Playwright Dina Ibrahim has created a stage adaptation of her father’s biographical novel Um Kamal, which means mother of Kamal in Arabic. Based on real-life events and inspired by the novel, it’s a tale politics, persecution and personal struggle that will resonate with many of us today. Ibrahim brings this new play, The Mother of Kamal, to Upstairs at the Gatehouse in Highgate, London.
Events are set in the 1940s and 50s, beginning in the slums of Baghdad, where a dramatic new political tide was crashing in after WWII. It centres on the under-reported world of a working-class Jewish-Arabic community in Baghdad — caught in the turmoil of mid-century, pre-revolutionary Iraq — seen through the eyes of Ibrahim’s own passionate and resilient grandmother. It’s fitting that Ibrahim herself plays the lead in this painful and funny story.
With a diverse cast and crew which includes both Jewish and Arab members, the play tells the story of an Iraq that many of us haven’t read about.
Prior to 1935, the many different religions that made up the population of Baghdad lived without religious conflict. But by the 1940s, anti-Jewish sentiments were on the rise. At the same time, communism became the target of the pro-British government in Iraq. Determined to stamp it out, the government’s regime persecuted people of all religions who were suspected of being communist sympathisers. In 1948, four men — symbolically a Sunni Muslim, a Shia Muslim, a Christian and a Jew — were hanged on the same day in Baghdad and left there as a warning.
The play explores the true-life tale of Dina Ibrahim’s family during this time.
A family’s experience of oppression
In the play, amid a spate of arrests and arbitrary public executions, a working-class Jewish mother, Um-Kamal, finds her two sons arrested by the feared and loathed Secret Police. Accused of being members of the Communist Party, one is jailed and the other freed.
The boys’ mother — desperate to secure release for her sons and to hold her fragmenting family together — is compelled to make impossible choices and is reluctantly drawn into the orbit and underground activity of the Communist Party. It’s the diverse community around her which comes together to withstand the growing joint threats of fascist mobs and arbitrary bureaucratic and judicial injustices. And when the government’s low-level thugs come knocking, it’s their Muslim friends who hide and protect her family.
Decades later, as the scattered family reunite from their exiled lives across continents, oceans, and time, we see the full impact of what happened, amid dramatically conflicting family demands, narratives, perspectives and histories.
The Mother of Kamal was written and first premiered before the current Israel-Palestine humanitarian crisis unfolded. So, it wasn’t written with current events in mind. However, parallels with the current conflict are clear — people are not their governments, and yet it’s always the people who suffer. But who makes the case for peace, and when?
Though The Mother of Kamal is set 75 years ago and in Iraq, much of this play’s storyline could happen under any oppressive government, past or present, battling to position their own agendas on the world’s stage, to control, manipulate, divide and rule their populations, and to crush political, personal and civic freedoms. With a timeless quality that speaks to enduring personal and global conflicts and conflicts of the human condition, it’s a story of how the civilians of all races and religions, in such times of strife and cynical persecution, are the innocent victims whose lives are destroyed in the process. Tragically, as with so many times in history — and as in this play — people across the world are pitted against each other by their governments, with little choice over the actions carried out in their name. They have the same sense of powerlessness as the people in the play.
Warm and poignant
Blending traditional narrative drama with elements drawn from classical, epic, physical, immersive and ensemble theatre, with beautiful lyrical passages of performance that merge with acutely observed vignettes of social satire and human interpersonal relations, The Mother of Kamal is ultimately a play about human connection and the will to survive. It particularly focuses on the role of marginalised women in bearing the weight of seismic political shifts, historical and family narratives, and competing demands. It’s about being able speak one’s version of the truth and to have that truth heard.
The play is a powerful, poignant, yet warmly humorous and subtly satirical telling of a historical family struggle for justice and truth in the face of exile and cynical, politicised intolerance and division — themes which sadly resonate as loudly today, both personally and globally.
For more immersive and thought-provoking theatre, head over here!
When: 19th – 28th January 2024 at 7.30pm
Where: Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate, London N6 4BD
£: Tickets cost £17 – £19 plus a £1 booking fee
More info: www.upstairsatthegatehouse.com