‘Engage, excel, be patient’

by - 6th March 2008

Engaging: The Magical Muju CrewThe flyers advertising The Upstart Festival at the Tricycle Theatre on 2 March said:  ‘Cutting-edge artists from Muslim and Jewish backgrounds . . . working together’ – as if that was something difficult to imagine.  Those three elliptical dots . . .

Yet, when I spoke to Warren Minde, the young Jewish organizer of the event, he shrugged.  ‘It’s a myth.  There’s a lot of people who have come to talk to us who assume that the group is about building bridges.  They’d say things like “Do you have to get over your feelings about the opposite religion?” yet I feel the big story about that for us is, there’s not a bridge to be built.’

So those dots are ironic?

‘When this opportunity was offered everyone came to it just thinking, Here’s an opportunity to act with a great group of people from a different culture.’

The Tricycle had advertised for Muslims and Jews between the ages of 18 and 24 to set up a drama workshop, The Magical Muju Crew.  It launched in 2004, funded by the Pears Foundation to promote ‘cooperation across the divides in the UK’ – and it’s obviously working thanks no doubt to Warren’s charisma.  A 27-year old brand manager with Unilever, he grins sheepishly as he explains he has the Lynx deodorant account.

The Crew were the highlight at last weekend’s festival, broadening the idea of cooperation through culture, and showcasing film, art, comedy, music – and a play called The March.  Its leads include Salman Siddiqui, 26-year old equity analyst son of the co-founder of the Muslim Parliament.

Minde and Siddiqui are talking to me in the café at the Tricycle, glamorously rebuilt after the disastrous fire in 1987, and which has historically broken controversial social turf:  it was one of the first theatres in UK to do black and Asian theatre, and colour-blind casting.  Currently it is running Guantanamo using new interviews with detainees. Its founder, Nicholas Kent is the son of a wealthy German Jewish émigré who fled Hitler in 1936, changing his name from Kahn.  He is a public school product, having been to Stowe school and Cambridge and sits on Ken Livingstone’s cultural strategy group.  He famously staged extracts of the 1979 Romans In Britain obscenity trial at the Old Bailey and was sued by Mary Whitehouse who claimed, unsuccessfully, that he was in contempt of court. The Financial Times once said: Can theatre change society?  As a rule the answer is no, but there are exceptions.  The Tricycle Theatre believes in creating such exceptions.’    

Maybe Muju is one such.

I’d been invited to come and write some ‘good news’.  I originally met Salman Siddiqui at the City Circle off the Edgware Road.  A discussion group for young Muslim professionals off the Edgware Road, it unusually welcomes non-Muslims to engage in the issues of the day.  I was there for the launch of a book called Young, British and Muslim by the Bishop of Bradford’s interfaith advisor, Philip Lewis.

During the discussion afterwards, the smartly dressed professionals in either suits or long skirts and hijabs had begun criticising the media as the source of all ills, and when I challenged them to engage with me on their terms, I was mobbed.  Stories came tumbling out about homeless food runs, joint Christmas carol and Eidh events, the Muju festival  . . .

It’s this huge sense of energy bursting to get out of the imprisoning walls of media negativity that provides the basis for Muju’s new play, The March in which Salman and Warren play two hacks on a local paper covering a protest rally – they only hint at its cause.  The play examines pressures on the media to distort the way the event is represented, through selecting the one dramatic incident that may be entirely untypical.  It’s the violence of the solitary ‘rude boy’ rather than the solidarity of the mixed majority that makes the front page picture.  And that sets the tone by which Islam is judged.

The performance is relaxed, witty and thoughtful.  The cast of male, female, Muslim and Jew devised the story line organically in workshops.  There is a good deal of self-criticism – for instance, of the young Asian girlfriend, who sits and criticises anyone who supports Israel, but won’t get involved in anything herself.

In fact, the story emerged from an encounter with a BBC Radio 4 reporter:  ‘Radio 4 was looking for rows, difficulties, a sensational angle – you know, jaded adults with expectations of conflict and non-cooperation’, explains Lauren Jacobson, co-director of One to One Children’s Fund who sponsor Muju.

It’s the same message I learn from Salman’s father, Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui who’s there in the audience with his family.  He’s the co-founder of the Muslim Parliament, a fire-breathing former anti-democrat whose writings inspired the Muslim Manifesto which heaped infamy on ‘the corrupt bogland of Western culture’ (I quote) back in 1992.  Now he sits smiling over a cup of tea while gently denouncing the radicals like Hizb ut Tahrir for their ‘deviant theology’. 

For 25 years until his death in 1996, Ghayasuddin was the closest friend of the pro-Iranian Guardian journalist Dr Kalim Siddiqui who once wrote:  ‘There is no compatibility whatsoever between Islam and West’.  Ten years later, Ghayasuddin actually prompted his own son to join Muju.  He’s grown to like England. (He says to me: ‘I think this is a great country!  You have all debates and everything but at the end of the day, the consensus is always the right thing.  This is the beauty of this society.’)  Things have moved on – but not for Muslims as a whole, as he sees it:

‘We are completely in a cul de sac.  Our position is like aborigines and Red Indians and that’s frightening.  Instead of being part of humanity, we’ve become a tribe.  We are reaping our own self-destruction.  The time has come when we have to take stock of our position and do something very, very serious and my message has been, engage, excel and be patient.  Change comes, but only over generations.’

As the beau monde of London’s north Jewish elite drift past eating bagels, saying hi to friends, checking the next act in the gallery, Dr Ghayasuddin comments:  ‘There has to be an end to your anger and frustration.’

His son Salman, 26, is part of what’s changing, yet feels England is beginning to ‘go backwards’ as he puts it:  ‘I think in this country, you do have the sort of freedoms you have, of speech and civil liberties that people died for and it’s such a tragedy that they are being eroded’, he says.

Salman doesn’t just blame Britain’s foreign policy.  ‘That’s too easy.  I was against the war in Iraq, but that doesn’t justify this running battle.  I do feel a responsibility, because if these 7/7 activities continue, it makes my position as a Muslim less and less tenable.’

Salman and his friends are putting their energies into making money, into social work, drama and interfaith activities – they have a ‘feeding London’s homeless’ project:  ‘It’s quite cutting edge.  Most religious groups do charity for their own community but this is for anyone.  It’s things like that that get Muslims thinking, What are you first and foremost?  London is your community.  Your charity begins at home.  Even in the Qur’an your first duty is to the person suffering closest to you.’

Although Muju was brought together under the auspices of the Tricycle, the Festival itself was the Muju’s brainchild to commemorate the death of one of their number, the remarkable Esther Gluck who died in 2006, aged 24, in a train accident.

Money from the festival – which cost a fractional £600 due to generous sponsorship – will go towards Esther’s charity, the Separated Child Foundation, which cares for the mostly African children, once known as ‘unaccompanied minors’ who are sent alone, often in desperation, to the UK for refuge by parents and guardians.  There are thought to be up to 6,000 at any one time.

Back at the gig, a young Jewish strummer called Theo Bard has started his set.  He sings his own songs about love and religion; there’s one about a visit to a Syrian monastery ‘looking for meaning and direction’.  He says afterwards ‘People get indoctrinated into hating religion and I really don’t like that.  There are so many beautiful things about it.  My philosophy degree at Cambridge could not provide me with any answers.’

In the main auditorium the stand-up comics are beginning to trot out their repertoire of risky one-liners about anti-semitism - ‘We all know it was Jews who killed the dinosaurs’.  Halal Bilal, an Indian Muslim from Cape Town jokes about arriving at Heathrow and thinking he’s back in Delhi.  Prince Abdi, the B&Q worker from Somalia has a hilarious line about deportation.

A skinny bloke from Hendon with a red star on his woolly hat says ‘It’s good to be here, just Muslims and Jews.  We can all slag off the Christians.’