It was as my father and I sat reminiscing at the kitchen table of my uncle’s Toronto apartment in August 2012 that my uncle began to tell us a story that has stayed with me. He and my father were the younger of eight children from a working-class Jewish family from Baghdad born between 1932 and 1943. This was a period of seismic changes in Iraqi, Middle Eastern and global politics, which I have captured in my newly extended play, The Mother of Kamal. They would observe, both concerned and captivated, the risky (and fateful) political activism and communism of their older teenage siblings in this febrile period. It was my father’s desire to safeguard these stories in a semi-fictionalised novel – honouring his mother in the eponymous character of Um-Kamal (‘mother of Kamal’ in Arabic) – that set us on our journey from Israel to America and Canada, piecing together the vivid accounts of the surviving siblings.
My uncle was the conscience of the family – given to quiet observation and spontaneous tears. He told us that while he was at the Jewish Frank Iny School in Baghdad, anyone who was from a single-parent family or came top of their class went for free. His best friend came from a family without a father, and he also always came top of the class. My uncle always came second, and it was a constant torment to his ambitious but poor family that this friend had monopolised all of the free schooling!
Suddenly, mid-story, my uncle broke down sobbing, unable to continue. We offered to leave, but his wife, a warm, funny, intelligent Jewish woman from Brazil, insisted we continue. “He’s never spoken about this before…” she whispered encouragingly. It turned out that this brilliant friend had eventually emigrated to Israel but languished in a series of undistinguished jobs, never achieving the brilliant career his youth had promised. The apprehension of this for my uncle was too much, and he cried – for his friend, but also for the role of fate, contingency and injustice in his own life, and everyone’s.
At the heart of my play are these themes of fate and implacable chance, of paths diverging in unknowable ways and eventually having to be reconciled. In its pivotal moment, it is 1948 and Um-Kamal sees her two teenage sons suddenly arrested by the feared and loathed Secret Police. The younger brother is sentenced to eight years, but the older, Kamal, is inexplicably released. Rumour and intrigue ensue, and Um-Kamal, who is played by me, is reluctantly drawn into the underground activity of the Communist Party to save her sons and her fragmenting family. Over the next 40 years, conflicting personal histories and narratives emerge, as the family migrates against a backdrop of epochal historical events, and they finally face a reckoning with what really happened that night in the cells, and the questions of who defines truth, who writes history, and whether true reconciliation is ever possible.
The Mother of Kamal was written (and programmed for this run) well before the current Israel-Palestine humanitarian crisis, and was not written with today’s events in mind. It sold out its short run at Camden Frimge last summer. Retrospectively, parallels with the current conflict are unavoidable. Many Jewish people now are struggling to process what is taking place. As they strive to find words to do justice to their feelings, face growing antisemitism and grieve for the people killed and kidnapped by Hamas, they also feel enormous sorrow and concern for the huge price still being paid by Palestinian civilians. The fact that it is possible to feel both things at once – to be devastated for the Jewish people and the Palestinian civilians who have been killed, injured or lost loved ones, and who face anti-Jewish or anti-Muslim prejudice – is a hallmark of being human, and yet in the current climate has become difficult to communicate. If there is one thing I’d like people to take from the play it is that shared humanity and the surmountable nature of perceived difference.
This is a delicate matter. The play was not written to suggest easy solutions to complex issues. But it does tell, almost allegorically, the story of an Iraq that many people will not have known existed. Prior to 1935, the different ethnicities and religions that made up Baghdad had coexisted without significant conflict, though by the 1940s things had begun to shift. As Um-Kamal and her sons struggle to navigate rising oppression, it is the diverse community around them which comes together to oppose the threats of fascist mobs and arbitrary bureaucratic injustices. And when government thugs looking for trouble come, it is their Muslim friends who shield Um-Kamal and her family.
This extended version of the play blends traditional narrative drama with elements drawn from epic, physical, immersive and ensemble theatre, with beautiful lyrical passages of performance that merge with acutely observed vignettes of social satire and interpersonal relations. We’re pleased to have a diverse cast and crew, including Jewish, Muslim and Palestinian heritage members. This is important when the global narrative is so divisive, and it means that the play has evolved without recourse to comfortable ideological certainties. This has produced, I hope, a powerful, poignant, yet humorous and satirical telling of a family’s struggle for justice and truth amid exile and cynical, politicised intolerance and division – which sadly still resonates.
In some ways the telling of the story in the current climate has become a story in itself. And the story continues as family from around the world come to see the play – and my uncle, touched by seeing the first run last August, characteristically did cry. Many things change, but some things touchingly stay the same.
The Mother of Kamal is at Upstairs at The Gatehouse in Highgate from 19 – 28 January upstairsathegatehouse.com
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