When my little brother Maarten converted to Islam, it came as a shock to my family and me. He was very passionate about his newfound faith, and determined to follow the rules of the Quran to become a good Muslim. This led to many confrontations with our family. He seemed to turn his back to our values and traditions, we felt like we were losing him.
Looking back, I realise that we were hugely influenced by the negative news about Muslims in the media, and that our fears were based on little knowledge about the religion. At the same time my brother only started learning about Islam, and though he was making progress on the knowledge he was still lacking the wisdom. We are lucky to be a very persistent family; we kept in contact, continuously trying to understand each other and find compromises. In the end I believe it brought us closer together. But this could have turned out very different.
At this point I saw a similarity between our family’s experience and what is happening in today’s society. This inspired the making of Becoming Mohammed, a play drawn from my personal experience of when my brother converted to Islam. This show aims to bring two worlds closer together, and to make a start at filling in the gap that exists between Muslims reverts and their non-Muslim families.
Since I’ve started this project I went on a journey through Islam myself. I opened up conversations again with my brother, started reading the Quran, and talked to other Muslims to better understand the religion and its followers. I soon realised that it was difficult to translate this material to stage because it was still so freshly close to me. Writer Claudia Marinaro got involved, with our company And Many Others we have worked together on many occasions, with her talent and understanding she was without a doubt the perfect person to write the script. Through interviews with my brother and me, collaborations with a PhD student from SOAS, and advise from London Central Mosque and Islamic Centre– she was able to tell this story in all the right words. We are working with Muslim artists Nabihah Islam (cultural facilitator) and Syed Nisar (fashion designer), who have also taught our actors how to pray and speak a bit of Arabic.
Some events in the play are very close to reality, there are even bits of verbatim dialogue in the script. But overall the characters and the story only take inspiration from my personal experience; it grapples with the same thoughts and emotions, but it is dramatised for stage. We wanted to tell a story that took place over seven years in an hour and a half production, which asked for some editing and shifting. This play might not be an exact retelling of what happened, but I am sure that when my family comes to watch they will recognise certain events and the feelings that are represented in the show.
At the start of rehearsals, everyone wanted to know ‘how it really went’. I was hesitant to tell my own story. I didn’t want the actors to play my brother and me; they had to be characters that were found from the script. I have since shared bits of my experience, as I found sometimes an anecdote helps to highlight certain situations. It is a difficult balance to find and keep: to tell or not to tell.
The further we get into rehearsals, the more I am confronted with situations or emotions that feel very personal. I am not making this show to process my life experiences, but I would lie if I said it hadn’t occurred. All the research inside and outside the rehearsal room helps me understand my brother and our situation better. The challenge is not to let my emotions take over a rehearsal, but translate them into practical work for the actors and designers.
More than in other projects, I have invited people into rehearsals for feedback, to check that the play also relates to an audience who do not share my experience. I believe that Becoming Mohammed has become a beautiful, touching, and funny show, that we’re hoping will challenge popular opinion and bring people closer together.
Becoming Mohammed is at The Pleasance Theatre until May 21.