What do you think when you hear the title Dirty Paki Lingerie? Perhaps a reality series about sexy belly dancers, or the Real Housewives of Islamabad? But this is not television, it's a solo show at the All for One Theater Festival in New York. Expecting to see an anti-immigrant screed? Unlikely: intolerant jerks do not often express themselves by writing solo shows for the stage. Plus the writer/performer's name is Aizzah Fatima.
What the audience gets is an hour long look into a culture worth getting to know; the world of Pakistani immigrant women. That old saw about "the more specific the writing is, the more universal it can become" comes to life on the stage of the Cherry Lane Theater, as Aizzah Fatima directs our attention to women looking for love in all the wrong Pakistani places.
There's the student praying to Allah for a top score on her MCAT's, then flustered by the dilemma such good news brings: she could probably get into Harvard, but what would that do to her relationship with her soon-to-be husband, who is in Law School in Chicago? There's the young independent woman exchanging texts with a boy she fancies, caught by surprise when the invitation to meet him in person comes with demeaning expectations of sex in an airplane restroom. There's the mother desperately trying to set up her daughter with a suitable husband, with comic results that are also deeply sad; the doctors and engineers want young women with pale skin, and poor Mrs. Shah is peddling a daughter in her 30's who does not look like a blonde supermodel.
Watching Ms. Fatima transform effortlessly from character to character, putting on, and taking off, the Muslim veil, I was reminded of my time teaching at the American University in Cairo, where I met two lively girls with the same name and two completely different attitudes about the West. They were both named Sherine, and in my mind I thought of them as Veiled Sherine and Unveiled Sherine. Unveiled Sherine was actually a bit dizzy; her interests went to fashion and fun. Veiled Sherine was sweet and likable, and much, much smarter. Veiled Sherine asked the serious questions. Unveiled Sherine only raised her hand to find out the date of the next exam. Veiled Sherine was devout, but hungry to understand Western ideas on religion and politics. The moral: never judge a Sherine by her veil.
Most Americans will never have a chance to meet either of my favorite Sherines, but they will, I hope, have a chance to meet Aizzah Fatima and her cast of characters. If they do, they will see a reflection of two things that should be familiar; the pull between the immigrant culture and the new country, and the struggle of women everywhere to balance independence with the desire for lasting love. These are specifically Pakistani, and also specifically American!
If your family is not descended from Native Americans, then your family came to the USA dragging their culture with them. My mother, who was born in 1912, was raised on a Nebraska farm in a family where her parents never learned to speak English. She spoke Polish at home, but at school the nuns enforced a strict "English only" discipline. When she was fourteen, she got dressed up for the first day of high school, only to be told by her parents that only boys were supposed to be educated. Polish girls were supposed to help their Polish mothers around the house, and then marry a Polish boy. Mom dodged every Polish farm boy that her brothers tried to marry her off to, and at age 29, snuck out of the house and ran away to the nearest big city, where she promptly fell in love with a non-Catholic, and a Swede to boot. Put her in a veil, and she'd be right at home in Dirty Paki Lingerie.
Here it is, 2012, and I am one generation removed from my mother's dilemma! Yet we pretend that American women always had choices, always had independence. We didn't even have the right to vote until 1920, and it took over fifty years of struggle to get the Constitution of the United States amended before we could participate in democracy. Here it is, 2012, and college educated women are still trying to decide between Harvard Medical School and some place closer to where their boyfriends live. No one would argue that women in any traditional culture do not have a tougher time than women in the West. But we third through seventh-generation Americans are kidding ourselves if we see a play such as Dirty Paki Lingerie and walk out of the theater feeling smug.
When we see something in the theater that takes us to another culture, we can only appreciate that work if somehow we find echoes of our own lives there. Otherwise, it is not theater, it is anthropology. Aizzah Fatima and her equally talented director Erica Gould are most definitely offering us a theatrical experience. Here's hoping Dirty Paki Lingerie will be coming soon to a theater near you.