The cast remerged on stage holding bright yellow candles in the dark auditorium and surrounded the girl wearing a snow white headscarf as a recording of a poem by the great spiritual Sufi figure Rumi played in the background: “Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
Priyanka Srinivasa, an anthropology student at American University (AU), stepped off the stage after rehearsal, took a deep breath and began doing vocal exercises to prepare for her role as lead actress in the production “Noor,” debuting Sept. 14 and running through the weekend at the Katzen Arts Center at American University.
Noor, the Arabic word for “light,” is a two-act play written by AU professor and former ambassador, Akbar Ahmed, and directed by Smithsonian program manager Manjula Kumar. It highlights the nuances of Islam and warfare in the Muslim world through the interactions of eclectic family members.
The play sheds light on the struggles of a family who attempt to keep themselves and their faith intact while dealing with corrupt bureaucrats and a system seemingly imploding on itself.
Abdullah, Daoud and Ali are three brothers who react differently to the abduction by unknown insurgents of their younger, outspoken sister, Noor. Each brother embodies different strands of Islamic thought: literalism, modernism and Sufism.
While the oldest, Abdullah, turns to spiritual empowerment and rituals, his antithesis, Daoud, paces up and down the stage spouting anti-Western sentiments and plotting revenge in order to restore the family’s honor. Meanwhile, Ali, a lawyer and strong believer in the system, attempts to petition the government for his sister’s release.
The set of “Noor” is comprised of three wooden black benches placed in the center of the stage, and one side table, meant to depict a very minimalist aura, reminiscent to the Sufi lifestyle.
While the cast is primarily comprised of South Asian journalists, students, diplomats and even U.S. government officials of various age groups, residing between DC and Europe, the setting of the play is unknown to the audience. “This family could be found in Kabul, Karachi, Baghdad or Damascus, in any urban center,” Kumar said.
“This play is not meant to act as a clash of civilizations, but rather as a dialogue of civilizations, based on compassion and understanding of those not like us,” she said.
Daoud’s character is perhaps the most multifaceted of the brothers. While on the surface he is angry and incessantly spews hate speech, his role as a doctor who treats rape victims is not discounted by the viewers; they tear, gasp and sigh at his recollections.
“I don’t think I could do the character justice if I did not sympathize even a little with Daoud, although his ideas may not be in line with my personal beliefs,” said 40-year-old actor Sridhar Mirajkar.
“Daoud is exposed to injustices every day, and when it finally hits home, he feels like he needs to protect his own sister, and the honor of his family. Daoud feels like not doing anything is enabling injustices,” he said.
Mirajkar’s younger son and wife, Yashwat and Nalini, are also in the play, donning black ski masks while taking on the equally hostile roles of Soldier 3 and Soldier 4.
The play has been performed in a number of venues with the purpose of building bridges between communities. It premiered in Theater J in Washington, D.C., where it was directed by Ari Roth.
Last year director Peter Friedrich produced “Noor” at the American University of Iraq- Sulaimani. After the production, a young Kurd from Northern Iraq named Mahdi Muraq sent Ambassador Ahmed a letter to convey his sentiments. In his note, which is published on the last page of Ambassador Ahmed’s book “The Thistle and The Drone,” Mahdi expressed gratitude and explained how the play mended the hearts of the Iraqi people:
“As I am writing you this e-mail, my eyes are full of tears…if you could have seen the audience, you would have known that almost everyone lost someone very close to them in a war. I say a war because there have been many of them since the day we were born. However, none of us have had the opportunity to cry for the people we have lost. We, Kurds and Arabs in the ‘Noor’ cast, are joining hands together to shed the light of the life of every single person of our country. We gather together to shed our last years to the sad events our people have experienced so far. We, the cast, stood together, as Kurds and Arabs, to cry for the innocent sons and daughters we lost. But it would be selfish to do just that. We also cried for the soldiers, on all sides, who gave their lives. We also cried out against corrupt politicians and greedy businessmen, to cry out a warning to everyone who thought someone was evil just because they spoke Kurdish or Arabic or English. We cried for all these thing, but most of all, we cried for every Noor in every home, wherever she was.”
Kumar emphasized a similar vision for her production— explaining the that with each performance, the ultimate message of Noor is on display — “the Sufi saying suhl-i-kul, or ‘peace with all.’ ”
“This play shall show Noor, or light; a light guiding us to friendship and brotherhood, irrespective of sect, faith or borders,” Kumar said.