Last month I had the privilege of seeing a play by the acclaimed playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak an Iraqi born post doctorate researcher based in London. Although Abdulrazzak received a PhD in Muscular Dystrophy in 1999, he is better known for writing plays that present pertinent yet difficult narratives.
‘Love, Bombs and Apples’ is one of them and a touching story told in four distinct monologues. Each monologue expounds the story of a young man battling with his own internal conflicts whilst recounting shared experience of the sociopolitical world they each encounter from their own perspective. I found his play captivating and really enjoyed each character and watching their stories unfold. The mix of honest introspection and staunch point of view was often uncomfortable but it was such a relief to be presented with questions and thoughts about the Muslim experience post 9/11 that are not often shared in a public domain.
Of all Abdulrazzak’s characters, Abdul was my favourite, a young writer fresh out of university with dreams for a future he would never know. I could relate to his experiences of prejudice, feelings of isolation and internalised oppression. I loved his wit and appreciated the way he weaved his experience through his words to us as an audience.
Of all the characters I felt that Isaac was the most human. Although flawed, as all the characters were, Isaac expresses hope, fear, desire, love and the challenge of a shifting sense of loyalty.
Being the only non-Muslim character, I felt a little cheated that he was given a richer narrative with broader context that involved wholesome relationships with others, affording him a deeper context in which to explore his own morality. I approached Abdulrazzak later. Amongst other things, I asked him about his play and what inspired him to spend his time between scientific research and storytelling.
What motivated you to engage in a vocation far beyond your science background exploring such challenging themes?
I have always written stories and poems although they were mainly shared with my friends, cousins and immediate family. However, after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, my country of origin, I was compelled to write a play (Baghdad Wedding) that showed a different side to Iraq than the one presented in the news. There was such a focus on the looting of museums in Baghdad and the acts of violence by insurgents that some people in the West ended up concluding that Iraq was this barbaric place and it had always been so. I was keen to show another side of Iraq by focusing on the educated middle class and to remind the audience that the destruction of Iraq by the West didn’t just start in 2003 but happened during the preceding decade when crippling economic sanctions were imposed on the country.
There is a sense of a common story or thread being woven through Love, Bombs and Apples. What is the core message you wish to convey in your writing as a whole?
I guess I want to present stories that are not immediately obvious, ones that challenge the stereotype about Muslims or that address the politics of the Middle East but in a sideways, complex fashion, capturing the humanity and the complexity of characters. Israeli occupation is not the immediate concern but it becomes so as the story develops and this makes it unusual in the context of telling stories about Palestine. I guess what I always look for in a story about the Middle East is an interesting, unexpected entry point into the story, one that takes us away from the headlines and into the hearts of the characters. All the characters in Love, Bombs and Apples are seeking very ordinary, human objectives that make them clash with the bigger political picture around. This is typified by the story of Sajid, who thinks he has written the definitive post 9/11 novel only to be arrested by the police who think he has written a terror manual.
While the play presents honest accounts of personal experience giving voice to marginalised groups and narratives, is the richness of Isaac’s character a means of securing a more cosmopolitan audience than the storyline would otherwise allow?
No, not at all. The show developed rather organically. The first draft of the first monologue (the story of the Palestinian actor) was written back in 2009 at a time when Gaza was being bombed by the Israelis. When we were putting the show together in 2014, Gaza was once again being bombed. We had the first three monologues but realised there was room for a fourth monologue. And I thought it would be rather appropriate to revisit the Palestine issue but this time from a Jewish American perspective.
I was inspired by an article I had read in the New York Review Of Books as well as an online lecture by Norman Finkelstein that spoke of the generational gap in the American Jewish community regarding Israel. The older generation which lived through the 1967 war when Israel faced an existential crisis, grew up with a sense of allegiance to the country because they saw it as the underdog, whereas the sons and daughters of that generation, who often, though not always, have a liberal outlook, have only known Israel as the aggressor. Hence I wanted to create Isaac’s story in order to dramatise that generational tension. His story may appear to be richer than the others but that is only because his position is so complex. I wanted to take my time with the story to paint the world of Issac’s powerful father, a staunch Zionist for whom Israel can do no wrong and who has a kind of irresistible male charisma versus the world of Isaac’s Jewish girlfriend who sympathises with the Palestinians. This way you can feel the power of the dilemma Isaac faces when he is forced to make a choice between his father and his girlfriend. So I guess it was the complexity of that story that resulted in it being the longest in the play. I hope that the audience will emphasise with all characters regardless of their background because they will be able to put themselves in their shoes.
Lastly, your portrayal of a radicalised young man who is lost in his skewed perception of the world around him, his only saving grace being his loyalty towards an elderly relative, was so arresting. It remained with me as a feeling above and beyond its memory. How are you able to create such depth of character while commandeering the audience’s attention to explore difficult themes as entertainment?
When ISIS first appeared on the scene, news channels would comment on their high definition videos that were available on You Tube. It was possible to watch these videos easily and what struck me about them is how much like an advert they appeared. They were selling an idea: the caliphate, a land where Muslims from the West could go and hold their heads high, where they could erase the borders between Muslim nations that the colonial oppressor put in place for their own ends. The beheadings and the brutality came a little later. Those early videos were appealing to a certain kind of person who had never found their place in the West. Something about those videos reminded me of the Apple product adverts which often sell you the ideology behind the product as much as the product itself. So I wanted to create a character that is lost between these two sets of adverts, these two sets of ideology, both empty in their own way. Near my home is a Westfield store and there I observed many young people going in to the Apple store just to touch the products. Many of them probably fantasised about these products which were out of their reach economically. That is in a way symbolic of success in the West which is out of reach for many young Muslims who face racism and prejudice, making them potential victims of extremist ideology.