George Spender, Senior Editor, Oberon Books
In Summer 2015 Omar El-Khairy invited me to meet director Nadia Latif to discuss Homegrown their new National Youth Theatre commission. Oberon had published his first two plays and I was thrilled by their plans for this new show that wouldn’t just look at the Trojan Horse of Radical Islamism in schools, but also examine what it meant to be a Muslim in Britain in 2015. They cited the British-Sudanese novelist Jamal Mahjoub and Arun Kundnani’s The Muslims are Coming!: Islamaphobia, Extremism and the Domestic War on Terror as major influences on the tone of the work. When it became clear the script would not be ready to publish in time for the NYT run, we agreed to publish afterwards, incorporating notes to help teachers tackle the sensitive issues raised in the play.
The announcement that the show had been cancelled came as a huge shock. I didn’t think it was possible to label the Omar and Nadia I knew: bright, progressive, fun and liberal as having an extremist agenda. I wrote to them in support; it seemed more important than ever to publish the script. I presented Homegrown at an editorial meeting at Oberon, and we agreed to go ahead. I asked Omar, Nadia and David Heinemann (Index on Censorship) to come into the Oberon offices in early May 2016 to discuss marketing strategies and other plans.
Frankly, the meeting didn’t go at all well. There were too many very ambitious plans, conflicting opinions, plus the fear of a public backlash over publishing what had been labelled as extremist material (in my opinion a frustrating misunderstanding), all leading to a loss of faith among the senior management. I was asked to withdraw our involvement.
It was devastating to break the news to Omar and Nadia, given the ill treatment and accusations they had suffered with great dignity. I wrote to them pledging my continued assistance if they would have me. We discussed other potential publishers – Faber declined, Verso said they didn’t do Drama, Aurora Metro seemed keen but they demanded changes which didn’t sit well with the authors. Rather than face more rejections, we decided to do it ourselves.
I edited the text, and another Oberon colleague and Homegrown supporter, James Illman, donated his time typesetting and designing the cover. We used aliases, Kim Slim and Mr Sickman; we weren’t sure what media reaction the book would get, and thought it best to mask our involvement so as not to complicate matters. If I could do it again, I’d use my real name.
The book launch in March 2017 organised by Index was a cathartic experience. It meant the world to hear the words spoken, and have a positive conversation about the play. I hope what Omar and Nadia went through lays the foundations for other BAME artists to be able to make fiery, political, avant garde work without self-censorship, or unfounded hysterical accusations of extremism, that we can debate and give artists room to fail, rather than shut down these conversations entirely.
Shakeel Haakim – NYT performer
I was new to the world of acting, to describing myself as an actor, navigating it all, I was 19 at the time. I thought, this is going to be an amazing opportunity and I was looking forward to it. I had joined NYT the previous year, done my in-take course and done a couple of little shows, including a fundraiser with some notable celebrities which validated how well connected and established NYT was. I had that sense of security, it was all so reputable – I felt protected and part of something solid. It was that security that made it so much more shocking for some of us – we all had faith. When we wrote the letter we were clear that there is nothing can take away from the good things that NYT does, the opportunities that they give through connecting people – which is what made it even more of a thing.
It came across that we [the cast] were worried that it would be too controversial, but a lot of us didn’t feel that. I remember the day before we were told it was cancelled, we had this joke – what would happen if this was to be cancelled, but the joke was only funny because we were so sure that it couldn’t be. It was a very collaborative process, we devised the work. It was coming from us – it had been so collaborative for so long and then to be told it was cancelled, initially it was a massive shock. You get half way into production and the rug gets pulled from under your feet. You have been making choices all the time, and you feel that you should have had some sort of say in that – you want to be able to say I don’t want to stop here. These weren’t our decisions to make; and after being in such a collaborative process, that was hard to understand at first.”
I didn’t realise how much it had affected me. I had a part-time job at the same time, and I stopped acting for a year. It threw me off, it was so intense – six weeks, every day with 100 people. After it ended, it was a culture shock. My part-time job became full time. Slowly bit by bit, I discovered my love and my passion coming back and did a couple of things and worked with the lyric for 9 months in their young company and we did a two week show and I got approached by an agent which I later signed with”.
I believe everything is a blessing in disguise. The whole process made me realise that as much as we think we live in a society where free speech is the norm, there are people higher up who ultimately have the last say.
Douglas Wood – NYT performer
Whenever you pull a show it is never a good thing, and one of the problems was how it was dealt with. I wish there had been a little more information made public. Because information or at least potential reasons were passed to us, at least individually, information was passed to us whether it was satisfactory or not at least there was more clarification, but wasn’t made public. But then, how helpful is it to the (NYT) to focus on a show that they failed, as opposed to the other good that they do, and also how helpful is it to the ongoing potential of Homegrown happening and being focused on Islamaphobia and radicalization rather than censorship and “the show that got pulled.”
NYT tackles difficult stuff but their primary focus is engaging young people, in my experience and what I think is really exciting and important, is the number of people they engage and the total range. Maybe because Homegrown was a bit of a disaster, instead of having one huge show in London, they have done lots of smaller shows with new writing and new commissions. There is a lot going on in Birmingham, Sheffield and Liverpool and they are engaging people all over the country, instead of just London which was a bit of a problem in the past.
What makes it difficult to take is that kind of play (Homegrown) hadn’t been done before. The amazing thing was the way Omar and Nadia were approaching it, giving all these 130 young people a voice on a issue that wasn’t really being voiced in mainstream media or anywhere else. The fact that the one show of its kind (at least at the time) got cancelled. If there were loads of plays about why young British Muslims become radicalized, or don’t feel part of where they are, it wouldn’t be that big an issue.
It felt so much more damning, and close to censorship, because there was no evidence of plays like it. When it was pulled there was nowhere else you could go to get this information, at least in theatre.
Paul Roseby declined Index on Censorship’s invitations to provide his reflections on the controversy after the events of Summer 2015.
Representation is a conversation we are seldom
from Sisters’ Entrance by Emtithal Mahmoud