‘Raisins’ Explores Muslim Identity

Folasade Jimoh

The Harvard South Asian Association and South Asian American Theater join together to present a provocative Muslim play.

Location: Leverett Old Library

Dates: April 21-23, 28-29

Director: Rupak Bhattacharya ’05, John Mathew

Producer: Manisha Munshi ’06


“I had every intention to explore what it means to go to a mosque…[but] there’s so many things that get in the way of [good intentions], like life—and hormones.” Or so contends the sardonic, reluctant Muslim protagonist of “Raisins not Virgins,” Sahar Salam, near the beginning of the play the precise series of events that has led to her religious apathy.

As the 29-year-old American-born and sexually-liberated daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants, Salam has the same apolitical world-weariness that tempts many first-generation Americans to shirk their heritage. However, when religious commitment leads her boyfriend Rezwan to Hebron and an eventual break from her, Salam is forced to rediscover the religion she had resented.

In this weekend’s timely presentation of Sharbari Ahmed’s wryly comedic script, the Harvard South Asian Association (SAA) and South Asian American Theater (SAATh) team up to bring Islam to front and center stage with complexity. It portrays Islam, as actor Neilesh Bose (who plays Rezwan) puts it, “as both a victim and a perpetrator.”

The play’s cryptic title succinctly embodies the duality of the religion’s conflict. Paying homage to a sermon in the Holy Q’uran that promises martyrs in the name of Allah will be rewarded with 200 virgins, the title refers to recent interpretations and re-readings of the text that suggest that word for “virgins” could actually mean “raisins.” Since the latter translation would deeply undercut the seriousness of suicide bomber missions, the settling on a single interpretation of the sermon is no light matter.

In its own translations of controversial theater to the Harvard stage, however, SAATh is authoritative and is by no means a new kid on the block. In fact, co-director John Mathew, a graduate student in the history of science department, who co-founded the group four years ago, says his company deliberately has since its inception sought productions that challenge and “interrogate” the South Asian sociopolitical status quo.

In particular, Mathew says that he expects that “Raisins, Not Virgins” will resonate not only with South Asian audiences, but also with the Harvard’s broader audiences as well, given the pivotal role that Islam has seemed to play in recent events. Mathew further expects that Salam’s unexpected strength as a Muslim woman will appeal to audiences. After all, he challenges, “What better way is there to bring to the foreground issues of a faith than through a character that is conflicted?”

For his part, co-director Rupak Bhattacharya ’05 contends it was his empathy for South Asian actors that drew him to the work, “Indian [actors] frequently have to play the cabdriver, the doctor, the astrophysicist. But this play gives giving us a chance to play people—to [really] play us and to share us.”

Thus, in many lights, “Raisins, Not Virgins,” is certainly a tale worth sharing.

—Staff writer Vinita M. Alexander cane be reached at