Mosque Alert is a new play that focuses on three families in Naperville as the city decides whether a mosque may be built downtown on the site of a landmark. Author Jamil Khoury says the play was inspired by the Ground Zero mosque controversy a few years back in New York City, although there was also an incident of a mosque being built in Naperville in 2011 that drew protests.
The cast of 11, directed by Edward Torres, takes us in to the living room dramas and backroom deals of life in a wealthy suburb. Each family has different stakes in the approval or denial of the mosque, from spiritual to financial, and each character has different hopes and expectations. But what makes Mosque Alert so compelling are the nuances within each family, from the Christian money-grubbing and two-faced Chamber of Commerce business man (Mark Ulrich ) whose wife and kids are best friends with Muslims, the money-grubbing land developer’s wife and kids, to the imam with a big heart who wants to mediate and whose wife wants to open up his eyes to the prejudices they must endure in a land she doesn’t quite embrace. In fact, the nuances are so varied that it is easy to get bogged down in them. The characters and dialog are so crisp that if you don’t pay close attention you could lose sight of the real issue, which is—why shouldn’t a Muslim community be able to build a mosque in the land of the free?
While the Qabbani family questions the blatant Islamaphobia being stirred up from the new website ‘Mosque Alert’, their reactions differ in myriad ways. The son Farid (Andrew Saenz) is proud to be an Arab but is unsure of his faith, and he argues that people have a right to their concerns about extremism. His sister Samar (Sahar Dika) is outraged, but also wants everyone to know how progressive the new mosque should be, she even hopes to convince the imam to reverse the rules of men and women praying separately, and she believes that it is her job and right to interpret the Koran. Meanwhile, their best friends Jennifer and Carl Baker (Nina Ganet & Riley McIlveen) support the mosque wholeheartedly and are appalled at their community’s opposition to it. Carl sees parallels between the civil rights struggles of the local Muslims and the gay rights movement. He even offers to write an op ed piece for the local paper, which the imam is excited to hear about until he discovers the parallels Carl will make between gay rights and Muslim rights. His own beliefs make him unable to accept a comparison of their struggles.
What works so well in this play are the familiar debates between family members and friends. The drama increases as a town hall meeting is called and a support walk is scheduled and Daniel Baker (Steve Silver) ramps up the paranoia by stepping out from the anonymity of his hate-filled website, showing up in person to rile up the crowd with misinformation and conjecture. What started as plausible concerns about the mosque, traffic increases and sound levels, soon became outright anti-immigrant sentiment and jeers.
The relationships are strained and must adapt. In the end, the greed that drove characters to keep the status quo and led to fear mongering is revealed. But even so, the people remain raw and real, the manipulative uncle Daniel can’t understand why his niece and nephew are so angry with him for his hateful website and his interference with their friend’s plans. He claims to be protecting them and acting out of love for them. The businessmen Ted and Tawfiq also claim to be acting altruistically while clearly hoping to line their pockets with profits, but in the end Tawfiq shows moral fiber when he fathoms the depth of his friend’s Ted’s betrayal and stands up for his faith.
The mothers in the play were diverse and powerful characters. Emily Baker (Rengin Altay) played a bored housewife but loyal friend. Amy Carle (Aisha Khalil) was the strong and mistrustful woman behind the imam, and Rula Gardenier (Amina Qabbani) was a stylish and gracious woman of faith with an unfulfilled desire to be a fashion designer.
Mosque Alert is a timely play that exposes the double standards a society of immigrants can impose on itself. It reveals cowardly natures, greed, suspicion and barely masked hatred, but it does so evenly, revealing the weaknesses in all of its characters and in doing so, pointing out the humanity in all of them as well. Samar says it best in the end, when the four young friends are reconciling and demonstrating the best hope for tolerance and change that our nation has, the younger more resilient and open-minded generation, “But Carl, what you need to understand is that Muslims are neither angels nor demons; we’re human beings, just like everyone else. If white people can have a spectrum of beliefs, why can’t we? You’re holding us to a standard that just isn’t fair.”
Silk Road Rising is a theater company that produces “live theatre and online videos that tell stories through primarily Asian American and Middle Eastern American lenses.” Mosque Alert will run in the historic Chicago Temple Building Thursdays-Sundays until May 1. Tickets are $35, $15 for students.