By THALIA GIGERENZER
Visitors at an exhibit by Muslim artists at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California.
When Wajahat Ali, a young Muslim American playwright from Fremont, needed to build an audience for his work, he produced his plays in cramped Pakistani restaurants in the East Bay and used Facebook to get the word out.
His play “The Domestic Crusaders” went on to open at the Berkeley Repertory Theater in 2005, and then moved to Off Broadway.
Now, family members who were initially skeptical of Mr. Ali’s decision to pursue writing see great power in his profession.
Mr. Ali said his uncle had told him that he wished he had “made his son into a journalist,” because “after 30 years of living in this country, I turn on the TV and see myself as a terrorist.”
Mr. Ali is one of a growing number of Bay Area artists who are reimagining one of the country’s most complicated compound identities: Muslim American.
At a time when Islam has been heavily politicized, many Muslim artists say they hope the arts can expand understanding of their faith among non-Muslims as well as bridge American and Islamic traditions.
“We’re at a point where Islam is really being defined in this country, and it’s going to be through the arts,” said Javed Ali, founder of Illume, a Muslim online news, arts and culture magazine based in Newark that serves as one of the central nodes of the Bay Area Muslim American network.
Bay Area Islamic organizations, including the much-heralded Zaytuna College in Berkeley, have embraced the shift toward culture. In January, the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California will open a new gallery in the center to showcase Muslim artists.
The cultural center, in Oakland, decided to increase its arts programs six months ago, said Ali Sheikholeslami, its executive director. The center regularly hosts an event called “Islam and Authors,” which invites authors to discuss topics related to Islam.
“We want to break through common stereotypes and present the whole spectrum of Muslim reality,” said the cultural center’s marketing and development director, Jason van Boom.
Hatem Bazian, one of the Islamic scholars behind Zaytuna College, the first Muslim liberal arts institution in this country, echoed that thought.
“In American society,” Mr. Bazian said, “artistic expression is the way we narrate our story, so Muslims are beginning to draw their own narrative.”
The Bay Area’s Muslim population, estimated to be 250,000, is one of the most diverse in the United States.
Mr. Bazian, who is also a senior lecturer at the departments of Near Eastern and ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, said the wide mix of ethnicities and large number of converts in the Bay Area’s Muslim population “creates synergies” that can be seen in new art forms that break ethnic molds.
Some local artists have taken an online entrepreneurial approach to Islam. Khadija O’Connell, a Hayward resident, started her Web-based arts and craft business, Barakah Life, in 2003 as a way to bring a modern, handcrafted aesthetic to Muslim items most commonly found in gaudy, imported styles.
Ms. O’Connell relies on online tools like blogging and Facebook to promote ideas like her pop-up crescent moon cards that would look at home on the popular crafts site Etsy.
“People used to adapt neutral Christmas ornaments, like stars, and hang them up for Ramadan,” recalled Ms. O’Connell, who converted to Islam in college. “I wanted to bring new traditions to Muslims living in the West.”
For local Muslim American artists whose art has been deemed “radical” by more conservative Muslims, the road has not been an easy one.
Audience members walked out of an early November U.C. Berkeley performance of the play “Hijabi Monologues,” which features the stories of Muslim women and contains sexual references. “I’ve spent more time and energy negotiating with the community whether music is haraam [“forbidden”] than putting out content,” said Anas Canon, a convert and the founder of the record label and Muslim artist collective Remarkable Current,which includes the Bay Area MC/spoken word artist Baraka Blue. The label’s music ranges from soul to hip hop and has collaborated with artists such as Mos Def.
When Remarkable Current, which is based in both Oakland and Los Angeles, recently held a masquerade-themed book-signing with a D.J. in an Oakland home, debate erupted online ostensibly over men and women in costumes interacting together. An impassioned Facebook note condemning the event unleashed heated comments from Muslims across the Bay Area.
In the wake of controversies like the one over a proposed Muslim cultural center near ground zero in New York City, some second-generation Muslims’ art is tinged with a sense of urgency.
“Our narrative has been stolen from us,” Wajahat Ali said, referring to the common depiction of Muslims in the American news media.
The tendency of his parents’ generation to push their children to prestigious professions like medicine and business discouraged creative voices, he said.
But Bay Area Muslim artists are fast creating new narratives. Mr. Ali’s play, which depicts a modern Pakistani-American family, is featured in McSweeney’s literary magazine this month.
For many years, Mr. Ali said, he had described the local arts scene as “latent, with a heartbeat.” But now, he said, “it’s dancing.”