“But Sajeela, he’s a doctor! Think of all the people he’s saved!”
Sajeela Kershi paces back and forth on the small, converted stage in the cramped basement of the Jekyll & Hyde pub, enacting her mother’s recent suggestion that she date one of the National Health Service doctors later arrested for the attack on Glasgow Airport.
Just outside the Jekyll & Hyde, the nefarious Edinburgh summer weather has turned foul, pelting passers-by with rain and drawing many uninitiated spectators from the streets and towards the warmth of the Laughing Horse stage. The overhead lights shine brightly on Kershi as she moves with a comfortable ease that belies the gravity of her material.
“It’s not a good thing, admittedly, to come out as a Muslim in Edinburgh,” she says. “My friends, overnight, appointed me The Middle East Expert. I don’t have a bat-phone to bin Laden’s cave. I’m as disturbed and perturbed as everyone else.
“And if I was sent to Guantanamo Bay, within five minutes of seeing those orange jumpsuits, I would be singing like a canary. I’d rather admit to crimes against humanity than crimes against fashion.”
Kershi certainly isn’t the first, nor is she likely to be the last, comic to address modern Islam in the western world. Her act draws from fertile and well-traveled territory — relationships, dating, the workplace, her mother — all funneled through a maze of preconceptions and prejudices about her religion.
Jokes about Guantanamo fashion elicit good-natured laughs, but when the act turns to the recent attack in Glasgow, the audience begins to shift nervously in their seats. Perhaps it’s too soon or too close, but Islam in Cuba seems a good deal funnier than Islam just down the road.
Across the city, underneath a construction sign and up a flight of stairs from the Royal Mile, a woman kneels in a pool of pale light, her head bowed. While every fiber of Kershi’s act exuded a sense of manic, perverse warmth, here a crushing chill fills the room as a hooded man approaches the woman from behind.
He suddenly lifts her up and hits her full-force in the face. The onlookers gasp but continue to stare.
It appears that Jodi De Souza has succeeded in this first moment of her play, “Denied.” The audience may be shocked, but they cannot turn away.
It was a 1999 BBC documentary on “honor killings” that galvanized playwright and director De Souza to dramatize what she believed to be the internal struggle between “extremist” and “mainstream” Islam, both in western nations and in Asia.
As the play opens, Sana, a Muslim woman in the Middle East, and Franchesca, a London teenager, see their lives parallel and then intersect over the course of 19 years. When Sana is overheard speaking to an unwed man in her village, her husband cleanses himself of her shame by pouring gasoline over her and setting her alight. Meanwhile, the spoilt Franchesca finds herself pregnant and alone, abandoned by her lover and unable to connect with her father.
De Souza and her cast have gathered on the patio outside the theatre just after their show. Some, like Glennon Anderson and Damola Onadeko, came to the project with little or no understanding of Muslim culture, choosing to craft their characters from videos, interviews, documentaries, and, in Onadeko’s case, long conversations with his local corner shop owner in London.
Others like Jennifer Bryden had lived in the Middle East for many years and were able to bring personal experiences to their roles. Muslim actors only appear in several pre-recorded video segments featured periodically throughout the performance and are not a part of the live nightly cast.
“I have to say I knew absolutely nothing about Islam, apart from the fairly negative press it gets. And therefore when I read the play I thought it was just so fascinating and showed so many sides to Islam, and so I had to be in it,” Anderson says.
One of her characters, a reporter, stands outside the theatre before the show begins, asking probing questions to the audience as to their preconceptions and expectations for the show they are about to witness. Such feedback, the cast says, remains critical to the ultimate goal of the show to provoke public discourse on an emotionally charged and profoundly divisive topic.
“You don’t know what to expect up here. But I think that if there’s anywhere to have a play like this it’s at the Edinburgh Festival,” Bryden says. “You have people from all walks of life coming up here: you’ve got tourists, you’ve got the locals and people who are interested in looking at topics like this.”
“I love plays which everyone has an opinion on; there isn’t anyone sitting on the fence really. People come out feeling something, whether they agree or don’t agree with the message, they have an opinion and I think that’s really important,” De Souza adds.
As “Denied” reaches its climactic finale, the audience is quickly ushered out of the theater by cast members. Within moments, patrons find themselves out on the Edinburgh streets with no summation or explanation of the spectacle they have just witnessed. Most stand silently, dumbfounded, while others gather in small groups and whisper guardedly to one another. The play is a moving and disconcerting one, offering more questions than answers and ultimately placing its faith in its audience to render a final judgment.
“Having a dialogue with the audience isn’t always the most constructive thing. You have to be prepared before they come in. You have to be prepared with self-critical research.”
Sohaib Saeed, manager of the Islam Festival at the Edinburgh Central Mosque, steeples his fingers carefully as he speaks. His voice, though soft, carries quite a distance in this silent library directly underneath the main prayer room of the mosque. It’s early afternoon, between the noon and afternoon prayers, so the mosque is quiet.
“For sure artists can be provocative. But in sensitive times, you have to think, will this raise up our society or just encourage bigots?” he says. “To be ignorant of one’s own ignorance is the worst. It’s narcissistic — there’s no effort to ascertain what’s the truth.”
The Discover Islam Exhibition, now an official part of the Fringe Festival welcoming 20,000 visitors per season, is in many ways the watchdog of artistic representations of Islam at the Festival. The primary purpose and goal of the exhibition, Saeed explains, is to educate festival visitors as to the true teachings of Islam and to provide a factual background to the artistic and dramatic representations of Islam and Muslims that have become increasingly common at the festival in recent years.
To that end, members of the mosque are available to answer questions for five minutes or five hours on any subject, no matter how polarizing or politically taboo. The exhibition also offers recitations of the Qu’ran and workshops in Arabic calligraphy that also contribute artistically to the festival.
“If Islam has a place at the festival, the people who have a right to speak about this are Muslims. We are the Muslims of Edinburgh,” Saeed says. “Ultimately, Muslim input is neither necessary nor sufficient. You can have no Muslims and be authentic and you can have Muslims and be inauthentic … everyone’s got a right to express what they want to express, but they have to understand who it’s attributed to.
“We need to address misunderstandings which can lead to suspicion, hostility and even violence. The primary action [of the exhibition] is to promote understanding and awareness,” he says.
The Discover Islam Exhibition encourages such an openness and awareness by ensuring that non-Muslim visitors feel free to ask frank questions about the nature of Islam and religious extremism. Saeed notes that many visitors are interested in extremist Islam yet find themselves afraid to directly address such an incendiary topic.
“Visitors want to ask about jihad or terrorism, which aren’t the same thing, in a roundabout or politically-correct way, and we’ll say, ‘are you asking why people blow themselves up?’ We’ll be frank about it,” he says.
Ultimately, however, Saeed admits that the process of understanding and acceptance is often an arduous one for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. He says the Muslim community within itself currently struggles to define appropriate comedic and dramatic representations of their religion.
“For example, in comedy, there are Muslim comedians who might make jokes that break the ice as it were, but we have to decide step-by-step if our community is comfortable with that,” he says, noting that the subjectivity inherent in all artistic performance is here magnified by impassioned religious and cultural division.
So what might Muslims say to Sajeela Kershi’s stance on Islam, when she declares that, “it’s not known to be a fun religion, but they do put the fun in fundamentalism?” What judgment would be cast on Gareth Richards of the four-comedian show “The Christian, The Jew, The Muslim and The Geordie” and his take on the Glasgow attack and failed London car bombs: “First of all, I’m amazed they found parking in London … and how did they expect to get a flaming car through security? We’re packing up our little shampoos,” Saeed says that in light of the recent attacks and generally negative portrayal of Islam in the media; British Muslims will remain sensitive to their portrayal on stage.
The future, he says, is not destined to be a battle between East and West, but rather affords a unique opportunity to exchange knowledge, hopes and fears. In doing so, informed artistic expression and open dialogue will keep bloodshed and fear at bay.
“Muslims are on the defensive,” Saeed says. “But Islam will never be on the defensive because it’s a message for all humanity.”