Rana Haddad: Author of ‘The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor’ Shares Thoughts On Astronomy, Fortune-Telling, Love, Politics, Goddesses And An Arab Shakespeare!

At the highly anticipated book launch held at the Holland Park Daunt bookshop, author Rana Haddad read out a few paragraphs from her debut novel ‘The Unexpected Objects of Dunya Noor’. The humorous passages got the informal gathering in fits of laughter; and, soon after, we were treated to the beautiful voice of Lina Shahen, whose Arabic songs transported us to an enchanting world of music originating from the Levant and a tune about people being neighbours with the moon.

With that Fairuz song in mind and Haddad’s fun, light-hearted and playful spirit in storytelling, I relished the book in no time. In it we follow the tale of Dunya Noor, a young half-Syrian half-English heroine, with green eyes and unruly curly hair, whose wild nature takes on the status quo of the culture she is born into circa the 1980s. She is a young lady who is no way minded or afraid by rules, be they set by parents, school, religion, neighbours or even if dictated down by a cruel military regime.

Growing up in the Mediterranean port city of Latakia with her mother Patricia and successful heart-surgeon father Dr Joseph Noor, she first confuses them at the age of eight when she acquires an old Kodak camera that becomes her most prized treasure and constant companion. Then they are worried when she is seen walking hand in hand with the ‘wrong’ sort of boy in her naïve quest to find out what true love is and understand its nuances. Real trouble however occurs when she refuses to attend a political demonstration with school and indicates to her teacher that she is against the Baath Party.

Quickly to protect her from punishment and public humiliation, she is exiled and sent to her maternal grandparents in England, where she completes her education and also fatefully meets Hilal Shihab. The son of Muslim tailors from Aleppo, he is himself obsessed- not with a camera but with a telescope, notebooks and fountain pens – and eager to explore the mysteries of the moon, the stars and all that lies beyond in the universe. They fall for each other and are blissfully happy in London, until a letter arrives that leads to both of them returning to Syria circa 1994.

It is truly at this point of the novel that the plot thickens and is kick-started by the mysterious disappearance of Hilal and Dunya’s brave determination to find him. Her search in Aleppo leads to many unusual twists, turns and surprises, as we meet newer characters who transform the tale into something much more multi-layered, complex and dramatic. The author succeeds in creating suspense that lasts right up until the end, where although most of the issues are resolved, a key one is left open to our imagination.

Haddad does an incredible job of putting forward deep dimensional personalities who are neither perfect nor complete, but who are human, subject to fault and error as well as redemption. This book is also a meditation on the nature of true love, on the varying degrees and shades of freedom available to us, on the power of creative expression; and, on how poetry, music and song can enrich lives.

Just like a serenade tenderly composed, the novel honours Syria’s beautiful cities and its diverse inhabitants, as we are led to visit its hidden gems and discover its cultural landscape and social fabric during a particular period in the country’s evolving history. I highly recommend it but just with a warning to prepare for the highly unexpected!

The Interview

Nahla Ink: The book is full of references to astronomical phenomenon. Are you a keen astronomer? Do you believe there is a connection between what is in the skies and what happens on the Earth and impacting on people’s lives?

Haddad: “I’m not into astronomy in a technical or scientific sense but I find it imaginatively beautiful. As a child I had a plan to become an astronomer, or an astronaut, but I quickly gave that idea up when I realised it would require me to study physics when I was more interested in the Arts.

“We do live on a planet that travels through space and it is easy for us to forget how small we are because of our ego-centric and self important ways, so I think we should always be aware of the stars and the vastness of the universe to help us put things in perspective.

“Also, I think that there are patterns in the universe, which we don’t understand and which we have always sought to understand and looking at the movement of the stars is one way humans have to do that. I have no idea whether stars have an impact on us directly but I think they mirror the way we are with one another. We orbit each other, we influence each other, we mirror each other and we can have enlightening or destructive effects on each other, we circle each other, we lose each other, etc.

Nahla Ink: There are references to fortune telling and astrology that become relevant to the plot. Is there any reason why you utilised this to carry the story forward?

Haddad: “The fortune telling is just a kind of metaphor for fear and how fear can lead people to losing trust in their own gut instincts and hearts, and how when this happens we can become victims of manipulative or random external forces, including distorted and manipulative versions of religion, politics and social norms which are based more on control rather than love, fear rather than freedom.

“But Suad and Said, characters in the novel, were vulnerable to such fear because they had in turn been ostracised by their communities for choosing their love for each other over obedience to irrational rules and norms. Another way of putting it, is that I think people can lose their souls when they follow the advice and instructions of others, rather than following their own desires and intuitions. This is why totalitarian government and fundamentalist religions and even the media and advertising can have such destructive effects.”

Nahla Ink: Dunya’s camera is not just her best fried but an obsessive comfort blanket that she takes with her everywhere. Is there a reason why she can’t filter reality unless she views it through the lens?

Haddad: “I see her camera as just a way of describing her consciousness, her need and insistence and willingness to look at the world squarely in the eyes, and properly, and to understand it on her terms – as much as possible, like a scientist who doesn’t take things at face value, but needs to find proof. So she is not one easy to brainwash and that is why she is a thorn in the side of her parents and society, but also a gift to them, if only they would listen and learn.

“I kind of want Dunya to be about how elders should also sometimes listen to their children, not only the other way around. And how children and young people can have a purer untainted way of seeing the world, which adults must re-member and restore in themselves, rather than trying their hardest to de-form the children’s souls and break them and force them to toe the line. I know I am being idealistic like Dunya when I say this, but I believe it strongly. Also, I think it’s the only way for societies to develop and evolve.”

Nahla Ink: Dunya’s character is feisty, stubborn and she doesn’t yield to the societal norms of the Assad dictatorship and the patriarchal system surrounding her. Do you think someone like Dunya would have got away with the public disobedience she committed in real life?

Haddad: “I think she would’ve if she was from the right sort of family and also if she was publicly punished and apologised and never repeated the offense again. This incident in the book is based on something I have witnessed, so I know that something like this can happen without the child being disappeared, though she was certainly lucky.”

Nahla Ink: Another key female character in the book is just as feisty and stubborn and even more daring than Dunya. Can you tell me more about what inspired Suha?

Haddad: “It is strange because Suha literally came out of nowhere, but after I wrote her, I realised she is many many Arab women and maybe a part of me is also like her. She is feminine power in its essential form – she is art, music, sensuality and love. Maybe she is a kind of Aphrodite. A force that was once very strong and very elemental in our part of the world, as well as Greece and Rome, and without which the world would be very dull and boring and without glamour or beauty or even meaning.

“So she must never be obscured or hidden, and she must always be visible and never bought or sold. She must be celebrated and accepted and loved and integrated. That is the symbolic aspect of Suha. But Suha the character is the same, if she is rejected and denied, everyone in the book related to her, will be lacking something essential in themselves and in their lives.”

Nahla Ink: Can you expand on the nature of the love that the characters are all trying to figure out? Is it foolish? Is it real? Is it ephemeral? Is it tragic?

Haddad: “I don’t think it is a foolish love, but this sort of love is complex and leads to self-knowledge. It’s not a love that can fit neatly into society or helps tribes cement themselves and procreate. It is love for the sake of love, and I think it is very important.”

Nahla Ink: Dunya’s father seems pro-Assad and represents the corrupt elite yet he somehow redeems himself. How would you describe Dr Joseph Noor?

Haddad: “The father is simply someone who wants to be socially successful and in a country like Syria, one has to co-operate with the established order, like in any other country, let’s face it. If and when the Assads are gone, there will be another established order and people like him will have to find a way to be on the right side of it. This is the way of the world whether we like it or not.

“Perhaps one can call Joseph ‘a conformist,’ whereas his daughter is a ‘non-conformist’. A conformist always wants to win the carrot offered by Power, whereas the non-conformist does not worry about the stick, as long as they can have their inner freedom. They are risk-takers and more exploratory characters. They like the new, not the old, they like to create rather than to put all their energies into conserving things as they are ‘conservatives’ or hark back to a bygone age and trying to mimic it.”

Nahla Ink: The book has many of the elements usually found in Shakespearian comedy: the struggle of young lovers to overcome problems as a result of the interference of their elders; an element of separation and reunification; mistaken identities involving disguise; family tensions usually resolved in the end; complex, interwoven plot-lines; and, finally, the frequent use of puns and other styles of comedy. Would you agree?

Haddad: “I have been told about the Shakespearean elements and none of them were conscious or intended. But I loved Shakespearean comedy as a student and perhaps it has seeped in. But, also, I have a theory that Syria is very Shakespearean. Joseph Noor would even argue that Shakespeare is an Arab and that his real name was Sheikh Isber!”

Nahla Ink: How was the process in writing the book and how long did it take you to put idea to final published novel?

Haddad: “It took me many years and I had long breaks due to health problems and also working in Media. So I had to take time off and go into a different frame of mind. The world of this book is the world I feel more comfortable in, rather than working in Media, so it became harder and harder to want to do the latter especially as the war in Syria wore on, and the media narrative became more distorted, dangerous and riddled with misinformation.”

Nahla Ink: Lastly, what influences your style of writing and what kind of literature do you particularly enjoy reading? Has the latter impacted on the former?

Haddad: “I love poetry and fiction that is both fun but deep, I’m more interested in the music of words and their meaning rather than in plot for the sake of plot. So, for example, I would never be able to read a thriller, but I could read a verse of poetry over and over again for days.

“I did also write poetry in my early twenties and much of it was published but I didn’t pursue publication too much as I knew I wanted to write novels, but I was too airy-fairy when young to be able to write a novel, so it took me a while to grow up and be able to write over a longer canvass than a poem.

“Some of the first novels in English I read were by Virginia Woolf and also Salman Rushdie, I loved Coleridge, Khalil Gibran, Nizar Kabbani, Iris Murdoch, Milan Kundera, Antoine Saint Exubry, Roal Dahl, and, of course, Sheikh Isber!”

Biographical Note: Rana Haddadis half Dutch-Armenian (mother) and half-Syrian (father). She grew up in Latakia in Syria, moved to the UK as a teenager, and read English Literature at Cambridge University. She has since worked as a journalist for the BBC, Channel 4, and other broadcasters, and has also published poetry. ‘The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor’ is her first novel, published by Hoopoefiction, an imprint of AUC Press.

Note: This article was first published circa June 2018

Curfew: Taking A Dance Step Into Resistance

Set in a world in which we have become a bit like zombies, not knowing how to respond to the news we hear or read about everyday. Bombarded with fake and true information, many are no longer sure of how to act in the face of others’ suffering or indeed towards the awareness that we all now live under subtle surveillance and manipulation. Instead we choose to be deaf and blind by turning to other stories that can assuage our conscience and help us deny responsibility.

It is this indifference on the global scale that ‘Curfew’ confronts the audience with. An original dance performance, it draws upon a mix of contemporary-modern moves and the traditional Palestinian Dabke. Creatively directed by Sharaf Darzaid, who is a member of the El-Funoun Palestinian Dance Troupe, it refers one to the local struggle against oppression and how dance has become a form of resistance and an empowering means of self-expression.

Nine dancers in total, who all contributed with their personal stories and ideas to the final routine, four of them came all the way from Ramallah in the West Bank to represent El-Funoun: Mohammed Altayeh, Khaled Abueram, Sharaf Darzaid and Lure Sadeq. The other five dancers, belonging to the London-based Hawiyya Dance Company, were: Jamila Boughelaf, Sylvia Ferreira, Sali Kharobi, Miriam Ozanne and Serena Spadoni.

Structured by scenes that are set in Palestine and in the universal realm, we see how brief moments of happiness and normality are interrupted or sabotaged by the loud voiceover of political news that leaves the dancers deflated, at a loss and feeling helpless. In other acts the performers also appear to be at the mercy of work production lines and hypnotised by the sound of a ringing alarm clock which forces them back into a state of submission, meekness and withdrawal.

    

Significant props include mobile phones that indicate both the lack of real human interaction in today’s busy world – as they distract, separate and isolate – and the fact that these little devices are an important tool to finding non-biased truth through social media channels. Whilst black masks come to convey that there are yet dark forces lurking in the shadows of our existence, keeping a computer-generated eye on our moves as well as secretly profiling each and every single one of us.

Amidst the confusion, the evident psychological abuse of minds and exerted physical control over bodies, the routine dramatically develops into the final scenes when the dancers consciously wake up to their predicament. It all then ends in spectacular fashion that engages directly with the audience by giving two dares that can be accepted or rejected at will.

Insight: Creative Director Sharaf Darzaid & Executive Producer Jamila Boughelaf

Curfew came about when three members of Hawiyya were on a visit to Palestine last year and experienced first hand the demoralising ways of the occupying force – like, for example, the unnecessary interrogations at border check points. So when they met Darzaid there, who was coordinating the annual Palestine International Festival for Dance and Music, they decided on a collaborative project to bring the story back to a London audience.

Boughelaf, executive producer for Curfew, explained: “When I came back from Palestine I found many people who wanted to hear my stories. But I also found many others who refused to acknowledge the facts and others asking me why I cared so much as there is injustice everywhere and you can’t do anything to change it. My response is why don’t you care?

“This is really what drove me to make this project happen and after discussing with Sharaf, as well as all the dancers from Hawiyya, we realised we were all asking ourselves the same question: are we doing enough? We may not be able to change the world’s politics, but if we manage to change even one person’s understanding of reality I feel that we have done something!”

Wanting to learn more from Darzaid, who has been an active member of El-Funoun for over seventeen years as a dancer, trainer and choreographer, I asked him firstly to expand on the choice of title ‘Curfew’ and tell me about the role of Dabke in the production.

Darzaid: “It is called Curfew for two reasons. Physically especially in Palestine, we have a certain time of curfew, when no one can move out from the houses in the West Bank. Even if we secretly want to go to the dance studio, we have to close the door after we enter, put down the blinds and keep the lights down, so that they can’t see that we are in and the music volume is low.

“We spent months under curfew and couldn’t move… the Israelis would give us a couple of hours a week to go out and bring food and go back home; and, even before or after this curfew, we are still not freely able to move from one city to another, because of the checkpoints between the cities.

“For example, I can’t go to my capital Jerusalem, I need permission to go there. Or Gaza. If I want to travel to places like here in the UK, I need to bring a lot of papers in order to prove that I am a ‘good human’, and therefore travelling between the cities and between countries, this is the physical meaning of curfew.

“Sometimes you want to take a position to resist the oppression but many times, you can’t even do this because you are forbidden. So even in your thoughts you are not free and there is a curfew. To quote Desmond Tutu, ‘if you are neutral in a situation of oppression, you’ve chosen the side of the oppressor’; and, Paulo Freire said: ‘Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral…’.

“We are coming from a place where we are under occupation and this is one of the stories about what we do. We don’t’ give answers, we give a question. What do you do? Do you take action or do you maintain? Even being silent is a political position. Saying no I don’t’ care what happens, I just want to wake up and work and have money and by the end of the day I have my drink and eat and sleep, you can take this position. I say nothing. I say in this case you are maintaining.”

“(In terms of the dance) I am inspired by folklore and trying to speak in this choreography by using Dabke as an identity and not as a movement. We are doing a contemporary production and one of the pieces is about the Palestinian wedding where there is really Dabke. But the rest draws upon the energy, power and the meaning of Dabke as resistance. You can feel it throughout the production.”

I left in awe of the dancers’ energy, fluidity and expert movements led by the highly skilled choreography. I also went away with great respect for Dabke not just as a dance; but, also, as a source of cultural endurance that is being passed down Palestinian generations and being widely shared by others who wish to stand in solidarity. The big question is who will be joining in and taking their first dance step into resistance for a free Palestine.

For more on Hawiyya: https://www.facebook.com/HawiyyaDabke/

For more on El Funoun: http://www.el-funoun.org/

Photos credit: Jose Farinha: https://www.josefarinha.com/

Note: This article was first published circa March 2018

Najwa Benshatwan: Libyan Female Author ‘Under The Radar’

An ugly shadow side of Libya’s history is that it was a slave market route for centuries under Ottoman rule, way before the Italian occupation and prior to Libya’s declared independence in 1951. Growing up in Libya, children might still hear stories from elders about the black maids who used to work in their household or about distant cousins in Africa who carry their same recognisable surnames.

There would be no elaboration on the reality of the trade that used to buy, sell and barter human beings and rarely admission of how the ancestors may have been involved in the mistreatment of those held captive. Few Libyans have the courage to revisit that period with its many ghosts or to bring up the racism issues that still persist in the culture.

Not up until now that the talented author Najwa Benshatwan has taken the task to heart by writing a novel so powerful, beautiful and so sensitively fashioned in the narrative voice of the slaves. She has creatively wrapped it up into a love story that touches upon the era and the taboo subjects that have never been exposed before.

Shortlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction, ‘The Slave Pens’ has yet to be translated into English. Already, Benshatwan is being courted to turn it into different languages and to adapt it into a TV series or a film. This new positive intrigue by the literary world has been unexpected – as she has already successfully published two other novels and collections of short stories – but very much welcome.

For the Shubbak Festival 2017, I spoke with Benshatwan via Skype and we conversed in the Libyan dialect. She opened up not just about the book that will undoubtedly transform her artistic destiny; but, also, on the challenges she faced as a budding intellectual during the oppressive Gaddafi regime, how she managed to overcome obstacles put in her way and how she is now content to be in Rome, Italy where she can pursue her work without complications.

Benshatwan: “For a long time, I felt buried in Libya. Born in 1969, I was of the generations that were denied the right to learn European languages at school and it is still a source of anger for me that I don’t’ speak except very basic English. When I was young, my talent as a writer would be denied as my homework at the age of 11 became a source of suspicion amongst teachers, who could not believe that it was my work and not that of an adult.

“Later on when I went on to university in Benghazi, it was my beautiful handwriting in Arabic that was a problem. To trick my examiners not to recognise my paper, I forced myself to write with my left hand so they wouldn’t know it was me. I did also learn braille and sign language for a brief period when I specialised in working with deaf and blind children.

“In terms of my literary ambitions, under Gaddafi there was no intellectual freedom and I was always worried about not just the state control but family and societal controls too. It is only now in ‘The Slave Pens’ that I am much older and more confident that I can safely explore things like love and sex for example.

“So I turned to short story fiction and utilised symbolism when dealing with Libya as the essence and background of my tales. But I was careful to enter only competitions judged abroad and they were one way to gain recognition. But my work came to the scrutiny of the Libyan authorities who tried to lure me to write about the regime and its ideology which I refused to do.

“The situation worsened when I got arrested and charged for writing against the state with the publication my short story ‘His Excellency, the Eminence of the Void’. Afraid and terrified to spend a night in prison with criminals, I travelled all the way to Tripoli where I spent four hours under interrogation knowing that the maximum sentence could be execution.

“Although I was not convicted, they wouldn’t leave me in peace, making my life hell and sending spies at the university where I was teaching and forcing me to attend political events. It was like cat and mouse that I stopped publishing my work and planned to save up enough money to be able to make an escape.

“But things changed with the February Revolution. I had naively believed in the rebel fighters and the struggle so much that I gave them my savings. Then sadly realising that there would be no security in Libya, my next chance to leave came when I got accepted to study in Italy where I have been for the past four years.

“My time in Italy has not been easy. I have been lonely and had to face dire economic circumstances and the psychological turmoil that entails. I had to take all sorts of jobs to survive and it took time to learn Italian before I could complete my doctoral degree at La Piensa University in Rome.

“I wanted to dedicate my thesis to the slavery and human trafficking under the Ottoman period and the Islamic Empire because I was haunted by a black and white picture that I had seen in an Englishman’s traveller book… although I cannot remember the name of the book or the Italian photographer who must have captured the image around early 1900s.

“It was of black women slaves with a boy and a child. When I asked about the scene, I was told that the quarters where they used to live were commonly referred to in the local dialect as ‘pens’ in the way of an animal’s pen. I had the photo scanned and put as my screensaver since 2006.

“For years I couldn’t steal myself away from the characters and my imagination became immersed in contemplating their lives… that is what urged me to write and finish the novel. My hope for it is to be a wake up call for Libyans to learn from past mistakes and acknowledge how black slavery – both past and present – has impacted on our society, from the economic to the social, political, cultural, psychological and mental aspects.

“Overall I am happy to have explored this subject and I am proud to be the first Libyan woman to be shortlisted for the IPAF. I can now finally be able to dedicate more and more of my time to just being a writer.”

Benshatwan is scheduled to participate in the ‘Under The Radar’ talk that is part of the Shubbak Literature programme at the British Library. This interview article was written in collaboration with the Shubbak Festival 2017.

For more information about Shubbak Festival: http://www.shubbak.co.uk/

Note: This article was first published circa July 2017

Saleem Haddad: Author Opens Up About Debut Novel ‘Guapa’

Living in a politically volatile city in the Middle East, a young Arab drag queen – who is by day a tireless human rights activist – is arrested by the police in the early hours of the morning for being at a cinema which is a cruising spot for working class men. He is subjected to intrusive questioning and cruel abuse by the insertion of an egg-like contraption into his rectum to test and gage his homosexuality.

Once released, though, he doesn’t make a fuss of what has happened to him. Rather, he continues with his work via an international NGO to expose local government human rights’ violations. He is also not afraid to keep performing his drag queen act at Guapa, the queer nightclub that is home to all outcasts. A brave and proud soul, he will never deny his alternative sexuality even in a hostile environment and putting his life at further risk.

The drag queen is, of course, Maj and he is both real and not real, just like all the other characters and the events in Saleem Haddad’s debut novel ‘Guapa’. Written in the vulnerable male voice of Rasa, who confides about his gay love pain, Haddad expertly creates imaginary figures to reflect on the competing facets of Arab society, the culture and its conservative mores. It also depicts the political, economic and religious forces at war in the MENA region today.

‘Guapa’ readers will sense many a déjà vu moment as the unnamed city in the background can just as easily be Amman, Beirut, Damascus, Tunis or Cairo, that we have all either visited, lived in or seen through our computers and TV screens. This Arab city, its inhabitants and the dynamics at large are all in our collective subconscious anyway and don’t’ need to be pinned down to one place, as Haddad rightly makes this literary choice in an engaging and timely tale.

Rasa’s emotional torment and the unrequited love which threatens his reason and sanity is the main theme that enables Haddad to firstly capture our hearts – for love is love and it doesn’t’ discriminate. But as gay relations are taboo in most Middle Eastern countries, Haddad explores the not so public but private terrain from an insider perspective, as he himself is a gay Arab male who had to keep his sexuality hidden throughout his young adulthood until one day he found the courage to come out to his family and friends.

Connecting with our intellect too ‘Guapa’ features the arguments of the great known thinkers like Edward Said and Amin Maalouf on what influences the Arab identity vis-à-vis the Western world. When Rasa finds himself at a university in America in the aftermath of 9/11, he becomes the victim of ignorant prejudice and distrust by fellow students and it makes him realise that he may never be able to fully fit in there.

From Berlin, Haddad was kind enough to answer my questions in anticipation of taking part in the Shubbak Literature talk titled ‘A New Confidence’, where he will be joined by Alexandra Chreiteh, Amahl Khouri and Alberto Fernández Carbajal to discuss recent queer writings.

Nahla: What is it really like for the LGBT communities in the Middle East? Is there more freedom in some countries and not others or would you say it is oppressive in all of them?

Haddad: “What are we talking about when we talk about ‘freedom’? Freedom from what exactly? Freedom from community? From government? From society? And what do we lose when we free ourselves from society? That sort of freedom can be very lonely and these are the sorts of dilemmas the characters in Guapa are grappling with. And what about the concept of ‘oppression’? Oppression is multi-faceted and is not as simple as victim and perpetrator. I find it more useful to look at oppression as systems and structures that are dynamic and constantly changing.

“I also believe that the binary of ‘freedom’ and ‘oppression’ is not a useful way of looking at any situation, including that of LGBT communities in the Middle East. In any case, it’s impossible to speak on behalf of millions of LGBT individuals across the Arab world. I think it’s important to recognise the diversity of experiences and how elements like social class, geography and politics play into the experiences of LGBT communities. This is certainly something I tried to do in the book.”

Nahla: Rasa is self-loathing both when he is living in the Middle East and when he is in the West. Is this unique to his character or is it a common emotional experience for people of alternative sexualities in the Middle East due to the wide spread concept of shame and sin?

Haddad: “Rasa is a sensitive and self-aware character and in my experience sensitivity and self-awareness always bring a certain degree of self-loathing. But certainly he is battling shame, particularly around his sexuality, which he had to keep hidden from a very young age. I think gay shame is a universal phenomenon, not limited to the Arab world. I was certainly interested in exploring shame from a Middle Eastern communal context. But gay shame, sadly, remains a facet of the global LGBT community in various forms.”

Nahla: Tell me about Taymour’s character and the choice he makes to get married, deny his homosexuality and reject Rasa. Is he an archetype of something?

Haddad: “Taymour represents a certain type of fear that drives citizens to conform. It’s the same type of fear that propels Arab parents to make sure their sons study medicine or engineering and the fear that drives them to push their daughters into marrying into the ‘right’ kind of family.

“It’s the fear that drives citizens to support someone like Egypt’s President Sisi, Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad or any of the sectarian militias-cum-political-parties in Lebanon. Taymour is a representation of that sort of fear, the fear that compels people to social and political conformity. I wanted to sympathise with this conformity, I wanted to understand it, and understand why someone like Rasa might gravitate towards it.”

Nahla: The background city in Guapa experiences uprisings and a civil war situation. How were you involved in the movements circa 2011 in the Middle East?

Haddad: “I was in Beirut when the uprisings began in Tunisia and in London when the Egyptian uprising began—which is when coverage was the highest. Once the protests started in Yemen, a country I spent a lot of time working in, I tried to use my knowledge of the country to lobby British politicians and policymakers to support the uprisings. And as they progressed, I began to work with an NGO that worked with youth and women activists in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. But in many cases I found myself stuck in an odd position, as both an outsider and an insider. In many ways, it was a good position from which to write this sort of novel.”

Nahla: Do you see yourself as an LGBT activist? What are the challenges facing the LGBT rights movement in the MENA region?

Haddad: “I don’t see myself as an LGBT activist, though I recognise that having published the novel I am a voice for the community. Still, it is not a title I am comfortable with. In the end, I am a writer and if I am seen as a representative of anything, I will only disappoint. There are many brave LGBT activists and allies of the LGBT community who are working tirelessly through the region that are doing fantastic work, much more than anything I have ever done – they are too many to name.

“But I have heard from the LGBT community in the region that the novel has struck a chord with many of them, and so I’m proud for the novel to be part of a growing queer Arab culture.”

Nahla: In the novel, Rasa entertains the fantasy of escape with his lover to a Western country where he thinks their sexuality won’t be a problem. And, in your own life, you live in the UK with your partner. But what is it really like for the gay Arab person who is unable to make such an escape and is bombarded by religious and cultural forces that negate his homosexuality?

Haddad: “Is my sexuality not an issue in the UK? The only time I have been called a faggot and threatened with violence was in London, just fifteen metres from my house in Hackney. Though certainly, the situation for LGBT communities in the West is much better than in the Arab world. And from my own experience, growing up as a sensitive and slightly effeminate young boy in Kuwait and Jordan, I faced some relentless bullying and violence at the hands of other boys who sought to punish me for not fulfilling social ideals of masculinity.

“But I think we should try to avoid simplistic binaries that assume the West equals freedom and the Arab world equals violence and death. As for how to tackle homophobia in the Arab world, I would caution any sweeping statements about homophobia in the Arab world being driven purely by religion. I think homophobia in the Arab world is best understood by examining the unique cocktail of authoritarianism, ignorance, and misogyny – which affects all people in the region in different ways and to greater or lesser degrees. Thus, in tackling homophobia, I think we need to tackle all three of these elements.”

Nahla: I was very intrigued by the character of the mother who runs away from her son and husband without an explanation as to why. Can you tell me what inspired her personality and which archetype does she represent?

Haddad; “The mother character was probably the hardest character to write. I suppose because in many ways she represents a certain sensitivity and radical truth that I myself had to hide from society at a very young age. I learned the hard way that to be a man in the Arab world, one must not show sensitivity, and to be a citizen in the Arab world, one must shy away from the pursuit of truth at any cost. So in many ways, the fate of Rasa’s mother is reflective of how the characters – not just Teta, but Rasa and his father as well – chose to deal with their sensitivity and their fear of facing truth.”

Nahla: One last question. Who inspired the character of Maj?

Haddad: “Many friends inspired the character of Maj; but, fundamentally, I suppose Maj was inspired by the kind of person I aspire to be.”

——-

Note: This article was first published circa July 2017 in collaboration with the Shubbak Festival

For more information on the Shubbak Festival: http://www.shubbak.co.uk/

Fireworks The Play, Dalia Taha

‘Fireworks’, the new play by Palestinian writer Dalia Taha currently showing at the Royal Court Theatre, is set in a non-specified Palestinian city under siege and subject to Israeli air strikes, where two young families are the only residents left in a dilapidated building. Staged in a shabby worn-out flat that they both share, it is equipped with bare amenities – including old hard chairs, a cold-tiled floor and an electricity generator that doesn’t always work – and with the unusual addition of a staircase that mysteriously goes down to nowhere.

It is clear that all the other neighbours have gone to safety shelters whereas these two families, for whatever personal reasons, are the only ones who have resisted the urge to abandon their home, even with the known dangers. As the audience, one is thus confronted with this powerful living situation – which would feel more like a prison if one had to live in it – even before the characters come to life and take over with their story.

Starting a couple days before Eid, excited eleven-year-old Lubna is with her father Khalid chatting. She tells him that she’s composed a song in her head about her brother Ali, who was killed six months before. Prompted by her father to explain the difference between being shot and being martyred, she repeats what she has been told.

Lubna says: “When you get shot, you die and get put under the earth and you get eaten by worms. But when you’re martyred, it doesn’t’ hurt and you don’t’ die. All the angels come and fly you up to the sky, and then they give you wings like theirs. And God gives you a house in heaven and when you go into it you find all of your family there because God’s made a copy of them from some angels, so you don’t feel lonely while you’re waiting for them. And then when your family die they come and live with you in your house in heaven even if they haven’t been martyred.”

But this is, of course, just one of the many lies and strange fantasies that this little girl has been offered by her father, in order to help her emotionally digest the loss of her sibling and to give her some reassurance that all is well in their world. When he also denies that there are threatening bombs falling down the skies and says that the tape on the windows is a magic tape that is guaranteed to protect them, we realise just how grim the reality is outside.

Whilst with the other couple, it is more the mother Samar who is telling her son Khalil the lies even as he is showing signs of projecting aggression and violence towards her and a dead pet pigeon. To distract him, she plays Ninja turtles and Superman and makes him believe that they live on a very special planet; but, clearly, the twelve-year-old child is not convinced. And so, in this play, we see how the parents attempt to emotionally protect and shield the children in a dire situation; but, that the greater tragedy is that the adults themselves are struggling to come to terms with their predicament.

In Nahla, for example, we see the madness as she jokes about suicide and goes out onto the streets risking her life for a packet of cigarettes and candles. Whereas in the men, we sense the impotence, weakness, sadness and frustration as they both take desperate measures in the no way out situation. Khalid buys a pistol for an unknown reason and Ahmad, desiring to take revenge against the unnamed oppressor, involves himself with a risky operation that threatens and puts all of their lives in even more danger.

Eid then arrives with a twist but I won’t be telling! Because this most powerful play is a must see for everyone; and, especially, for anyone who wants to experience a creative tackling of the current issue of what is happening – and has been happening for a very long time – to Palestinian families as they are put under physical, emotional and psychological pressure all in one lump of an existential disaster.

But through the adult and child actors with their human faces, voices, cries and screams from a script based on real lives, we also gain the positive eternal and universal insight of the deep caring love of parents for their children and the innocent love of children for their parents. I truly applaud Dalia Taha and the Royal Court for staging this and hope they extend the run, for that is my only concern as tickets are selling out fast!

Directed by Richard Twyman, the cast also could not have been better allocated or better performed, with actors: Saleh Bakri (as Khalid), Nabil Elouahabi (as Ahmad), Shereen Martin (as Samar), Sirine Saba (as Nahla), George Karageorgis and Yusuf Hofri (as Khalil on alternative nights), and Eden Nathanson and Shakira Riddell-Morales (as Lubna on alternative nights). Please also note that this play forms part of the ‘International Playwrights: A Genesis Foundation Project’ with additional support from the British Council and the A M Qattan Foundaiton. It is being accompanied by a series of events, talks and reading, from 12 February-14 March, 2015 at the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London SW1W 8AS.

For more information: https://royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/fireworks-alab-nariya/

Note: This article was first published circa February 2015

Karl reMarks: And Then God Created The Middle East And Said: ‘Let There Be Breaking News’

Includes: Insight from the Karl reMarks Creator

Penned by online sensation and the Karl reMarks persona, this little book had me in stitches, thinking, confused, saddened and wondering from where does the self-styled avatar get the genius inspiration. Composed of a collection of quotes and illustrations that originally appeared on Twitter beginning circa 2011, it was the arrival of the Arab Spring that got London-based architect and real name Karl Sharro satirising on the Western media’s coverage of the Middle East and North Africa region.

Exposing worrying gaps in the reportage of an admittedly volatile part of the world, the jokes and poking fun turn upside down many preconceived myths, non-true wisdom and stereotypes of the Arab world. The material reflects and brings to light, with wry and sharp humour, some of the historical complexities that are at play in the MENA region and warning against the over-simplification by pundits and commentators. But even the Arabs are not spared the satire with reMarks’s astute and directed observations.

Referring to Eastern versus Western opinions on extremism, ISIS, war, religion, geography, economics, democracy and much more, the one-liners humble the reader into accepting the preposterousness of easy equations and how fruitless much of the analysis is regarding the region’s political, cultural and social landscapes. Whichever quote or tweet you find, there are nuggets of truth in each of them. My particular favourite is this one: “We’re actually very proud of God in the Middle East. He’s the local guy who went on to acquire international fame’!

Having attended the sold-out book launch in London, below are some selected quotes from the evening, in which Sharro offers insight into his alter ego. With 135,000 followers on Twitter and an active blog – where one can find lengthier political satire – I highly recommend getting a hold of the book and a visit to the website, wherein our collective despair about the Arab world can be assuaged by the reMarks treatment.

On his motivation, Sharro said: “I never had any serious pretentions about the role I am doing. My writing and tweeting was a response to the coverage of the Middle East and about resisting certain stereotypes and narratives. But I was never trying to present a different image of the Middle East. My attitude was that I want to respond and poke fun at those people who are misrepresenting the Middle East. Ultimately my motivation was that I want people to smile and laugh.”

On the use of political satire, Sharro: “I am a part-time political satirist and everyone knows that what I do is in my lunch break. It is about appropriating certain stereotypes and to present a more progressive image. Part of it also is being comfortable enough to talk about things that you might not like about your culture.”

On Twitter and Tweeting, Sharro: “It is a fine balance between reality and satire. There is something about being on Twitter where, especially if you are tweeting a lot and you are always following the events and you are almost like naked in front of your audience. Sometimes things happen that are beyond your comprehension and I think that is when language stops cooperating with you or the medium of satire stops cooperating with you and there is nothing really that can be said.

“You can see a sense of frustration and you can see a sense of futility, but I think that is the great thing about this medium, we have such a close relationship with the events around us. And it is not like going away to shut yourself somewhere to write a book where you can create layers between yourself and the events that are happening. We are learning new ways with this medium and tweets reflect that.”

About the idea that the Middle East is prone to catastrophe, fighting and war, Sharro: “A lot of it is something that is created in the Western imagination and particularly a class of punditry when we talk about the Middle East as if it is always subject for news. But in reality it is not necessarily different to any other part of the world.”

On approaching taboo subjects, Sharro: “I was writing satire and a lot of it was dark and scathing. For example, I wrote about ISIS when they first came and one blog post was done in this style. My rule was to write it and see what people would say. Some might miss the point that I am not actually stereotyping Arabs, but I am using stereotypes and inverting them and trying to say something different. I learnt my instinct was to trust the audience and there will always be one or two people who don’t get it.”

On whether being outside the Arab world gives him more freedom to do what he does, Sharro: “I don’t’ think it is easier for the obvious reasons. Some people think I am more free here to say what I want to say and I don’t’ think that is actually true. I feel that there are more taboos here than in the Middle East and you can say more things over there.

“But what it gave me was a sense of coldness. If you are living the situation in Syria, Lebanon or Iraq, you are living that and it is your reality. Everything you say or do is an existential struggle and it all depends on it. It gave me the luxury of not having to, when I write, that I am not dealing with that reality.

“But that is when I made my decision that I can’t be a political activist or I can’t be lecturing people about what to do in Lebanon, Syria or Iraq, because I am not in that situation. I think it is completely wrong for anyone to consciously decide to go out and live in the West to then take this position that I am going to lecture people. You have removed yourself from that context and you can do what I do which is non-consequential in a way.”

On political correctness and taboos in the West, Sharro: “I think there is an intellectual construct that is definitely, from a liberal sense, quite self-censoring under the pretence that this kind of censorship is for the social good… I worry about this tendency in the West because for me confronting ideas openly is a much healthier way than retreating into mistakes, controlling speech and people practising self-censorship.”

A member of the audience also asked Sharro what he would write as a manifesto for the Middle East. His response was: “I actually wrote these manifestos back in 2011 when I was blogging, but nobody read them. So here I am, a failed political activist turned satirist because that is what worked. Essentially, if I were to hijack this event and promote a political message, it is that I have always been a big believer in autonomy and self-determination. I find them foundational ideas for how we move politics in the Middle East and I think these are important aspects to base our politics on.”

There was, of course, much else that was said at the launch and food for thought. But what I came away with was respect for Sharro’s dynamism – as he successfully juggles being an architect, a political satirist, a cultural commentator, a stand-up comedian, a cartoonist, a public speaker and a contributing author to several publications! – and, the ability of his alter ego to push us into reconsidering the important relationship between reality and how we may be digesting it through different news mediums.

In some ways, reMarks magically takes away a lot of our fears, anxieties and frustrations about the world that we live in – whether we are in the MENA region or living outside it – even if this can only be done through one tweet or one blog post at a time.

You can purchase the book from Al Saqi Bookshop: http://www.alsaqibookshop.com/shopexd.asp?id=47970

You can follow the Karl reMarks website: http://www.karlremarks.com/

You can follow the Karl reMarks Twitter account: https://twitter.com/KarlreMarks

Note: This article was first published circa June 2018

Banthology: Stories From Unwanted Nations

Using resentful rhetoric to justify his executive order made early last year – to ban the entry of people coming from seven Muslim-majority countries into the United States – President Donald Trump was indicating that America needs to be protected from these ‘other’ people on the count of their religion. A religion that is a personal faith to over 1.8 billion worldwide which he simply reduces to an enemy of ‘his’ great nation, using the language of fear and dangerously manipulating the historical context.

In a creative response to what can only be described as a hysterical political measure, Comma Press, the champions of the short story form, commissioned seven writers from the original countries in Executive Order 13769 – Sudan, Syria, Somalia, Iran, Libya, Iraq and Yemen – to contribute to an anthology that would be published in the UK and the US. Five of the entries were penned in the native languages and have been translated into English.

“The idea for this book was born amid the chaos of that first ban, and sought to champion, give voice to, and better understand a set of nations that the White House would like us to believe are populated entirely by terrorists. As publishers, we are acutely aware of the importance of cultural exchange between communities, and have also seen first-hand the damage caused by tightened visa controls and existing travel restrictions…” Sarah Cleave, Editor.

Opening with Rania Mamoun’s ‘Bird of Paradise’, a young Sudanese woman finds herself lost, alone and bewildered at an airport. She is psychologically frozen and unable to board the scheduled flight even though her dream had always been to run away from her oppressive life in the town of Wad Madani. Standing in the queue with the ticket ready in hand, she is held back by an emotional force and paralysed at the prospect of getting onto the plane.

Showing the mental resilience required of the refugee from a dark comic perspective, author Zaher Moareen’s ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Smuggling’ is about a Syrian man still in transit in Paris, France with a plan to get to Sweden to seek final asylum. At the mercy of smugglers who have no care as to his survival and who can never offer a guarantee of safe passage, his story reflects on what compels one to escape one’s country of origin and the myriad justifications one has to come up with to be granted entry at some borders. We sense his unease, anxiety and panic at the prospect of an uncertain future as he is beyond the point of return.

In Iranian writer Fereshteh Molaui’s ‘Phantom Limb’, we are presented with an unusual psychic connection that occurs between loved ones when they are separated and become physically thousands of miles apart. A troubled Kurdish-Iranian male refugee in Toronto, Canada experiences a pain that has no medical explanation, except that it happens to correspond directly with an injury endured by his mother back home in Iran, an amputated right leg.

Taking a swipe at Trump is Libyan writer Najwa Benshwatwan’s ‘Return Ticket’ that pokes fun at the preposterousness of what can happen at immigration controls and the pretexts offered when one is being screened purely based on their colour, sex, race, religion or nationality. She initially creates an imaginary village named Schrodinger that has the extraordinary powers to be able to move through time and space and where people are judged purely on good deeds and acts of piety.

But one very odd thing about Schrodinger is the grave of six Americans who came to it and never left: “not out of love, but because the walls of their own nation never stopped rising, day after day, until it was cut off from the world and the world cut off from it. Each attempt by an American tourist to scale the towering walls and return home proved fatal!”

The grandmother then narrates the endless humiliations she encounters as a woman traveller when once she tried to step outside the village in search of her husband and needing to visit some real and imagined places. In one instance, she is forced to take off all of her clothes because it is ‘a crime to feel embarrassed’, but in another, she is faced with the religious fundamentalists who tell her off for not wearing the hijab and threaten her with the punishment of hell.

Carrying us to an ancient time, Yemeni Wajdi al-Ahdal’s ‘The Slow Man’ begins at ‘The Year 100 According to the Babylonian Calendar’ and then moves us right up to the ‘400 Babylonians Era’. Highlighting confrontations and the war between the Egyptians and Babylonians, the tale alludes to how every great and mighty empire sooner or later comes to pass and is replaced by another. In the end, the narrator foresees the total annihilation of the human race as it devours itself for the sake of dominance, power and control.

Last but not least are Iraqi Anoud’s ‘Storyteller’ and Somali Ubah Cristina Ali Farah’s ‘Jujube’ that are similar in many ways but written in unique styles. Told by two young females, they both speak of the lived realities of war, its consequent tragedies, the incurred losses of dear ones, the clinging on to false hope and the nightmares that continue even when one is eventually outside of the conflict zone due to the irreversible damage and the invisible scarring.

Bringing to light the incredulity that was felt by many people at Trump’s original order, this powerful anthology offers, in the fictional short story format, all of the associated states of anger, upset, sadness, frustration, and even hilarity at this new added travel stigma. In terms of international borders and the movement of people, it relays the stories of those who end up paying the heaviest price when discriminatory and unfair laws are put into practice. It also, very effectively, turns upside down the President’s Islamophobia, especially as you enter the minds of the whose who have been forced to risk the migrant journey and come to appreciate the complex dynamics that are at play, wherein their religion is in no way of an aggressive nature.

Note: This article was first published circa April 2018

I Still Hide to Smoke, Rayhana Obermeyer

Screened as part of Film Africa 2017

Set against the backdrop of the Algerian la sale guerre, ‘I Still Hide to Smoke’ is a heady cocktail mix of people and events that reflects on how the personal and the sexual can come to hold heavy political import, with the added dangerous ingredient of religion too.

As the bombs explode and the struggles between government forces and rebel Islamist groups are playing out on the streets, French-Algerian director Rayhana Obermeyer invites one to enter the private world of women, as they bathe for a day in the traditional hammam in the city of Algiers.

A very disturbing sex scene quickly assaults the senses and creates unusual suspense as to its outcome. But, before long, another helpless female enters the stage, seeking refuge for fear of her life having been caught out as an adulteress. Putting head masseuse and manager of the bathhouse Fatima in a precarious position, she wants to protect the pregnant Meriem but is not sure who to trust with the secret of her hiding.

By 11am, all the other local ladies are clamouring to get inside the building; and, as they are let in, each of them cheerily discards her outer garment or hijab and seems happy to be free in the nude or underwear, ready to start with the beauty and cleansing rituals. Falling into easy female banter as they swap and share shampoos and soaps, they begin to exchange intimate stories about their sex lives and relationships, exploring what it means to be an Algerian woman circa 1995.

The entangled tales reveal a harsh patriarchal societal structure that punishes them both in their homes and in the public space. Pointing at a dark reality, most have experienced some form of abuse; be it at the hands of husbands, male relatives or other misogynists. ‘Princess’ Louisa, for example, was married off at the age of 11 to her father’s friend who sexually violates her; but, in rebellion, she does have an affair with his brother, begetting the latter’s children without the knowledge of the former.

Or in the case of the liberally outspoken Nadia, she suffered an acid attack for being a political activist and reproached for wanting a divorce and taking the pill not to have children. She unwittingly finds herself face to face with Zahia, who is the widow of a self-proclaimed Emir religious fundamentalist and constantly preaching about Allah and the benefits of the veil and jihad.

Not to downplay the other moving #MeToo stories you will encounter, including that of naïve Samia, whose only wish and desire is to experience love and marriage; but, being a 29 year-old masseuse, nobody wants her, even with the promise of ‘a certificate of virginity upon delivery’.

The plot is carried forward with frequent returns by Fatima on the progress of the expectant woman sheltered upstairs whose waters are breaking fast; and, it all ends in spectacular fashion with the intrusion by the men who barge their way into the hamman seeking blood and revenge, led by Meriem’s brother. Whilst the script, that contains plenty of raw humour, provides countless gem quotes that mirror the contradictory arguments wreaking havoc on everyone.

When Zahia admonishes Nadia in one instance for not wearing the veil, she says: “We only fear god and the veil protects us from temptation… The bearded ones protect us from despots”. Nadia then replies with: “You don’t fear god. You want to be god. Behind your veils and beards, all murderers!.. I will fight against your Islamic Republic, even if I have to ally with the devil… Your Islam is not our Islam.”

One is therefore left to contemplate a frightening status of Algerian women in their cultural environment and what seems to be a direct indictment of the men in general. It begs one to consider not just the troubling dynamics between the sexes but also those between the competing interpretations of Islam. There is a danger when the faith is monopolised in the hands of the radicals, as opposed to the more modern, liberal and secular parties and individuals.

Utilising female nudity and hinting at erotic sensibilities, one doubts if this film will make it to the public screens in Algeria or other conservative Arab countries – the bathing scenes had to be shot in Greece. But laying bare the vulnerability of the naked female body in such a cinematic style – and in her choice of casting Arab actresses who all deliver fantastic performances – is perhaps Rayhana’s way of causing an artistic ripple movement towards the liberation of Arab-Muslim women and their right to be heard and protected.

Not for the faint hearted, I highly recommend ‘I Still Hide to Smoke’ to everyone, male and female, Arab or non-Arab. I do also advise, though somewhat hesitantly, that you prepare to light up and enjoy a cigarette after the show!

More information can be found here: http://www.filmafrica.org.uk/i-still-hide-to-smoke/

Note: This article was first published circa November 2017

Hurma, Ali Al-Muqri

A childhood memory urged me to pick up the novel titled ‘Hurma’ by Ali Al-Muqri. I first heard the Arabic word ‘hurma’ being used when I was a young girl on a mini-pilgrimage to Mecca circa 1995. It was being shouted out by an ugly old male guard who was holding a long wooden stick in his hand to usher the women as to where they can stand and pray around the Kabaa. I didn’t know the meaning of the word; but, whatever its definition, I sensed it held negative and oppressive connotations due to the guard’s aggressive physical stance towards us.

Curious to open the book to enter the world of a so-called female protagonist, I had hoped for an enlightening read into the character, the reality and psychology behind such a woman. I also wanted an insight into the cultural beliefs and attitudes that manifest in the society she inhabits. And, for sure, I was not at all disappointed. In truth, I was so astonished by the tale that I had to read it twice just to make sure that my eyes were not deceiving my mind.

Hurma the character is not even identified by a proper legal name to distinguish her from others as an individual human being. Even when all this young girl desires is to please her father, brother, husband and culture, she ends up pleasing nobody. From the age of eight, she is given the burka to wear with only two small slits for the eyes and is ordered about by everyone. She is also forcibly made to live in the shadows of existence and moves about only as an invisible black blob. Even so, without having any autonomous personal agency, she manages to find herself in very odd and dangerous predicaments.

Starting out in Sana’a, Yemen sometime circa Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, Guantanamo and the war in Chechnya, Hurma is subject to extreme religious indoctrination that she cannot but blindly follow. Her brainwashing is complete when she is a student at the Islamic Scientific Academy, where she comes to naïvely dream of becoming a female warrior to fight in jihad against ‘the heathen crusaders, the communists, the Jews in Palestine and infidels in general’.

It is during her time there that we are introduced to some of the preposterous religious arguments proposed by her Islamic lecturers and noting their general obsession with sex and how to limit and deny the female any known freedoms. With straight faces, they debate whether or not it is a sin for a woman to see dogs and chicken copulate or if it is halal for a woman to handle bananas and cucumbers! All the while, of course, they don’t question themselves as men nor do they admit to their own evident impotence and sexual perversions.

“We know that a woman remains a hurma even in death. She is mentioned by name only when this is unavoidable, because to mention her is an act of immodesty, and modesty is a part of faith. A man without faith is a man without modesty. A man who talks about his hurma has lost his modesty and therefore his faith.” (Page 80, a quote from Hurma’s Islamic professor).

Being so manipulated, Hurma is predictably married off to her brother’s friend. An extreme political-religious character, he carelessly takes her with him to the ends of the earth in his own longing for martyrdom and jihad. Making her a member of a mujahedeen cell in Yemen, eventually he uses her as a mule to carry gold, cash and explosive ingredients. Again, unwittingly, she ends up travelling through Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Afghanistan, Sudan, Pakistan and Iran and being exposed to the reality of holy war on the frontline.

All the while, however, we know as readers that Hurma carries a deep guilty secret and a sincere longing for something else that is rather different from the jihad that her husband offers her. But I won’t spoil that great surprise for you.

I also won’t spoil the incredible ways in which Al-Muqri reveals the deeply set contradictions of the irrational and violent ideology that not only oppresses women in the name of Islam, but also tends to lead the men to pursue goals of self-annihilation and suicidal missions. For the author is denouncing, ridiculing and exposing all the weaknesses of their arguments and turning them on their ugly head to expose the faults and sorry end results through one gullible person’s experience. It is no wonder that Al-Muqri received threats to his safety after publication of this book and had to go into hiding.

Some of the scenes will actually have you laugh in utter and absolute disbelief and do be prepared for the liberal use of sexually explicit content throughout the story. Just to mention one of the most memorable scenes, we find Hurma alone in a room in Saudi Arabia and watching an Islamic television programme, where the show is debating a notorious fatwa that was issued by an Egyptian Sheik who had belonged to the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt. This was a true event where the fatwa was publicly brought to light; although, eventually, it was rejected and thrown out.

The Sheik had ruled that if a woman must, for some unavoidable reason, spend time in the presence of a man who is neither her husband nor a close relative – which is of course prohibited by Sharia – then it’s possible for her to suckle this man, thereby creating a kinship bond between them and making it permissible for them to mix! There is a whole passage following this in which the details of how to manage such a fatwa are discussed and the reader is left in hysterics.

I won’t say much else about the plot’s development nor will I elaborate on the other highly colourful personalities in the tale whose personal journeys closely intersect with Hurma’s but that are also so very different. I highly recommend this book as it addresses the inherently insane psychology that masquerades as religious dogma; and, also, because it artistically explores the controlled belief system that ultimately negatively impacts on both of the sexes.

Al-Muqri not only plays on the irony of what the word ‘hurma’ means in Arabic – it means ‘sanctity’ – and how that has come into use, misuse and abuse; he, also, fully delves into the crazy world where such logic is imposed and showing us all the inevitable disturbing consequences. He is also leading us as observers to consider our individual and collective responsibility when it comes mainly to the treatment of women.

If you are, like me, ready to read with an open mind, then by the end you will be dying for Al-Muqri’s other works to be translated into English.

You can purchase ‘Hurma’ by Ali Al-Muqri at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hurma-Ali-al-Muqri/dp/1850772770

‘Love, Bombs and Apples’ The Play, Hassan Abdulrazzak

Better late than never. I finally managed to attend and was truly blown away by Hassan Abdulrazzak’s latest play ‘Love, Bombs and Apples’ that was showing at the Arcola Theatre last week. Although the London run has finished, I have been informed that the production will soon be touring York, Bradford, Liverpool, Cumbria and Oldham from 29 June until 22 July, 2016.

Very punchy and dark in its fantastic humour, Abdulrazzak’s script raises many of the sore global political issues facing our time. Being a distinguished award-winning playwright, this time he effortlessly engages the audience with the very different stories of four male characters living in various parts of the world, but whom are all connected by an interesting philosophic thread.

All performed by the same versatile thespian, Asif Khan, he effortlessly takes on the role of a Palestinian actor with a strong Arabic accent, to becoming the introverted Pakistani amateur author, to emulating a British Bradford born gangster-type adolescent; and, finally, turning into a Jewish New Yorker. There is truly no mistaking which individual he is in the four-parts, so adept were the character transformations.

One of the most memorable scenes is in ‘Love in the Time of Barriers’, when the actor from Ramallah decides to have a sexual experience with an English girl against the Separation Wall even under the spotlight of the Israeli guards. Inspired by a true story told to Abdulrazzak, it highlights the resilience of the Palestinians in the face of oppression and their right to love even whilst being held hostage. He says to her: “This is a moment where we can make a stand. Defy them. Show them that no matter what walls they build, what towers they erect, they can’t stop us form living.”

Another important scene is in ‘The Apple’ segment, when the young yob from Bradford talks about the seduction of being a jihadi and joining ISIS. It reveals how simple, uninformed and misguided his logic in wanting to join the violent group. He says: “What’s in Bradford? Why stay? Zero hour contracts. No, thanks. Loading shelves in the Ikea. No way, bro. Why waste my life here when I could be spreading Islam with an iPhone and a tank? I want the hot desert air in my face. I want to wave the black flag from the top of the tank, I want my choice of jihadi brides, you know what I am saying? I want the cool black uniform. I love that uniform.”

In a third tale titled ‘The Landing Strip’, we also meet the Jewish American named Issac. He starts out as nervous and anxious to be asking his girlfriend to fulfill just one of his sexual fantasies to spice up their intimate life. However, her unexpected response forces him to question and challenge his father’s Zionist politics and being a member of the AIPAC aka America’s Pro-Israel Lobby.

Last but by no means least – and, in fact, my favourite monologue as it made me laugh so much! – was the odd story of the shy British-Pakistani aspiring novelist Sajid. His undesired fate is to be is taken into police custody and be kept in a UK prison for terrorism-related charges because of having developed a frightening book plot. It was so totally harmless in his eyes but which didn’t seem so innocent to them. His tragic predicament, mixed with his self-deprecating personality, leads to very funny moments indeed.

One common theme that I could pick out was perhaps how our private lives are inextricably linked to the big public concerns of our age and the festering issues in our collective consciousness. I felt a hint towards this urgent need for people to take their responsibility as world citizens more seriously and to utilise their wills more strategically; so that we do not fall into the trap of relying on the shallow or false arguments fed to us via the mainstream media or any propaganda literature when it comes to politics.

More specifically, the four are all plausible examples of how an individual can get unwittingly embroiled in the unavoidable issues of ISIS, anti-terror laws in the UK or the unjust Israeli occupation of Palestine. Whether we are in the East or the West, there is a suggestion that we must all be fully awake to current affairs and to educate ourselves in the history in order to not repeat similar mistakes. For example, the big reference to the Holocaust is measured against the injustices currently being committed by the Israeli state.

I do highly recommend this play and especially if it continues to be performed by its wonderful star Asif Khan and directed by Rosamunde Hutt. I do also hope that it goes on an international tour soon as it is so timely and has so much to offer its audience: making them chuckle but also seriously think and possibly even cry. It is a very strong theatrical piece and definitely one worth seeing if you get the chance.

‘Love, Bombs and Apples’ was first commissioned and produced by AIK productions. Its world premiere was at the Arcola Theatre, London as part of the Shubbak Festival in July 2015. This current UK national tour is co-produced by AIK Productions and Turtle Key Arts.

Note: This article was first published circa July 2016

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