BB, Is This Who You Are?

Mar 2013

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One character, however, proves so problematic that the scene casts a shadow over the show’s many successes. The character is 13-year-old Afshan, the daughter of that rehri driver, who has been sent to live in a madrassa. From her glazed expressions and by-rote tone, we are given to understand that she was brainwashed by the clerics into becoming a religious fanatic. She and the other madrassa students are encouraged to engage in “days of agitation.” One such day leads to their violent attack on “Kitty Kat Cocoa,” an establishment that, Afshan says, is a brothel. The assault is graphically enacted on stage, during which Afshan’s indifference to bloodshed is just as disturbing as the violence itself. Her scene ends with a shocking and bizarre revelation: she was sexually abused by her cleric, and the baby she then had was strapped with explosives as part of a failed attempt to assassinate BB earlier in October. The scene closes with Afshan suddenly pulling out a black “shuttlecock” burqa, slipping it on, and cradling the memory of her baby in her arms as the lights eerily dim behind her.

We’re aware of the realities on which this work of fiction is based. Such madrassas exist, and children educated in some of them endure abuse, neglect, and many are damaged beyond recognition as a result. But the task of the artist is to challenge us with the complexity of human beings, not further simplify the facts of their villainy. Afshan’s character lacks dimension; we see not an iota of her personhood. In the horrific violence she enacts upon the woman she simply calls “the whore,” she becomes a monster and is entirely dehumanized.

Moreover, it is an open question why this character is even relevant to a show about Benazir Bhutto. The show seems to propose that Benazir’s story is one of democracy versus fundamentalism, and Afshan perhaps represents the worst of Pakistan’s extremist decline. But, her inclusion also implies that nothing can be written or spoken about Pakistan without conjuring up an oppressed, veiled woman or a violent, fanatical Muslim. In Afshan, Khaja finds a two-for-one deal.

The play ends with the scene we’ve anticipated since the start: Anna Khaja as Benazir Bhutto. But, the moment she chooses to portray—BB alone, addressing her dead father, hours before the rally in which we know she will be killed—is surprisingly not evocative. This closing scene, so crucial to the arc of the piece, lacks the insight that can only come from raising new questions, not answering old ones with artificial neatness. Instead, Benazir kneels on her prayer mat and wails that she did not mean to be corrupt.

The scene suffers, of course, from the anti-climax of too much foreshadowing—we knew it was coming all along. But its flaws also relate to the broader shortcomings of the show, which never fully contemplates the fervent hope Benazir excited in a nation and her inability to live up to her promise as a person and as a politician. Anna Khaja raises a powerful and fascinating question, “BB, Is this who you are?” but unfortunately, the show doesn’t do it justice.

Roohi Choudhry holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan, and teaches memoir writing at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop in New York City. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Big Think, Hyphen, Bitch Magazine, Callaloo, and the anthology, 21 Under 40.

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