By Allison Kugel
Pakistani-American filmmaker and actress, Aizzah Fatima, has managed to do what many before her could not. She turned her intimate stage play, Dirty Paki Lingerie, a monologue-driven piece about everything you don’t know about Muslim American women, into the critically acclaimed film, American*ish, the first-ever romantic comedy about a Muslim American family trying to assimilate into American life while preserving their culture. Fatima’s Muslim American romcom is currently taking the national film festival circuit by storm and racking up awards.
Blending acting with activism, Aizzah Fatimah is resolute in using her film and television work as a conduit to create a new conversation about what it means to be someone of the Muslim faith and culture in America, even more specifically, a modern Muslim American woman. Her film is clearing up a lot of the misconceptions and fear-based prejudice about a religion and a people that are often misunderstood in the west.
In this candid discussion, Aizza and I really dig into the stereotypes surrounding Islam and Muslim women, modern-day feminism, and what it means to be Americanish.
Allison Kugel: How old were you when you got into acting?
Aizzah Fatima: Oh my God, I was very late. I was already in my 20s. I had already gone to school, already graduated and I was 23 years old and working at Google. You know, as an actor you start when you’re nine, and then your career launches by the time you’re thirty. To be in your twenties thinking about acting, I actually had people tell me, when I said I wanted to make the shift [into acting] a lot of people said, “Aren’t you too old?”
Allison Kugel: (Laughs) It’s such a weird business, I know. But I was so excited to speak with you for many reasons. I watched your film, Americanish, twice.
Aizzah Fatima: You’re like taking notes (laugh).
Allison Kugel: I was! The first time I watched the film, I thought it was a cute movie, and then I watched it again last night, and realized this movie is an important conversation starter. With everything going on in our world and in our culture right now, I don’t know if that is what you set out to do but tell me a little bit about that.
Aizzah Fatima: I feel like, in some way, I’ve always been trying to do that. The film came about because I had a comedic one-woman show called, Dirty Paki Lingerie. I started performing that in 2011, while I was still at Google. This film came about because I was performing In New York City at the Cherry Lane theater and the Filmmaker and Director, Iman Zawahry, happened to be in the audience the one day she was in town visiting for her birthday. She was with her family and friends, and they saw the poster, which was a woman in a hijab, holding up a piece of lingerie next to her body and she’s laughing. It is just joyful. She actually wears a hijab. She’s visibly Muslim, whereas I am not. She felt really represented through the [show’s] poster and she really loved the stories in the show. She’s Egyptian American, and obviously, the stories are Pakistan-American and so the stories of the women in the play are also from Pakistan, they are immigrants, and American Pakistani woman. She approached me and asked, “Did you ever think about turning this into a film?” I said, “You know, I actually have been, because I’ve been thinking about how to reach a wider audience.” I wanted to create conversations within my own community about all of the issues the film talks about, which comes from the play. Issues of identity, sexuality, relationships, religion versus culture, and what does that look like? Racial profiling, bullying. I knew I wanted to do it, I set out to do it, and I kind of looked at the play and it’s just a series of monologues. I was thinking, “How do you make this into a narrative feature?”
Allison Kugel: Was the series of monologues about your actual life, or was it fictionalized?
Aizzah Fatima: No, it’s not about my actual life. It’s based on interviews I conducted within the Muslim American community, and research-based as well. Its characters that range from a six-year-old girl to a sixty-five-year-old woman. I looked at what things the characters talked about in the play, so I thought, “How do I bring these themes into the film through these characters?” That is one thing I wanted to keep intact, and another thing was I literally went through the play, highlighted all the jokes, and thought I need to figure out how to rework these jokes from monologues to a feature film, because I know these jokes land with a live audience on a stage, so I want to make sure I preserve that funny. It was so interesting that we ended up going with this rom-com (romantic comedy) genre.
Allison Kugel: Has there ever been a romcom about a Muslim American family before this film?
Aizzah Fatima: This is the first, and it’s 2021!
Allison Kugel: That’s huge that your film is the first. That’s a real moment.
Aizzah Fatima: It’s a moment, well, I hope it’s a moment. I hope it becomes a movement, and I hope there are many more to come after us. That is how you create movements, it’s not just one person that does it by themselves.
Allison Kugel: What’s also interesting is, I’m Jewish, and I feel like there are a lot of similarities here, because we are also, both, a religion and a culture. As Muslim Americans, you are a religion as well as a people.
Aizzah Fatima: When I was growing up, it’s interesting because I grew up in Mississippi in a small town, and so my parents would always say to me, “You’re Pakistani. This is who you are.” Then the world would be like, “What are you? You’re not American.” Everyone was always telling me that I was not from here.
Allison Kugel: But you were born here in the states?
Aizzah Fatima: I was actually born in Saudi Arabia, in a compound with a very freaking American upbringing. It is so hard for me to explain this. I grew up on all the TV shows, and all American everything. We went to a school where all English was spoken. It was all so American. It’s hard for me, sometimes, to convince people that it was very American. Then, of course, I’m growing up in Mississippi. I feel very American. This is where I feel at home. I feel like a New Yorker. I think it’s only because first generation, people who came here really had lived their whole lives in another place, so they wanted to hold onto that so badly, and they wanted their children to hold onto that, so badly. This whole conversation about being a hyphenate, of being an American Muslim, for us, didn’t exist until a few years ago. As an adult, honestly, I’ve had to unlearn all of the stuff I learned as a kid about not belonging, not being from here, and now figuring it out for myself
Allison Kugel: This is an important point, because there is a lot of fear-based thinking among first generation Americans from a different culture, and there was in my community too, especially a few generations ago. You have the Jewish people that came here through Ellis Island to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. They were told to stay with their own, and many of them spoke Yiddish. Some of them didn’t even speak English, and I think you have different groups in New York. New York was almost tribal in some ways. You had the Italians, the Irish, the European Jews, you had all these different groups that came here and created subcultures within the boroughs of New York. I know that you didn’t grow up in New York, but in the early 1900s they came in on boats, they were told, “Stay with your own, don’t trust anybody else, they may not like you, and this is what you are.” Even in your movie, Americanish, I was laughing at the father who broke down crying, because his son didn’t want to marry a Muslim woman.
Aizzah Fatima: Yes, it’s tough, right? It’s so interesting, because I feel like the younger generation looks at it in such a different way. We’re gaining more. We’re spreading the love, you know (laugh)? I feel like it must have been so hard for my parents and that whole generation to come from this whole other place to a country that didn’t want you, told you they didn’t want you in many different ways, and you felt like you didn’t belong. You felt like you had to hold onto so much of your identity, your culture, and all that stuff.
Allison Kugel: Being that America and the “west” is what is referred to as a “Judeo-Christian” society, there is this narrative of, “If you’re a Muslim, you’re not one of us. You’re an ‘other’ and you don’t belong.” Then, of course, it got ramped up even more after 9/11. Tell me what that is like for you, living in this country, as a Muslim American.
Aizzah Fatima: I think as a little kid I just didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I didn’t want to have anything to do with religion. I just wanted to be like everyone else. In my world, I’m trying to be like everyone else, in Mississippi, in this little bubble. Everyone was super blonde, super cute (laugh), and that’s what normal was. As I got older, and finding my way into an artistic career, I realized I can’t and don’t want to be like everyone else. I have to honor the parts of me that make me different. This is what a Muslim looks like, not a bearded dude with a sword saying, “Allahu Akbar (God is most great).” It’s a girl saying, “Allahu Akbar, we’re going to make a great film!” You know what I mean? It’s that. It’s kind of like reclaiming your identity and exploring it. I love that you said this film is a conversation starter. I think that’s the whole point. For me, I can’t make art and not marry it to my activism. I don’t know how to do that.
Allison Kugel: Another interesting thing is you cast the comedian Godfrey in the role of the romantic love interest who marries a Pakistani woman.
Aizzah Fatima: We did. We knew we wanted a Black guy for the role. We need racism to end with our generation. This has to end, and how do we do that? Let’s create a film and put a Black guy as a romantic love interest for a Pakistani woman. And when I say racism has to end with our generation, I’m also talking specifically to the Muslim community. Sometimes I find the most racist of the racist are brown people towards Black people, believe it or not. I think I read this statistic that said one-third of the slaves who came over here were Muslim. I don’t know how accurate that is, but that is what I read. What does that mean for us as a community? We are basically building off of their backs. Yet, there is so much internal racism. In Mosques, and Muslim Community Centers, and places like that, we won’t accept Black people. We will be very “judgy” about them, the older generation. I’ve grown up around this.
Allison Kugel: I like that you put that in the film, and you didn’t shy away from it. And I like how in the film, Godfrey’s character says, “You know, there are Black Muslims.” That was so interesting to me, because I really only have a pop culture education about your religion and your culture, which is pretty distorted, I admit.
Aizzah Fatima: It’s a messed-up education, isn’t it?
Allison Kugel: It’s a messed-up education, yes, that’s what I’m saying. I know about the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, and all of that. Then of course the unrest in the Middle East. I actually didn’t know there was racial discrimination within the religion and culture.
Aizzah Fatima: The religion absolutely does not discriminate. It’s the culture that does. It’s all of our cultures that do. We were so lucky to get Godfrey through our casting directors. They were so impressed that he even came in, because they said, “Guys, we send him projects all the time and he doesn’t even come in to audition.”
Allison Kugel: Are you serious?
Aizzah Fatima: Yes, and if you talk to Godfrey, he would say, “Yeah this film really resonated with me.” So much of his comedy is about race, and he talks about a lot of the stuff the film talks about; the interracial stuff, race in America, and all of that.
Allison Kugel: So, he turns down movie auditions left and right?
Aizzah Fatima: He does apparently (laugh).
Allison Kugel: Who does that (laugh)?
Aizzah Fatima: He does that, and I was talking to him about it, and he said, “You have to do that. If the stuff doesn’t resonate with you, then you say ‘no’ because what’s the point?”
Allison Kugel: That’s integrity.
Aizzah Fatima: I have done things I wish I hadn’t done sometimes.
Allison Kugel: Because as actors, actors need to work.
Aizzah Fatima: We need work, and then I’m playing a Sudanese woman, and thinking, “This is weird, like, “Dang! I’m never going to do this again because that made me feel really disgusting on the inside.”
Allison Kugel: Yeah. There is a young actress in your film, Salena Qureshi. She plays your younger sister, and her character is the most religiously observant. She wears a hijab when she goes out, and she’s told in the household, “You shouldn’t wear that with all the discrimination out there.” She then says, “No, no, no, I believe in doing this.” In other scenes you show her at home, not wearing a hijab, and looking just like any other young twenty-something woman. That humanized her character to the audience.
Aizzah Fatima: I think people see a younger woman with a hijab on, and they think she’s oppressed. What is missing from that conversation in America is the young people who are doing it, anyone who is doing it, even the older women I know who are doing it, for many Muslim woman in America, this is part of their identity. Many of them feel, “This is who I am. This is my feminism, and this is my activism.” I think that is really something that is missing from the conversation. That is very important for me, personally, because I grew up in a very mixed household. I’m one of three girls and all three of us sisters were very different. My mom has worn a hijab her whole life since she was in her twenties. A lot of us have flirted with the idea of it, as I did. I wanted to show that in this film because I feel like that story gets told in American media all the time, where a girl covers up, but then she takes it off in the name of Western Feminism. Those stories are also written by men.
Allison Kugel: Interesting…
Aizzah Fatima: Yes. They are not written by a woman. I find that really fascinating because I literally at one point had three auditions in a row for a girl named Fatima who took her hijab off and I remember I actually turned down. This is where I did have integrity. I said, “I’m not going to do this anymore, because I think this is a silly story.”
Allison Kugel: Men sometimes tell silly stories. No offense to the men out there. I’m kidding, but I had to take the shot (laughs).
Aizzah Fatima: They sometimes tell silly stories. I think when it’s not your experience when it’s not your true lived experience, you tend to tell a story that you know from the periphery. One of the comments we’re getting a lot about Americanish, is that the film is nuanced.” I’ll say, “Of course it is. Look at who made it. Diverse Muslim woman made this film.”
Allison Kugel: You really humanized the characters in your film, which I know sounds really stupid, like what did I think, that you’re not human?
Aizzah Fatima: No, but people do think like that. They think that you’re oppressed, you’re abused, and you’re being told to put that hijab on by men. It was very important to us to show Salena’s character as somebody where her own sister says, “Don’t wear it. Wax your mustache and take off the hijab, and you can get any guy you want.” We wanted to keep the dialogue light. I was always being told to wax my mustache and I would say, “Dang it. I have the South Asian hairy girl problem. Guys please.”
Allison Kugel: George Wendt of Cheers fame is also in the movie. How did that happen?
Aizzah Fatima: We got so lucky. We reached out to him through our casting people and when he said, “Yes,” We said, “Yes, he is the right choice.” He does comedy. He’s like a Second City guy. He was so awesome to work with. He also is somebody who read the script and he believed in it, he thought it was great, and it was something different that he wanted to be a part of.
Allison Kugel: George Wendt’s character is that composite of the white supremacist; a bigoted politician. It’s that fear-based mentality, like, we have to keep America a certain way. We have to keep it a certain color, a certain culture, a certain religion because these other people are scary.
Aizzah Fatima: I would blame pop culture. I think it’s the news and the media. I think it’s the way we show people those images because there is no difference between a woman who covers or wears the hijab and a woman who wears a nun’s habit. It’s the same. So why does one become a threat, and the other is the epitome of piousness? There is no difference. It’s just how we have been taught to perceive it. So, I thought I’m going to pivot with this. I’m going to do this film and create this thing, and I’m going to try to change this narrative that is out there. That is Americanish.
Allison Kugel: Orthodox Jewish women, Hasidic Jewish women, of which I am neither, they also cover their hair either with a head covering, or a wig which they call a Sheitel. Is it essentially the same thing? The modesty?
Aizzah Fatima: All of it is modesty. You cover your hair, cover your arms, cover down to your ankles. It’s all the same. It’s the same as how Jewish women do it. I think there is also a hint of it in the film, even after she takes the hijab off, she has trouble showing this much. She doesn’t want to show it, so she is still covering down to here and to her wrists and stuff. We talked about this at great length. I’ve seen so many films like this made in America where the woman takes it off, and next thing you know, she’s wearing hot pants.
Allison Kugel: It’s like one extreme to the other (laugh).
Aizzah Fatima: What is happening? No, no, no. When you decide to take it off, you feel so weird and seen. You’re not like booty shorts next. It’s more incremental, maybe a little one ankle first (laugh).
Allison Kugel: To clear up a huge misconception that I think exists, religious Muslim women who wear a hijab, it doesn’t mean they are anti-west, anti-America.
Aizzah Fatima: No. They are absolutely American. This is their feminism and their activism. There is a point where she says in the film, the mom says, “You should take it off because you’re never going to get a guy.” And she says, “I don’t want a guy who doesn’t get my values.”
Allison Kugel: It’s about being able to walk in your truth and being your authentic self, and it not being fetishized either. You also did a TV pilot recently called, Muslim Woman DTF… as in “Discuss Their Faith.” Not the other DTF (laughs).
Aizzah Fatima: Wink, wink. Definitely the other DTF, but they also discuss their faith (laughs). Again, we are thinking what is this crazy narrative that Muslim women don’t like sex? What is this crazy narrative? It’s not even true. Also, the Islam religion is sex-positive. It’s not like Catholicism.
Allison Kugel: Islam is sex-positive?
Aizzah Fatima: Very much sex-positive. Well, get married, have a husband, and have all the crazy wild sex you want. It’s that kind of sex-positive. It’s not like Catholicism where it’s a sin. It’s not like that with Islam. Have as much sex as you want with your husband.
Allison Kugel: That brings me to feminism. It doesn’t mean we have to be more masculine, compete with men, be like men, or play down our femininity. They don’t play down their masculinity. Why do we have to play down our femininity?
Aizzah Fatima: And that corporate culture that teaches us that, and I kind of wanted to use the Sam character in the film for that. The film’s director and I had these long conversations about who is Sam? Sam is trying to fit herself into this man’s world. She is stripping herself of her femininity and by the end of the film, she is going to go back to all of those things. Her own identity, her Muslim identity. Her Pakistani cultural identity. Her femininity. She’s going to come back to all of it but when we start with her, she has tried to fit this idea of we are women we have to be more masculine and that Is the only way otherwise we are not going to make it. So again, that is part of the character in the conversation. What does that look like in the corporate world? I think for a long time that is what women thought they had to do.
Allison Kugel: I’ve suffered with it myself. I have found myself at times being tough, being tomboyish, aligning myself with male energy, male behavior because that is strength whereas women are more vulnerable. Then I had to come back to this place where I’m like no actually our vulnerability, our ability to feel such a wide array of emotions, our nurturing capabilities, that is our strength.
Aizzah Fatima: That is our strength. Absolutely. It has taken me a really long time to realize all of this stuff too by the way. I used to feel like you can’t bring emotion into a meeting. You can’t do this; you can’t do that. I have to be assertive and tough. It took me so long to say, “No because that is not me, and that is me faking it.” if I feel an emotion, I’m going to just live my truth. I want to cry at a meeting I’m going to freaking cry at a meeting and that is what is going to happen today.
Allison Kugel: Americanish is on the festival circuit right now. Is it going to be streaming soon?
Aizzah Fatima: Fingers crossed, really soon we will have some news. Right now, we are doing festivals through the end of November for sure than I think in December things are slowing down a little bit then hopefully early next year we will have some exciting news.
Allison Kugel: I’m very excited at the prospect of people being able to turn on one of their streaming networks and have access to this film because it really is such an important conversation starter. Speaking of religion and spirituality I’ll go into this one first. I think I know the answer, but I may not. Do you pray and if so who or what do you pray to?
Aizzah Fatima: I do pray. I feel deeply religious, and I know in America people think Muslim woman must cover their hair, but I don’t yet. I fast and I pray. I pray to God. I do the Muslim prayer but there are so many times during the day I find myself it’s so interesting I find myself just in my head making deals with God about various things. I say, “God give me this one thing and I promise I’m going to be so good.”
Allison Kugel: (Laugh)
Aizzah Fatima: I’m going to feed the hungry, I’m going to give to the poor kids, I’m going to be so good. I do sometimes. It’s so funny, but that is part of how I interpret my own religion in this bizarre way, where I make deals with God. I also believe in spirituality and the universe. I didn’t grow up with Sufi Islam, which is more spiritual, but I do kind of believe in some of the teachings for sure. I grew up Sunni Islamic where you pray five times [a day] to the one God, but I have found a kind of peace with my own religion, with Islam, in a spiritual way.
Allison Kugel: What do you think you came into this life as Aizzah Fatima to learn, and what do you think you came into this life to teach?
Aizzah Fatima: That’s a tough question. God, I’m getting all emotional now. It is an emotional question because I think about all the women who came before me who couldn’t tell their stories. They weren’t allowed to, because of circumstances of where they were born and what they were born into. You’re born in the 1950s versus the 1960s and the 1970s, and so many women in so many places didn’t have a voice, so I think for me it’s being able to give a voice to those women, (crying) sorry.
Allison Kugel: Dude, I cry all the time (laugh). You’re making me feel better about myself.
Aizzah Fatima: I do think about this all the time, and I feel this responsibility to somehow leave the world a little bit better than I found it. For me, I think that is through storytelling.