In the weeks following a number of terrorist attacks carried out crudely in the name of Islam, Fin Kennedy, artistic director at Tamasha Theatre, offered the Muslim writers on the Tamasha Playwrights group a space to come together and talk about being a Muslim writer in such a fraught political context.
So one cold January morning myself and three other Muslim playwrights met at Tamasha’s offices in Bethnal Green, and over cupcakes and coffee discussed how it felt to grapple with such issues in our work.
I felt stifled as a writer. If I were to write something, I felt I had a responsibility to answer for such horrors carried out in the name of my religion. But the problem was, I was as in the dark as anyone else about the drivers of such violence. My Islam was not the Islam of Salah Abdeslam, Khurram Butt, or Yahyah Farroukh.
I wanted to write other stories. Stories about Muslims that did not deal with so-called ‘Islamic extremism’ or terrorism, but rather about Muslims whose dating lives are disasters, who hate their jobs, who love trips to ikea, and like feeding stray cats. You know, regular human beings who are fully rounded, three dimensional characters.
And I wasn’t alone in feeling this. There was a general frustration amongst us Muslim writers about how we were constantly represented as Muslims. We only ever seemed to see certain types of Muslims beamed out at us from our screens, stages and news pages. And these ‘types’ rarely corresponded with the Muslims we knew personally – our friends, family, colleagues or acquaintances.
And so, Tamasha theatre decided to make a difference, by supporting us as writers to explore other aspects of Muslim identity in our work. And so, Refuel was born.
Designed to support Tamasha’s forthcoming touring production Approaching Empty by Ishy Din, Refuel paired four Muslim writers with an experienced director each and sent us into four Muslim majority schools across London to develop and write four fresh plays to accompany the main piece. The premise was simple – it must be set in a minicab office. Beyond that, sky was the limit.
Through a series of drama exercises, improvisation, character work, hot seating, real world interviews and discussions, and short writing tasks, I worked with the year 8 girls of Mulberry Girls School in Tower Hamlets to develop some concrete ideas for a play.
Each week we built on top of what we had created together the previous week. The characters we created in the first week, we had to place in a minicab office the second week with some dramatic interactions with other characters. The third week saw those dramatic scenes escalate into a more complex plot. Slowly, the forces of the play came together.
What was most thrilling for me as a writer was seeing the 11 year old girls go from wanting to write stories about Harry and Joe and Chloe and Kate, to becoming excited about writing stories about Khadija or Haleema. This switch from simply recreating the white majority they see on their TV screens at home, to actually representing their own lives and cultures and experiences in their ideas was really satisfying and I hope one of the lasting legacies of a project like this.
And this was where the real magic was – they’re humour, their sass, their depth really shone brightest when they began to mine their own experiences, or the banter they have with their own friends and family.
Our play gradually developed into an intergenerational story about three girls and their grandmother. It’s a story of aging, of not quite getting on with older generations, and of cultural gulfs that must be bridged within families which have migrants from different generations. It’s a story that is at once universal, but also intrinsically rooted in the Bengali culture. Everyone can relate to not giving their grandparents enough time, but yet not everyone’s grandmother is called Nani, eats brain cutlets, or tells stories of her village in Bangladesh.
The project has helped me as an emerging writer in many ways. Firstly, the opportunity to work with a brilliant and experienced director, Endy McKay in the classroom has taught me a huge amount about generating stories and ideas through performance. It’s also equipped me with a repertoire of ridiculously fun drama games which I hope I’ll have the opportunity to use soon. Moreover, the support I had from Fin and Tamasha was completely invaluable and has meant that I’m now confidence enough and equipped with the skills to work on projects like this again. The production credit will hopefully put me in a good position to receive another similar commission in future.
But finally, working with young people in a collaborative and creative way is extremely liberating, because their imaginations are boundless. It was a pleasure to be let into their world for six short weeks, to hear their ideas, their jokes and their lingo. I think I learnt more from them than they ever could have from me, and based on our time together, I’ve got several stories percolating in the back of my mind. Perhaps they’ll pour out in the next play I write.