The Black Album
by Mary Jackson (Sept. 2009)
The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and what better than fragrant, spicy food to turn a man’s heart to Islam? Especially if the man is a lonely young British Pakistani, newly arrived at college in the East End of London, still grieving for his father - and missing his mother’s home cooking. No need for those “honeyed pastries”, the honeytrap of which Hugh Fitzgerald writes so scathingly. A bought-in platter of curry and samosas and he’s on the way.
The potential convert is Shahid, the naïve, bashful hero of Hanif Kureishi’s new play The Black Album, which is based on a 1995 novel of the same name. The play is currently at the National Theatre, home earlier this year to the admirable England People Very Nice. Was it as good, or at least better than last month’s play, the cowardly and in every sense limp Pornography?
The subject matter promised well. From The Jewish Chronicle:
It’s 1989, Thatcher is in power, Rushdie’s Satanic Verses has been published, Iran is about to announce its Fatwa and Shahid, the son of a first-generation, hardworking Pakistani family, is being buffeted by the forces of Western liberalism and Eastern fundamentalism. Kureishi describes his novel as a pre-7/7 book. And in that respect, the work is a stunningly prescient recognition of the potency of Islam and its effect on British and Western societies well before the media, the chattering classes, MI5, and the white Anglo Saxon majority in this country were aware of it.
Two years after writing Black Album the novel, Kureishi wrote the better-known My Son the Fanatic. This demonstrates how second or third generation Muslim immigrants break the general pattern of immigration by being more “fundamentalist”, that is to say truer to Islam, than their parents. It is not so hard to understand. The first generation of Muslim immigrants from Pakistan had, if not a strong work ethic, a strong motivation to work hard. Benefits were not generous then, genuine race discrimination went unpunished, and they had to fend for themselves. Born into poverty, they were grateful for the chances that Britain gave them and for the most part strove to blend in. However, second and third generation Muslims have no such gratitude and no such urge. Born into relative wealth, they have no need to struggle as their parents did. Add to this the fact that Islam, about which they know more than their parents, inculcates a sense of entitlement that is diametrically opposed to the work ethic, and you may have an explanation for the refusal to toe the line. But there is another one. The Islam of first generation immigrants was softened, blunted and humanised by the cultural accretions of the homeland – the colourful Shalwar Kamiz, for instance, rather than the black niqab. Adrift in liberal, secular Britain, cut loose from the gentle Islam-lite of their parents, young Muslims rediscover desert Islam, the harsh, barren, implacable Islam of Mohammed.
Kureshi’s Shahid is vulnerable. He is a nominal Muslim - what Hugh Fitzgerald calls a “Muslim for identification purposes only” - yet not an apostate. His late father, a Thatcherite capitalist, seemingly paid little heed to Islam; yet did not give it up, so it was there, waiting for Shahid to discover. His brother Chilli, a swaggering womaniser with a flash car and designer clothes, seems likewise to care more for mammon than for God, yet he too has not officially renounced Islam. There is, in any case, no contradiction between materialism and Islam – think of those shopping malls in Saudi Arabia – and it is no coincidence that, later in the play, Riaz, the most devout of the Muslim students, steals Chilli’s expensive designer shirt. Just as his father did, Shahid’s new Muslim friends chide him for wanting to write stories. What use are stories to the serious business of making money – or making Jihad?
Some reviewers have criticised the play’s Muslim characters as “cartoon-like”. They are types, certainly, yet recognisable types. Chad, an orphan of Pakistani origin, speaks with a truculent Geordie accent. It turns out that he was adopted by white parents. His real name is Trevor Buss, but he changed it to Muhammad Shahabuddin Ali-Shah (soon shortened by his friends to Chad) on conversion to Islam. The novel, if not the play, preceeded the rise to fame of “clever” Trevor Brooks, alias Abu Izzadeen, jailed for calling for the beheading of British soldiers, but there are other Trevors, Johns, Andys and even the odd Tim, who have dropped their English names for the sake of Allah. Then there is hapless Hat, the most stupid of the group: when a copy of The Satanic Verses takes too long to burn, he complains in frustration that “the guy wrote too much. It’s too thick.”. Hat is the kindest of the group, the least committed – and therefore the most dispensable, for he is chosen, in the end, for martyrdom. Riaz, the ringleader, is all bluff amiability when wooing Shahid. Wooing is the word, for he guiltily caresses the sleeping Shahid’s buttocks, while later proclaiming: “We’re not blasted Christians, we don’t turn the other buttock.” Yet the same Riaz, we are told, "reprimanded [his father] for praying in his armchair and not on his knees. He told his friends that if one's parents did wrong they should be thrown into the raging fire of hell." Shahid admires Riaz’s pride in his Pakistani roots, and his defence of a family tormented by racist attacks. But his admiration is qualified; when Shahid pleads for flexibility and mercy as the group grow more fanatical, Riaz states bluntly – and accurately – that the laws of Allah cannot be changed.
Shahid, searching for what is fashionably called “identity”, is drawn to the jihadists. Fortunately he doesn’t commit to them, as he is pulled – literally – another way. Deedee, his red-headed, free-spirited tutor, seduces him with sex and structuralism. As hedonistic as Riaz and his "brothers" are austere, Deedee is not just a sexy cipher. Unhappily married to an ageing Marxist, who developed a stutter as soon as his beloved Communism collapsed, she is convincing, both to the audience and, in her defence of free speech, to Shahid. Shahid cannot switch off his brain for the sake of Allah. He realises that Western freedom, so alien to Islam, makes it possible for him to criticise the West – or simply to tell stories. The Pornography playwright, and other “transgressive” writers, should take note.
As the play gathers momentum, Shahid vacillates between Islam and the West. The West is not, as so often, represented merely by hedonism, to be measured against the purity of Islam and found wanting. Rather, the West means freedom of thought, freedom to see the playfulness in Rushdie’s novel, freedom to laugh, and freedom to be confused. In his confusion, Shahid hears – perhaps in his head - the call to prayer, and to certainty. That he does not succumb may be a matter of chance. Had he not met Deedee, he might have found comfort in the rigid rules of Islam, and in the jihad that began as a harmless student protest against racism.
The Muslim students become more and more destructive. A ritual burning of The Satanic Verses compels Shahid to take sides: when Deedee calls the police, the jihadists turn up at her home, bent on revenge. In a farcical scene, Shahid and his brother fight them off, and Shahid and a grateful Deedee begin to fall in love. So love conquers all? Not quite. The jihadists, perhaps there and then, perhaps many years later, encircle the lovers before hapless Hat, the chosen one, detonates a rucksack bomb. The bang stuns the audience into silence, followed by rapturous applause.
Is the applause deserved? Not entirely. The play has much in its favour, not least its refusal to whitewash Islam. Its themes have never been more topical: not only must we live with the ever-present threat of Islamic terrorism, but the stealth jihad – war on free speech – proceeds apace. Only recently, novelist Sebastian Faulks apologised “unreservedly” for any offence caused to Muslims by his assertion, as clear as it is truthful, that the Koran has “no ethical dimension”. As a vehicle for ideas, The Black Album works very well. But – a major drawback for a play - it doesn’t work so well as drama. Unusually, I find myself agreeing with the New Statesman:
[The] real problem is not the play but the production, sluggishly directed by Jatinder Verma, so confusingly designed as to make it hard to distinguish between the locations by Tim Hatley, and often very badly acted - although I exempt Jonathan Bonnici as Shahid and Tanya Franks as Deedee from my criticism.
This Tara Arts production with the National Theatre operates more to the former's standards than the latter's. For long periods you really do not care about the experiences of these crazy, mixed-up Anglo-Asian kids. But, as Kureishi knows, and as the play, when it is not being facetious, tries to explain, we need to.
There is humour in the script, but on stage it falls flat. “We will fight for our people who are being tortured anywhere - in Palestine, Afghanistan, Kashmir, East End!” is a line with comic bathos, but the delivery is earnest and clunky.
“The show can’t disguise its origins as a novel,” writes Telegraph critic Dominic Cavendish. Worse, at times it sounds like a university debating society, with characters mere passive vectors of arguments rather than flesh and blood. Riaz lectures Shahid rather tediously on the separateness of women in Islam. How much more telling is the refusal by the niqabbed “sista” of England People Very Nice to shake the hand of the Hampstead liberal, whose face, straining for polite tolerance, speaks louder than any lecture.
I have not read the novel on which the play is based; I understand that it is well thought of, and I have a high opinion of My Son the Fanatic. But a play is not a novel. I half suspect the script was rushed out in order to be topical, and, to misquote Monty Python, adapted for stage by putting it onto a piece of wood and hammering a few nails through it.
The Black Album is the third of three plays, reviewed here, that touch upon Islam. It is far better than Pornography, but nothing like as good as England People Very Nice, which managed to show, as well as tell, the unique danger of Islam. Here are my marks out of ten; readers who have seen any or all of the plays may disagree:
The Black Album: 6
England People Very Nice: 8
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