Canada's first professional Muslim theatre company celebrates 'the common thread that ties us'
As anti-Muslim sentiment rises in Quebec, Montreal's Silk Road Theatre hopes to help bring people together
Montreal-based Silk Road Institute recently made history when it staged the play The Domestic Crusaders as the inaugural production for its new sub-company the Silk Road Theatre Company. In doing so, it officially became Canada's first professional theatre company dedicated to celebrating Muslim stories.
"Our collective story is shaped by our individual stories, and we wanted to create a space to celebrate the stories of Muslim communities and make sure they are part of our collective story," says Mohamed Shaheen, executive director at Silk Road.
With anti-Muslim sentiment rising in the province, this initiative by Silk Road couldn't have come at a better time. From developing programming — including music, poetry and literature — to providing financial support for emerging Muslim artists through collaborations with various foundations, the fledgling institute is fast becoming one of the important patrons of the cultural arts within the Muslim community in Quebec.
"We're looking to provide a glimpse into the lives of Canada's diverse Muslim communities, and those stories are as diverse as the community itself," says Shaheen. "We'll certainly touch on themes that are discussed in the political context because they do affect everyday lives, and the power of storytelling lets us discuss these issues from the day-to-day perspective, showcasing the common thread that ties us."
The Domestic Crusaders, an acclaimed play by Wajahat Ali, focuses on a day in the life of a modern Muslim Pakistani-American family of six who — with a backdrop of post-9/11 tension — gather to celebrate the 21st birthday of the youngest child. The play first premiered in 2005 at the renowned Berkeley Repertory Theatre and has been staged multiple times since.
For the vanguards of the local theatre scene in Montreal, this is a landmark moment. This is certainly true for Rahul Varma, the co-founder and artistic director of theatre company Teesri Duniya (meaning Third World in Hindi). When the theatre was founded in Montreal in 1981, it focused on South Asian themes. In its first year or so, plays were staged in Hindi, Urdu and Tamil. But Varma, who immigrated to Canada in 1976, realized the need to connect with the dominant cultures at the time in order to have a wider audience — and also to invite dialogue and discussion from other underrepresented cultures. So the company moved on to producing plays reflecting other ethno-cultural communities.
"It will be historical to construct this company for Muslim stories," Varma says. "[Though] Wajahat's play speaks to identity issues post-9/11, the Muslim community here too is facing Islamophobia by association of the upheaval happening in Arab or Muslim countries. Local Muslims here are subject to racialized attacks and that just isn't fair. So this initiative is happening at the right time."
Varma is supporting this production with advice, coaching and a database of actors. He also suggested the play's director, Deborah Forde. The former executive director of the Quebec Drama Foundation, Forde also had close ties with Black Theatre Workshop — Canada's longest running Black theatre company and an institution in itself. Forde remembers struggling in the next few days after the attacks to try and mentally distance herself from the hate narrative that began to build around the Muslim community.
"I remember thinking, 'Living in Canada, we can't have that here,'" she says. "But it also sparked questions like, 'What does this mean for my fellow man? How can a broad section of society simply be painted as something evil?' The narrative scared me and I refuse to get connected to it."
"I'm hoping that productions like [The Domestic Crusaders] will spark conversations about fighting xenophobia."
Stay updated on Silk Road's programming here.