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WHAT'S IN A NAME? The MUSLIM IDENTITY CRISIS IN TODAY'S CORPORATE AMERICA By SAMIHA CHOWDHURY

‘HOW DOES THE PLAY "IN SPENGLIC" REFLECT THE IDENTITY CRISIS MUSLIM IMMIGRANTS FACE IN CORPORATE AMERICA?

Abstract

I attended a theatre festival in San Francisco called ‘ReOrient’, where I chose a play called ‘In Spenglic’ to address my research question, written by Iranian-American playwright Niku Sharei. The story shows the protagonist Meetoo's identity struggle with her name and identity in a foreign country, and her being pressured by her unethical corporate employer Globetron to change both, because her company pays her ill son’s medical insurance. In this essay, I will be analysing the impact of the heroine's name and how it relates to immigrant identity struggles for Muslim Americans, in an increasingly capitalistic America. Meetoo's financial difficulties and the sacrifices she has to make from her identity shall be compared to immigrant struggles to escape the shackles of poverty. Additionally, I will look explore the intersection of the Muslim faith and acceptance in the workplace. The capitalistic notion of ‘separation’ of identity and professionalism is the concept I hope to address; many Muslim-Americans have to set aside their traditional religious practices like prayer-routines, hijab (head-covering), and especially their names to suit white tongues. This is all done in the name of efficiency and workplace productivity, but all it does is reduce an individual’s racial and religious identity to a hollow shell, to be discarded in the workplace because it is too different from the white leaders. As for materials used, I watched the play, and interviewed its writer Niku Sharei. I also viewed press photographs of her performance in order to better analyse her characters' body language and gestures. I further plan on connecting this play to other course material; both articles we have read and the movies/videos we have seen.

Sofia Ahmad and Amitis Rossoukh in "In Spenglic" by Niku Sharei and directed by Lisa Marie Rollins. ReOrient 2019 showcases its World Premiere. //Photo by DavidAllenStudio.com
How does a corporate identity intersect with Muslim American identity? credit: DiversityQ

Essay

The ominous Globetron logo hangs over the whole performance, perhaps implying that the corporation watches and controls everything. //Credit: personally taken photograph

The stage is brightly lit, a brilliant, ominous logo announcing 'Globetron', flashing overhead. Meetoo, a young single mother, is nervously anticipating her job interview with her boss, Kell-A, which shall determine whether she gets a coveted job at the successful Globetron, a large, progressive corporation. Her worried expression says it all; was it worth moving to Spenglia with her ill young son for this job? After a fast-paced, successful interview, Metoo gets some unsolicited advice; to change her name, because her name, in Spenglic, means 'prostitute'. Her face falls; perhaps Globetron was not the progressive haven she pictured after all.

Niku Sharei's own experience of working as a Muslim American immigrant is replayed in her excellently worded play, as she pens her own experience of being pressured to change her name and identity. Her play is set in a dystopian, ruthlessly capitalist nation, mirroring modern day corporate America. Her protagonist, immigrant single mother Meetoo , moves there for better job prospects. She finds her unique identities of immigrant, mother and individual challenged by her workplace; because they only wish to see her as a 'worker'. Meetoo, like all individuals, is a performer. She wants to continue 'performing' all her identities with her own unique name, personality, and culture. However, she also wants to fit the mould that the company Globetron, a thinly-veiled reference to modern American corporations, enforces. Either she needs to give up her name and identity to fit into the 'correct' corporate image to keep her job, or she holds onto both, in a system which appreciates neither, and risks losing her livelihood. As the play progresses, she discovers several disturbing aspects of the company; they drug employees to make them less emotional, and they resent the fact that Metoo’s ill young son distracts her from work. Above all, they abhor her defensiveness over her name.

Meetoo (right) nervously meets her potential employer, Kell-A, for her job interview. Credit: Personally taken photograph.

Meetoo feels as if she is ‘stuck’ in a black and white, capitalistic world which refuses to understand her, and she feels as if she is ‘performing’ in her workplace as someone else. In Globetron, she is stuck between a few polarizing identities; she is either a mother, a worker, or an immigrant unfamiliar with local culture, but the company refuses to allow her to be all three. She begins to wonder; where does her ‘performance’ end and her personality begin?

This echoes the innate struggle many Muslim Americans face in the US, where they have to deal with sacrificing many aspects of their lives to survive in a capitalist corporate America.

The gesture of changing a name holds more weight in America anywhere else. I recall a high-school friend from back in Bangladesh, who was planning to immigrate to the United States, changed his birth-name of Muhammad to a different one. When I inquired as to why his name had changed on our attendance roster, he said that his father believed having ‘Muhammad’ in his name hurt their immigration chances. In the way Meetoo’s faith in the liberally progressive Spenglia was questioned, so was mine in America, the land born of a hundred cultures and languages. The character Meetoo, named for the powerful movement in which women called out their sexual abusers, is itself a name which generates controversy.

IN GLOBETRON, YOU ARE NOT YOUR NAME. YOU ARE WHAT YOU DO. (SHAREI, 2019)

To begin with, in the play’s first scene, Metoo’s name, which she is proudly wearing on a sash, is quite literally stripped off her body by her employer Kell-A after she is hired. Despite Kell-A’s endorsement of Globetron’s ‘liberal’ values, which uses interesting phrases like ‘You are not your name, you are what you do’, her name is kept in a box, away from public eyes. She is then referred to as Shel-C, a 'proper name', despite her protests that she be allowed to use her real name. From the very beginning this very innate dissociation of her name from her work performance indicates the separation of her identity; she is told that from now on, she will be judged solely by her ability to work and make money for her employer, and that her name has nothing to do with her anymore, hence it is being 'put away'. This is similar to many popular workplace slogans in the United States. While they are meant to say that employees will never be judged by where you come from, race, religion, sexual orientation wise, but rather on effort and financial output, these slogans are also inherently problematic. They immediately assume that ‘you are not your name’, effectively removes a person from their other identities of ethnicity, religious beliefs, etc, and forces them to prioritise their identity as a profitable unit. This form of dissociation separates an individual from any traits that make them anything besides a student or worker. Depicting a cultural/racial/religious identity as an undesirable distraction is racist at its core, and 'un-American.' It seems that to 'perform' as a real American, one needs to perform as a productive capitalist unit, one who works themselves to the bone. It does not allow much room for intersectional identities. Meetoo's performance as a human being, a mother, and an immigrant has been paused, in order to let her perform as a worker, or Spenglian (a reference to a 'proper American'), a demanding identity.

According to Richard Schechner in his titular article, ‘What is Performance’, he says a performance is something which marks identities, bends time, reshape and adorn the body, and tell stories. (Schechner, 2013). He also goes on to quote Erving Goffman, who asserts that all performance is ‘restored behavior’ or ‘twice-behaved behavior’ (Goffman, 1959). Meetoo’s performances certainly marks a large portion of her identity; whether it is her performance as a mother, as a worker, or as an immigrant seeking a better job and life for her child. As I evaluated the gesture and significance of Metoo’s ‘performance’ at the workplace, I noticed that all of Meetoo’s roles intersected to form her individuality; who was she, this collection of performances?

One of her clearest performances here is of the worker. As the play unfolds, Metoo's days are depicted in the office, showing the same ‘restored behaviour’- typing away at the laptop, making regular reports, and chatting to her workaholic colleague Shel-B. Metoo dons a calm, professional demeanour, going through the motions of the day, and her ‘performance’ as a highly efficient, productive employee is going well.

In photo: Metoo (right) discovers a variety of disturbing facts about Globetron; they drug her colleague Shel-B to make her less emotional and more productive at her job. The drug is taken via Shel-B's daily iced coffee. Credit: personally taken photograph

Credit: personally taken photograph

This performance, however, starts weakening the minute she makes two discoveries; her new business cards, which have her ‘workplace name’ Shel-C printed, and not her own, and what she learns her colleague Shel-B has been subjected to by Globetron to make her a better worker. Meetoo’s name is an aspect of her identity that is essential; a piece of her culture, her religion, and her own language, the dynamics of which significantly changed when she immigrated to Spenglia for her job. Metoo's 'performance' as an immigrant, and as a mother, is shown through her outrage. She is also horrified that Globetron feeds Shel-B 'emotional discharger' drinks in an attempt to cure Shel-B's depression over a friend's death. Her colleague is now addicted, and is facing several other health problems. Besides this culture shock, she is informed that her son needs emergency lung surgery when he calls her workplace, and her protests against her business cards stop immediately. Her job now has higher stakes; to earn enough to pay for her son's care. She has to 'recompose' and 'recharacterize' her performance as a good employee, as she is now a part of Globetron, and of Spenglia.

This part of the play is an allusion to how Muslim immigrants in America, who come from several countries, customs, and languages, all need to ‘re-characterize’ their performance as Muslims, as they are now Americans as well. That, in and of itself, innately shakes how they approach the question of their identity.

Moving to America is the dream for many. But at what cost? //Photo by Adobe Stock

In photo: Metoo's collegue Shel-B (left) rudely reacts to a call from Metoo's son, who is in the emergency room. Credit: Personally taken photograph

A very interesting allusion I find to a character’s name being taken away can be seen in Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away. Protagonist Chihiro must work for an evil witch in order to save her parents from a curse she has placed on Chihiro’s parents, but she must give up her name.

Spirited Away shows a frightening parallel with ‘In Spenglic’, where the loss of a name symbolises a loss of a fundamental piece of an identity, regardless of the reason or the duration of the time you are nameless. Meetoo’s employers know she has no choice but to accept her fate, so they ignore her please and demands without any remorse. She needs a job in what is characterised as a competitive, highly technological economy. It is practically impossible to survive without money, as her ill young son desperately needs her to work. Giving up a small aspect of her identity is deemed a worthy sacrifice, and from that point on, she begins to lose more and more aspects of her identity outside of a 'productive worker', something she accepts bitterly. In the same way Chihiro needs to 'give up' her name to free her parents, Muslim Americans need to give up a fragment of their identity to be considered an 'American', and more importantly, an 'American employee'. The capitalist threats of inevitable poverty and misery are like a chokehold. It is echoed in the experiences and sentiments that several Muslim immigrants have to face. Whether it is in the school or workplace, personal and religious customs have to be put aside, simply because post 2001, 'it is difficult to be a Muslim in America' (Lakhani, 2017). It all begins with the name; Muslims in educational institutions or offices have their names mispronounced, misspelled, and sometimes, are even called by a different name because their real name was ‘too difficult’ for white majority tongues. This seemingly harmless concession is the first step of an identity vacuum. To survive America, Muslims must perform as America, but to do so, give up a part of themselves that they may never recover.

In terms of impacts on Muslim-American immigrant identity in the United States corporations; many Muslim workers discuss having difficulty reconciling their faith, beliefs, and identity with a corporate job that has standards of job performance that are clearly based on Caucasian/white cultures. The discrimination starts at the interview; during routine checks of an applicant's social media for a background check, Muslim identifying candidates face significantly lower chances of interview, regardless of competitive qualifications (Krawczyk, 2017). Additionally, the work calendar that is followed is clearly unaware/insensitive to Muslim religious observances, with companies feeling like it is time lost 'on the clock'. And to them, time is money. Several firms provide no leave for holidays like Eid-Ul-Fitr or Eid-Ul-Azha, do not provide a proper prayer area for the daily ‘namaj’(prayer) or for that matter, a specific break in order for practicing Muslims to pray at all. A notable instance was the New York firm Pax Assist, which denied its Muslim employees prayer breaks and refused to make any allowances to night-shift employees in Ramadan, where Muslims do not eat/drink from dawn to dusk, meaning these employees went for several extra hours without food. (Lakhani, 2017) This illustrates, in many ways, the subtle, and sometimes blatant, Islamophobia that inherently exists within American corporations, particularly after September 11, 2001, with complaints regarding Muslim workplace religious discrimination rising by almost 250%. (Lakhani, 2017). In 2015, American company Cargill laid off 150 Muslim workers who had been demanding prayer breaks, while clothing retailer Abercrombie and Fitch was sued because it was discovered they did not hire a potential employee because she wore a hijab. The most frequent complaints include dispute over religious holidays and not having halal food options. (Moodie, 2016) While many Muslims choose to file lawsuits and communicate with their employers, most have to either stop wearing the hijab, and learn to make do with non-halal food. Still others face discrimination and cannot afford to sue, or choose not to, believing that the money or time lost could be better spent providing for their family and community.

The economic role is an important one in America, and one’s job is often their most elaborate performance; the workplace is an area where many emotions have to be set aside in order to accomplish a set of important tasks. In essence, their religious identity, which influences a significant portion of their lifestyle regarding clothing and food, is demoted to a 'low-priority' identity, one which needs to be performed in the privacy of the home or tight-knit community. Consequently, I believe that many Muslims feel as if they are 'failing to perform' as a good Muslim, because they must 'perform' as good workers and good Americans first. And good Americans must obey the dress code which is company policy, take breaks on the company's clock, and above all, be an employee before a Muslim. They run the risk of 'being isolated in their lives and become nameless and faceless "labor" and "households"'. (Fitzgibbons, 2017) After all, they are not their name, they are what they do.

Is MUSLIM identity slowly being unraveled by an increasingly capitalistic America? credit: kyle fitzgibbons
America is god's cricible, the great melting pot -(Zangwill, 1908)

With the modern perspective of rising home-prices, rising tensions regarding employability, and intense competitiveness in the job market, doing well at one’s job; getting promoted, putting in longer hours and earning a higher figure are all activities which have more value than ever before. Muslim neighbourhoods in Brooklyn, New York, faced several threats after the advent of 'Punish A Muslim Day' in 2001, and when Muslim locals formed a neighbourhood watch to improve security, were met with severe backlash. (Petri, 2019) It is a far cry from the sentiments in Israel Zangwill's 'Melting Pot', where the optimistic David Quixano quotes that 'America is God's Crucible, the great melting pot'. (Zangwill, 1.3.100-101) Modern America, where communities do not come together to thrive, but to oppress another, is not what Quixano enivisioned. Meetoo knows this, and so does a Muslim American who feels unsafe in America. Zangwill's unabashed optimism rings hollow in this bleak, Islamophobic America. It is where people are indeed united, but under the banner of capitalism, not acceptance.

Shel-B is horrified to find out that she has been fired, as her name has been 'returned' to her, and now contemplates her future. Her name, Taselyn, is displayed on the rightmost table. Photo by DavidAllenstudio.com

In the end of 'In Spenglic', Meetoo's colleague Shel-B is laid off because she was no longer as efficient as before. She finds out when her name is 'returned' to her, and is one from which she is so disconnected that it takes her time to recognise her own name. It is inferred that she has lost so much of her own identity, she feels like a mere shell of her past individuality. Shel-B is distraught, because she feels as if she has lost a part of herself that she can never get back. She has lost it to a capitalist structure which had no use for it, and now, despite her sacrifice, she is without financial support as well. Her 'performance' as a human being outside of her job, has stopped. Possibly forever.

Meetoo, now renamed 'Shel-B' is both elated to find out she has been promoted, and distraught that her identity is lost. Credit: personally taken photograph

In the play's final scene, Meetoo, is promoted from 'Shel-C' to the 'new' Shel-B, and her employer ignores her questions regarding her former colleague. She is initially overjoyed; her promotion means Globetron will now cover 90 percent of her son's medical costs wheareas pre-promotion they only covered 75 percent. However, its consequences soon dawn on her as she practices a commercial for a company product, her face showing clear regret, as she now responds, without protest, to Shel-B.

Bibliography

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