'Hijabi Monologues' April 5 features the stories and voices of Muslim women

Western's Equity and Inclusion Forum is bringing the "Hijabi Monologues" theatrical storytelling production to Western's Performing Arts Center Mainstage  Thursday, April 5 at 5 p.m.

Tickets are free from the WWU Box Office, 360-650-6146 or tickets.wwu.edu. Click here to see a video preview.

The "Hijabi Monologues" features the experiences of Muslim women in stories told by Muslim women. Western Today recently chatted with Sahar Ullah, creator of the show. 

You attended Columbia University and now teach there as a post-doc; New York City in general and the Upper West Side in particular are famous for being cultural melting pots. What was it like culturally to move from Florida to a neighborhood in a city where “blending in” was easier - and was “blending in” something you sought as an 18-year old in a way that perhaps you don’t now? 

I'm a second generation immigrant, proud South Floridian-Bangladeshi who now calls NYC home. I have been mistaken for Egyptian, Mexican, Indonesian, Malaysian, Pakistani, Algerian, Yemeni, and most recently - Dominican. My identities inform the uniqueness of my voice, the stories I'm interested in, and the ways I tell them. Anyone who claims otherwise is probably lying. Depending on context, one particular aspect of my identity might be foregrounded over another aspect. I probably got invited to more Bar and Bat Mitzvahs as a kid than the Jews I met in Ottawa. I missed West Indian friends and food when I lived in Chicago. I felt immensely proud of Bangla food and culture when I lived in Cairo. And every time I see mangoes sold at a supermarket in NYC, I refuse to buy them and scoff at them with the judgment of a South Floridian who ate fresh, ripe mangoes from her own trees every summer. 

Growing up, I witnessed incredible Bangladeshi immigrant and Muslim communities (not necessarily mutually exclusive) creating and reinventing themselves year after year in order to survive and make the lives of their loved ones beautiful. I've learned from amazing and terrible teachers. Through it all, I've somehow managed to be pretty comfortable being myself with occasional questions about fitting in -- but never very interested in the effort it takes to blend in. And blend in with whom?  I was a popular nerd. I was a junior Thespian. I was on the girls soccer team. I had all kinds of friends -- and my favorites, of course, were the other nerds who were also way too focused on their interests to really care about blending in, too. If anything, as an 18 yr-old, I was more than happy to wear handmade dresses and scarves and veils I designed myself.

On the other hand, I learned that one of the painful parts of growing up includes finding out my self-confidence elicits insecurity and discomfort in others around me. I'm still not sure what to do with it. 

The Hijabi Monologues has toured now for over a decade. What prompted you to create it, and how have audiences’ reactions to it changed over the last 10 years?

When my friends Dan Morrison and Zeenat Rahman decided we would work together to launch a project we called "Hijabi Monologues," we hadn't defined exactly what it would be -- we just knew I was the storyteller. So I started writing. I shared those stories in small performance venues Dan and Zeenat found. Along the way, as I continued to write, I invited others to share their stories; I would edit and shape them into monologues; and I got young women to act for the first time in their lives. A couple years later, I was introduced to Avery Willis-Hoffman who came on board as the producer. Her support since then helped me develop and gain confidence in my voice and craft to better define what I envisioned for "Hijabi Monologues." The original monologues I wrote is now the core script. Eventually, as the show continues to tour with Kamilah A. Pickett and Rafiah Jones as well as with licensed productions, the story bank slowly grows with new stories from emerging writers. With Avery, I have developed a model for theaters on how to engage their local communities with "Hijabi Monologues" as exemplified most recently by the staging of Hijabi Monologues London and Hijabi Monologues UT Austin

Over the last 10 years, the audience reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. Although specific reactions are varied according to context and who is in the room -- which we can usually figure out depending on when folks laugh at what jokes -- there's always a common thread of surprise that is expressed about how much people connect with the stories. 

The Monologues reach audiences through laughter and tears to tell the stories of these women and the issues they face. Why is telling these stories important, now more than ever?

We are increasingly surrounded by violence in our country, and we cannot afford to turn a blind eye. At the same time, we need a way to make sense of it all; to find a way to be the best versions of our selves so we can give of our goodness to those around us -- for our own well-being. 

As an artist, I see my role as challenging and shifting imagination through storytelling -- with the hope it has a positive impact on how people engage one another in their worlds. Artists can reflect and clarify our confusing world or they can obscure our clarity; they can challenge how we imagine the world and help us imagine a different one; they can demonstrate the extraordinary in the very ordinary; they can encompass a moment in a way classroom lectures, academic research, or investigative exposés cannot. They can speak to, disrupt, uplift our hearts and make our experience of the world beautiful even if painful at the same time.

For those reasons, "Hijabi Monologues" is important to me. I believe in the power of storytelling to connect strangers and communities -- and it's important for me to witness that especially on days when I feel human connection is increasingly precarious and precious. The play provides an opportunity for Muslim talent in minority contexts to engage in the arts not only on stage but also behind the scenes and in the audience in a way that doesn't tokenize their visibility or faith but rather acknowledges the depth of their experience.

What do you hope audiences leave the performance with, in terms of newfound understanding?

I hope audiences leave with better questions, a deeper access to empathy, and greater readiness to listen. 

The Monologues ultimately reach audiences with a message of hope. Why is this important to you?

As a new year's wish, I once wrote, "Call me a crazy optimist — or the realist pessimist there ever was — but I truly believe that the most beautiful souls rise to the occasion and shine brightest in humanity’s darkest hours. I don’t mean they will save the world from immense suffering -- I just mean that if we pay attention, we will witness forms of immense beauty, courage, strength, endurance, and wisdom that we have never seen, tasted, felt, or heard ever before."

Even if it's the last hour and you have a palm shoot in your hand, plant it -- that's what my parents passed on to me on behalf of their beloved ﷺ. Our sleeves stay rolled up. Our hands always ready to go in the dirt. Hope is important to me because it's how I'm built.