On Sept. 11, 2001, Maha Syed, then a young student on Long Island, happened to wear a T-shirt with a printed image of the World Trade Center to school. In the fear that grew throughout the day, following the news of planes flying into the Twin Towers, she panicked, covering the coincidental top with a gym shirt.
That evening, when a candlelight vigil took place on her street, she told her mother: “We are the only Muslim family on this street, we have to show our loyalty.”
Miles away, in Greenville, SC, Kadin Herring watched the towers fall on television. Next to him, his father, who had converted to follow in the footsteps of Malcolm X, said, “As a Muslim, things are going to change from now on.”
In the years that followed the attacks, perpetrated by 19 Islamist terrorists, Amir Khafagy, a self-described “Arab-Rican from Jackson Heights, Queens,” heard ignorant remarks from his Catholic relatives about Muslims. He wanted to say they’re wrong.
“But I can’t,” he said. “I just feel bad inside.”
“Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity,” a performance bridging memoir and theater, initially seems like it looks to blow the hinges off doors some Americans may have kept closed to conversations about Islam since 9/11.
But looking to instead invite audiences to cross-examine what it means to be Muslim in today’s society, the performance, at the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center in Long Island City, doesn’t aim to rattle. It beckons audience members into the worlds of the five 20-somethings, who simply tell stories on the vulnerable stage space.
The cast is fascinating in its diversity. Alongside Syed, Herring and Khafagy, Tiffany Yasmin Abdelghani, who converted to Islam as a young adult and now wears a hijab, and Ferdous Dehqan, a native of Afghanistan who recounts unnerving instances of violence there, also share.
Discussions cover the entire breadth of emotion, sometimes hovering over sweeter memories of family and faith, but also pivoting to more exasperating territory, particularly when remembering ignorance, prejudice or harassment.
“The script is crafted chronologically and sort of interweaves their stories with political history,” said co-writer Sara Zatz, a Jackson Heights resident. “Just having a shared religion doesn’t mean you have a shared experience.”
Zatz added that it was a “happy accident” that those selected happened to all together elucidate what it meant to be Muslim in the past decade.
The project, months in the making, is also the latest in a two decades-long storytelling series crafted by Ping Chong + Company called “Undesirable Elements.” The producers gather real people with intriguing stories, interview them, and form a script. It’s a fresh inspection of the human experience.
“I was interested in giving voice, creating a space for people who were not the majority culture to empower them to speak,” Chong said of the work.
Past shows spotlighted teens who endured war and survivors of sexual abuse.
At LaGuardia Community College, the performance is the culmination of a months-long effort to explore Muslim identity through theater, dance and music. The school was one of six nationwide that received grants to do so.
But the presentation reflects the simple aim to tell stories: five chairs, microphones and scripts are set against a screen, upon which maps and captions flickered.
The effect is arresting. The lives of the instantly intriguing cast members bloom in new permutations, harnessing pathos in a way that may provoke new perspectives that stick even after leaving the theater, but don’t render the show too saccharine.
Some elements might grate on nerves, such as the cast’s repetition of phrases and claps, which effectively signify new beats in the narrative but may distract and overamplify the drama.
But the overall work is spellbinding, even for the actors, it seemed.
“It was also a journey into my own family history,” Khafagy said.