Unburdened is set in the time just before and after President Obama’s inauguration when Robin, a journalist from Toronto, goes on a newspaper assignment to Karachi. Robin is in a decade-long relationship with Katherine, and most of the play is seen through Katherine’s eyes as she and Robin communicate via the phone, Skype, and texts. Robin and Katherine are in their early forties. Robin is half Muslim (his mother’s from Pakistan) and Katherine’s father is Jewish.
In Karachi Robin stays with Attiya and Saad, his aunt and uncle. Both are in their seventies but robust, and could be 15 years younger. Attiya is usually quiet as Saad is usually loquacious, as compact as he is expansive. Attiya’s voice is all over the accent register and she mixes up metaphors with similar energy. Saad and Attiya moved from Delhi to Karachi in 1947, then to Toronto in the early ’60s, before retiring in Karachi at the beginning of 2001. As a kid Robin had spent a lot of time in their house in Mississauga, a city just outside Toronto.
In Karachi Robin meets Nazia, a musician in her late twenties.
Below is an excerpt from the play.
Act One Scene 1
Robin and Nazia are at a party in Karachi. People have drinks in their hands, so does Robin. It’s a Halloween party, Nov 1st 2009.
Costumes that pass by include Bush and Obama as a couple—Bush is in drag and wearing a wig to pass as Michelle—Brangelina, a couple of Osamas, the one-eyed Taliban leader (Mulla Omar) in diapers, a few Arabs, a burkha-clad woman, and a blonde in a red dress holding a mike who looks like Celine Dion.
(In mid-conversation among a group of people) … Yes I have written about the war before. When the Pakistan Army moved into South Waziristan, yes the year Bush won and Gore lost. Why were we interested? You are right most people weren’t I was because uh… Pause
Enter Nazia, dressed as a trapeze artist, being held hung upside down, her legs elegantly hold onto a rope held from a ladder on wheels being dragged along by Celine Dion. Robin can’t see Nazia as she is behind Robin and listening to him.
I interviewed some refugees over the phone, people fleeing from the army. Yes, right, refugees don’t make a sexy story. No, I was in Toronto, did it over the phone… this is really my first time here. Yes well, I get Urdu.
What kind of a name is McKay-Khan. Sounds black.
Swivels around, smiles at both, a little startled by the blonde Celine…
uh. No. Pause.
Did you know that Muslims are the niggers of the world?
That makes half the world black.
African American! Watch your language Mr. Journalist.
Pause. Does a slow turn on the rope.
Us pathans are the niggers of the Muslim world.
Don’t pathans think they are Jewish?
Listen to this rap. Rights herself up.
Performs an energetic and zany rap.
Mard e momin Mard e Haq Zia ul Haq Zia ul Haq
Zee Aul HAQ, Z-Z-Zeeeul HAQ
Mard e MoMoMo MIN, MMM’maHAQ.
Soldier of god, Man of Islam?
You got Urdu! Pause. Has a drink. You may be able to get some things around here
Sings. Mard e momin Mard e Haq Zia ul Haq Zia ul Haq
Can you in Amrika get more gangsta than that? Pause
Sings. Mard e… Stops. Hmm, though Zia WAS Amrika.
What do you mean?
Yells. I have seen Charlie Wilson’s War. You’re Amrika if you get Amrikan money.
The party crowds in around them.
Let me guess: you are Betty and Veronica?
Upside down again. She is Celine I am me.
Looks at his watch. This sucks. I gotta go.
Hey…take my number!
She takes Robin’s mobile and types in her number
Act 2 Scene 5
Two weeks later. The set is a two-bedroom apartment in Karachi. There is usually not a quiet space anywhere in the apartment. One can almost always hear television.
When Katherine, who is in Toronto, is present on the stage and observing the action in Saad and Attiya’s Karachi apartment she is visible only to Robin; it means that the scene is reported back to Katherine by Robin. Robin and Katherine can also carry on a parallel dialogue, which means it’s the conversation they have after the action. This is an oft-repeated device in the play.
Robin is on the phone with Katherine. Robin is still in bed and the bedsheets are strewn around.
I am back to living in their Mississauga basement.
He gestures at the small windows.
It’s still impossible to know the time of day. Pause.
Robin is talking, puts on his pants, walks out of the bedroom goes to the room with the dining table, Saad is seated there, Robin walks and sits by him. Katherine seats herself at the other end of the table from Saad and Robin.
We were at breakfast.
I didn’t want fried eggs again, or I wanted to make them myself. How do I tell her that?! Out comes Attiya carrying fried eggs and toast.
I am surprised at you you were home last nite how do you keep up with things.
You didn’t watch Obama on Larry King.
Uh huh. Why, what did he say?
Obama said it wasn’t important whether he was Muslim or Christian.
I’ll read about it, he says these things well.
Don’t you think as a journalist you should watch the man speak for himself.
Robin (His voice rising)
I know the men that Obama has hired, they are all around my age, they are all Clinton Administration Lite, neocon po-lite, still out to remake the middle east.
Saad gapes at him.
You think you can do better?
I am not saying that, I am skeptical of this call of change.
Picks up the International Herald Tribune lying on the table.
I am not arguing this, the Foreign Editor of the New York Times is, here read.
He places it next to Saad’s breakfast; Saad stares at Robin.
This is Obama’s team: Dennis Ross, the Clinton administration Mideast peace envoy, James Steinberg, Dan Kurtzer, Dan Shapiro, and Martin Indyk. Two ambassadors to Israel in that list. Pause. What have they succeeded at that they should continue? It doesn’t even look good. Not one Arab, or Persian, or Afghan. Not one Muslim. They can’t convince themselves that one Muslim could be for American interest?
Saad leans over; Opens his eyes wide.
You think you can do better, Do YOU think YOU can do better?
Look they are all one kind of guy, you would think after 8 years…
Saad (Cuts Robin off)
Saad (Cuts him off)
You told me what I needed to know.
Turns away, Saad goes into darkness.
Robin turns towards Katherine’s side of the table. Saad picks up a paper to do the crossword, sits on his favorite sofa in his usual way (leaning back, legs crossed at the ankle).
That’s one fucked up exchange.
Did not know you had this steam to blow anymore. Why didn’t you try out that Al Qaeda line of yours?
“The problem you have with the State Department is that it’s got too many Jews and the problem you have with al Qaeda is that it’s got too many Muslims.”
Who are you, anyway. You don’t want to join either so why bother your pretty head. I am glad he asked you that question.
Fuck, I am serious. You should see what people here have to say. Mine are pickled jokes. I don’t know how to make it clear. Not a word is taken at face value. Obama and the lites of the State Dept. can make any well-intentioned statement. The Americans use robots to kill people. These drones. These drones kill more bad guys than the Pakistan army, but they still kill lots of others, say they wanna kill a militant who’s having sex the whole house gets a rocket, so what about the person in the kitchen, and there is no end to this. Katherine, imagine how people here feel.
If I didn’t know better I’d say you are getting confused about why you are there. You are ready to chuck your job to write the book you are thinking about for 8 years, you go there for work and reasons of family, something is bothering you about them…but now what are you trying to do?! Give Pakistan a voice?
But you know better. Pakistan is the story of the century.
Where’s Orwell and Hemingway, Robin, if this is the story of the century? There is only poor you in Spain, baby.
That’s my point. Where are they? No one is here because no one wants to come to a Muslim country. Or they will come when the shit has exploded their buildings but even then it’s a visit in an SUV. Pause. There is a cause worth fighting for. Pause. Against this Talibanization.
You know each time you say that word…each time you tell me I don’t get it and for a different reason and that has me not getting it at all. If the whole culture thinks a certain way what can you do? What’s the opposite to Talibanization? Sex, drugs, rock and roll, democracy and capital flows?
Equality. Justice. Equity. Something like that. The rest is all here.
ACT 3 Scene 1
Morning. Robin enters the living room from the kitchen. Saad is there in his usual spot, reading the International Herald Tribune. On his table is the Economist, and the DAWN. Katherine is sitting on one of the sofa chairs facing Robin.
Can I ask you a question about your life, I have asked kind of asked before but…
Uncrosses his legs leans forward attentively.
I’ll tell you whatever you want to know unless I don’t want to tell you but I’ll tell you when I don’t want to.
Robin and Kat exchange glances, she smiles, he shrugs, it’s a familiar exchange between them; clearly they have encountered Saadisms before.
Robin turns to Saad.
Why did you leave Delhi?
One afternoon in Darya Ganj, my neighbours came and said that it’s better YOU leave. This was two months after I had sent my mother and the siblings to Karachi. I got a horse and cart the next day and as I was putting my things on, a newcomer in the neighborhood, a refugee from Pakistan, said don’t bother taking your stuff we have left enough behind.
And so you left forever?
That’s why people leave, they don’t leave because oh you know that place is better. Oh it’s Canada let’s see, I think we can have a better life there! The kids will have parks and pools and we can get things on credit. People leave because they have been shamed at home.
I stay’d around in Delhi, lived at different friends’ houses. I saw Delhi seek refuge at Purana Qila. I saw it myself. No one has to tell me. I left when I left. Big Pause. That train ride never seemed to end. We slowed down at sunset because a man carrying a woman signaled us to stop and we did. He was Sikh, we were terrified, but he deposited the girl. The train was attacked. I saw Amritsar ablaze. Ablaze. Pause. I tell you this but you are never going to ask Attiya her story. Long Pause. When we stopped at a platform in Pakistan two Baluch regiment soldiers with us, killed two Sikh men standing on the platform. Just killed them. In cold blood. I had a friend, Shahid, who slept through it all.
To Kat. Long Pause.
He asked about you then he asked about your father.
I asked about him myself. I thought there was something weird with him talking of doctor’s appointments three weeks in a row. Guess what? All his teeth are being replaced. It’s that bad. He didn’t want to tell anyone. He didn’t want me to worry. I cried when I heard. It’s the other side of the insulation we have for our lives, he doesn’t ask for my details I don’t ask for his. What’s the point of knowing how we go through our days? Sure we care but we filter details, he likes you but he doesn’t ask who you are he doesn’t know you graduated from York or U of T. It’s been what 10 years of dinners and r’hasahannahs and Christmas, he doesn’t know how long you worked for the Metro section. You are asking all these details of Saad and Attiya’s lives all at once, but what use is it? To anyone? Pause. In our day to day we are alone. With our schedules, our doctors, our longings. Pause. Only couples know since they live against each other like a prisoner and the wall of her cell.
Pause. I told Attiya about your father’s teeth and she said:
Saad had his teeth removed because three were falling out, now he has an 8000 dollar mouth. 8000 dollars between his jaws.
Was your father different when your mom and him were together? That’s my point. When do people change? When do these people become the way they are. What happened?
Everybody looks at her. She cackles.
What is that? Rolling? Stone?
We have become rolling stones.
Turns to Robin
You know Cousin Kamal was attacked on the flight through Paris.
His asthma attacked him and they took him off. They didn’t look to see who he was. Is he Pakistani? Even if he was conscious it would have made no willy nilly (she breaks into a brogue)…No wiliness on his part he was past half past.
Smiling, attentive and enthusiastic
…passed out, yes he was passed out. So he passed out on the plane?
Even if he was awake they wouldn’t have gotten anything out of him to French questions.
But they did not ask him, even in French: Are you Pakistani, are you Muslim…
What IS a Muslim? Does anyone know?
What do they know…
They asked how he was but he was unconscious so they took him to the hospital. Attiya moving about.
Lights go off. Power failure. Attiya shrieks.
Turn on the light.
AAAaaa where is it.
Unburdened, a new play by Rehan Ansari, will have a reading on June 7 at the Asia Society.
REHAN ANSARI is a Brooklyn-based writer. A Karachi native and a graduate of Vassar College, Rehan was a working journalist in New York during 9/11 and in Mumbai during the attacks in 2008. He travelled to Pakistan in the aftermath of both, and Unburdened is based on his experiences. The play has been presented at CEPA gallery's Art of War festival in Buffalo and has had readings in Toronto including at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education. http://asiasociety.org/events-calendar/unburdened-new-play-rehan-ansari