There was a small crowd gathered that afternoon and I stood between the people, tourists probably, and wondered how I might find Aasif Mandvi. I was there to interview him, sent by a magazine editor I’d pestered and pitched until she relented and agreed to give me a shot in exchange for a byline. I was wearing a puffy jacket from T.J. Maxx and sneakers with the soles worn down and I remember feeling like a kid, like a fake and, at the time, I was very much both of those things.
Jon Stewart has recently hired Mandvi as the Daily Show‘s ‘Senior Brown Correspondent’ and when I met Mandvi that day, he was having lunch at a picnic table near some trailers, and that’s the first thing I asked him about. How did you get the job, I said, and he talked about the audition, how Stewart hired him on the spot, then asked whether Mandvi could make rehearsal later that day. Baptism by fire, was how Mandvi described it, and then we began talking about this idea generally, about how we all had, in some sense, Muslims, South Asians been baptized by the fires of 9-11, roasted in an oven of endless aftermath.
There was another guy at the table, Joseph Anton, Lebanese American, and he was the one who brought up typecasting. It’s a problem, he told me, how the white guy always gets the girl, how everyone else on screen is made of cardboard.
Initially, I’m not sure I fully understood the concern: the scope and depth of the problem. I was dismissive. I didn’t want to talk about getting the girl. I wanted to talk about hate, about what had happened to our communities, what was still happening to them. I wanted to talk about torched Gurdwaras and Guantanamo; about the Patriot Act.
I had just spent the last four years writing a dissertation, partly, on hate crimes and this work was in my system, pushing my blood around. I was on edge, peering down into some pit of anxiety and roil: hair trigger, shell-shocked, always ready for battle.
The magazine was meant for South Asian women. My editor was ambitious, smart: a Pakistani American journalism grad with a fire in her belly. But in the magazine, we weren’t too political. We were practical. Privately though, we talked. And in solitary moments of honest reckoning, I was clear with myself too, about what I was doing.
I was hunting, looking for people with whom I shared something I thought was primal, core: looking for Muslims, for brown people, for immigrants like me. People in the public eye. I searched them out, met them so I might have a chance to pry them open. I wanted to see something inside and be reassured by it. I wanted a promise, wanted these actors and musicians and artists and politicians to save us, to save me. I wanted a rewrite on this shitty, incomplete story we’d all been handed.
No one I’d interviewed so far was angry enough, political enough. People were being gunned down on the street by strangers, guilty only of wearing a turban, but who was talking about it, really? Who would stop it from happening again?
* * *
After lunch, Mandvi got up from the picnic table. Come on, he said. I want to show you something and so we walked to his place. It wasn’t far, a block or something, and on the wall there was a framed photograph.
The photo was of him with someone famous, I wish I could find my notes. Someone Famous had very much enjoyed the production of Mandvi’s play, “Sakina’s Restaurant.” Mandvi had written the play in the late nineties. It was about Hakim and Farrida, an Indian couple, how they move to New York, open a restaurant, have kids. It’s a play about the immigrant experience, Mandvi said simply.
When I filed the piece, the blurb about “Sakina’s Restaurant” became a sidebar, nothing focal. Mandvi had written it pre-September 11 and so, in my mind, it didn’t really matter anymore. The game had changed. The experience of being a Muslim immigrant was very different now. Now we were at war.
* * *
I’m in New York. It’s 2018 and it’s an October weekend. I’ve long moved away from these parts but I’m here, visiting old haunts, a new person. Everything is familiar and alien at the same time, every experience surreal. I walk and walk and the entire city passes through me, block by block, street by street: places I maybe once knew, or maybe not; places I feel deeply, but will never be allowed to hold.
I’m standing in a narrow back alleyway in the Village, sloping cobblestone. Everything smells like beer and puddling urine and there are college kids on cell phones at each turn. I don’t know how I got here; what, or who, exactly I’m even looking for. Chasing ghosts. This city changes underground, above it too, shapes shifting, one street feeding into the next and I can’t know where it has led me. Minetta Lane, it says on a sign, and I don’t think I’ve ever been here before. I’m surprised to find a theater, even more surprised to see the matinee today is a one-man-show with a limited, four-week run. It’s this week’s New York Times Critic’s Pick.
I ask the lady behind the glass when the next showing is, and she tells me eight minutes. She has a row F, seat 106. It’s a great seat, ninety-nine dollars flat.
Ninety-nine dollars flat is too much for me so I leave, go to a cafe across the street, but something pulls me in again and I find myself weirdly racing back with a cup of coffee, three minutes to go.
What’s the cheapest? I ask the lady. Stick me in the back, I don’t care.
She says she’ll give me that same seat for fifty-nine dollars and change.
* * *
It’s been eleven years since the Drew Barrymore movie set but Aasif Mandvi doesn’t look that different to me. He appears suddenly, an apparition on my right, spotlit, a tan leather suitcase in hand. He’s just arrived in America. He’s on his way up the stage-stairs, en route to Sakina’s Restaurant.
He plays all the characters. The story turns out to be about family and duty and love; about the illusion of the American Dream giving way to the reality of the American immigrant-experience. The American nightmare.
I watch intently, best seat in the house. Why am I here today? I’ve wandered into this play, twenty years after Mandvi wrote it. If the original Muslim immigrants in the story had been real, maybe they would have been on a government watchlist by now, or would’ve been deported. Maybe they’d be living in a Boca Raton retirement community. Maybe they would be dead.
A lot can happen in all that time. In our case, it’s been a lot of war, a lot of surveillance. The world has not been fixed. Neither has this country, and the rifts between parties and peoples and ways of being might be as wide as they’ve ever been.
I’m different now, too. When I look at pictures of myself back then, eleven years ago, I marvel at my seriousness. I’m rarely smiling, first of all, which is dumb because I have so much to be smiling about: people who love me; champion glutes. Back then I was a young woman who marched and stormed and chanted. I participated in direct-action protests and guilt-bullied those who didn’t, like: How could you not be doing the things I’m doing? How, given everything? I was angry and righteous and thought being those things would help me change the world.
* * *
I am a giant tandoori chicken wearing an Armani suit. I am sitting behind the wheel of a speeding Cadillac. I have no eyes to see, no mouth to speak, and I don’t know where I am going.
Of all the lines in Mandvi’s play, this is the one that gets me, tightens something in my throat. I think the giant chicken is me. Maybe it’s all of us, racing blindly, stripped of power and direction and sense in this new America, going a hundred miles an hour who even knows where, trying to steer something we just can’t.
When the play ends, I decide the story is about the traumas, the strange moments of disembodiment that come with being an immigrant. It’s about cultural dislocation, about the ways we assimilate or don’t. It’s an exercise in decentralization, a way to show: This is what it can look like, being brown, being Muslim, being an Indian immigrant. It can look like her and her and him and the stories of these people can be in conversation with each other directly, independent of those outside our communities giving meaning to the stories. Independent of them deciding whether or not our stories have value, of them deciding who gets the girl in the end.
When the lights come on, everyone shuffles out, but I don’t and neither does the auntie sitting beside me. She is slight, frail, old, alone here. Her face is small, her eyes big and dark. I can tell she’s waiting for me to look at her.
“Back to a world before 9-11,” she says. “Remember that world?”
I do. I remember it, but I can also now see how futile it is to chase after something that’s gone, to chase ghosts. And if I could go back to that picnic table, back to Mandvi and Anton sitting around on set, I’d ask them to tell me about getting the girl. It matters that you don’t get her, I’d say. I’m sorry if I made you feel like it didn’t.
“I’m going to take a picture of the stage,” Auntie says to me, conspiring. “I want to remember,” but an usher appears out of nowhere, pink skin, lips painted red, light hair scraped high into a bun, and tells her no, tells her blunt and loud. A bully.
A lot has happened since 9-11. The world is different, I’m different, too. Less righteous fist pumping, more headless tandoori chicken on the Turnpike. A crisis in faith.
I’ve come to see that the chanting and marching are important, but it’s important to gather people in other ways, too; to circle and sit and tell the stories that aren’t told enough, to share the stories, to repeat and broadcast them, that they might strengthen. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s this work that matters most of all. Square-one work. The stories are what soften people, after all: open hearts so that it might be possible to think and see differently, so that we might find the fire to march at all.
“Auntie, here,” I say. “Let me do it. Give me your phone.”
I make sure to get everything. I photograph the insides of Sakina’s Restaurant, the kitschy string lights, the Taj Mahal wall art, all deeply familiar. Inside my head, I dare the usher to come get me. I feel a great charge at imagining what I’d do if she says something, anything at all. Old habits die hard, I guess. I take picture after picture after picture. I will make sure Auntie remembers everything.
* * *
Hilal Isler is an editor with Muslim Women Speak. Sakina’s Restaurant finishes it’s run at the Minetta Lane Theatre on November 11.