An Actor's Craft and His Faith Intersect



Aasif Mandvi's first lesson on the racism that can come with living in a
community where you are different should have prepared him for his second.
As a small Indian-born schoolboy in the working-class town of Bradford,
England, he was often taunted and chased home from school by ''the white
boys.''

The experience, fading over time, rushed back to him after the attacks of
9/11, which produced a backlash that made him, as a Muslim, again feel the
sting of being ''an outsider.''

''It can make you have contempt for your own race, your otherness,'' he
said of his school days while seated at a diner on West End Avenue in
Manhattan. ''You try even harder to fit in. You aspire to be integrated.''

But Mr. Mandvi, an actor, has reacted to what he sees as the current
assault on Islam -- born of indiscriminate fear and suspicion -- by
identifying with those who are attacked rather than those who are doing the
attacking. And his work has, he said, suddenly taken on a political
dimension it lacked in the past. He is in the play ''Guantanamo,'' in which
he portrays a Muslim detainee, Moazzam Begg, held in the prison base in
Cuba for two years.

''This is the most important theater production I have ever been involved
with,'' he said. ''I am playing the role of a man who lives in the very
situation the play describes. He has not seen daylight in two years. He has
no idea why he is detained. I am his mouthpiece through the play. This is
not something that could happen. It is currently happening.''

The play, part theater, part agitprop, is a withering assault on the Bush
administration's treatment of the Muslim detainees, drawing on letters,
interviews with those few who have been released and family members. Before
appearing in ''Guantanamo,'' Mr. Mandvi starred in a production of
''Homebody/Kabul,'' the play by Tony Kushner that looks at America's
relationship with the Muslim world in Afghanistan. The role of an activist
did not come naturally to a man who says he is not devout and never thought
much about his religion.

''I never heard the word 'jihad' until it came out of the mouth of an
American television reporter,'' he said, ''and I was raised Muslim. I was
never interested in being a political artist, but all this has forced me to
become a more political artist. And it has made me a better artist. There
is such a misunderstanding of Muslims now, such strange misconceptions,
such as the idea that Muslims hate America because of our freedoms. I want
to do work that is honest, work that allows people to see another dimension
of life.''

To that end, Mr. Mandvi, who says he is in his 30's, is turning his one-man
show, ''Sakina's Restaurant,'' for which he won an Obie Award, into a film.
''Sakina's Restaurant'' is a comedy that chronicles life in a family-owned
Indian restaurant, which in the movie will be set in Jackson Heights,
Queens..

 


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