Idiots’ introduction to workshopping a play

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Well, it’s fair to say that the first day of workshopping my play with Kali Theatre was one of the the most exciting – and exhausting – experiences in recent memory.

It was 4.45pm in the studio at The Albany, and there I was feeling slightly disappointed that the day was drawing to a close, convinced I could go on for hours and hours and hours. I was loving it – tearing apart the characters, deconstructing the plot, trying new things, and drawing out the essence of the play.

Fast forward half an hour; I’m on the train from Deptford to Cannon Street, having said my goodbyes to the talented actors and director, and I’m resisting to put my feet up on the seat across from me – good citizen ‘n’ all. And suddenly it’s like the ‘yum-yum’s’ we gorged on in a tea break have multiplied exponentially in mass, and I feel so, so heavy, like I can hardly keep my head from lolling over onto a stranger’s shoulder.

Worth it? Yes. I walked in with the second draft of my play, thinking it was the shizer. Turned out I didn’t have a clue. Don’t get me wrong; hearing and seeing the actors take the words off the page and actually turn them into real people was somethin’ else – fairly magical I would say. For so long this play has been living in my head, it was extraordinary to see these dormant characters stand up and walk around the room.

But more importantly, the workshopping also highlighted how much work needs to be done – with characters and their back story and what they reveal about themselves, with the narrative and dramatic arc, with the values and moral questions the play elicits, and with the humour and the tone.

For me, I think the hardest part was making it light and funny, whilst maintaining its emotional depth. In today’s workshop all the emotion was there – all the angst, all the drama, all the  pain, all the love. That stuff was easy! But what was harder to draw out was the humour and the buoyancy. It started emerging towards the end, as we experimented with different things but I think it needs more from the writing.

You know what? Jokes are friggin’ hard to write. They seem so easy and blasé when they roll off a character’s tongue, but I swear it’s such a precise formula it takes a tremendous amount of brainwork to put together. So if you hear my trying out less-than-average jokes in the next few weeks, you’ll know why.

The whole experience was utterly thrilling though – the actors were all truly brilliant and did things with my words that I couldn’t have even imagined. The director, Poonam Brah, was fantastic in the way she brought things together, worked with the actors to bring out incredible nuances from the text, and really guide me through my own play, drawing attention to both what she loved about it, and what she thought might need a little TLC from me – I can’t think of anything more valuable to me as a writer at this stage.

Tonight I’m feeling very tired, very lucky, but very, very happy. And about tomorrow’s workshop… bring it!

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My First Play

ImageThis year I took part in Kali Theatre‘s programme for Developing Writers – Talkback 2012. Kali supports and promotes new writing for the theatre by South Asian women.

The workshops were varied, informative, but perhaps most significantly, tremendously inspirational. Led by some of the most talented women in the industry, including Tanika Gupta, Sayan Kent, Penny Gold, Sharmila Chauhan, Poonam Brah and Kali’s Artistic Director Janet Steel, we were taught the essentials of playwriting: structure, dialogue, character, plot, and theatricality. We were also taught to fundamentally write the play YOU want to write.

Early in 2012, I started writing a play called Speed, about 5 characters who meet at a speed-dating event. The premise was simple; the purpose was to show how a bunch of Londoners in their twenties cope – or fail to cope – in a world where you’re expected to have it all, and have it all fast. 

This is the play I submitted to Kali; this is the play selected for their Talkback programme; this is the play I’ve been redrafting all summer; and this is the play that I will now be workshopping with Kali, in preparation for a rehearsed reading at the Arcola Theatre on 8th December 2012, along with six other shows.

I was also really moved by Kali’s attitude towards new writers – perhaps the word ‘nurture’ is best used to describe the relationship. I found the workshops a rare space where writers were not in competition with each other, but rather, entirely supportive of each other’s work. What’s more is that Kali’s investment in the writers they select for Talkback is huge. Not only are the workshops completely free for writers (for ten, 2-3 hour workshops, that’s remarkably impressive), they are scheduled in the evenings so people who work full time can take part. My play will be given nearly four full days of workshopping and rehearsals – for which I’m to be paid (yes – me, given money, for writing! Can you believe they’re still paying writers out there?!) – and Kali get the right of first refusal for six months. Which, more than anything, is an indication that Kali are at least open to the idea of a second date…

I’m sorry to say, Kali – there’ll be no getting rid of me now!

Tomorrow is the first all-day workshop for Speed. Given that this is my first play, it is also my first experience of workshopping my writing and working in collaboration with a director (Poonam Brah) and actors. I am 1 part nervous, and about 9 parts super-excited.

Stay tuned for more…

The publicity blurb for Speed

Five sexy, sassy and cynical twenty-somethings come together at a speed-dating event. A banker in denial, a writer with a hang-up, a publicist with a penchant for sexagenarians, a jilted musician and a shrink with a secret reveal their misanthropy and closeted desires in a wry comedy of heartbreak and loneliness. In a culture obsessed by the pursuit of money, love and success, Speed examines what we lose in the process.

Tickets for Speed and other Talkback readings are available here: http://www.arcolatheatre.com/production/arcola/kali-talkback-festival-talkback-2012-readings

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Operation Overhaul

ATTENTION: This is an attempt to resuscitate my virtually defunct blog.

It was initially set up to present my writing in a single, accessible location. Below this post are many of my earlier opinion pieces, features, interviews, reviews, and even short stories.

From now on, posts will most likely be arbitrary links, ramblings, or plugs of upcoming work.

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On being brown: an interview with Nikesh Shukla

Nikesh Shukla, acclaimed author of Coconut Unlimited, chats to Iman Qureshi about his Comedy Lab sit-com Kabaddasses, his upcoming novel, and the trials and tribulations of being brown

Naturally, my first question for Nikesh Shukla is: so what’s it like being brown?

“Well,” he replies shaking his head mock-morosely, “I wake up, my melanin’s playing up – I feel lighter one day, darker another.

“Sometimes I have cereal for breakfast,” he continues. “I usually shower… mostly shower. You know what, here’s an exclusive – I always shower.

“That’s what it’s like being Asian,” he shrugs coolly.

Usually? Mostly? Do you mean brown people don’t always shower? I ask in feigned wide-eyed wonder. Is that why they’re brown?

“Judging by the amount of times I’ve been asked that question, I appear to be one of the few Asians who shower in the world,” he nods solemnly…

Read the rest at SALF Online

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The weird world of the lesbian hoaxers

A feature by the Guardian’s Kira Cochrane exploring why a heterosexual, married man might pose as a Syrian online features a quote from me. Read it here. 

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A Gay Girl In Damascus?

More like white man with a neoliberal conscience, who has no right nor credibility to speak for the oppressed population of Arabs and Muslims

There are just so many things wrong with this farcical Gay Girl in Damascus debacle. But what I find most offensive is the fact that the self-assured Tom MacMaster-a white, heterosexual male from America-has the audacity to pose and speak for the experiences of the oppressed – something which he knows nothing about.

MacMaster knows nothing of what oppression does to an individual. He can never feel what it is like to live in brown skin. He can never feel what it’s like to be a woman. He can never feel what it’s like to be gay. Yet he writes his version of these experiences and presents them as an authentic voice. These are experiences he can never claim to own. It would be the equivalent of a man being the face of feminism – a man parading down the street claiming that he can speak for women and that he knows all about what it means to be a woman. This would never be tolerated. And nor should MacMaster. Continue reading

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Tackling hijab

This is a blog I wrote for Pakistani newspaper, The Express Tribune. Presumably due to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, the paper was compelled to omit a large part of my argument which centred around religion. This is the unedited version. 

News that Fifa has banned the Iranian women’s football team from participating in the Olympics on account of their headscarves has been met with much criticism, but the real issues are not being addressed.

And sport rears it’s ugly bigoted head yet again. Surprised? Not so much. Whether it’s sexuality, gender, religion or race, sport seems to be the perpetually reoffending schoolyard bully.

Headscarves have been banned under the old hackneyed excuse of health and safety. Fifa’s ruling vaguely stipulates: “players must not use equipment or wear anything that is dangerous to himself or another player”. This is an embarrassingly flaccid argument that is being stretched to absurd extremes – what about long hair, or hair ties, or sweat bands? What happens when healthy and safe alternatives are made available?

Indeed, as I’ve stated elsewhere about women’s clothing in sport, the desire of sporting authorities to impose specific sexed-up dress codes for women seems to be more an issue of attracting corporate sponsorship, rather than health and safety. And considering that Qatar is set to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the hypocrisy of this act is distinctly bile inducing.

In line with the equal rights and freedoms society is striving to achieve, women should be free to dress as they choose, and this includes hijab. The Iranian women’s football team should not be excluded for wearing hijab.

What I am not advocating, however, is a gormless acceptance of hijab on the basis of cultural relativism. And this is the real issue at stake, and something that critics of the ban are inclined to ignore.

While women may very well feel empowered by wearing a headscarf, this does not mean that hijab isn’t problematic. While it is unacceptable to ban it, it is equally unacceptable to fatuously argue that it should be permitted without engaging in a debate.

Putting it into its socio-political context, hijab descends from Islam which, if interpreted literally by the book, is a patriarchal and oppressive religion. Statements like, “Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other” (Quran, IV.34) are just not compliant with a society built on equal rights.

Quite simply, modern society is not a world where men are in charge of women. And if you have any problems with that – tough luck. Your opinion is no longer valid or welcome. You can disappear and lock yourself up in your prehistoric patriarchal cave of nostalgia and cry over the tragic loss of the glory days when we all worshipped the phallus.

To insist that women conceal their bodies creates a dangerously unbalanced sexual dichotomy. The message it sends out is: Women are sexual meat and men are sexual predators. This is neither fair, nor true and does gross injustice to both men and women.

Women are not merely passive recipients of sexual desire, but can be just as sexually voracious and assertive themselves – and this is not a “bad” thing. If you disagree, consider why this is so, and then question your double standard.

Equally, this dichotomy creates a culture where men see women’s bodies as a carte blanche of desire – the notion that, if girls put their booty out there then guys are entitled to pinch it, is ludicrous. Men who think this way, please learn some self control. Contrary to what this meat/predator dichotomy may implore you to think, self control is perfectly within your capability.

Furthermore, the dangers of this excuse are grave. It allows for sentiments like “Oh she was dressed like a slut, she was asking to be raped.” No. No. No. The onus is 100 percent on the perpetrator, never the victim. We cannot allow for a culture, where men feel even the tiniest bit justified in actions of violence or sexual abuse. This has been recognised by the popular protest SlutWalk, whose fundamental argument is that the way a woman dresses is no excuse for sexual harassment or abuse.  A short skirt is never, ever an invitation to rape, and should never, ever be construed as such.

SlutWalk is being taken to Delhi, and although it will face considerable resistance, it is an important step in the feminist movement towards equality. I hope—perhaps in vain—to see SlutWalkers soon take to the streets of Lahore, or Karachi or Islamabad.

So, to Fifa and other sporting authorities – forcing women out of their hijab is patriarchal and unacceptable. To all women—Muslim and non-Muslim alike—let’s fight to level the field, let’s challenge patriarchy and oppression. And to proponents of hijab, despite having the right to it, you must be open to criticism. Using religion as a trump card is just not enough – employ your faculty of reason and engage in a real debate.

And why not here, now? Use the comment thread and I’ll respond to the points you raise.

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