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September 07, 2009

Brendan Simms on a work whose time has come: The Black Album - Hanif Kureishi

Posted by Brendan Simms

Hanif Kureishi's The Black Album
directed by Jatinder Verma
National Theatre, London
Cottesloe Theatre
in repertory 21st July - 7th October 2009

Hanif Kureishi's novel Black Album (1995) chronicles the odyssey of Shahid, a second-generation British Muslim determined to make his way in London. He fetches up at a bog-standard Third-Level College where he meets Deedee, an attractive trendy lecturer of uncertain age, and his oddly charismatic neighbour, a fellow Muslim by the name of Riaz.

Shahid - whose name means "martyr" - is torn back and forth between Deedee, who introduces him to the delights of the flesh and the late 1980s rave scene, and Riaz, whose fervent Islamism initially provides Shahid with the purpose and inner peace that had eluded him at home. That tranquillity is periodically interrupted by the visits of his semi-criminal brother Chili, and the tirades of Chili's estranged wife Zulma a Pakistani-born sophisticate who ridicules Shahid's return to the faith.

In the background there is the dynamic of Thatcherism, the fierce prejudice against immigrants, the Muslim protests against the publication of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, and the shock of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which has left so many on the British left speechless, not least Deedee's husband and fellow-lecturer, Andrew Brownlow, whose stutter worsens with each collapsed Soviet satellite.

Matters come to a head when Riaz decides to execute the "fatwa" of the Iranian supreme leader against the Satanic Verses and organises a public burning. Shahid tries to dissuade him, while Brownlow celebrates the incineration of a work of literature as a revolutionary act against the establishment; he has found a new cause. Deedee calls the police.

As if things were not already bad enough, just as Rushdie was accused of "playing" with the sacred text of the Koran, Shahid has "improved" the earnest verse of Riaz, which he had agreed to type on his word-processor. The outraged faithful, led by Riaz's sidekick Chad, track the couple to Deedee's flat and it looks as if Shahid will indeed end his days as a martyr, not for Islam, but for free speech. He is saved , however, by the timely re-appearance of Chili, who banishes the intruders in an improbable display of martial arts.

Though the critical resonance was largely positive, Black Album made less of a splash than the novel that first made Kureishi's name, The Buddha of Suburbia. Six years after its appearance, however, the world was rocked by the Twin Tower attacks, and it was surely the resulting interest in Muslim fundamentalism which prompted a reprint in 2003. Unfortunately the stage version, an adaptation prepared by the author himself in collaboration with Jatinder Verma has been generally panned by the critics. Most reviewers preferred the compassion with which the novel treated all the main characters, to the rather hagiographic treatment of Shahid (played by Jonathan Bonnici) and the negative - at times almost caricatured - portrayal of Riaz ( whose smugness is, however, excellently captured by Alexander Andreou) and his followers in the play.

All this may be fair comment, but one suspects that it misses the aim of Kureishi and Verma's production. They have flattened and simplified the book for a reason. The novel treats the events of the late 1980s, but was published towards the end of the Bosnian War, a fact which is reflected in the prophetic way in which one of the characters speaks of "genocide" against Muslims. In this sense, the novel is the prequel to Ed Hussein's remarkable memoir The Islamist, which picks up the story of the radicalisation of British Muslims from the early 1990s. At that time, domestic terrorism was actually in remission as the IRA campaign wound down - there is a bombing in the novel, but it is not linked to any specific group.

Today, Kureishi and Verma are addressing a completely different context. Ever since 7 July 2005 - which took place around the tenth anniversary of the novel's publication - Britain has been grappling to come to terms with the events of 7/7/2005, when four British-born Muslim extremists blew themselves and about fifty other people up in London. Kureishi's warnings had been vindicated: the failure to defend Rushdie more vigorously, and to confront the galloping radicalisation of some elements of the British-born Muslim community, had not appeased but merely encouraged them. It is for this reason that Kureishi makes the stage version much angrier and more combative.

Brownlow (powerfully played by Sean Gallagher) is no longer an amiable buffoon, and in some ways a victim of circumstance, but a wilful apologist for obscurantism, tout court. When things get out of hand, he packs his bags and leaves for sunnier climes, the implication being that he can simply close the door behind the mess he has helped to create; in the book, Brownlow's departure is primarily the result of Thatcherite "cuts".

Similarly, the blistering conversation in which Zulma (a feisty Shereen Martineau who also played the creepily brainless Riaz groupie Tahira so well that I did not notice the two roles had been played by the same woman until I read the programme notes) traduces Islamists in Britain and her native Pakistan, originally takes place between her and Shahid only, but in the play she confronts Riaz and his whole gang, thus empowering her as the voice of emancipated female reason. And, in a line which brought the house down, Chili responds to Chad's cry that he will be avenged, with the invitation "Bring em on". This additional Bushism - in the novel Chili just says "Bring them to me" - will certainly have lost Kureishi some friends.

So this production must not be judged on whether it is a faithful adaptation of the novel. Rather, it should be seen as essentially new work, which is inspired by the original to be sure, but delivers an altogether more uncompromising cry of rage against the collapse of universalist values in the face of domestic fanaticism and external interference.

Riaz and Chad are to be pitied as much as censured for their ignorance, but no mercy is shown to the Brownlow, who should have known better. At a time when his successors - and they are often the same people - persist in seeing in reactionary forces such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, some sort of objective force for progress against US hegemony, Kureishi's warning is particularly apposite.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.


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