Hurling Rubble At The Sun

Hurling Rubble At The Sun

Image by Park Theatre

Daniel Nelson

Heard the one about the Muslim extremist from Blackburn and the white British racist thug who walk onto a stage together?
You can find the punchline when you go to London’s Park Theatre to see a double-bill, Hurling Rubble at the Sun and Hurling Rubble at the Moon.

It’s a dramatic and topical set-up for an evening’s theatre and Blackburn-born playwright Avaes Mohammad agrees that he’ll probably upset everyone with his depiction of the two protagonists as people rather than symbols of evil.
“I’m quite shocked that since 9/11 it’s never been done,” he says in an interview.

“We speak of ‘extremists’, young men and women, almost in Hitler terms, divorced of all humanity,” he says, which means people distance themselves from them.

“But there’s no Muslim extremist gene and there’s no fascist racist gene. It’s a product of social upbringing, a product of your relationship with the society around you.”

Mohammad can see both sides because he was brought up in Blackburn, the son of a self-exiled Pakistani political activist and a Kenya Asian. In a racially divided city, he was deliberately sent to an all-white school and had White British friends, and went on to university for a degree and a PhD in chemistry.
There he discovered that the ghettoised Muslim Asian community of Blackburn and the equally concentrated white working class and middle-class communities were not the whole world: "I was quite shocked, seeing what the country had to offer."

Then came another shock: race riots in northern cities.

“It was an awakening because at that point I felt pretty much as British as I could feel. I was at a British university, hobnobbing with people from all over the country, all backgrounds. I felt I was seeing Britain in its breadth … But that bubble popped when the riots happened.

And the biggest shock came from the attitudes of white middle-class British people – “cultured, intelligent people speaking about ‘the threat within’, referring to us. That was a shock. That was really disturbing. I felt really aggrieved by that.”

He's turned grievance into art by writing Hurling: "I’ve been writing plays since 2003. This is the play I always wanted to write."

The riots "realigned me with what I thought my life should be about, which was being a voice for that community and dedicating my life to stories through art which it’s critical to share and that aren’t shared. Their lack of sharing also created a political vacuum."

The setting is "a town like Blackburn" that’s quite segregated, in which two sets of extremists live side by side, separate but interdependent, conjoined and both disenfranchised from mainstream British society: "It is actually a demonstration of the extent to which they both arise from the same soil, and how in classic divide and rule politics they have been set against each other as though the other is the problem. But both have actually been born of the same conditions."

Mohammad says he found the Muslim story harder to write than the White English story, "partly because it’s semi-autobiographical, about the world from which I come, and you worry about how much exposure you’re giving your own life and those around you." (That might explain he says he isn't sure if his parents would go and see the play.)

In addition, "Because white culture is the dominant culture in this country you can’t not know its nuances no matter where you are. You are raised on Only Fools and Horses and Coronation Street: they are not accurate portrayals of white people, but you get a sense of the nuances and the influences of British cultures no matter where you are from. So it’s always going to be easier for a non-white person to write about white people than it is for a white person to write about non-white people.

"That’s not understood enough. There’s too many white people ready to tell non-white people’s stories, and they don't have as much validity."

It's also true, he admits "that people are people are people", and he cites the case of one of his characters - an ex-football hooligan "who is an innately charismatic, quite sexy, misogynist and that character is based on a member of my family who is an innately charismatic, quite sexy, violent misogynist ... I know White culture to be able to move people around like that, but I could never have done that with a West Indian character because I don’t know West Indian culture well enough."

The work takes on added significance because of its timing, as Home Secretary Theresa May launches her post-election counter-extremism proposals.

Mohammad points to the issue of identity.

Asian communities "had to create our economies because a lot of white people wouldn’t employ us. That’s why we became taxi drivers and had our own factories and takeaways.

“These communities have been totally self-dependent and never really felt part of British society because society never afforded them that luxury.”

That was probably ok for people who migrated because they weren’t too bothered about having a British identity, “they probably felt better saying they were born and raised in Pakistan or India.” But those born here experienced a real identity crisis, he says – and he suggests “it’s no coincidence that those getting caught up in 7/7 or going to IS are in their late-teens or early

20s. It’s the classic age for asking who you are, what community you belong to: if you have a void in your identity it’s really easy for people like the EDL [English Defence League] or IS to tell you ‘Your identity is with us’.”

The lure of Islamist identity is particularly strong, he argues, because it’s global “and we live in a pan-global world and that’s totally gettable by young people”: borders mean less and less and the Internet, mass-communication and cultures are moving at such speed.

It’s not all about the Koran, he emphasises, or foreign policy (though that;s part of the picture): “What’s missing from the

political debate is ‘Why is it that British young men and women, born and raised here, want to destroy the very fabric of society, whether as a fascist or as a Muslim extremist?”

The answer, he argues, is about not feeling part of British society – and not being made to feel part of it.

Feeling that you have no stake in society “makes you prone to buying into a dangerous but understandable position”. That’s where the plays come in: “It’s important to bring back the conversation down to its most basic, most personal, most human level, because that is where radicalism happens. It’s easy to think it all happens on the Internet, or in a book. It doesn’t.”

Hurling tries to make audiences understand how people come to adopt extremist positions – “and until we do that there’s no chance in hell of us ever discovering solutions to these problems. We can’t even really begin thinking about solutions."

All 'solutions' so far have been completely reactionary – locking people for as long as possible, spying on them, getting their own people to spy on them: "Not once has a policy in this country been about enagaging with the social reasons for why extremism happens."

For Mohammad, there's also a personal achievement to savour: "Five years ago I wanted to see and tell the beauty of the world that I was in and bring a new light to the discourse of islamophobia. So I came to London to write plays and now I find myself in exactly the position I set out to be in. It’s wonderful. I’m writing s double-bill in one of the most beautiful and exciting contemporary theatres in London and their programme, their courage and their ambition is exciting, and at the same time I’m working with another theatre company that has a 40-year history of radical theatre in this country. It doesn’t get much better."

And what a time to be doing it: "Nobody has seen multiculturalism in the way this country has. And we have this quite exciting opportunity of demonstrating to the world of how it can be dealt with."

Hurling Rubble At The Moon and Hurling Rubble At The Sun are at the Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, London N4 3JP, until 6 June. Info: 7870 6876. Prices: £15 previews; £25/£20/ £18 conc/ £15 Tuesdays (residents with N. London postcode or under-25s); pay what you can - second Tuesday and any matinee; 50 per cent discount on second play if you book both at the same time

Post show discussions
Discussions begin after Moon, about 10.30-11.15pm

Friday 22 May
Youth panel from You Press, a social enterprise exploring and promoting the opinions of young people.

Wednesday 27 May
Jez Bond, Rod Dixon, Avaes Mohammed and the cast.

Tuesday 2 June
Hosted by Hassan Mahamdalli.

Friday 5 June
Matthew Rhodes.

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