We already know too well the predominant view of Islam in the United States as a monolithic, menacing Middle Eastern religion. The perception dates back at least to the 9/11 attacks. And it is fundamentally, factually wrong.
The latest numbers from the Pew Research Center show that more than 60 percent of the world's Muslims live in Asia, while less than a fifth are found in the Middle East. Scattered across Western and Central Africa and Western and Southeast Asia are various strikingly diverse cultures that, taken together, represent much more of Islam than the smaller part of the world we've come to associate with it. But since they're not considered a threat, most of them remain virtually invisible in the U.S.
Emil Kang, executive director of Carolina Performing Arts, thought he should do something about that. After having conversations with UNC professor Carl W. Ernst, a scholar on Muslim civilizations, and trips to Indonesia, Iran, Senegal, and Pakistan, Kang devised Sacred/Secular: A Sufi Journey, a yearlong festival running through Carolina Performing Arts's season that reflects the religious and cultural influences of a broad spectrum of modern-day art from Muslim-majority countries outside the Arab world.
The series began earlier this month with a concert by Hossein Alizadeh, an Iranian scholar who devises new instruments to interpret ancient Persian music. It continues this week with a staged reading of The Hour of Feeling, the first in a trilogy of plays by Mona Mansour about the diaspora that resulted from the Six Day War.
In October, Memorial Hall will host Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour in an evening of Sufi songs with musicians from three of that faith's main orders in his country. In February, Philip Glass's ensemble will perform his settings of the poems of Rumi, the thirteenth-century Sufi mystic. And over the next seven months, fourteen other artists and groups will probe the plurality of Muslim identity and trace the evolution of divergent cultural and artistic traditions.
Kang reflects on the space between two Javanese artists, contemporary shadow puppeteer Eko Nugroho and Nani, a seventh-generation keeper of the topeng losari tradition of mask dance. "When we look at topeng, we don't see Islam in a way we know how to see it," Kang says. "But it's there; it is intermingled with local cultural traditions so strong that its own practitioners don't know where one stops and the other begins."
Kang's point is that while the sacred and the secular are frequently viewed, in Western thought, as a dichotomy of conflict, the borders between the two are either blurred or unreadable in a number of Muslim cultures. Often, what lies within one sphere or the other is open to interpretation.
Thus, Sufism, which emphasizes interiority, mysticism, and communion, produces voices as varied as the ancient tunes of Alizadeh and the rock- and R&B-influenced songs of Sanam Marvi. It can be seen in images as diverse as performance artist Sussan Deyhim's multimedia homage to Iranian filmmaker, feminist, and poet Forough Farrokhzad and Ajoka Theatre's production of Dara, a classical play detailing a crucial turning point for the faith in the seventeenth century. It's found everywhere from ancient mask dance to Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's new commission for the Martha Graham Dance Company.
"There are polar differences in identity," Kang notes about his guests this season. "Everyone doesn't look the same; their practices are not the same. They're different, just as people of other faiths are different."
When Kang asked PlayMakers Repertory Company to coproduce two staged readings in Sacred/Secular, the theater company's artistic director, Vivienne Benesch, selected works that focus on different aspects of the Muslim diaspora: this week's production of Mona Mansour's The Hour of Feeling and a February reading of The Who & the What by Ayad Akhtar, author of Disgraced, the controversial Pulitzer-winning drama that PlayMakers produced last fall. Benesch intends her selections to help "crack open" the complexity of an often stereotyped culture.
"Both plays look at different Muslim identities, and the real poles between cultural and religious heritages and the demands of living in the contemporary world," Benesch says. "Other art forms can give us insight and an emotional response, but theater lets us in. It lets us personalize, make immediate, and access the experience of living with a Muslim identity."
In The Hour of Feeling, the Six Day War erupts while a Palestinian scholar delivers his first major paper at an academic conference in England. He and his new bride are caught in an emotional and intellectual tug-of-war as they debate remaining in the UK versus returning to a home that is now in a battle zone.
"There's the pull of the Western world, of acculturation and assimilation, and the pull of loyalty to family," says PlayMakers associate artistic director Jerry Ruiz, who will direct the reading. "There's also the richness of the culture they're potentially leaving behind."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Muslims Without Borders"