A Liberal’s Martyr

Mar 2013

A Liberal's Martyr | Hamzah Saif

  • Review of Shaheed: The Dream and Death of Benazir Bhutto
  • Written and performed by Anna Khaja.
  • Directed by Heather de Michele
  • Produced by Women Center Stage, The Culture Project, New York City

(Read Roohi Choudhry’s review here.)

A sad ailment afflicts contemporary American art that aspires to a progressive portrayal of the world beyond its borders: it is frequently stricken by unexamined, clichéd, liberal populism. Bold dissent is a rare find and, Shaheed too, unfortunately, ails from this malady.

As I sat awaiting the performance to commence, an old song played, acutely auguring its motif.

Saat samandar paar gaya tu,

Hum ko zinda maar gaya tu…

Khoon ke rishte torh gaya tu

Aankh mein aansu chorh gaya tu

It is a nation in love, serenading a flawless beloved. Shaheed’s protagonist, Benazir Bhutto, however, arrives damaged and flawed: human.

One is tempted to laud this as a judicious and sensitive portrayal of a woman caricatured by the United States and its so-called “war on terror” allies as a demigod of Pakistan’s democratic salvation. But, such approbation would require willful inattention to the thrust of the performance, one that denies such sensitivity to the play’s many other characters, among them a rehri driver (street cart vendor), a professor, and a young, female madrassa student.

This cast, instead, cleaves closely to easy stereotypes in order to design a story familiar to American liberals. Although they reject unsubtle, conservative caricatures of Pakistan as a jihadi haven, they still often fail to interrogate their own biases about the country, particularly the uncritical demonization of Islamic clerics and madrassas, and the equally unexamined support for those Pakistani women determined by western audiences as ‘liberal’ and ‘feminist.’

Consonant with such sensibilities, Shaheed is attentive to caricatures of Pakistanis that would find condemnation on the liberal American news channel, MSNBC. Indeed, in the play’s introductory act, Sara, an American with Pakistani heritage, remarks, “It is as if being half-Pakistani is the same as being half-terrorist.” Similarly, Quasim, a pedantic New England professor giddily describes his joy in exposing the Islamophobia of his students. Familiar, almost didactic, distinctions between the lesser and greater jihad follow.

Applause-worthy thus far, Shaheed’s progressivism, unfortunately, stops here. Read on >>

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One Response to A Liberal’s Martyr

  1. A Liberal’s Martyr | سفرنامه on Apr 2013 at 9:41 AM

    […] this article is available in Issue III, Solidarity Politics, of Tanqeed.  I highly recommend it as an excellent source of […]

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