolescent nannies holding babies on slight hips, the toddler camel-jockey rubbing sand from his eyes — in places I have been. And the orphaned ones, where I still have no reach. Like Malik, and Dian before her, I too feel the weight of social responsibility and have thus let my work always choose me. Unlike them, I’ve remained closeted in my efforts — always maintaining a safe distance behind the scenes.
Making a hobby of charities to feel good has never resonated with me. Giving because we understand it’s a responsibility — an amaanah (trust) from Allah (God) — does. To then lend myself to something that builds a refuge for orphans — “the most innocent among us,” as one volunteer quoted — becomes inescapable.
Our drive home is mostly silent. I really want to work with them, I say. My sister nods in understanding. You should, she says, as we turn onto my street.
Childhood is an important time in one’s life. It’s important to me. A small portion of mine was spent within the impenetrable and colossal walls of a shared home — housing an extended family and a flock of hired help flitting about ceremonially. Those memories still evoke only the most positive of emotions — more than thirty years past. They moor me to safety in life’s gray moments.
GiveLight Foundation returns the orphans’ childhood to them, and provides anchors for them. As long as the children remain in these homes, they are cared for in the way an extended family watches over its young. This moves me beyond the words unfurled through my fingertips.
“The heart, when freed of ego and disease, yearns to give without expecting anything in return… Human capacity is tremendous if we know what we’re meant to do….”
Dian’s parting lines haunt my thoughts late into the night. Even the skeptic cannot deny the truth in her words. Surely all goodness lies in the shedding of the nafs (ego). As darkness overcomes me, the unnamed faces of the desolate and young flicker beneath my eyes.
And I know what I’m meant to do.