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Medieval and Early Modern Spain and Contemporary Islam, On Broadway


Taking Ayad Akhtar's play "Disgraced" as a point of departure, this post examines the role of medieval and early modern Spanish history and culture in American debates about religion and politics.

Juan de Pareja (1650)
Diego Velázquez
Oil on canvas; 32 x 27 1/2 in.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

I recently went to the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway to see Ayad Akhtar’s play, Disgraced, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013. The play tells the story of a Muslim-American lawyer named Amir, his white American artist wife, named Emily, and their colleagues and friends, a Jewish art critic and dealer named Isaac and his wife and Amir’s co-worker, a black woman named Jory. The play’s climax is an explosive conversation during a dinner shared by the two couples at Amir and Emily’s well-appointed (and smartly staged) New York City apartment. Although professional and romantic strife among the characters provide important story-lines, the play’s power emerges from the tension created by their divergent views on Islam, which in part comes out through repeated allusions to Spanish history and culture. Not surprisingly, this aspect of Disgraced caught my attention. What does Spain have to do with the politics and representation of religion in contemporary New York City?

Born in America to immigrant Muslim parents, Amir has spent his life trying to escape Islam, which he views as misogynist, anti-democratic, and anachronistic. Yet when pushed by Isaac, he admits a sense of pride, however fraught, at fundamentalist Islam’s violent refusal of American military power and cultural hegemony. A disaffected Jew and critic of Israel, Isaac mostly voices a liberal defense of Islam, invoking the need for a modicum of cultural humility and a sense of political and religious history. Even so, he is aghast at the secular Amir’s hesitant expression of satisfaction at the terrorist attacks of September 11th and former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s talk of wiping Israel off the map. For her part, Jory, the pull-herself-up-by-her-bootstraps urban success story, abides neither Isaac’s inconsistent self-righteousness nor Amir’s ambivalence.

The character that I want to examine here is Emily, who offers a full-throated defense of Islam, which has influenced her painting. Much of her work is a monochromatic repetition of geometric shapes meant to evoke the Islamic tradition. Emily explains that she first became interested in Islamic art when she was a Fulbright scholar in Seville, and she recalls a visit with Amir to the Great Mosque in Cordoba. For her, Islam is about justice, peace, and beauty. Through most of the play, in other words, Emily’s Islam is a particularly rosy version of medieval Iberian Islam. However much Amir protests, Isaac snipes, and Jory shrugs, Emily persists in her study-abroad nostalgia and aesthetic and historical sentimentalism. Only at the end of the play does Emily realize that her defense of Islam is naive and perhaps Orientalist, to employ a word that Isaac uses at one point to describe Emily’s art.

Having suffered a brutal beating from Amir after cheating on him with Isaac, Emily eventually comes to see her view of Islam and patronizing attitude toward her husband as their own forms of violence. The play offers a clear emblem of Amir and Emily’s parallel if unequal hostility, not to mention the others sorts of political, economic, religious, and racial conflict that their relationship represents: A portrait of Amir that Emily has rendered in the style of Diego Velázquez’s painting of Juan de Pareja, a slave of Moorish descent. Emily’s portrait frames the play, which opens with Amir reluctantly posing for the painting as Emily lectures him about the importance of Islam to late medieval and early modern Spanish art. And the play ends with Amir looking along with the audience at this very painting. The message is clear. Dressed in his $600 shirt and tailored suit, Amir the corporate lawyer is really just a foreign slave trying to play a part for which he’s ill-suited. Amir begins to worry that he’s faking his American secularism, just as Inquisition-era peninsular converts to Christianity from Islam (Moriscos) and Judaism (conversos) sometimes pretended to be pious Christians in public while practicing their previous faiths in private. Amir’s foreign-born nephew, Hussein, who struggles with his identity as a Muslim living in New York, even invokes the Islamic juridical concept of taqiyya, which was the technical name for the dissimulation practiced by some Spanish Moriscos, as well as scattered communities of Muslims elsewhere. Just as he worried they might, Amir’s peers eventually end up marginalizing him as they fret about whether he’s an impostor. Despite his best efforts to assimilate into the midtown elite, a combination of his own drunken violence, Emily’s naivete, and American jingoism leads to his disgrace. Amir is Pareja.

You probably can see where I’m headed: Why Seville and Cordoba? Why Velázquez and taqiyya? Why, for that matter, paella and chorizo, two of the few things that all the characters can agree to love?

Disgraced demonstrates that debates about Spanish history and culture are always about more than Spain. Seville and Cordoba are now signs in the public sphere for an ahistorical model of tolerance and multiculturalism, while Inquisitorial Spain stands for the opposite paradigm of intolerance and bigotry. Something similar could be said of the history of art and its relationship to cultural difference. The way that Velázquez and other late medieval and early modern peninsular artists, architects, printers, and authors represent Muslims and Jews for Christian audiences has become a contemporary touchstone for thinking about the patronizing power of representation. As Disgraced shows, moreover, we might add American debates about food and class, Judaism and Israel, the Department of Homeland Security, and secular pluralism to the list of issues and topics for which Spain offers a ready vocabulary. Akhtar’s play is particularly candid – a more ungenerous spectator might say heavy-handed – about this idea. But it’s an important one nonetheless: To teach, research, and represent Spain is to take a position on myriad issues of contemporary relevance.

That audiences can be expected to recognize Spanish art and architectural references in a play about religion in contemporary New York City suggests that such audiences might also be curious to dig deeper. They might stream out into a crowded Times Square wondering whether there is a more nuanced and textured story than the one Akhtar’s Emily offers. I’m not suggesting that we should engage in a tired show of academic one-upmanship. And let’s not be content merely to recount the history of why and how we have come to see a considerable swath of modern religious and political issues through a peninsular lens. Rather, let’s recognize this state of affairs as an opportunity for those of us in the field of Latin American and Iberian studies to broaden our range of interlocutors and audiences.

I’m not generally one for headshots and rehearsals, but I can’t help but wonder: Could we take our show to Broadway?

Last Updated 6 years ago


Seth Kimmel, « Medieval and Early Modern Spain and Contemporary Islam, On Broadway », Blogs, Columbia University | LAIC, Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures (online), published on November 5, 2014. Full URL for this article

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