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Friday, March 18, 2011

SoCal Muslim Artists Establish Narratives in Post-9/11 Era

By Sahar Jahani

“Look at this media-that’s the same garbage they get day in, day out. And no Muslim does anything-we just sit and complain. Why don’t we go out and tell them how it really is?”

(The Domestic Crusaders, Act I-Scene V)

The Showcase

February 12th, 2011-It is Saturday night at The IMAN Cultural Center in Culver City, CA and the Talar-e-Iran Hall is packed with a multitude of eager faces waiting for the program to commence. An overwhelming majority of the room reflects a demographic that is often under-represented at Islamic institutions: Young, urban, Muslim hipsters and working professionals. They have come to witness and experience an unprecedented occasion, “The Domestic Crusaders West Coast Book Tour and Culture Show Extravaganza” hosted by the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), highlighting the publication and success of the premiere play about Muslim-Americans in a post 9/11 era.

Wajahat Ali, the playwright responsible for this critically acclaimed literary work of contemporary American society, an effort that Toni Morrison claims is “Brilliant. Moving. Shapely. Clever. Funny,” acts as the MC for the night. In his crisp, black suit and white button-down shirt, he takes on the stage to introduce the first performer. May Alhassen christens the stage with her passionate renditions of excerpts from the Hijabi Monologues- derivative of Eve Ensler’s provocative play about female genitalia- that hopes to dispel the many misconceptions associated with the head scarf and the treatment of women who choose to wear it. The head garb that she dons specifically for the stage is a bright red color that parallels the tones of her culturally accented tunic. The oblong shall is pinned in the back and wraps around her hair bun in a sort of Afro-ethnic fashion, revealing large hooped earrings that extend halfway down her neck. Alhassen takes to the microphone and raises a finger, prompting the audience to join her in a countdown: “One!” yells the room in unison, marking the first earth-shattering detail she will be revealing about herself, not as a hijabi but as a normal person, with flawed human tendencies:

“Really tall people freak me out, my gaze ends up in weird places I’d rather it not be, you laugh but try talking to someone’s armpit or waistband and then get back to me…3! I cuss a lot, a whole lot, not like sailor status but definitely more than my grandma would approve…6! I had a cat I named sexy because it was funny and because she was and how hilarious is it to make a vet appointment for 'Sexy'…” She pauses for a beat and becomes solemn, concluding the list on a serious note, “sometimes I feel like I’m a bad hijabi, like I’m not as much as people expect, Muslims and non-Muslims, not as refined or as delicate or as nice, or as sane. Whatever, it’s a piece of fabric, not a magic wand.”

Alhassen, a PhD student in American Studies and Ethnicity at USC, was just one of the many Muslim artists showcased during the culture show. Her act was followed by performances from Def Jam poet and spoken word artist Mark Gonzales, Islamic vocal group ‘Noor’, and scenes from the actual The Domestic Crusaders play. But perhaps the most received routine of the night belonged to standup comedian and aspiring actor Hasan Minhaj, who dressed the part of a suave, young comedian in a dark, black jacket, white pants and raised, black hair. Although he has performed for far larger audiences and with more at stake, Hasan seems uneasy before taking the stage, pacing back and forth at the end of the hall. But when his name is called, he takes on the stage like a storm, a whirling cyclone of never-ending humor that is sharp and witty. The jokes resonate with the audience well; Hasan knows how to play the Muslim crowd. He draws upon current events, politics, “mosque culture” and his identity as a South Asian Muslim living in America:

“You know I love board games and I think the hardest thing about being Muslim is not being able to play Jenga on 9/11, you know what I mean? Because the last thing I want to do is look like a jerk!" He jokes, continuing on with 9/11 politics, "there's just some things white people can enjoy that we can’t, like going to the beach and running through sandcastles, like I can’t really do that, it would be like ‘Daddy! Look a brown man destroyed our building!’ You get it I’m screwed! So yeah, the next time people complain about getting their Netflix late, I’m like really? I can’t buy sugar and envelopes at the same time!”

In recent times, the social and political climate of a post-9/11 America has drawn Muslim-Americans into the media spotlight. In an attempt to define their own narratives and create a voice for a silenced minority whose identity was also hijacked on that fateful day in 2001, Muslim-American artists have emerged in high numbers in the past years, especially in Southern California. This is a period of time that Edina Lekovic, the Communications Director at MPAC suggests marks a “renaissance of new voices” in comedy, writing, film, poetry, music, etc. The talent showcased at the culture show illustrates a microcosm of the type of creativity that is redefining a generation and their stories. Filmmakers Justin Mashouf, Lena Khan, and Qasim Basir along with comedians Azhar Usman, Maz Jobrani, and Ahmed Ahmed, as well as musicians like Lupe Fiasco and Anas Canon are just a few notable names who have established a presence in the media and entertainment industry. These figures are at theforefront of shaping the contemporary Muslim-American narrative in their respective fields. The issues and topics they touch upon are as diverse as the artists themselves. In his début feature documentary, Warring Factions (2009), Mashouf, a half-Iranian, half-American b-boy dancer travels to Iran to explore hip-hop culture in his father’s native country, while simultaneously grappling with issues of identity and politics among the seemingly disparate worlds that he comes from.

At the domestic level, Basir’s new dramatic film, Mooz-lum (2010), based off of his own childhood experiences, follows the story of Tariq Mahdi, an African American Muslim who wishes to distance himself from his native identity after being raised in an ultra-orthodox family. The protagonist is conflicted by the ideals of his strict upbringing (his father wants to become a “hafiz” or memorizer of the Quran, theMuslim holy book) and his identity as an American youth going to college. Although the narrative takes place after 9/11, the film is not a typical 9/11 story. In an interview with NPR’s Michel Martin, Basir explained, “we are approaching 9/11 from a different perspective, a perspective of Muslim-Americans so that people can see that it was also a fearful situation for Muslims here, it was an awful situation, it was something that hurt us all.” Mooz-lum addresses some heavy and oftentimes controversial issues regarding post 9/11 sentiments towards American Muslims. In one scene, a group of White fraternity boys surround two Muslims girls spewing hateful remarks spawned by ignorance and xenophobia:

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) We're getting revenge.

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) Revenge on who?

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) Terrorists.

(Soundbite of shouting)

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) There are no terrorists here. Who you talking about?

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) I'm talking about them.

Unidentified Actor #3: (as character) Do you honestly think you can come into my country and kill my people and get away with it? This is payback time. I am the law today. Tonight, you’re going to be punished by me.

The attitudes expressed in Basir’s film are not sentiments that one would be hard-pressed to find in real-life. The types of reactions that many Americans had towards Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent after 9/11 was the basis for many Muslim-American media projects that attempted to redefine the stereotyped representations of Muslims in Hollywood. Lena Khan, a UCLA film school graduate, spearheaded one of these projects by creating a music video for Kareem Salama’s western themed song, “A Land Called Paradise,” which features real Muslims and their statements to the world. The video illustrates a montage of various individuals revealing their habits, personalities and characteristics that could be part of any human experience: “Broccoli is my personal jihad,” writes a boy on a poster, followed by him cringing at the sight the green plate his mother has placed in front of him. In the following scenes, other Muslim-Americans are portrayed doing everyday things, trying to break the stereotypes associated with issues such as arranged marriage. The camera frames a couple sitting together on a red sofa, flipping through their marriage pictures, on the back of one of the photos, there is a statement that reads, “my husband and I fell in love.” The following image is of a woman in a long, black conservative looking “abaya,” or robe, holding two pink-stripped, signature Victoria’s Secret bags that state, “I shop here too.” The objective of the video seems obvious; to portray Muslims of all backgrounds and personality types as individuals, as humans, and not simply defined by the faith they adhere to.

According to Reza Aslan, a panelist at the culture show and a Harvard Divinity school alumnus, these types of narratives and projects are essential in the Muslim-American plight against racism and xenophobia. “You can’t reframe peoples’ perceptions through information or data,” said Aslan, “what does change peoples’ minds are relationships, and relationshipsare formed through the arts and literature; they allow people to see each other beyond simple representations of ethnicity, nationality, and religion and see them instead as just human beings.”

In January, while discussing the “Ground-Zero mosque” debate on her web series, CBS news anchor Katie Couric suggested that Muslims should create their own version of The Cosby Show because the program helped to improve the image of African Americans in the 1980s. While The Cosby Show was effective in combating major stereotypes about African Americans in the media, it negated major issues present within the Black community and simply defined the African American narrative as that of the suburban White narrative, “the norm.” Thus, questions of exactly how the American-Muslim identity should be presented in mainstream media arise. Will the immersion of Islam intomedia narratives diffuse certain aspects of the religion so that the “Muslim” narrative can be more relatable to broader audiences? Do Muslims need their own version of The Cosby Show in order to be accepted into American society? And will the assimilation of Muslim figures into movies and television programs really change the American perception of Islam? The following stories of various Muslim artists in the southern California area wrestle with some of these themes and attempt to answer these questions.

“Tired of this goddamn heat…Goddamn media. Same nonsense every day! Blame Islam. Blame Muslims. Blame immigrants for everything! Tired of the daily propaganda!”

(The Domestic Crusaders, Act I-scene III)

The Fake Gallery

February 12th, 2011-It’s 11:30pm and Hasan Minhaj has arrived in time for his second stand-up gig of the night at the dimly lit satire art gallery/quasi-comedy club on Melrose Avenue, The Fake Gallery. A stage has been set up at the center of the two-story building facing a mere four rows of chairs that are barely occupied. The black-draped walls are spotted with eccentric pieces of artwork one would be hard-pressed to find at the LACMA or Getty. The left-side wall is covered in large, juvenile paintings of brightly colored marine animals and birds, as well as an image of a dancing cartoon man with three penises. On the opposite side of the room hang large, blank squares in the formation of a color palette; browns, reds, greens, purples and pink shades all with curious names like “Brownversusboardofeducation,” “Red Coat,” “Pink Eye” and “Purple Nurple.”

“Now you know what a bad show looks like,” he states in starkcontrast to the routine gigs he secures at The Laugh Factory. Regardless, the room eludes an intimate feel; the audience members seem to know each other, as if they have convened at this venue on several Saturday nights. The owner of the gallery, Dan, rushes back and forth between the stage and the makeshift bar in the back, introducing the comedians onto stage. The comics are all inimitable characters, each branding a unique act and personality: The shaggy-haired hippie who reads lines off a notebook, the insecure girlfriend, and the rich Jewish kid from Beverly Hills, to name a few. Hasan is one of the last performers to take the stage. He has changed into a grey leather jacket of a less formal tone. He takes out his iphone and begins the set by playing a voicemail from one his stand-up friends ranting about a gig that she was denied. Nothing from this act resembles his earlier performance at the Cultural Center, in fact the explicit material about watching humans have sex with animals and selling crack cocaine would probably bar him from any Islamic institution for life. Stand-up comedians have to be able to read a crowd, Hasan explains later on. The same material that is performed for a Muslim audience would not be received well in an average, secular setting. Hasan doesn’t shy away from controversial topics or what would be Islamically inappropriate issues because, he explains, they are part of the human experience.

“I don’t want to brand myself as a ‘Muslim’ comedian,” says Hasan, “not because I am not proud of my heritage but because I want to be able to convey my universal truth and I want my comedy to be relatable to everybody.”

Hasan believes that the advancement of Islam in America depends on Muslims embedding themselves into mainstream society, rather than remaining isolated in their own ethnic enclaves. He admits that he has not always practiced Islam perfectly; he has dated girls in the past and he does use curse words, “so why not be myself in front of the audience?”

Whether he has categorized himself as a Muslim entertainer or not, others have certainly tried to place labels on Hasan, especially the Muslim community. He admits, at first, the people in his hometown of Davis, CA were not supportive of his career choice. Hasan has even received hate mail from Muslims that accuse him of committing “haram” or sinful acts, and depicting Islam incorrectly. But now, most Muslims have embraced Hasan’s humor with open arms, a sentiment that was apparent at the Culture show.

It is evident that perhaps the key to Hasan’s success is embedded in the versatility of his content. So, where does he get his inspiration from? For Hasan, it’s all about observation and dramatizing or satirizing real-world events. He will start from an organic premise, like a current event, news about a celebrity, or something he saw at the grocery store and then heighten it to a point where it’s crazy or wacky. Hasan’s facebook statuses often demonstrate this technique:

“In Libya hundreds have been shot dead in protests against Gaddafi's 42 year dictatorial regime, but it's important we realize Carmelo Anthony is going to the KNICKS! YEAH priorities.” Another post reads, “50 cent is coming out with his own line of headphones. Hopefully he uses them to hear how shitty his last album was.” Hasan emphasizes that not every joke he makes is based on his ethnic background and hopes that his humor reflect who he is as a person: “Everything I talk about is a lens through which I see the world.” Drawing from pop-culture, sports and world news allows the comedian’s humor to be relatable to the average American. By not simply limiting himself to a niche audience, i.e. the Muslim community; Hasan has achieved some of the most prestigious levels of standup comedy.

“Inshallah, my son will become the best of doctors-everyone will see and take notice.”

(The Domestic Crusaders, Act 1-scene V)

From Pre-Med to Stand-up

Born and raised in Davis CA, a predominantly well educated college town, Hasan Minhaj is the eldest of two children raised in a South Asian, immigrant household. As a child, he does not recall being the class clown but admits to being observant and opinionated. This type of personality is what gave Hasan the platform to pursue comedy.

“When I was in college, my friends used to say you always make stories sound more dramatic than they really are. But that’s exactly what stand-up is,” says Hasan.

As an undergraduate at UC Davis, the future entertainer was on the track towards medical school but soon discovered a passion for acting and comedy. He started making YouTube videos with friend and aspiring filmmaker, Imran Khan. “Thank Allah It’s Jumma,” “Who Wants to be an MSA President?” and a PSA spoof about jaywalking are some of the videos that went viral, inspiring Hasan to transfer to UCLA and complete a minor in dramatic arts. After watching a Chris Rock special called “Never Scared” and recognizing that so many people actually listened and respected the opinions of comedians, Hasan began thinking about a career in stand-up. As the funny Muslim videos started gathering a fan-base among young college students and within the Muslim community, Hasan started working at small comedy gigs and shows on the side.

“I did not realize how popular the YouTube videos were becoming,” reflects Hasan, “The Muslim community was finally being served a product that resonated with them. But I found that the videos were just serving that niche audience and I wanted to reach all types of people."

Hasan aspired to be like big-name comedians who are not categorized as “Black, Christain or Muslim,” they are simply entertainers that convey universal truths. Hasan began shedding the image he had created for himself as a “mosque super star” and began writing content that was just funny, irrespective of religious undertones. “I said to myself that being a successful comedian will inadvertently help me be a better Muslim comedian,” says Hasan, “and the best comedian I could be at the time was in San Francisco."

After graduation, Hasan moved to the city and juggled a day-job at a start-up company while working the 8-comedy club circuit at night. There, he climbed the ranks and ultimately became a regular performer, a big fish in a small pond. Hasan’s big break came a year after, when he competed in and won the 94.9FM Comedy Jam, a landmark achievement that truly solidified his career as a stand-up comic. However, working the San Francisco comedy scene while simultaneously balancing a full-time job was taking its toll. He needed a final push to take that ultimate leap of faith and truly pursue comedy full-time. In 2009, Hasan was encouraged to compete in the Standup for Diversity campaign sponsored by NBC, which was looking to showcase a diverse group of comedians on a 70-campus college tour for a whole year. On a whim, Hasan flew to Baltimore to audition in front of the network executives, slept in his car for the night and then flew back. He was invited to perform at the LA showcase and finalized the tour deal with NBC. It was financial security and a full-time stand-up job that propelled Hasan to move to Los Angeles and pursue a comedy career inthe big leagues.

Since then, Hasan has appeared on E!‘s ‘Chelsea Lately’ and is a regular correspondent on Yahoo!‘s ‘OMG the 411’. His debut album ‘Leaning on Expensive Cars and Getting Paid to Do It’ was released in February 2010. He is now working on a MTV reality show called “Disaster Date,” which is scheduled to air on March 14th, 2011.

“I won’t allow other people to create my expectations. And I won’t be a slave to others’ expectations of what I should or need to be.”

(The Domestic Crusaders, Act I-scene V)

The Rebel with a Camera

Sunday, February 13th, 2011-M. Hasna Maznavi moves around the suburban living room, which serves as the set for today’s shoot, with a purpose. Her long, black, curly locks sway back and forth as she prepares a Panasonic HD camcorder, ensuring the battery is charged, the memory cards are placed inside, and the camera mounts on the tripod at an even angle. She sports a grey, cotton long-sleeve shirt with a phrase that reads, “I’m so popular, I get stopped at airports.”

The crew, a group of about ten USC film students, work around each other to prepare the set. One individual is in charge of the sound system, while the camera operators, including Hasna, take care of the visual equipment, and others work on make-up, wardrobe, direction and script supervision. David Freedman, a petite, orange-haired man whose wearing a plain t-shirt and red shorts acts as the “show runner;” he calls all the shots.

As a camera operator, Hasna must ensure that she follows her assigned characters on screen while the production coordinators give commands from the large monitor behind the set. The scene involves a group of five movie reviewers who will be discussing, critiquing and commenting on the latest Hollywood release, “Gnomeo & Juliet.” The Ebert and Roeper-esque webisode series titled “Just Seen It” is the newest Freedman creation, one he hopes to be pitching to broadcast networks in the coming year.

“Just Seen It” is one of the multitudes of projects that M. Hasna Maznavi, a recent graduate of the USC Film and Television production program, is collaborating on. In addition to being a camera operator, Hasna has also guest reviewed

for the show twice. She is an aspiring screenwriter and a candidate for the Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship program and works regularly for fellow aspiring filmmaker Dugan O’Neal, whose works resonate an ethereal serenity of music and utilize unconventional filmmaking tactics to produce stylized products. All of these collaborations however, are on a volunteer basis. Hasna lives with her parents in Cerritos, CA and works part-time as an English tutor at various schools in Orange County. An adamant believer in pursuing dreams, Hasna attests that she won’t settle for a stable office job until she has exhausted every avenue of the industry.

Hasna is youngest of four children with a clear rebellious streak; her older brother is a financial analyst, her sister a lawyer and her third sibling a doctor- the holy trinity of professions. This drive to remain unbound and free of convention began in Hasna’s early adolescent life. A shaky start to high school however only propelled Hasna to improve her grades and behavior in the coming years, yielding her an acceptance to one of the top institutions in the country, UC Berkeley.

In college, Hasna pursued a dual degree in Mass Communications and Studio Art, but was unsure of what career she should undertake after graduation. After interning for the Council on American Islamic Relations, and realizing what a major impact the media plays in shaping peoples’ perceptions of religious and ethnic groups, Hasna flirted with the idea of studying film. All doubts were obliterated however on a fateful Friday, when at congregational prayers, the Khatib, or lecturer spoke about the need for more Muslims to take on professions in the media and entertainment industries.

“It was like everything at that moment clicked,” reflects Hasna, “and I realized that film is a medium that combines all my interests; arts, politics, writing, and so I applied to film school.”

Like Hasan Minhaj, Hasna, an American-born Muslim raised in a Sri Lankan household, aims not to simply create the Muslim superhero characters on the big screen rather, she hopes to tell “human stories, to represent Muslims as human beings, because when you try to sell Islam, even with the slightest hint, it really comes through as fake.”

The greatest challenge for Hasna has not been being Muslim in the film industry. In fact, she admits that often times her unique background and Muslim-American identity have given her an advantage, particularly when applying to film school and trying to get her stories told. She recalls that at USC, for every showcase during the year, any time a Muslim entry was submitted, it was almost always chosen to be made.

However, Hasna admits that there are some aspects of the industry that are not always compatible with her lifestyle and religious values. Hasna is a devout Muslim who abstains from alcohol. She recalls a time when this became an issue when she was offered a job to work as an assistant director on a Heineken music video. Although the video did not explicitly advertise the brand, it subliminally promoted alcohol consumption. Hasna decided to take the job because she did not play a creative role in the making of the video. “Whether you are on that set or not,” says Hasna, “videos like this will continue to be made but if you play a creative role in promoting this type of material, then that’s where I draw the line." Hasna acknowledges that there are a lot of challenges and drawbacks to being a Muslim film director but to avoid falling into the “Cat Stevens syndrome” of spending ten years in creative solitude, Hasna has set rules for herself: She will never ask an actor to do something that she would feel comfortable doing on screen. For example, Hasna says that she will not ask actors to kiss each other or perform sex scenes on screen because it is not something that she would feel comfortable asking others to do. "You can tell a story without necessarily showing physical contact", she explains, "and the stories I am interested in telling are compatible with Islam."

Other issues that Muslims face is debunking the various stereotypes that Hollywood has time and time again ascribed to Muslims. The problem with mainstream media is that it fails “to provide a range of Muslim characters. It doesn’t matter that there is a bad Muslim character, as long as there is another Muslim character that shows the range of the Muslim Identity,” explains Hasna, “Right now the image of Islam is monolithic, even though there is no such thing as one image of Islam.”

Hasna has already tried to dispel these sentiments in her works. During her time at USC, she wrote and directed an episode of Seinfeld for one of her production classes, but with an Islamic twist. All the characters were Muslim, including a Black, hijabi Elaine, an Iranian Kramer and an Arab George and Jerry, illustrating the wide diversity of Muslim-American culture. Other projects that Hasna has produced include a short film called “Forbidden Love,” an almost entirely silent video about a college student struggling to find a place to pray on campus. The protagonist is an unconventional Muslim girl with piercing on her lips and nose. She is invited to pray with a group of Muslims in the quad area of her campus but expresses discomfort at the thought of praying so publically and opts to find a more private location, failing at every attempt. Eventually, she resigns to praying at the initial location, but is joined by other Muslims who pray with her. Th

ese are just some of the narratives that Hasna hopes to be able to express. She says that Muslim artists need to be honest with themselves and about their flaws: “The more honest you can be without trying to be mainstream, the more potent your material will be.”

More interestingly, Hasna points out that Muslims themselves often propel the stereotypes of Muslims on TV and in films. For example, when the comedian Ahmed Ahmed was finally cast in a non-terrorist role on Ashton Kutcher’s reality show, Punk’d, the Muslim community back-lashed, complaining the he was on a “haram” show that placed Muslims in un-Islamic situations.

“These types of criticism are indicative that the larger Muslim community has lost the spirit of Islam,” offers the filmmaker, “We are so fixated on details and rituals, we have made Islam into an idol and we are reducing the religion to ‘haram’ and ‘halal,’ permissible and impermissible. When you define yourself by what you are not, that means that you do not know who you really are.”

Hasna concludes that Muslims limit themselves by putting insane amounts of pressure on people in the media, yielding significant amounts of setbacks for the Muslim-American narrative, “God will guide us if we have good intentions and if there are setbacks then we know we have done something wrong. In the end, any representation is better than none at all, we just have to go for it and deal with the consequences, whatever they may be.”

Reporting Notes:

Attendance at the MPAC Culture Show (2 hours)

Attendance at The Fake Gallery standup show (2 hours)

Attendance at the "Just Seen It" shoot (2 days)

Attendance at Hasna Maznavi's improv rehearsal (2.5 hours)

3-hour interview with M. Hasna Maznavi

2-hour interview with Hasan Minhaj

Informal interviews with representatives from MPAC and CAIR

Dugan Oneal’s videos: http://vimeo.com/10237021, http://vimeo.com/9811768

Hasna’s standup routine: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-OqEUYoPcI

Fact check: http://www.arcassociates.org/about.php

Fact check: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Secret-City-Comics-Society/148503458541504

Fact check: http://www.nationalcomedy.com/

Fact check: http://www.nickwriting.com/

Fact check: http://www.lfla.org/aloud/




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