Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1047
It is a Saturday morning in late summer, 2011. The setting is an elegant, spacious, and evidently expensive apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The apartment has parquet floors and high ceilings, and one wall is covered by a large painting with an Islamic design in white and blue.
Emily, a beautiful white woman in her early thirties, is sitting at the dining table, drawing on a large pad. She has a book in front of her, opened to a copy of Velázquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja, his Moorish servant, who had been born into slavery. In front of Emily, posing for her, stands her husband, Amir, a man of about forty, whose origins are South Asian, though he speaks with an American accent. He is dressed in an immaculate shirt and suit jacket but wears only boxer shorts below the waist.
Amir asks whether Emily wants him to wear pants, but she says she is only drawing him from the waist up. He thinks it is strange that “a painting of a slave” has inspired his wife to start work on a portrait of him. They discuss an incident the night before, in which a racist waiter treated Amir rudely. Emily points out that seventeenth-century Spaniards would certainly have reacted in a racist manner to the painting of Juan de Pareja, but Velázquez depicted the man he knew with more complexity than any of the kings and queens he painted.
As Emily works on her drawing, Amir speaks on the telephone, revealing that he works as a corporate lawyer. He talks first to a client, reassuring him about a transaction, then to a paralegal, whom he reprimands for a mistake, and finally to Mort, a partner in his law firm. He then tells Emily that Mort barely comes into the office any more and that he, Amir, is essentially doing his job for him. He expects to be made a partner soon and says that his mother would roll over in her grave at the thought of a firm called Leibowitz, Bernstein, Harris, and Kapoor, with his name alongside the Jewish names of the other partners.
The intercom buzzes, and Abe enters the apartment. He is Amir’s nephew, twenty-two years old and, like Amir, visibly American in his dress and manner, though he is much more casual than Amir, wearing a “Kidrobot” T-shirt and a hoodie. Amir addresses Abe as “Hussein,” which is his original name, and they discuss the situation of an Imam named Fareed, a case with which Emily is also familiar. Imam Fareed is being charged under the Patriot Act with collecting money for Hamas at his mosque.
Abe wants Amir to join the Imam’s legal team. The Imam is being represented by Jewish lawyers and wants a Muslim on the case. Amir points out that he is not a practicing Muslim anymore. He tells Abe a story from his childhood about a girl at school whose name was Rivkah. Amir had a crush on Rivkah, and the two of them used to pass notes to each other in class. Amir’s mother found one of these notes and told him that Rivkah was a Jewish name, though at the time Amir did not know anything about Judaism or Jewish culture. His mother was furious. She spat in his face and told him that if she ever heard this Jewish name in her house again, she would break his bones. The next day, when Rivkah came up to talk to Amir, he said to her, “You’ve got the name of a Jew.” Then, mirroring his mother’s action, he spat in her face. Amir forces Abe to admit that he has heard Muslim women, including his own mother, expressing bigoted opinions not only of Jews but of white women like Emily as well. This, Amir says, is why he is no longer religious.
Emily reminds Amir of the way in which he has sometimes responded to Islamic art and architecture, such as the mosque in Cordoba, and she refers to the “beauty and wisdom in the Islamic tradition.” Abe asks Amir to think of Imam Fareed not as a Muslim but as a wise man and as someone who is likely to go to prison for a crime he did not commit. Amir agrees to think about the case, and Abe leaves. When he has gone, Emily and Amir argue, with Emily trying to persuade him to help the Imam. He asks if they can stop talking about the subject, but she replies that they never really talk about Amir’s attitude towards his Muslim heritage.
Disgraced opens in a setting which emphasizes the wealth and success of Amir and Emily, as well as their diverse backgrounds and interests. Their Upper East Side apartment is expensive and sophisticated, tastefully decorated “with subtle flourishes of the Orient.” There is a large painting “with patterns reminiscent of an Islamic garden,” but there are also objects which no devout Muslim would own: a statue of a Hindu god and “a half-dozen bottles of alcohol.”
It quickly becomes clear that Emily, who is white, has more sympathy for and interest in Islam than Amir, who grew up in and then rejected the Islamic faith. His attitudes towards both the religion and his own cultural background remain ambivalent. He is equally repelled by the racism he experiences from white Americans, such as the waiter who snubbed him the night before, and the bigotry of his mother’s attitude towards Christians and Jews. He insists on calling his nephew “Hussein,” even though he prefers to be known as Abe, but he also complains that “Hussein” spends all his time at the Islamic Center and has taken up the case of an Imam who may hold radical views.
Amir himself appears to escape from such issues by pursuing success in his career with ruthless determination. It is a Saturday morning and he is at home, but he is still continually on his cellphone, talking about work. The scene concludes with a minor but significant quarrel between Amir and Emily, foreshadowing the extent to which their differing views on religion, particularly Islam, will become a source of conflict for the couple.
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