by Mary Jackson (July 2009)
“F*ckin’ Frogs,” exclaims the Cockney barmaid in Richard Bean’s play England People Very Nice, which I saw at The National Theatre in March. Fair enough – after all, they came over ‘ere with their looms, takin’ aaah jobs. Fast forward a couple of hundred years and the barmaid, East Ender to the core, despite her Huguenot blood, now rails against “F*ckin’ Micks”, the bog-trotting Irish immigrants who keep pigs in their lodgings and mate with their brothers and sisters – “at least you know where they’ve been”. Next up are “F*ckin’ Yids”; refugees from the pogroms receive a less than warm welcome. But love conquers all, and the Irish girl who is now as Cockney as they come, marries a Mr Klineman: “Jews and Irish? That’s the worst kind of marriage! You end up with a family of pissed-up burglars managed by a clever accountant.” Bawdy humour and an undertone of menace save the first half of this play from being a Zadie-Smith-meets-United-Colours-of-Benetton multicultural mush, but it is not yet saying anything new. Mocking of both stereotypes and stereotyping, so far the play is scrupulously even-handed in its offensiveness, and will therefore offend only those determined to be offended. Then, in the second half, come the “F*ckin Pakis”.
At first they seem harmless enough. Indeed, the first generation of Pakistani immigrants were, in the main, hard working – running corner shops and curry houses – and humbly grateful to be here. Culturally Indian with a comical “It Ain’t ‘Alf Hot, Mum” accent, its representative, Mushi, is Muslim in name only. But sometimes a name is all it takes: he has not renounced Islam, and his children want more than a name. “They’re like bloody Arabs,” he says, tellingly, of his niqabbed daughters. I thought back to my childhood in Bolton, when Muslim girls dressed, if not like Westerners, in the colourful shalwar kameez of their Hindu friends. Their daughters dress Saudi-style, as black ghosts, and they don’t have Hindu friends.
A hook-handed, wild-bearded mullah exhorts women to lick the snot out of their husband’s nostril if he tells them to – surely the most disgusting of hadiths, if not the most unjust. He preaches uncompromising hatred of the West to an eager young audience. It is this audience, his followers, who are the most perceptively drawn characters in the play. They are young, with all the arrogance and ignorance of youth, and all its “likes”, “whatev-ahs” and “innits”. The “Brick Lane Boys” assault the ears with the most mindless of gangsta raps – and there is a lot of competition. But it is the “sistas” who are the most menacing. Wearing the black-ghost outfit that says “rape someone else” they wield their modesty as a weapon, sulkily refusing to shake the hand of the Hampstead liberal man whose tolerance they despise. Our outspoken but kindly Cockney barmaid, now getting on in years, is called a whore, for wearing a short skirt. This is Jihad – Jihad Made in Britain. Click on the “sistas” below to read the Pajamas Media article, in which I discuss the modest Muslimah of today.
Our Cockney barmaid feels helpless for the first time in centuries. Her elderly black friend is going “home” to Barbados: “I feel like a nigger again.” The message is clear: he and other non-Muslims are outsiders in their own land.
Richard Bean is not the first to observe that the children of Muslim immigrants can be more radical than their parents. Hanif Kureishi’s My Son the Fanatic covered similar ground ten years ago. However, as the title suggests, Kureishi portrayed a devout Muslim as a “fanatical” exception. Bean, more realistically, sees fanaticism as the norm for a younger, emboldened generation of Muslims.
It is not brave or original to write a play condemning Israel, or George Bush, or kiddy-fiddling Catholic priests. Such “transgressive” works – Seven Jewish Children being a prime example – are ten a penny. England People Very Nice has more about it. Scattered in the first half, hit and miss with its jokes, seemingly comforting in its demonstration that we can all rub along in the end, it comes into its own in the second half. Its unflinching portrayal of Muslim youth, very modern, very British, and yet alien to the core, deserves praise.
Whether England People Very Nice has set a precedent remains to be seen, but two further plays touching on the theme of Muslim youth will be performed this summer. The first, Pornography, has been mentioned at this site’s blog, The Iconoclast. From the Evening Standard article quoted:
A play that empathises with the 7/7 bombers is coming to London after a string of theatres rejected it.
The show, called Pornography, follows a man from Leeds travelling to the capital to commit an act of terrorism on the Tube, and six Londoners caught up in the attack. The play . . . set in July 2005 on the backdrop of the real events. It is made up of seven “playlets”, interweaving characters’ stories in the run-up to the bombings.
Writer Simon Stephens, 38, of Mile End, and an Olivier award winner, said of his play: “When you start thinking of the terrorists as human beings, it allows you to think of the victims as human beings. It seemed the most dignified thing theatre could do.”
Tricycle director Nicolas Kent said: “It was such a powerful piece. The only way to prevent things like this is to get inside the minds of these people.”
The playwright’s words do not augur well. As a reader points out, we don’t need permission to think of the victims as human beings. My colleague Esmerelda Weatherwax is sceptical, and with good reason:
Actually Kent is right but not in the way he thinks. Understanding the ruthlessness of jihad and the aim of world submission is indeed the first step to defeating it.
It all depends what “understanding” is on offer. If we are served up the usual cheap fare of “root causes” – “Palestine”, “racism” or most laughably “poverty” – then the play will be thin gruel indeed. But if we see Islam in action and its appeal to the pampered, belligerent youth, with his mediocre mind and inflated sense of entitlement, then there will be much to chew on. Let us not forget that Islam spread at the hands of vicious, vacuous young thugs, fuelled by testosterone and greed. Gangsta rap, rather than Mozart, is the fitting background music for Islam.
If the playwright’s understanding is all forgiving, then he is morally bankrupt. We non-Muslims must not forgive Islam’s assault on us, and must arm ourselves against it. But we must know our enemy, and our enemy is human. New English Review contributor Artemis comments:
I don’t mind humanizing the terrorists. I think it’s wrong to demonize them as cartoonish irredeemably evil bad guys out to destroy the world. Because sooner or later it will come out that they bring back their library books on time, smile at their Muslim neighbors, are quiet and unobtrusive, etc. And people will say, hmm, maybe they’re not so bad after all.
We should understand that they’re not monsters, by their view of the universe. We should understand that they are very devout and pious, and that they truly believe that their Allah wants them to kill or forcibly convert non-Muslims until everyone is a Muslim, everywhere in the universe.
Fourteen hundred years of Jihad should have given us plenty of time to know the enemy, but for present purposes, fourteen years will suffice. In 1995, Hanif Kureishi wrote The Black Album, a novel about the rise of “radical” Islam, soon to be staged at The National. From The Times:
When Hanif Kureishi’s novel The Black Album was published in 1995, many people were bewildered. The writer who had made his name with frothy, sex-filled comedies such as My Beautiful Laundrette and The Buddha of Suburbia had shifted his attention to an obscure band of Islamic fundamentalists at a North London college, and their relationship with the hedonistic world that surrounded them.
“My main memory is that people just didn’t care about this story at the time,” Kureishi says. “Most people in those days weren’t interested in Muslim fundamentalism. It was rather like being interested in Scientology; it was some fringe, small-time, minor activity. It was only much later that it became right at the centre of what we were living through and thinking about.”
Fourteen years on, the book stands up as an eerie warning from history, a debate about integration and identity politics, about art and fundamentalism, about racism and terrorism.
Set in 1989, against the backdrop of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the collapse of the Soviet Union, The Black Album follows Shahid, a teenager from a middle-class family in Kent, who comes to a shabby polytechnic in northwest London to take a degree in cultural studies. He finds himself pulled between different worlds. There is the lure of sex, drugs and culture from his rapacious thirtysomething tutor Deedee, with whom he has an affair. There is the lure of the drug-dealing underworld from his bullying, ultra-Thatcherite brother Chili. And there is the lure of religion from Riaz, a devout and hospitable neighbour in his halls of residence.
It is the portrayal of Riaz and his band of Islamists that seems particularly prescient, not least because of the spooky parallels with the quartet of young men responsible for the 7/7 attrocities.
“What we’re effectively looking at is the transition from anti-racism to fundamentalism,” Kureishi says. “It was crucial not to turn these people into evil caricatures. They form a vigilante group to combat racist attacks, they get people off heroin, they even save the lead character’s life. You can, initially, see their appeal.”
And you can see their appeal to those utterly conformist “rebels” who support “Palestinian” “resistance”. Jihad as anti-racism? How could Islam lose, when it, as a metaphor-mangling Times writer said of J. G. Ballard, “had its finger on the Zeitgeist”?
And what about the theatre as counter-Jihad? Every Shakespeare play, every Greek tragedy, every bawdy Restoration comedy is an assault on Islam, hostile as that ideology is to such expressions of the human spirit. How far theatre can influence public attitudes is an open question, but it can inform, and should not mislead. I will be seeing Pornography and The Black Album this summer, and will report back for New English Review. And unlike the husband of our former Home Secretary, I will not claim the cost of Pornography from the taxpayer.
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Mary Jackson contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.