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Authors: Hanif Kureishi

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The Black Album

BOOK: The Black Album
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The Black Album

adapted for the stage by the author

Table of Contents

Title Page
Newness in the World
Act One
Act Two
About the Author
By the Same Author 

Newness in the World

It was in the summer of 2008 that I suggested to Jatinder Verma that we attempt a theatrical dramatisation of my second novel,
The Black Album

The Black Album
was a novel I had begun to think about in 1991, not long after the publication of my first book,
The Buddha of Suburbia
. Unlike that story, which I’d been trying to tell in numerous versions since I first decided to become a writer, aged fourteen,
The Black Album
was more or less contemporary, a ‘state of Britain’ narrative not unlike those I’d grown up watching, enthralled and excited, in the theatre, particularly the Royal Court, and on television.

Around the time of its original publication in 1993, and after the BBC film of
The Buddha of Suburbia
, there had been talk of filming
The Black Album
. But instead of returning to something I’d just written and was relieved to have done with, it seemed easier to write a new piece, with similar themes. This was
My Son the Fanatic
, a film set in the North, and shot in and around Halifax, starring Rachel Griffiths and Om Puri.

However, as the twentieth anniversary of the fatwa was approaching, and with
The Black Album
set in 1988–89 and concentrating on a small group of religious extremists, both Jatinder and I thought that my pre-7/7 novel might shed some light on some of the things which had happened since.

Not that I had read the novel since writing it; and if I felt hesitant – as I did – to see it revived in another form, it was because I was anxious that in the present mood, after the bombings and atrocities, it might, in places, seem a little frivolous. But the young radical Muslims I came to know at the time did appear to me to be both serious and intelligent, as well as naive, impressionable and half mad, and my account of their activities and language reflected what I learned in mosques and colleges. The novel records the kind of debates they had. And it wasn’t as though the subject of liberalism and its relation to extreme religion had gone away.

It was debate, ideological confrontation and physical passion that Jatinder and I had in mind when we sat down to work on the translation from prose to play. The novel, which has a thriller-like structure, is a sprawl of many scenes in numerous locations: foul pubs, a further education college, a mosque, clubs, parties, a boarding house, cafés, Deedee’s house and the street. As it was impossible in the theatre to retain this particular sense of late-eighties London, we had to create longer scenes and concentrate on the important and even dangerous arguments between the characters as they interrogated Islam, liberalism, consumer capitalism, as well as the place and meaning of liter a ture and the way in which it might represent criticism of religion.

The first draft was too much like a film and would have been unwieldy to stage. Jatinder reminded me that we had to be ruthless. He also reminded me, with his persistence and imagination, how much I’ve learned about editing from the film and theatre directors I’ve worked with. If we were to create big parts for actors in scenes set in small rooms, we needed to turn prose into fervent talk, having the conversation carry the piece. We had to ensure the actors had sufficient material to see their parts clearly. Each scene had to be shaped. The piece had to work for those who hadn’t read the book.

It was this we worked on over a number of drafts, and it was the usual business of writing: cutting, condensing, expanding, developing, putting in jokes and trying material in different places until the story moved forward naturally. I was particularly keen to keep the humour and banter of students and their often adolescent attitudes, particularly towards sexuality. This was, after all, one of their most significant terrors: that the excitement the West offered would not only be too much for them, but for everyone.

The fatwa against Salman Rushdie in February 1989 had re-ignited my concern about the rise of Islamic radicalism, something I had become aware of while in Pakistan in 1982, where I was writing
My Beautiful Laundrette
. But for me that wasn’t the whole story. Much else of interest was happening around the end of the eighties: the music of Prince; the collapse of Communism and the ‘velvet revolution’; the rise of the new dance music along with the use of a revelatory new drug, Ecstasy; Tiananmen Square; Madonnausing Catholic imagery in
Like a Prayer
; and post-modernism, ‘mash-ups’ and the celebration of hybridity – of exchange and creative contamination – which is partly the subject of
The Satanic Verses

This was also the period, or so I like to think, when Britain became aware that it was changing, or, in effect, had already changed from a monocultural to a multi-racial society, and had realised, at last, that there was no going back. This wasn’t a mere confrontation with simple racism, the kind of thing I’d grown up with, which was usually referred to as ‘the colour problem’. (When I was a young man it was taken for granted that to be Black or Asian was to be inferior to the white man. And not for any particular reason. It was just the case: a fact.)

No, it was much more. Almost blindly, in the post-war period, a revolutionary, unprecedented social experiment had been taking place in Britain. The project was to turn – out of the end of the Empire and on the basis of mass immigration – a predominantly white society into a racially mixed one, thus forming a new notion of what Britain was and would become.

And now was the time for this to be evaluated. The fatwa in 1989, and the debate and arguments it stimulated, seemed to make this clear. Was it not significant that many of these discussions were about language? The Iranian condemnation of a writer had, after all, been aimed at his words. What, then, was the relation between free speech and respect? What could and could not be said in a liberal society? How would different groups in this new society relate – or rather, speak – to one another? How far could they go? What were the limits?

The coercive force of language was something I had long been aware of. As a mixed-race child growing up in a white suburb, the debased language used about immigrants and their families had helped fix and limit my identity. My early attempts to write now seem like an attempt to undo this stasis, to create a more fluid and complicated self through storytelling. One of the uses of literature is that it will enable individuals to enlarge their sense of self – their vocabulary, the store of ideas they use to think about themselves.

In the 1970s, many of us became aware, via the scrutiny of the gay, feminist and Black movements, of the power that language exerted. If the country was to change – excluding fewer people – so did the discourse, and why not? Language, which implicitly carried numerous meanings, developed all the time through creative use and misuse; if it was never still it could be revised, coaxed in other directions. There were terms applied to certain groups which were reductive, stupid, humiliating, oppressive. (Children, of course, are described constantly by their parents in ways which are both narrowing and liberating – and they have a good idea of what it is to live in an authoritarian world. It wasn’t for nothing that I had been fascinated in my late teens by Wittgenstein’s apothegm, ‘The meaning of a word is its use.’)

If there was to be better speaking, the language had to be policed in some way, the bad words being replaced by the good. This, of course, became known as political correctness, where language was forced to follow a – usually lefist – political line. Inevitably there was a backlash, as this form of political control seemed not only harsh and censorious but sometimes ludicrous and irrelevant.

Liberals were in a tricky position, having to argue both for linguistic protectionism in some areas and for freedom in others. So that when some Muslims began to speak of ‘respect’ for their religion and the ‘insult’ of
The Satanic
the idea of free speech and its necessity and extension was always presented as the conclusive argument. Criticism was essential in any society. This could be said, but not
. But how would this be decided, and by whom?

The Marxists, too, were finding the issue of the fatwa difficult. It was only partly a coincidence that Islamic fundamentalism came to the West in the year that that other great cause, Marxist-Communism, disappeared. The character of the stuttering socialist teacher in
The Black
– Deedee Osgood’s husband Brownlow – was partly inspired by some of the strange convolutions of the disintegrating Left at the time.

At a conference in Amsterdam in 1989 I remember arguing with John Berger, who was insisting that complaints about
The Satanic Verses
were justified, as they came from the downtrodden proletariat. Why, he said, would he want to support a privileged middle-class artist who was – supposedly – attacking the deepest beliefs of an otherwise exploited and humiliated Muslim working class? This seemed to me to be an eccentric and perverse point of view, particularly from a writer who valued freedom, and when it was obvious that the opportunity to dissent, to be critical of leaders and authorities – and to be free of censorship – was necessary for anyone to live a good life, as the many writers, critics and journalists in prison in Muslim countries would no doubt attest.

To struggle my way through this thicket of fine distinctions, difficult debates and violent outcomes, I invented the story of Shahid, a somewhat lost and uncertain Asian kid from Kent, whose father has recently died – and who joins up, at college, with a band of similar-minded anti-racists. The story develops with Shahid discovering that the group are going further than anti-racist activism. They are beginning to organise themselves not only around the attack on Rushdie, but as Islamo-fascists who believe themselves to be in possession of the Truth.

This is a big intellectual leap. As puritanical truth-possessors, Riaz’s group and those they identify with have powerful, imperialistic ideas of how the world should be and what it should be purged of. Soon, believing the West has sunk into a stew of decadence, consumerism and celebrity obsession – a not-untypical fantasy about the West, corresponding to a not-unsimilar fantasy of the West about the sensual East, as Edward Said has argued – they believe it is their duty to bring about a new, pure world. They want to awaken benighted people to the reality of their situation. To do this they insist on a complete dominance of people’s private lives, and of women and female sexuality in particular.

Some of these attitudes were familiar to me, as I grew up in the sixties and seventies when the desire for revolution, for violent change, for the cleansing of exploitative capitalists and a more ethical world, was part of our style. Almost everyone I knew had wanted, and worked in some way to bring about, not only the modification of capitalism, but its overthrow. For us, from D. H. Lawrence to William Burroughs and the Sex Pistols, blasphemy and dissent was a blessed thing, kicking open the door to the future, bringing new knowledge, freedom and ways of living. The credo was: be proud of your blasphemy, these vile idols have been worshipped for too long! The point was to be disrespectful, to piss on the sacred and attack authority. As Guy Debord wrote, ‘Where there was fire, we carried petrol.’

BOOK: The Black Album
8.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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