Copyright the National Theatre
"What also terrifies me, what I have nightmares about, if one day if I phone her back, the word that I want... It's sad to say it but it haunts me..I am frightened because when you fall over, or something happens to you, even when you're grown-up, the first thing you say is: Mama, Mama, Mama. When we're afraid. (She shouts) Mama! And that's what I'm frightened of.. If she calls for me, it's her last word, and I don't even hear it." Samira (played by Shirine Saba) the Belgian mother whose daughter left to join Islamic State.
Entering the theater from a drizzly London evening was in itself a transition into another world, but entering the theater to watch Nicholas Kent and Gillian Slovo's, 'Another World: Losing Our Children to Islamic State," was perhaps a bigger transition than most. No sooner do you enter the theater showing room that you are greeted by the so-called Islamic State Group's iconography and chillingly alluring Nasheed music used to arouse, praise and enflame passions for the "Dawla" (Islamic State). The contrasts of the images of the black flag that have come to represent terror to millions with the angelic sounding music make for a powerful impression of a play before it has even begun.
Looking around me and seeing people with different faces, young and old, male and female, political and non-political, different races and I wonder what draws them to this place on a charming evening. We have all seen the news, we know the stories, or at least we like to think we do, and we all no doubt have opinions about radicalisation. But I sense in all of us a great hunger not only to see art take on that of which terrifies us, but for art to bring us together in the same dark room to confront fear through understanding- something no news report can do. The play is best described as documentary theater and takes us into three worlds all of whom share the same physical space.
We hear thoughts from politicians, officials, academics, journalists, generals, police and security experts all debating the causes of IS and those who go off to-join them. But while we are listening to these debates, we are then transported into a school in Tower Hamlets, where young Muslim students are discussing the same issues, which as a piece of theater is rarely done. But the play does not stop there; we then embark into a third world, the world of the mothers whose children have left them for the 'Caliphate'. The mothers represent the play's most intriguing storyline, the voices rarely heard but often blamed- how could they not know or stop their children from going to Syria, what they did to their children that would want to make them do this, are questions often asked. While the play attracts audiences with these types of questions, it does something dangerous, it forces us to set aside our assumptions and invites us to feel the pain of the Islamic State's other victims.
Yasmin played by Nathalie Armin summed up the pain best, "My children are, are everything to me. Even though I have 4, I feel like I've lost everything. It's not kind to the others, but I've lost everything. I got it wrong, I got my job as a mother wrong....Because if he'd had what he was looking for here at home....I have photos that he's sent me, he's happy over there. He has a happy face. And when I compare them to photos from before he left, he didn't look comfortable in his own skin. I mean instead of feeling at home here, he didn't feel it, he found (happiness) in a country at war. Why? Perhaps that's why I blame myself so much." The three actresses who played the mothers actually set-off for Belgium (where the mothers being depicted actually live) to meet their characters in person, but Nathalie never got to meet Yasmin, for before the meeting could take place, Yasmin discovered her son was dead but he did not die in Syria. He had blown himself up in Paris Attacks last November.
I spoke to Gillian Slovo who wrote the play and asked her why (since most of the play is set in England) she had trouble finding British families whose loved ones went to join IS, but found Belgian families more willing to talk. "I think there's a difference in the culture between Britain and Belgium in terms of racism and Islamophobia. Britain is much more atomised as a society, there is no real organisation and place for these families to meet with one another, and it's much more isolated in that sense. I think that creates a certain type of fear and mistrust. In Belgium, racism and Islamophobia is worse, I mean this wasn't in the play, but one young person I spoke to, told me that in order to work in a call centre, he had to change his Moroccan name to a European one or he would get abuse on the phone or people would hang up on him. But I also think that because Belgium is a smaller country, smaller population, people live closer together and know one another, this encourages, particularly the mothers of those who joined IS, to confront Islamophobia more openly. Also they (the mothers) have formed a wonderful organisation and support network where all the families can meet up and share experiences. Because we are able to get in touch with this group, it was easier for us to talk to them."
I also sat down with three members of the cast, Lara Sawalha (Zarlasht Halamzai and female student), Shirine Saba and Nathalie Armin. I asked them what they learnt about why people join Islamic State and how did this reinforce, challenge or change their views. Shirine told me that she had a real turning point when she met her character Samira in Belgium, before she had little idea about this world, but through meeting these mothers she realised how ordinary they were, Samira's daughter had met a man, fallen in love and went with him to the Islamic State. "It certainly seemed like Samira's daughter was in love with this man. It wasn't like Jihadi idealism, well it was in part, but what I get from Samira was that it was a real love story between them. They went there together and believed in it (IS control) because they were very much in love with each other. That was quite an eye opener that this could happen through a personal bond, falling in love with someone, Samira calls them the Romeo and Juliet of the Islamic State."
Lara agreed with Shirine, "Yeah and I think that's what struck me too. I mean we've all been through things like this, I don't mean joining radical Jihadi groups, but you know I had a boyfriend when I was younger and I was like, oh wow I love this guy so much, I want to move to another country to be with this guy. You know you do things when in love. I think that is part of it. But you know, I am from Jordan and I knew a bit about ISIS and Syria, but I have learnt so much more from doing this play. I don't think there's anything like this play, either here in Britain or the Middle East, and I hope it opens up discussion."
Playing a role like this presents challenges, not least the mothers, who much of wider society blames for producing children that fight for Islamic State. How can someone taking on the role embed themselves in the psychology of these mothers, Nathalie, "I think in the case of my woman I play, she readily admits to being to blame. I mean how I put myself in her shoes, she already thinks she's to blame, but in terms of how I would play someone who has lost their son to Islamic State, It's the same way I would play Lady Anne in Richard III. It's the same. I have to have the same level of imagination and it requires leaps of faith. But ultimately they are stories, every single one of us, I do it, you do it, we all do it, we tell stories. It was more of a professional challenge to do monologues with variation, to represent all kinds of people with different opinions, while keeping the audience engaged. You are tempted to make the play more theatrical but then you don't want to play to be untruthful its verbatim style."
The play does not offer any answers but asks important questions, "People become radicalised for all kinds of different reasons," Gillian told me. "The reasons are complex and varied. The play does not offer answers. But I remember sitting on the tube just after the Paris attacks, I heard people debating ISIS and what they want, and I wanted to intervene in the discussion, but of course this is England and we don't do that here. But I think a big lie is that ISIS are selling brutality to these recruits, maybe some of them go out because they want to kill, but most were sold on the utopia of ISIS and not its brutality. Even more crucially is the role played by the Assad regime, many did not go out to join ISIS, but to fight the brutality of the Assad regime, and when ISIS grow and took over territory they absorbed them. One thing I did not want to do was to do a play on ISIS's brutalism, but I wanted to make a play about ISIS's other victims, because these mothers' are also victims of ISIS. While this play was a little bit about Syria and Iraq, it was ultimately about us."
Another World: Losing Our Children to Islamic State is currently running at the National Theatre until 7 May.