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Dina Ibrahim brings ‘The Mother of Kamal’ to Highgate

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Dina Ibrahim brings ‘The Mother of Kamal’ to Highgate

A woman’s fight to keep her family safe from an unjust and dangerous system.

Playwright Dina Ibrahim will showcase her latest play The Mother of Kamal at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, in Highgate in January. Based on real life events and inspired by Dina Ibrahim’s own father’s family memoir novel Um-Kamal (‘mother of Kamal’ in Arabic), the play revolves around the tumultuous events in the saga of a Jewish family, beginning in the slums of Baghdad in 1948  where a dramatic new political tide was crashing in after WWII.

Dina Ibrahim:

“The substance of the play has had an allegorical quality – remembering a time in the Middle East when communities lived in relative harmony and mutual support, only too soon after to be forced by implacable historical forces into separate camps, opposed to each other, each with a truth of their own, with contradictory truths, yet all necessarily and inevitably valid nonetheless. 

“But in time, in the play, in the allegory, their common humanity transcends the divide, and by necessity they reach out to each other. Because fundamentally, in their essence, they have far more in common than the detritus of grievance, the flotsam and the jetsam that their recent history has washed, unwanted, to their shores – a history manipulated by great acquisitive powers and their rivalries and reliant on appeals to anachronistic and divisive dogmas, superstitions and stereotypes.”

It takes us to the heart of Dina’s family’s history, from the under-reported world of a working-class Jewish-Arabic community in Baghdad in the turmoil of mid-century pre-revolutionary Iraq. Through the crucible of global historical events, up to the present-day diaspora, all is seen through the eyes of her own passionate, resilient grandmother (the eponymous ‘Um-Kamal’), who Dina herself will play in an all-too-rare lead role for a strong, but complex, middle-aged female protagonist.

It tells the story of Um-Kamal who carries a secret born of personal and political intrigue and who eventually reveals a truth so shattering that it threatens to tear her family irreparably apart. A true story that is both painful and funny, The Mother of Kamal shines a light on Middle Eastern politics, Jewish diaspora, family, truth and reconciliation and the need to reach out and prioritise peace.

With a diverse cast and crew which includes both Jewish and Arab members among many others, the play tells the story of an Iraq that many people in the modern world will not have known existed – as prior to 1935, when a slow but forceful ideological shift began to set in, the many different religions that made up the population of Baghdad had lived without religious conflict. But by the 1940s things truly began to shift, and anti-Jewish sentiments were on the rise.

At the same time, communism became the target of the pro-British government in power in Iraq, which was determined to stamp it out. People of all religions who were suspected of being communist sympathisers were brutally persecuted under the regime. In February 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’s family during this persecution. 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.

When one sibling is sentenced to eight years in prison and the other is – at the time inexplicably – freed, the released brother is left carrying a desperate burden on his conscience. Although he did nothing to cause his brother’s incarceration, he harbours deep guilt; for, frozen in fear at the time of their arrest, he did nothing to try to save his brother.

Meanwhile the boys’ mother – desperate to secure release for her sons and to hold her fragmenting family together – is compelled to make her own impossible choices, and takes her own action, reluctantly being drawn into the orbit and underground activity of the Communist Party. Inevitably she carries her own guilt for who she was, and her inability to rescue both her sons. In the aftermath she tells no one, stoically carrying her own very heavy burden of grief and guilt.

As Um-Kamal and her sons struggle to survive the oppression of the times, it is 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 government low level thugs looking for trouble come knocking, it is their Muslim friends who hide and protect Um-Kamal and her family.

Decades later conflicting narratives emerge about what really happened that fateful night in the cells when one brother went free and one was condemned for close to a decade to a notorious prison in the middle of the desert. The brother who went free had to endure a lifetime of rumour and suspicion. While the whole family have to endure lifetimes of uncertainty and mistrust but inevitable mutual dependence. As the scattered family reunite from their exiled lives across continents, oceans, and time, to uncover the truth, we see the full impact of what really happened that night in the cells in Baghdad, amid dramatically conflicting family demands, narratives, perspectives and histories.

Dina Ibrahim:

“Revisiting this play in the current context has brought the realisation that in the midst of the horrors and trauma of war, with people forced into opposing camps, reaching out is risky, and the call for peace and for reconciliation muted, yet it must be made if only to keep our sanity and humanity intact.”

This production of The Mother of Kamal employs ambitious staging and stylistic direction to support the story-telling and highlight both the comedic moments as well as the tragic ones on the stage.

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 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.

The Mother of Kamal :

Upstairs at the Gatehouse Friday 19th January 2023 – Sunday 28th January 2023 (not. Mon 22nd January) Time: 7.30pm

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