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Zahra Noorbakhsh and the Atheist-Muslim Connection

A young playwright finds humor in cultural dissonance.



The title All Atheists Are Muslim provoked just about the same reaction as Ruined, that recent Berkeley Rep play about female genital mutilation: A polite "no thanks." At least, this was the response from a former religious studies major. And, to be frank, his qualms were understandable, particularly when the lights went down and an archival newscast aired over the house speakers at Stage Werx Theatre. Suddenly we'd been catapulted back to the year 2002, and then-President George W. Bush had just inducted Iran into the Axis of Evil. And there was playwright Zahra Noorbakhsh, grousing about it on the phone with her boyfriend, Duncan. It was hard to tell where this was going.

In fact, the basic plot of All Atheists only becomes clear at the end of the first scene, when Zahra impulsively asks Duncan to quit his job at UPS, leave his parents' house in Southern California, and move into her studio apartment in Berkeley. For any other young couple, that might seem like a reasonable idea. In Zahra and Duncan's case, though, it meant having to confront — and placate — Zahra's staunchly Muslim parents, who don't easily cotton to secular ideas of courtship. Therein lies the complication.

Zahra managed to stretch it into an hour-long solo performance, beginning with the phone call and leading into a rather hysterical cross-examination at the dinner table. Later in the play, she reenacts her parents' own marriage, back in Iran, which was more or less arranged by their mothers, over tea and fruit. Evidently, much of the story is real. "It's 90 percent true," Noorbakhsh said in a recent phone interview. "And most of the 10 percent that's not is just my way of condensing events."

Her own story is also true, save for the gladiatorial-style brawl she has with her dad: His Koran versus her Judith Butler books. I could have done without that part. But the rest of the play provides an illuminating glimpse at the cultural gap that separates Zahra from her immigrant parents. Noorbakhsh plays all the roles, nimbly shifting between bodies and capably imitating her parents' heavily accented English. "What the shit the hell is this, man?" her dad protests, picking his teeth as he evaluates Zahra's proposal. "You cannot come to my house, have our dinner, and tell me how to practice my religious."

Noorbakhsh, who grew up in Danville and ran the gamut of liberal arts majors at Cal (she eventually settled on theater and performance studies), is a shrewd, incisive writer with a tart sense of humor. You can see the ways in which she takes after her dad, the engineering Ph.D who screams at his television and wins dinner table arguments with gusto — even if he has to pull the daddy card. Those ironies certainly aren't lost on the young playwright. She depicts their power struggle in a grinning, winking way, highlighting the moments when misunderstanding begets pure comedy. Like when she accuses her father of running a patriarchal household — but has to define the word "patriarchy" for the insult to work. (His rejoinder: "I am not the god. I am the fifty-years-old man, man. You do what the shit it is you want to do.")

So far, Noorbakhsh has penned two solo works about growing up first-generation Iranian Muslim in Danville — both under the auspice of director W. Kamau Bell. Her other play, Hijab and Hammerpants, was inspired by a single incident in childhood: The time she wore hijab to a Blockbuster video store at age eleven, and learned how it felt to be ostracized. "I was the elephant in the room," she laughed, recounting the story more than a decade later. She said that for a while, she performed Hijab alternately with All Atheists, as though to supply audiences with two completely different examples of what it's like to be wedged between cultures — particularly during a cold war. Ultimately, she decided to place more emphasis on All Atheists, transforming it from an eighteen-minute workshop piece into a full-scale production. It was, after all, the meatier play, if only because Duncan — the "whitey-white, translucent, Atheist boyfriend" — was the combustible element that threatened to tear apart Noorbakhsh's family for good.

All Atheists is not a perfect play, yet. There are still parts that could be whittled down, and other parts that could be amplified. That said, Zahra Noorbakhsh is definitely someone to look out for. She has a near-Sarah Jones-like gift for impersonating people, in a style that's much more endearing than it is patronizing. And judging from her telephone banter with Duncan, she must be a very cool person to date. (In this case, of course, Zahra plays both roles.) Not to mention she approaches the immigrant theme from a unique angle: Whereas many first-generation comedians satirize their parents' funny accents, it's not every day you hear someone confess having an ambivalent, knotty relationship with her heritage culture.

The play's title doesn't come in till very near the end, and it makes sense, in context. So don't be cowed.

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