Features, News, Performing arts, Theatre

A sweet metaphor for the many ways to be Muslim

In their first production since 2015’s vivid chronicles of young queer Muslims Once We Were Kings, Third Culture Kids are back with a festive “living room dramedy” about the world of three migrant Muslim sisters.

Named for the sweet cordial beloved in many countries, SHARBAT is shaping up to be an earnest blend of the personal and the universal, mixed in with a good sprinkling of brown youth realness.

Patrick Gunasekera sat down with the show’s writer and performer Doreshawar Khan to discuss the good Muslim/bad Muslim rift, Khan’s dreams for brown youth theatre in Perth, Rami Malek, family, white supremacy, and so much more.

Patrick Gunasekera: This story of navigating tumultuous relationships with siblings is a deeply universal one, but what was the starting point of SHARBAT, for you?

‘… the term sharbat is like a metaphor for how people observe religion or pay respect to their culture.’ Doreshawar Khan in ‘SHARBAT’. Photo: Kayleigh Scott.

Doreshawar Khan: So, it started specifically on September 17, last year. My brother had moved from Perth to Melbourne to pursue a number of things, his arts career, for one, because there wasn’t much acting work in Perth for him, and his music career, because, again, very limited here. Him leaving was almost a blow to this idea of having my family around me constantly … he was the last of my siblings to go and do their own thing. It brought me to this place of, “Hey, we’ve all grown up now, no one lives with Mum and Dad anymore, we’re doing our own thing, soon they’re going to get married and have their own lives!”

That whole thing of seeing your siblings as “adults” with their own lives gets very scary if you’re the oldest and don’t really have your life together, or, what is presumed to be “together” if you’re the arty kid. And so, I started thinking about that a lot, what it’s like to have a huge cultural background where siblings, at least in Pashtun and Pakistani culture, are very close. You all share a bedroom, you don’t really get your own spaces, you’re all enmeshed, everything is done together as a family. And then, you move to Australia and suddenly you’re allowed to have your own space and your own bedrooms, your own identities, and then you kind of grow slowly apart. And, it’s really strange because these are people you grew up with, who are witnesses to your past, to a place and a time that no longer exists.

So I started thinking, you know, what would it be like if you had three sisters who grew up in this household as children of migrants, and they all took different directions in how they pursued their life, and also their faith. I think the starting point was my own experience with my siblings, because we all have a very different take on how we practice or don’t practice our religion, and we also have a very different take on how we have structured our lives, and sometimes we have little arguments about what the “right” way is to live or do things.

PG: There’s a metaphor you’re exploring in SHARBAT – “They say blood is thicker than water but the Gül sisters think it’s more like diluted cordial.” For me the title and that metaphor really speaks to the disappointment of unmet expectations in family relationships…

DK: Yeah. There are many reasons why I picked the title SHARBAT. Sharbat is a drink that we have at celebrations back home, particularly Rooh Afza (we are not affiliated with Rooh Afza by the way!) Sharbat is this cordial, and everybody has a different way of making it. Some people like it super sweet, some people water it down immensely so it’s red but tastes like water, some people put milk in, whatever. There’s different ways to serve sharbat.

So I feel like the term sharbat is like a metaphor for how people observe religion or pay respect to their culture. There’s different ways to do it: some people are all in, some people take bits and bobs, some people tend to water it down a lot because it’s safer to do that in this climate. There’s no right or wrong way to observe a religion or a culture when you’re in this space which makes it inherently unsafe for you to be part of your culture.

There’s no right or wrong way to observe a religion or a culture when you’re in this space which makes it inherently unsafe for you to be part of your culture.

There’s a lot of discussion about, you know, can you be “culturally” Muslim? And I think you can, personally, because religion and culture are such personal things, how you observe something that belongs to you, that was given to you through your heritage, your parents, only you get to decide how you can use that. Just like anyone can say there’s only one way to make sharbat, well, there’s not just one way to make sharbat, it depends on what you grew up with.

Trying to get away from that ‘one size fits all’ idea of what an ethnic family behaves like or looks like: writer/performer Doreshawar Khan and performers Sabrina Hafid and Mani Mae Gomes in ‘SHARBAT’. Photo: Kayleigh Scott.

But I also think, with “blood is thicker than water”, you expect family is always going to be this perfect structure. Especially with multicultural society, people say, “Oh, I love your culture so much, it’s based so much around family!” And I’m like, “Really? Have you met my family? We go days without talking to each other sometimes, months even!” Not all ethnic families are as bonded as some stories suggest.

So again, the dilution thing, of how Australian you want to become and how much of your culture you want to observe. But also, is blood really thicker than water? Are your siblings always going to take your side in a situation? Siblings can do some pretty nasty things to one another too, as you will find in the play. But, they can also be your greatest allies and supporters sometimes. I guess it was trying to get away from that “one size fits all” idea of what an ethnic family behaves like or looks like. In particular, I wrote this from the perspective of somebody who grew up in a Pakistani family that migrated to Australia… though we don’t really allude to the Pakistani-ness of the characters because I just wanted to keep it – not generic – but, something that everyone could see themselves in.

PG: Yeah! I super relate to the thing around growing up with religion in the 21st century. Something I think is a curious difference between you as a Muslim and me as a Buddhist is that the way a lot of Western culture engages with Islam is through fear and prejudice, but then the way a lot of Western people engage with Buddhism is through cultural fetishism and harmfully appropriating that religion. I’m sure there are elements of that happening in Islam as well, but that’s definitely been a strange part of my relationship with growing up with Buddhism.

DK: What I always find interesting entering any space that expects me but has not met me, is that there’s a certain expectation of what a feminist Muslim looks like, and I can tell you now, they aren’t expecting me when I walk into the room. And it’s because I don’t cover my head, I’m tattooed, and I dress really weird. I’m gonna say weird because people say, “Oh you dress really interesting” and I think interesting is code for weird…

PG: I love the way you dress!

DK: I wear a lot of vintage, old-timey clothes.

PG: Yaaaasss.

DK: So, often when I walk into a space, usually arts spaces, people expect someone very different to be showing up, and then when I’m like, “It’s me, I’m the writer of this show, I’m the creator of this work,” they’re like, “Oh, uh, so um, Muslim…!” And it’s this dot dot dot, explain yourself, that sits really heavy in the air, and I don’t know why that is. I don’t know why who I am is at odds with what the idea of a Muslim feminist looks like.

I guess it’s also because people assume there’s only one way to be Muslim and that’s to be hyper-observant of this whole body of spirituality, when in reality a lot of it doesn’t speak to me anymore, and some parts of it do. I grew up Muslim, and whether I observe it now or not, it’s part of who I’ve become, it’s shaped who I’ve become. So, it doesn’t matter how observant I am in this part of my life, part of my character has been shaped by the good things in it, part of my anxieties come from certain ways that it was preached to me or taught to me.

As a person, it’s shaped me, therefore, for people to assume that to be Muslim you have to be a particular kind of Muslim, it irks me a lot. Who gets to decide these rules? I think that’s what I was trying to bring out with the three sisters, they grew up in the same household with the same parents, one of them was very observant, one of them was more relaxed with how they observed religion, and then all three of them took a different turn in how they decided to pursue their search for faith and identity. And it’s a very real thing! There’s no”one size fits all” mantle that you can wear and be like, “I am the representation of females in Islam now!”

And this “good Muslim”/”bad Muslim” thing needs to die a very quick death, because it prevents people from telling honest stories, because you triple think and go, “Will this make me look like a bad Muslim? Am I dishonouring my culture, heritage, family, society, group?” There’s already so much tension, people counting on our behaving in this one particular way so we’re not seen as a threat. And I feel like we have to overdo that so that we can get these spaces that we can be ourselves in, but then we don’t even end up being ourselves in them.

PG: The current climate of independent theatre in the metro area is a dynamic and multifaceted one, but also one in which a show like SHARBAT isn’t frequently programmed. Most theatre audiences in Perth aren’t used to seeing work made by and about families like ours. How has this dynamic shaped the development of this project?

Sabrina Hafid and Mani Mae Gomes in 'SHARBAT'. Photo: Kayleigh Scott.
‘…the moment you put three brown people on a stage, suddenly it becomes ‘that Muslim play’ or “that brown person play”, and they feel like they can’t empathise with our characters, and that’s a real problem!’ Pictured are Sabrina Hafid and Mani Mae Gomes in ‘SHARBAT’. Photo: Kayleigh Scott.

DK: As I was saying before, it’s hard because I don’t come from a theatre background. As I’m sure you’re aware, a lot of people who come from culturally and linguistically diverse and migrant communities don’t get to choose the arts as a first choice because there is this huge expectation from our own families and from our communities that we will do something to better the community. In 2003 when I migrated here, my parents brought us here because they wanted us to pursue careers that would give us a better place in the world. Their understanding of a better place in the world is very much shaped by the capitalist society we live in, so having money equals having respect as a brown person. The arts was not a way to do that, and so people like me didn’t pursue the arts after we finished high school. And so it means that there are hindrances to our understanding of the structure upon which things like theatre are built.

I was also hyperaware with my team being very new to theatre, like, how are we going to get the word out? How are we going to engage with these people, because yes, you’re right, the kind of people who come to theatre, even independent theatre, are a very specific demographic. Are we going to have to water down our script? Am I going to have to take out all the inshallahs and mashallahs and alhamdulillahs out of my script because white people or non-Muslim people don’t know what that means? And so it became a really big artistic struggle when I was writing and directing it – how do I maintain the integrity of the piece and make it reflect at least a very generic Muslim family, because I couldn’t find Pakistani actors to play Pakistani characters, I couldn’t even find Desi actors at the time to play three Desi sisters. It’s so difficult.

Are we going to have to water down our script? Am I going to have to take out all the inshallahs and mashallahs and alhamdulillahs out of my script because white people or non-Muslim people don’t know what that means?

So, the script saw many changes. In the end, we decided it was going to be a Muslim family, we alluded to someplace that they could be from. In future mountings, I’d like it to be a Pakistani family, I’d like it to be a bit more honest. Due to time constraints (because apparently theatre is only meant to go for 75 minutes) a lot of the script ended up getting cut. Although, I’m used to Bollywood three-hour sagas, I want a three hour saga onstage with a little break in the middle, that would be really nice! One day, I hope we get there.

I don’t know if anyone else has had this experience, but even when I talked to teachers in high school about my grade and was like, “Please, you’ve got to give me an A, my parents would be so disappointed,” they didn’t get the whole “parents being disappointed” thing, and I’m like, “You don’t understand how much it means to us as brown kids to please our parents.” And I feel like that is a part of the show as well, how hard these daughters work to please their father or mother and appease them and not want to disappoint them, and I was worried that would get lost to an audience even ten years later. What do they understand about our dynamics and our families? This could be a real learning and teaching moment. But then, I’m also worried that all works that I create will just forever be stuck in this loop of having to teach audiences first and then express feelings later, so how do you fit all that in 75 minutes? First of all, I have to educate this audience, then I have to explain what we’re feeling, and then from there I have to make them empathise, or sympathise with these characters. Most brown people grow up seeing white people on screens, we already empathise and sympathise with their problems even though we don’t experience them. But the moment you put three brown people on a stage, suddenly it becomes “that Muslim play” or “that brown person play”, and they feel like they can’t empathise with our characters, and that’s a real problem!

Most brown people grow up seeing white people on screens, we already empathise and sympathise with their problems even though we don’t experience them. But the moment you put three brown people on a stage, suddenly it becomes “that Muslim play” or “that brown person play”, and they feel like they can’t empathise with our characters, and that’s a real problem!

If I make even three or four people who aren’t from my background cry within the whole run I’d be like, this is great, we’ve somehow struck empathy gold. Because I just find that that’s a really huge problem, people don’t seem to feel as bad for brown people, because apparently, we’re supposed to struggle, we’re built for struggle, we’re so “strong” and so “brave”, that’s all we ever do, struggle! And we’ll get through it! But there’s no empathy for that struggle, it’s painful! One part of me is content writing stories that are cathartic, but at the same time I don’t want to be stuck in a career where all I’m doing is repackaging my trauma to make it better because the system has failed all of us in providing other avenues to deal with so much generational pain. So maybe that’s what theatre is doing now, but it shouldn’t always be that way. I’d like to see happy endings for queer brown characters, I’d like to see success stories onstage, not just,”By the way, we disappointed our parents and this is how it played out onstage.” It would be nice to make works that are diverse within the diversity as well.

More diversity, less about adversity!

But I have to say one quick shout out, I went and saw Fully Sikh on Saturday, and it’s funny because in 2003 when I moved to Australia, the first thing I saw in my English lit class was Bend It Like Beckham, and my teacher said to me, “You’re from this general area,” and I’m like what, the UK? I’m not from the UK! And she said, “These are your people!” And I’m like, they’re Sikh! I’m Muslim! No commonality. But that’s how little representation there was in Australia in the media about being brown, and so I had to somehow be like the conduit between Bend It Like Beckham and my white classmates.

And I remember thinking, well, there’s a movie about brown families and I relate to this, and then it was so surreal fifteen years later sitting in an auditorium, shoeless, watching Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa cook dhal on the Black Swan stage! And I was sitting there going, am I in a weird fever dream? There is a brown woman cooking dhal on a stage, when fifteen years ago there was only one movie about being Sikh, and now this person has gone and created this body of work at Black Swan State Theatre Company, there is hope!

And that gave me this weird perspective of, maybe someone will have this moment when they come see SHARBAT and they’re like, “There’s somebody yelling alhamdulillah and mashallah and somebody just did the Arab trill in the middle of the room!”

And I want that to be the thing, because in 2005 when I graduated from high school and I wanted to go to the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, my dad decided that law would be a better option because, “You’re not Cameron Diaz, no one is going to hire you for a movie.” 2005 was the year of Cameron Diaz, look it up, so many movies. But that’s so sad, when your own parents are like, “I’m just trying to protect you, you’re not going to get into the movies, you’re not white.” That was the general feeling.

But then, early this year when I told Dad, “I’m not really going to do anything else, I’m going to make theatre, SHARBAT’s been picked up, this is happening now,” he was like, “That’s very nice. I was watching the Oscars with your mother, there was a very nice boy, his name was Rami Malek, he won an Oscar, maybe you can write for Rami Malek.” So my dad just assumes as well that I will write for Rami Malek one day, so if Rami’s reading this interview, I can write for you, Rami! But it was just so cool to see my dad’s perception over fifteen years change, because he saw Rami Malek accept an Oscar. He sends me little snaps of Sukhjit’s face on the bus, saying, “That Sukhjit girl was on the bus, one day you will be on the bus,” so he’s still doing the Desi parent thing of, “She’s on the bus, why aren’t you on the bus?”

But even so, it’s so nice for him to acknowledge that there is a future in theatre for brown people, brown families, it’s great. It’s like shifting a giant boulder, because my dad is very strict in his views of the world and for him to go, “Yeah, I guess theatre could be a career” is a huge thing! And it’s all because people like Sukhjit are making art, they’re being given spaces, because movies are coming out about our lives, because people like Rami Malek are being casted as brown characters.

My dad is very strict in his views of the world and for him to go, “Yeah, I guess theatre could be a career” is a huge thing! And it’s all because people like Sukhjit are making art, they’re being given spaces, because movies are coming out about our lives, because people like Rami Malek are being casted as brown characters.

Fifteen years ago, they probably would have picked some white guy to play Freddie Mercury, but they didn’t. And it would be great if someone from Freddie Mercury’s community could have been picked, that would be the next great thing. But hey, they picked somebody who was born as an Arab-American and they made a name for themselves. We need more of this. The more we see ourselves in these roles, the more the other generations will be going, “You know what? I can do this, it’s not impossible.” So, shout outs to the people who made Bend It Like Beckham, because I would not have thought that anyone would be interested in any narrative I wrote.

Whenever I hear things about dreams, I just feel like, dreams are great, it’s wonderful to have a dream, but it’s way better to have a to-do list.

PG: What are your dreams for the future of brown youth theatre in Perth?

Pictured: Sabrina Hafid in ‘SHARBAT’. Photo: Kayleigh Scott.

DK: Whenever I hear things about dreams, I just feel like, dreams are great, it’s wonderful to have a dream, but it’s way better to have a to-do list. And, I reckon the to-do list for brown theatre is that we collectivise, we start an organisation, we unionise, we make demands on spaces to have our work and go, if you’re going to tout diversity as a thing, if you’re going to talk about how diverse your shows are and how diverse you are, show it, and give us better deals. Don’t just ask us to work for free in spaces, don’t just ask us for letters, for our support, and then forget about us when it’s our turn to take a space or a job. It’d be nice to be thought about at times other than when you need support letters, when you need a speaker, when you need somebody for a diversity poster.

This is not a jibe at any institution in particular, I think we all have a lot of work to do. I hate that the only time I ever look for other brown people in theatre is when I’m making a work. I should know who these people are to begin with … Maybe there could be … an autonomous theatre group for people of colour, or an autonomous space where we can go and create work without having the expectation that we’re going to behave a particular way.

It would be nice to see more senior officials or members or CEOs who are people of colour in positions of authority … For there to be more people in positions of power and authority and leadership who are brown and young would be nice.

It would be nice to see more senior officials or members or CEOs who are people of colour in positions of authority. It would be nice to have more diverse theatre that is programmed across the year and not just all at the same time. I’m very aware, I don’t know if this was deliberate, but we’ve got Cephalopod playing at The Blue Room after SHARBAT finishes, we have Fully Sikh on, we have Yirra Yaakin’s Ice Land playing, and we also had Layla Majnun. Five amazing productions that are all PoC centric are all on in the same month. It’s PoCtober! But I feel Perth audiences aren’t at that point where they go, “We’re going to watch all of the PoC-made stuff,” it’s usually more like, “We’re just going to pick one.” And so, programming them across the year would be great.

For there to be more people in positions of power and authority and leadership who are brown and young would be nice. For there to be more programs for us to develop our skills, because like I said, we don’t always get to go to tertiary places like WAAPA and NIDA, and some of us can’t afford to, some of us need to work, there’s still a huge pay gap guys! So that would be nice, for more workshops to be there.

For there to be mentorships that are culturally sensitive as well, like, it’s great that there are mentorships for writing and for acting and theatre, but it’s very rare that you’ll get a mentor who is culturally and linguistically diverse. So it would be nice to see more people matched to someone who would support their work in the most honest way possible, not just because, “You’re Muslim, I’m Muslim, let’s work on this,” more like, “Hey, you’re queer, I’m queer and Muslim, let’s collaborate on this because we can speak to each other’s experiences.”

Also, more stories would be great, and like I said before, it would be nice to have stories that are not just trauma stories. I’d like triumph stories, I’d like weird, wonderful, whacky works of art as well, because I feel like somehow we’re always relegated to telling the story about our culture and background and explaining that, but we don’t get to make as much postdramatic theatre.

… it would be nice to have stories that are not just trauma stories. I’d like triumph stories, I’d like weird, wonderful, whacky works of art as well, because I feel like somehow we’re always relegated to telling the story about our culture and background and explaining that …

For there to be more scholarships, for there to be more workshops, for there to be more space, and when I say space in theatre I don’t just necessarily mean a physical building, I mean space: give us space to make work that is honest to ourselves, we don’t speak for an entire community any more than a white person speaks for all Australia. Give us space just to be ourselves, to create honest works of art where we don’t have to fit into a mould so we can get money and funding. That would be nice. That would be great.

And also: Rami Malek I’m still waiting for your email.

PG: Yes! And finally, what do you hope audiences will take from seeing SHARBAT?

DK: My hopes are that people can come into this living room play and see how life sometimes plays out for some people who are Muslim in different ways; that people can look at Muslim women in different ways and see that not all Muslim women behave the same, dress the same, have the same reason to dress a particular way. That there’s a new way to look at and humanise what it means to grow up between cultures in Australia, because this is a reality for us now.

We’re moving to the point where some people my age in our communities are having children … It might be a nice thing to pass down to newer members of the community/planet, that you can essentially choose how you decide to represent yourself as a member of the community, and we will have your back. There’s no such thing as bringing shame to the community unless you are a terrible human being and make other people’s lives very very difficult.

There’s so many ways to be Muslim, that’s really what I want people to take away from this. There’s no one Muslim narrative, there’s no one migrant family narrative. SHARBAT is about one particular family, and at the end of it, the relatable part is that we all have family members that sometimes we can’t stand to be around, but how do we make peace with that? … With a lot of learning about a dynamic that we don’t necessarily learn in brown families, because apparently forgiveness is everything when you’re Muslim, forgive everybody! What if you don’t have that space in your heart to forgive? That should be okay too.

So, it’s broadening that discussion, breaking down those boxes that we were taught in one place, and breaking down the boxes in the other place that we’ve come to live in. I don’t know how else to answer that question, hopefully it gives a cross section of many different aspects of what it means to be young, Muslim, and Australian.

In SHARBAT you have three different people who have this different way of seeing the same religion and what it means to them, and how they view God and view the dynamic of what’s happening in society at the moment. And, it boggles the mind because, I don’t know, the number of times that people have said to me, “You’re just Muslim when it’s convenient,” it’s hurtful! And you hear that about yourself, and you go, “But why do you even say that? Is it because I’m not doing a ‘good job’ at being Muslim?” And that question comes up a lot, like, “Am I a bad Muslim?” And so, the bad Muslims are represented, the good Muslims are represented, the ambivalent Muslims are present there, the punk Muslims, the Instagram Muslims, the mipsters are in there, it’s like a whole cross section of people I’ve met in my life, people I’ve been in my life, and people I hope that I one day am comfortable in being in my life, are in that little space.

I hope that SHARBAT touches some people and says, “You know, it’s okay to be the way you are, that character did it and it worked out okay for them.”

SHARBAT is running October 24 to November 2 at The Blue Room Theatre.

Pictured top are writer/performer Doreshawar Khan and performers Sabrina Hafid and Mani Mae Gomes. Photo: Kayleigh Scott.

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