New Montreal theatre company puts Muslim stories centre stage

A brand-new Montreal theatre company, billed as "Canada's first professional theatre company dedicated to celebrating Muslim stories," is hoping to bring a diversity of stories to the stage.

The Silk Road Theatre Company will put on its first production at the end of September

Zeshaun Saleem is acting in his first major production for Montreal's new Muslim-centric Silk Road Theatre Company (Silk Road Institute)

A brand-new Montreal theatre company, billed as "Canada's first professional theatre company dedicated to celebrating Muslim stories," is hoping to bring a diversity of voices to the stage.

The Silk Road Theatre Company aims to provide a platform and a space for minority voices to come to the forefront.

The curtain will rise on the inaugural show — The Domestic Crusaders — on Sept. 27 at Espace Knox in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.

Zeshaun Saleem plays the role of Salahuddin, the eldest of three siblings in a Pakistani-American family.

"This is actually my first major production," he said. "Ironically it's something that I can very much relate to, simply because the younger brother, Ghafur — his parents are on his case which is very typical of a Pakistani family, for him to end up in one of those professional careers, either a doctor lawyer or engineer."

Saleem, who is himself a second-generation Pakistani-Canadian, said that growing up he felt the same pressures that are depicted in the play.

"I come from a family where my parents are physicians and my elder siblings are physicians and I, the youngest, decided not to go that route."

Bochra Manaï is the vice-chair of the Silk Road Institute in Montreal. (Photo by Yasmina Bouzerda/Facebook)

The Silk Road Theatre Company was born out of a desire from members of the Montreal Muslim community to "change the narrative that we always hear about Muslims."

So says Bochra Manaï, vice-chair of the Silk Road Institute, a Montreal group tasked with promoting creative arts within the Muslim community.

"It means that we finally can have a space, a welcoming space for under-represented communities, for Muslim communities to share their narratives, to tell their stories, to talk about Islamophobia," she told CBC Daybreak.

The play, written by Wajahat Ali, premiered off-Broadway in 2005 and explores an inter-generational family conflict in a post-9/11 world.

"It's of course about Islamophobia because it takes place after 9/11," said Manaï. "It's about complexity. ... [Ali] wanted to show and to showcase 'What are the Muslims talking about when they are around the dinner table?'"

Manaï said that the idea of creating a theatre workshop came around four years ago, and with funding from Inspirit and the Michaëlle Jean Foundation, the dream became a reality.

They also worked with Montreal's Teesri Duniya Theatre and the Black Theatre Workshop, the longest-running Black theatre company in the country, to get off the ground.

Saleem, who is preparing for his big opening night next weekend, said the play offers an inter-generational discussion about how Muslim identity has changed after the 2001 attacks and beyond.

"The question, which is the very central question to this whole play, is to what extent do we hold on to that identity? How do we negotiate that identity?"

"When there is someone who is going to raise awareness about what goes on amongst Muslim families, and actually [they] have the same internal negotiations as non-Muslims do, that to me was very exciting," he said.

The Domestic Crusaders runs at Espace Knox from Sept. 27 to Oct. 6. 


Marilla Steuter-Martin has been a journalist with CBC Montreal since 2015.