Hanif Kureishi puts The Black Album on stage
The Times, Saturday 27 June 2009, interview by John Lewis
When Hanif Kureishi’s novel The Black Album was published in 1995, many people were bewildered. The writer who’d made his name with frothy, sex-filled comedies such as My Beautiful Launderette and The Buddha Of Suburbia had shifted his attention to an obscure band of Islamic fundamentalists at a north London college, and their relationship with the hedonistic world that surrounded them.
“My main memory is that people just didn’t care about this story at the time,” says Kureishi. “Most people in those days weren’t interested in Muslim fundamentalism. It was rather like being interested in Scientology – it was some fringe, small-time, minor activity. It was only much later that it became right at the centre of what we were living through and thinking about.”
Fourteen years on, the book stands up as an eerie warning from history, a debate about integration and identity politics, about art and fundamentalism, about racism and terrorism. Late last year, struck by its contemporary relevance, Kureishi contacted his friend Jatinder Verma, artistic director at the Asian theatre company Tara Arts, and suggested that it might make a timely stage play. The pair have since adapted the novel for the National Theatre, where it will play for three months before going on a UK tour.
Set in 1989, against the backdrop of the fatwah against Salman Rushdie and the collapse of the Soviet Union, The Black Album follows Shahid, a teenager from a middle-class family in Kent, who comes to a shabby polytechnic in north-west London to take a degree in cultural studies. He finds himself pulled between different worlds – there is the lure of sex, drugs and culture from his rapacious thirtysomething tutor Deedee, with whom he has an affair. There is the lure of the drug-dealing underworld from his bullying, ultra-Thatcherite brother Chili. And there is the lure of religion from Riaz, a devout and hospitable neighbour in his halls of residence.
“I read the book when it came out and thought it was brilliant,” says the director Jatinder Verma who, together with Kureishi, is taking a lunchtime break from rehearsals on the South Bank. “Uniquely, it captured a key moment in the lives of young Asians in that particular period, people caught between wanting to enjoy the pleasures and possibilities that life around them was offering, and at the same time wanting to cling to an extreme sense of belonging. And, of course, after 9/11 and 7/7, when people are now starting to question identity politics and cultural relativism, it seemed to be fabulously prescient.”
It is the portrayal of Riaz and his band of Islamists who seem particularly prescient, not least because of their spooky parallels with the quartet of young men responsible for the 7/7 attrocity. “What we’re effectively looking at is the transition from anti-racism to fundamentalism,” says Kureishi. “It was crucial not to turn these people into evil caricatures. They form a vigilante group to combat racist attacks, they get people off heroin, they even save the lead character’s life. You can, initially, see their appeal.”
The characters in the book were based on research that Kureishi undertook in the early 1990s, visiting mosques in Whitechapel and Shepherd’s Bush. Part of that research ended up in My Son The Fanatic, a 1994 short story first published in the New Yorker and adapted into a 1997 film by the BBC. The Black Album allows him to go deeper into the allure of fundamentalism.
“I actually liked a lot of the kids I met in these mosques. They seemed more naive and innocent and silly than they were dangerous, and their arguments were just daft. Fundamentalism gave them a sense of place, of belonging. Many were unemployed, most had friends involved in drugs; religion kept them out of trouble. And many were very hospitable. They’d greet me with a tie, or a pair of cufflinks, and a copy of the Koran.
“But, of course, there were also guys who would blow you up as soon as look at you, people I really despised. They were the ones making really fervent and zealous speeches in the mosques about gays and women and Jews and Hindus and so on. And you really would want to have a long bath after meeting them.
“Interestingly, they would invite me to their houses to debate. In those days it was much more exposed. They weren’t being watched, they weren’t frightened, they weren’t presumed to be terrorists. These were just like any other students, arguing about the revolution in their front rooms. I used to sit in the mosques and make notes, writing down their speeches, which would infuriate them. Eventually, some of them discovered that I was a friend of Rushdie’s. That’s when I was physically thrown out of the mosque.”
Although Salman Rushdie is not named, the Satanic Verses affair plays a pivotal role in the story, sparking militant action. Kureishi is still amazed at the effect the book had on people at the time.
“Not long after the fatwah on Rushdie, I went to Amsterdam for a literary conference, where I ran into [art critic and novelist] John Berger, with whom I spent a lot of time. I wanted the conference to make a statement about Rushdie, opposing the fatwah. It seemed pretty obvious to me that they would do this. I was astonished when John – an ex-communist, someone usually on the right side of arguments – wouldn’t go for this. His theory was that we had to support the Muslim working class against the insults of a middle-class writer. I’d never heard anybody say anything like this before. I was particularly shocked because I respected Berger and I still do, but to view this affair through the prism of class politics seemed to ignore the vital issues of freedom.”
The Black Album dramatises much of these leftwing apologies for fundamentalism. It features a Marxist academic, distraught by the collapse of the Soviet Union, who instead embraces identity politics and seeks a revolutionary alliance with Islamic militants. There is also a Labour council leader who expediently panders to Islamic fundamentalists. Both of them have shades of the George Galloway about them.
“Not just Galloway,” says Kureishi. “Livingstone too was always entertaining violent clerics at County Hall as part of this identification with the underclass. And these convolutions were even more calculating with someone like Keith Vaz who, on the day of the fatwah, rang me up in the morning to say ‘give Rushdie a message that I’m supporting him all the way’. Not long afterwards, I saw him on the telly calling on Rushdie to withdraw the Satanic Verses from sale!”
The year 1989, as Kureishi says, “seems much more significant now than it did at the time – the end of communism, the Rushdie affair, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, all of it sandwiched by the whole explosion of acid house.” For this play, the cast have adopted a late 80s look – hoodies, baggy pants, shaggy hair parted in the middle – while a soundtrack by Sister Bliss from Faithless blends the sound of the ‘Second Summer Of Love’ with the then-burgeoning sound of the Asian underground. The production promises to make extensive use of video art, which will provide the bulk of the backdrops.
“Video is a good way to establish the visual signature of that period,” says Verma. “This was a time when the music video was really embedded in the collective psyche, when 24-hour news was just starting. Basically, we have to tell the story of this young man, going through this panorama of experiences around London – nightclub, mosque, council estate, university – and video seemed to be the most effective way of setting those scenes, drawing from all these sources to give us these memory signals.”
“The Black Album is basically a story of ideas,” says Kureishi. “It’s about race, religion, identity politics, art and sex. It’s also about education – I was always very interested in the postmodern idea that university lecturers, like the one in this story, had started studying Madonna or Prince. Obviously, the story is named after Prince’s famous bootleg album, and someone like Prince is a fascinating prism through which you can view sexual and racial politics, and is well worthy of study. But at the same time, wouldn’t it be better off for students to read Plato rather than examining any old piece of modern rubbish as a cultural artefact? Isn’t studying popular culture just a way of excluding certain students from the canon of ‘high’ art? So there’s a lot going on here. It’s theatre about debate and argument, very much like that Brechtian theatre that I grew up with, like Trevor Griffiths, or the Joint Stock Theatre Company.”
Kureishi has scripted ten films since his 1985 debut My Beautiful Launderette, which earned him an Oscar nomination. After two well-received screenplays for Roger Michell – The Mother and Venus – he’s currently working on another, Weekend (about a middle-aged couple who take the Eurostar to Paris to rekindle their relationship). But the man who started out as a writer-in-residence at the Royal Court in the early 1980s still prefers the collaborative world of theatre.
“I’ve not even bothered visiting the set of the last few films I’ve written, because there’s not much for a writer to do. It’s all about lights and the camera angles. But, in the theatre, the creativity is actually happening right there in the rehearsal room. You’re immediately involved in it. It’s incredibly exciting to see these talented people saying your lines, making sense of them, improving them.”
Most of Kureishi’s work since The Black Album has been “post-racial” (which, as he says, “is a way of saying that there’s not many Pakis in it”), ditching the debates about racial identity politics and instead focusing on gender and sexuality. Returning to the subject of race here, he observes that the landscape has changed enormously.
“I think Asian people have become much, much more interested and involved in the arts over the last 20 or 25 years,” he says. “When we were casting My Beautiful Launderette, for example, we basically had Saeed Jaffrey and his two mates! Now you go to RADA and there’s loads of brilliant young Asian actors. That can only be a good thing.”
Many controversial theatre productions have been protested by faith groups over the past decade, be it Behzti (which attracted violent protests from Sikhs in Birmingham) or Jerry Springer: The Opera (which attracted the ire of Christians). Does he envisage any protests against this racially and religiously charged production?
“The only protests I’ve attracted were against My Beautiful Launderette in New York,” says Kureishi. “People marched up and down outside the cinemas saying that there was no such thing as a gay Pakistani. At the time I was very amused by it, because we never thought that this could ever become violent. These were just decent people appealing against this filth. And I could see why. But The Black Album is something very different. It’s a very robust discussion about one of the most important subjects of the day, and I don’t see why anyone should protest about it. It seems to me that this is exactly what the National Theatre should be doing, that’s what it’s there for. Also, when you have Romanians being firebombed in Northern Ireland or hostages being beheaded in Iraq, this is still going on today. We have to have these discussions. I will be pleased if people are annoyed or stimulated by it. It’s part of a debate about one of the most important things to happen to all of us.”
The Black Album premieres at the National Theatre on July 14. It goes on tour from October.