Blog: Combustion – using theatre to challenge perceptions of Muslims in Britain

“At least I’m not coloured!”.

This was my first experience of racism when I was six years old, growing up in Bradford. I was arguing with a friend on my street. I struggled to understand this comment at the time, “was that supposed to be an insult?”. I remember thinking it was a ridiculous thing to say. I didn’t see myself as any different from the rest of my white friends. I’m certain I hurled a few insults back at the time, but racism was something that I didn’t understand. Throughout my early school life I remember noticing a divide. The Asian boys would play cricket together and the white boys would play football together. I was lucky, I floated between the two groups.

Cut to July 2001 and the Bradford Riots.

I was actually watching my hometown in flames and violence on the news from my hotel in Turkey, on holiday. On my return, Bradford felt different. There was a distinct feeling of tension between the communities, even more so than before. Two months later, same year, 9/11. Now the difference was not just about being Asian, but also being a Muslim.

In July 2007, I was at Leeds train station, about to travel to London for a theatre audition. The train was cancelled. All of them were. On switching on the news when I returned home, I realised why. 7/7. For me, everything changed from this point. My audition was rescheduled for two weeks later, however I decided that I didn’t want to travel on the train, or the tube. My brother drove me down and I remember walking for a good hour in the sun to get to my audition in Aldgate. I was fearful of travelling on public transport, what if another attack happened?. But alongside this fear, I now had eyes watching me with suspicion, especially each time I went into my bag. I was not only a potential victim of a future terrorist attack, but also fitted the exact description of a terrorist! Since then, I’ve felt a particularly steep rise in negativity about Islam and who Muslims are. I found myself needing to convince people that I’m not ‘one of them’, I’m not a terrorist.

I wrote Combustion because as a British Muslim I have a lot to say. I feel that my voice, as well as the voice of many ordinary British Muslims is under-represented. Muslims are frequently in the news, but it’s always the negative stories that make the headlines. I constantly find myself thinking, ‘I’m a Muslim, but that’s not who I am, that’s not my Islam’. On occasion, I’ve felt apprehensive about disclosing and discussing my faith. I work in an industry where there are very few Muslims and for some, I’m the only Muslim they have direct contact with. I’m often asked about the same topics, such as: Halal meat, the hijab, women’s rights, Jihad, Sharia Law and I find myself having to break through the misconceptions. And so, I wanted to share the experience of ordinary British Muslims dealing with life today, especially right after an event, such as the devastating terrorist attacks we’ve witnessed recently.

In Combustion, the plot centres around a crime committed by a group of Muslim men in Bradford. The characters in the play are dealing with the consequences of this crime, which has tarnished the reputation of the community and caused a rise in Islamophobia. At the centre of it all, you have a university student called Samina (played by Shireen Farkhoy), who is trying to make a positive change by running a group called Bradford for Peace. A group formed of local people from all faiths and backgrounds. She’s battling against the rise in hatred towards Muslims, but also the problems she identifies within her own community. She’s desperate to repair the damage and build bridges. She meets Andy (Nigel Hastings), a middle-aged father, who is part of a right-wing group called the English Defence. He takes part in a protest against the Muslim community in Bradford, on the holy day of Eid. We also meet Shaz (Beruce Khan), Samina’s older brother, who runs a mechanics garage and his friends Ali (Rez Kempton) and Faisal (Mitesh Soni). All these characters are all dealing with everyday life such as marriage, family, friendship and work, through a time of high tension in the city.

As an actor, I’ve played a lot of comedy and I wanted to make Combustion funny – especially to balance out the serious themes. Having grown up in Bradford, I know the landscape, the characters, the voices you may meet. I’ve tried to bring this into my writing. I hope audiences will find the play entertaining, but also gain a fresh perspective about Muslims. I also hope that Muslim audiences will be able to identify with the characters. I’ve tried to be honest and write exactly what I see, hear and feel and tackle some very sensitive subjects.

Combustion is at the Arcola Theatre until June 24. It tours with AIK Productions and Tara Arts until July 7. 

Image: Talula Sheppard