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Of Dramas Big and Small in the USA Today: From ISIS to Islamophobia to the Solar Eclipse

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Photo by Fibonacci Blue | CC BY 2.0

All of last week I was in the windy city –Chicago– to see rehearsals of my play, Jihad Against Violence: Oh ISIS Up Yours! as it was being readied for a weekend-long staged reading at the fabulous Silk Road Rising Theatre Company. This is a theatre company whose mission is to introduce plays and playwrights from the Silk Road region spanning east/Southeast Asia, through the MENA region and up to the shores of Bella Italia, to American audiences, and the company has won many awards and honors for their pioneering work including induction into Chicago’s  LGBT Hall of Fame a few years ago.

SRR was founded by life partners Jamil Khoury, a Syrian American, and Mallik Jillani, an American of Pakistani heritage 15 years ago, and its mission has never been as important as it is in these challenging times in the USA and around the world when the twin evils of Islamophobia and racism are running amok everywhere. Islamism too is a threat to the values of peace and tolerance and indeed, my own play of ideas satirizes all these intertwined ideologies that are in turn, fueled by systems of patriarchal, capitalist, imperialist domination.

Given the nastiness around us these days– witness the horror that unfolded in Charlottesville the previous week-it felt so meaningful and uplifting in dark times to be in this artistic space where, as Jamil and Malik remind audiences through the work they promote, that “an enemy is only someone whose story you don’t know, s/he is someone whose voice you haven’t yet listened to.”

On a personal note (which is also a political one, for as we feminists know from experience, the personal is always political and vice versa)–I have recently been the recipient of  discrimination at the university I’ve taught for 30 years, a casualty of the right wing hate that is targeting communities of color, including progressive faculty at institutions of Higher Ed in the country of late (read about some of these disturbing incidents here.

You can read about my own case here.

Unlike many people who shut up and put up in the face of threats and intimidation for fear of losing their jobs or because they are afraid of being targeted in other ways, I have always believed in fighting and resisting all forms of injustice, whether directed at me or others. That is why, when I was informed by my Dean, Robert Friedman, that in the wake of the right wing furor over the hiring of an adjunct named Kevin Allred, I was to be fired from my role as Director of the program (of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies) in which Allred was to teach starting this coming Fall, I was astounded but knew I had to fight back (obviously, being a tenured, Full Professor meant I could expose the injustice without fearing the loss of a job).

Notwithstanding Mr Allred’s right to freedom of speech which allows him to post comments on social media, I had in actuality, nothing to do with his hiring or subsequent firing. He had been hired by my predecessor, a white woman named Julie Farnum. If the Administration felt a need to “punish” anyone for hiring someone (Allred), who posted  on social media about the right wing take-over of our country, USA, including posing the rhetorical question, “why doesn’t someone just shoot Trump outright”—it should have been her they reprimanded for not doing a proper background check on this man. I should add that I am NOT advocating such punitive actions against her or anyone else, NOR do I agree with Mr Allred’s inappropriate postings much as I dislike Trump and his racist, right wing, Islamophobic administration. I am simply drawing attention to the fact that I was fired for NO ostensible reason at all, given that I had not only done nothing wrong here, but had been re-elected by my faculty to a third term to lead our Program back in April this year, as everyone appreciated my hard work in growing and strengthening the Program over the two consecutive terms I’d directed it in past years (from 2009-2011, then again from  2011-2015 after which Prof Farnum stepped into the role, but decided she couldn’t complete her term, and thence the new elections when I was voted in as Director for a third term from 2017-2020).

“Explanations” I was given by my Dean as well as the Provost of the university for being fired from a leadership position I was elected to by my faculty, were so ridiculous as to be insulting to anyone’s intelligence who has half a brain. Prefacing their comments with “You did nothing wrong” and “We are so grateful for everything you’ve done for this university” and “under your leadership we know how well the Program has done” etc etc—both these white male eminences grises then went on to tell me that It was really the (white) female President of the university who may just “dislike” me (??!)—as she had (supposedly) told them both back when the elections had taken place in April , “That woman (me)–should never serve as Director of GSWS again”. Why? Neither the Dean nor the Provost could say. At most the Provost said to me, “well, we just think it would be best to have someone else lead the program and maybe give it a different direction.” Assuming such canard to be the case—why wait to tell me I was being dismissed from the position three weeks prior to the Fall term starting, which now meant I also had to take up an extra course to teach—knowing full well I had been working (without recompense) all summer to get the Program up and running and ready for the new academic year? Neither of them had anything to say when I told them that I found it hard to believe that my “firing” at the exact time that the Kevin Allred story was breaking in the press was simply a coincidence. “I’m not an idiot” I told them, “this has Islamophobia written all over it.”

I believe strongly that my “firing” was in response to the Islamophobic rant sent to the President, Provost and Dean of my university by right wing columnist James Merse (who writes for a rag called the Daily Caller in NJ)—and on which he also copied me. In this email he threatened the university, claiming he and his “cohort” of right-wing supporters would have marched in protest onto the campus had the admin not fired Allred! He kept asking in that email “how did Allred’s hire slip through the cracks” (he had previously stated such things publicly)-and since I was the new Director in charge of the Program at this time, the question was obviously pointed at me. Now all the administrators knew I had had nothing to do with hiring this Allred guy—so why remove me then? It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that these right wing nuts like Merse knew of my public writings exposing their outfits and the individuals that head them and that right now in the US, these scary folks are exercising their financial and political clout to pressurize university administrators to fire or otherwise silence voices like mine who are anathema to them. See my article several years ago published in Counterpunch here, which exposes these type of people and organizations.

In such an increasingly hostile atmosphere, it was a godsend to be a playwright in residence in Chicago at the Silk Road Theatre, connecting with audiences and actors and my wonderful white male director George Potter, who is committed to challenging the privilege of his race and gender position in concrete ways–a step that needs to be taken widely by white folks if the current racism of white supremacist ideology is to be halted and reversed, a vile ideology that has birthed the virus of Islamophobia sweeping through the West at large today.

So it was further reaffirming to travel with tens of hundreds of folk from Chicago, boarding the Solar Eclipse Express train at 3 am on Monday the 21st of August 2017, bound in our collective journey to experience something magical at the point where the total eclipse was to last a full 2 and half minutes in the heart of rural Carbondale, Illinois.

There were TV crews waiting for us bleary-eyed travelers at Chicago’s Union Station at that unearthly hour of the early morn, and station staff greeting us chirpily (yes, even at 2 in the morning!)—handing out goodie bags with our solar glasses (a must to use when looking at the sun or else risk blindness by its powerful rays)—and I ended up sitting next to a young twenty-something man from Chicago who I got to spend the day with, and was so reaffirmed in my faith in our essential humanity when I saw how this young white guy from a poor rural background in the Midwest was questioning ignorance and the hate-filled “othering” of those who didn’t look like him that is being promoted by the powers in ascendance today. Our trainload of passengers were mostly white folks like him, and after 5 hours we all arrived at Carbondale, home of Southern Illinois University which is where everyone headed to hang out till the eclipse was due to commence around noon. That whole day I saw only a handful of black folks, and so imagine my surprise when standing in line for some ice cream at a vendor stand, I heard a man speaking to his sons right behind me in Urdu! I turned to greet him and found out he and his family were tourists visiting America for the first time, and had been in Chicago when they realized the total eclipse was to occur in this town about 300 miles south…so like me, they bought tickets for the train and headed down for this once-in-a-lifetime experience—and somehow, at the right moment, our paths crossed to remind me of the magic of six degrees of separation….

Trying to escape the 104% heat outside, Doug and I made our way to the SIU planetarium to cool off indoors, and there sitting in the bleachers, heard a wonderful slide lecture by an anthropology professor on Teotihuacan /Mayan /Mezoamerican history and culture. The ancient Mayans had had special reverence for the sun, and had come up with elaborate eclipse tablets known as the Dresden Codex, the Paris Codex etc to help humans understand the movement of the Sun and to elaborate their own theories of the forces of creation and destruction in our world.

The professor also mentioned the Mayan Book of Ethics to encourage all those gathered for this historic event of the total eclipse to try and think about the world and our moral duty in it as the Mayans did, and to approach this shared moment we were all gathered here together to experience, as a moment of reflection, a moment to “reset the clock” as it were. On a large screen behind him, the professor projected photographs of Mesoamerican descendants living and practicing their ancient rituals in Miami today, explaining how they have fled oppressive regimes and come to the USA to contribute as citizens to the greater good. “These people are not drug dealers or rapists” concluded the young professor, to roaring applause from the several thousand people gathered there in the planetarium. Hear that, Donald Trump!

Outside, folks had spread their blankets and chairs and telescopes and fancy cameras throughout the huge campus grounds, and as the noon hour approached there was a visible, visceral excitement that started rippling through the various groups gathered in pockets all around. Young and old, (mostly) white but also (some) black and brown faces all turned upward with their special viewing glasses to gaze at the sun as it started to go into eclipse. The first “bite” taken out of its top right hand corner fetched gasps and “oh man, that’s so cool!” comments. Two women who’d driven 10 hours all the way from Cincinnati, shared their special binoculars with Doug and me…and THAT was gasp-worthy! Over the next hour, as we alternated between trying to grab some shade under the trees and looking up at the mighty disk of the sun getting its orb chewed up slowly, slowly, till only a sliver was left visible to the eye (sort of like the moon at Eid-al-Fitr)—we also worried at the approach of the dark clouds that threatened to cover the sun just at the crucial moment of totality. Meanwhile, as the atmosphere grew darker with the sun going into total eclipse, the temperature started to drop, birds began to circle in the sky. Then, just as the announcer (yes they had one, who sounded pretty creepy like something out of a sci-fi film announcing the landing of Martians on Earth!)—announced that totality had begun—black clouds covered the sun! The crowds went quiet—the hush was amazing, total. Everyone was praying in their own way, please, please, let the clouds roll away, let the eclipse be seen in all its strange glory.

Lo and behold! In the final minute of the total eclipse (it lasted two and a half minutes)—the clouds did our prayers’ bidding and vanished, exposing the most extraordinary sight. The entire orb of the sun was covered by the black disk of the moon—save a ring of fire around the circumference which the moon, being the smaller celestial body, couldn’t entirely cover. The two women from Cincinnati—one of whom was an astronomy buff—excitedly told me to look over to the right corner of the sky, where Venus was in full, glorious view. The planet stood engulfed in the darkness of a late twilight zone—and all we could hear after the approving roar went up in a collective delight by a waiting crowd—were the cicadas, making their presence known loudly, clearly, as creatures heralding the oncoming night. A cool breeze blew, drying our sweat. The world felt becalmed, unified.

The moment passed, ofcourse, as all moments do—but while it lasted, it reaffirmed my own faith that profound change can occur in an instant. Sometimes, the world needs the calm of night to feel together as one, a cooling, soothing dark blanket in the midst of an enflamed, enraged hot day; sometimes we need blackness to help us see beyond the superficial whiteness of day into the big beautiful, dark, beyond.

Our moment is coming. Hold on…..

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Fawzia Afzal-Khan holds a Phd in English from Tufts University, is University Distinguished Scholar at Montclair State University in NJ, and currently a Visiting Professor of the Arts at New York University in Abu Dhabi. She can be reached at:  fak0912@yahoo.com

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