“Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet/Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great judgment seat.” This view of formidable/distinct polarity within a diverse environment is explored in Ayub Khan Din’s play “East is East”, which was first published in 1995. The play follows George Khan, a first generation Pakistani immigrant living in Salford, who attempts to impose his beliefs upon his wife, Ella and their six children. From an Existential-Humanistic point of view, identity is a constantly evolving and subjective construct, which is deeply influenced by one’s environment. Many authors have started to deconstruct traditional identity theories, which view identity as a static feature of a person. On the one hand, Khan Din’s portrayal of George demonstrates the conflicting pressure of subaltern Muslim identities, yet also reproduces and reinforces historically symbolic stereotypes through sharply juxtaposing the ‘backward’ East with the progressive ‘West’.
Through George Khan’s experiences, “East is East” does, to some degree, provide insight into the frustration and desolation experienced by many Muslims. George recalls the film-making process of a 1930s British movie, in which a fellow actor did “not want to eat with him cause he is Indian”. Evidently, his immigrant background excludes him from the hegemonic power structure of society and, thereupon, forces him into a subordinate position. Likewise, various inconspicuous references in the play subalternize George Khan. Ella’s language, for instance, contains traces of racist constructions of the colonial era. While discussing the Muslim practice of polygamy, she mimics George’s first wife by pulling a bedsheet over her lower face, and mockingly retorts, “she’ll have a hard time serving fish and chips dressed from head to toe in a bleeding bedsheet”. As shown above, the rhetoric of the characters in the play reflects the lingering Orientalist mindset of the public sphere. Modood, a British professor at the University of Bristol, contends that various forms of racism inevitably lead to biological racism, which seeks to marginalize or expect absolute assimilation from immigrants. Thereupon, George’s presumably assimilated use of adjectives, such as “bleeding”, “bloody bastard”, not only establish a British working-class space, but examine the ideological constructs of language. The terms ‘bastard’ and ‘bloody’ “carry multiple connotations of legitimacy or illegitimacy, blood lines, and violence”, and, thus, the author implicitly demonstrates the relationship between language and biological racism. Correspondingly, Collins Klobah has examined the impact of being outside of the hegemonic power structure of society. She employs the term subaltern, which was originally coined by Antonio Gramsci, to describe the forces of subordination, control, and dominance that work against the subaltern [and] the lingering elitist constructions, which lead to subaltern ‘inferiority’, ‘otherness’. Consequently, he violently enforces his beliefs upon his family as compensation for his powerlessness. After his eighteen-year-old son, Saleem, inquires, “well if Pakistani women are so great, why did you marry me mam?”, George’s frustration grows and he resorts to violence. He, presumably, recognizes his cultural contradictions, yet despite that “decides to bend his children to his will (…) and secure their paths as Muslims to, arguably, shore up his own questionable position in the Muslim Pakistani community”. As a result of Khan Din’s often underlying depiction of George’s subalternation, the reader acquires a greater understanding of the conflicting pressures of Muslim identities, which are significantly shaped by a sense of belonging and alienness.
In spite of the fact that “East is East” provides limited insight into the hardships of being a Muslim immigrant, Khan Din’s portrayal of George perpetuates pervasive and destructive stereotypes, which once laid the foundation of imperialism. George Khan appears to be the “archetypal image of the eastern male, brutish and oppressive”. In fact, the stereotypes associated with George originate from the colonial era, in which European powers falsely portrayed the East “as primitive, irrational violent, despotic, fanatic, and essentially inferior to the westerner”, in order to establish absolute domination over their subjects. Khan Din consistently attaches these symbolic stereotypes to George, and, thus “encourages the audiences to reinforce their view of a foreign villain.” George uses physical force and abusive language in an attempt to impose his cultural and religious ideals upon his family. Khan Din reinforces George’s violent nature, in particular, through the consistent use of suggestive words, such as “knifes” and “cutting”, which immediately evoke violent associations. In the beginning of the drama, George notices, Sajit’s “bloody …tickle tackle” and, subsequently, forces a circumcision upon him. His vulgar demand “this thing need cutting (…) I bloody fixes”, exemplifies Khan Din’s evocative style of writing, which elicits disapproving emotions. The author. thereby, instructs the reader’s interpretation of Muslim identities. Claudia Rankine, an American poet examines similar themes, in particular, the construct of identity and the resulting consequences of racism. She, however, utilizes visuals, endnotes and investigative lyric, which stimulate the reader’s engagement and analytical skills. Rather than recontextualizing and fundamentally deconstructing the stereotypical discourse, Khan Din reproduces the norms of racist representations without subverting them. Rankine’s flexible and responsive poetry, thereupon, establishes a profound contrast between Khan Din’ categorizations of George, which disallows the complexities of Muslim identities to be fully known.
Moreover, Khan Din reinforces this patronizing and deeply negative representation through using “binary oppositions and farcical juxtapositions” between the radical Muslim Pakistani nature, notably portrayed by the character George, and the moral superiority of the Western world. Fazeela Hanif discusses in her essay “Muslims in Britain”, Wolfe’s statement that, “Islamic and British identities are in conflict which can be resolved only by the ascendancy of one or the other”. Likewise, this school of thought can be identified in Khan Din’s work. Throughout the majority of the drama, Ella and her children tend to live their individual freedom by/through concealing forbidden activities. In contrast to George, the reader’s sympathy towards Ella steadily grows, as she emerges as moral superior. In order to safeguard her family, she achieves ascendancy in the family power structure, which ultimately leaves George with his “half cup of tea”, a/subaltern position in the family. Khan Din, thereby, reproduces the same binary categorization, as explored by Hanif, which, ultimately, demonstrates the impossibility of constructive dialogue “between the ‘progressive’ West and the ‘backward’ East; only conflict.” Consequently, Khan Din depicts Muslims as strictly incompatible with Western culture, a symbolic imperialist construction.
To conclude, Ayub Khan Din’s portrayal of George’s subaltern position in both the household and nation allows the reader to gain an understanding of the frustration and desolation experienced by many Muslims. Nevertheless, the author reproduces symbolic racist representations, which served as justifications for Imperial domination and colonial ambitions. Without critically recontextualizing these hostile ideas, Khan Din disseminates a false representation of complex identities. This can be particularly dangerous since language severely influences our political and social behavior. Thereupon, this “discourse of difference can become praxis, which then becomes reality” and, ultimately, excludes the voices of subaltern identities completely.
“If you admit to being racist, it says you acknowledge that you are being driven by projections and stereotypes that were formed in the creation of our country. “
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