It’s been just three years since Wajahat Ali graduated from UC Davis School of Law. Already, the nation is beginning to take notice of the man hailed as one of today’s most influential Muslim American artists.
Ali has gained serious recognition as a journalist, essayist, humorist, attorney and playwright responsible for shedding light on the post-9/11 Muslim American community. He’ll also be the first to say he could have never predicted the path his career has taken.
“I never really knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I always wanted to write and do stuff with creativity but I didn’t know how to do it,” said Ali, who graduated with a degree in English at UC Berkeley. “I had a pretty varied, interesting career in college. I dabbled in everything.”
At Berkeley, Ali helped create the campus’s first sketch comedy troupe and served on the board of the Muslim Student Association, among other activities. It was there that he began writing a play called The Domestic Crusaders.
The play focuses on three generations of a modern, Muslim Pakistani American family as each generation struggles to assert its own voice and come together in the post-9/11 world. It premiered at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York on Sept. 11, 2009, breaking box-office records and being hailed by critics and authors as a landmark achievement in Muslim American literature.
“We’ve been overdosed with love,” Ali said of his play. “It’s just fascinating because, look, I’m a dude from Fremont. I’m not famous. My cast was not superstars. It was an independent production. A piece like this should not have gotten the response it did. But it’s a story about an untold perspective at a very topical, sensitive moment for America.”
Ali said people of all cultures embrace The Domestic Crusaders, and are often surprised to recognize their own families in the drama played out onstage.
“There was an amazing response from the Jewish community, African Americans, South Asians, Muslims and the Puerto Rican community, saying, ‘We didn’t know that Muslim Americans are like this.’ So many people are shocked. They’re like, ‘this is basically our family.'”
Law school professor Joel Dobris performed with Ali in Cardozorama, the school’s talent show, when Ali was a student. He said that Ali was always a natural performer.
“I’m a big fan of his. He’s very charismatic, funny and compelling,” Dobris said. “His play has done very well. I’m delighted he’s been as successful as he has.”
Ali has also recently garnered praise for his article “Wells Fargo, You Never Knew What Hit You,” published in the newsmagazine San Francisco Panorama. It candidly tells the story of how, while living at home after law school, Ali saved a family’s home from impending foreclosure. Having not studied foreclosure law, and eager for work, Ali turned to the Internet to learn the basics.
“Economic desperation does wonders for one’s stamina and risk-taking abilities,” he said. “The foreclosure sale date was literally three days from the time [the family] came and met me. They were desperate, I was desperate.”
“It is high-pressure, it is stressful. But that’s the American dream: the home. You feel compelled ethically to do the right thing and work extra-hard for them.”
Ali also edits Altmuslim.com, a site devoted to discussion of global Muslim politics and culture, and maintains a blog entitled Goatmilk, which addresses Muslim American issues. In addition, he has written op-ed pieces for the Guardian and Huffington Post.
Ali said Muslim Americans today, spurred on by the events of 9/11 and subsequent pressures, have the opportunity to define who they are through art.
“When minority groups or ethnic groups feel pain, or feel like they’ve been placed under a microscope, is when they produce some of the best art. Muslims came to that fork in the road at 9/11,” he said. “Art has been a great vehicle for people to express their viewpoints or their protests or their lifestyle.”
Ali encourages students, especially minorities, to not be afraid to take risks and express their own unique point of view.
“You will find an abundance of riches in your history, in your family, and in your identity. Don’t be ashamed of it,” he said.
Ali’s early successes are certainly a testament to this ideal, and his former law professor Carlton Larson, for one, has no doubt about Ali’s future.
“He’s phenomenally talented,” Larson said. “He’s definitely marked for stardom.”
“The last thing I want to be,” Ali said, “is that dude at 60 years old who looks back on his life and says, ‘Oh, if I had just done that in my 20s or 30s, if I had just taken that risk,’ and have that regret.”
ROBIN MIGDOL at can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.