Zahida Rahemtulla overcomes self-doubts and finds a universality in the Ismaili experience with The Wrong Bashir
If Zahida Rahemtulla seems extra-excited about the world premiere of The Wrong Bashir, it’s because at one point during the production’s journey she seriously questioned whether she was meant to be a writer.
The Burnaby-raised Ismaili playwright began working on the comedy in late 2017, eventually attracting the attention of the Arts Club’s LEAP program, which provides feedback and workshopping for artists from age 17-25. Readings would follow at high-profile events like the Monsoon Festival, with Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre subsequently committing to bring the work to the stage in 2021. Then the pandemic hit, with The Wrong Bashir becoming one of the countless casualties.
After being told the project wouldn’t be going ahead, Rahemtulla found herself having something of an existential crisis as an artist.
“It was sad—I remember telling my mom ‘I think it’s time to give up on this project, and on being a playwright,’” she admits, speaking with the Straight on a break from The Wrong Bashir rehearsals. “It was like, ‘I’ve spent too many years on this, and it’s time to move on—to accept that it’s not going to happen.’ When the project was shelved, I lost faith.”
Eventually though, good things started to happen. Backing up to the beginning, Rahemtulla found inspiration for The Wrong Bashir by mining her upbringing for the comedy that can come from intergenerational conflict. Her father—one of nine siblings—immigrated to Canada from Uganda, her mother from Tanzania. Eventually her family—immediate and extended—ended up in Burnaby.
“They often say that the first play a playwright writes is an identity play, and we kind of make fun of that,” she says with a laugh. “That’s exactly what I did. It’s very much based on the Ismaili community that I was raised in and growing up seeing those intergenerational differences.”
At the centre of The Wrong Bashir is philosophy major and “burgeoning nihilist” Bashir Ladha, who, in a case of mistaken identity, has been picked for a prestigious religious position by leaders from the Ismaili community. His parents are thrilled and immediately accept on his behalf. Bashir is more interested in working on a podcast about rejecting the religious and moral principles of the world, his target audience found in the cafés and microbreweries of East Van.
When Ismaili religious council representatives show up to meet the nominee, that provides a launching pad for the family to question everything from the traditions they’ve grown up with to beliefs they’ve held onto after moving to Canada.
Rahemtulla describes her upbringing as loving and positive, having much to do with things being family-centred. Growing up a second-generation immigrant in Canada meant balancing different worlds. Sticking with her into adulthood was the way that Vancouver’s Ismaili population pulled together.
“This sounds cheesy, but I think as a kid, I saw how much they were involved, and how much they did it from their hearts, and how much it meant to them,” she says of her parents and grandparents. “To this day, my grandma has so many Ismaili friends—all well into their 80s—who I also see when I visit her, and I think being part of an intergenerational family and intergenerational community like that really shaped me.
“At my parents’ kitchen table too, growing up,” Rahemtulla continues, “I would overhear conversations between my parents and their friends about growing up in East Africa, about connections that spanned such long distances, and many generations. And I think I remember listening as a child, and it leaving an impression on me that these relationships within the community were part of this larger web that is significant to them and has survived migration. I think I’ve been clocking this since I was young, and a lot of it accidentally influenced and probably motivated The Wrong Bashir, because it’s all been in my head for so long.”
While making the transition to Canada had its challenges, there was also laughter.
“There’s so much humour in the Ismaili community, especially when you put it in an intergenerational context,” Rahemtulla notes. “Even you know, when my siblings and I visit my grandparents house, our conversations with her are kind of funny by accident, for everyone, because of those contrasts. And when all three generations are present, it’s even funnier. It just lends itself to humour because there are three completely different epistemologies, completely different life histories and world-views, and yet, all these people are related and love each other.”
Because The Wrong Bashir is so focussed on family, Rahemtulla observes, the humour in the play is universal.
“The interesting thing is that, even though the jokes have been very specific to the Ismaili community, in the readings we’ve had people from outside the community laughing and getting the jokes,” she says. “Even though it also looks at some complex things, it’s definitely meant to be a heartwarming family comedy.”
Even as The Wrong Bashir stalled at various points, Rahemtulla found success with her second play, The Frontliners. That work looked at the 2016 Syrian refugee crisis from the perspective of workers dealing with the challenges that go with getting new immigrants to Canada settled. Once again, Rahemtulla drew on personal experience, as she did volunteer work to help out during the crisis. Spotlighted in the 2021 rEvolver Festival, The Frontliners won the Vancouver Fringe Festival’s New Play in Development Prize last year, and was given a workshop presentation at the Waterfront Theatre last fall.
Today, even though she’s in school working on an adult education degree with the goal of teaching, Rahemtulla is no longer questioning whether or not she’s also meant to be a writer. A big factor in that has been seeing The Wrong Bashir come to life after some serious doubts about it ever getting made.
“The cast is so funny and supportive of the play, and I cannot wait for the audience to meet them too,” Rahemtulla says. “And right now, I’m just really excited to be sitting in the audience on opening night after so many years of having this dream. I’m just so excited to watch it come to life.”
Touchstone Theatre’s The Wrong Bashir plays the Firehall Arts Centre March 2 to 12.