“The Black Album”: adapted to the stage 20 years after The Satanic Verses affair - Liverpool, UK

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Back in the early nineties, when other artists (and varying intelligence agencies) had more traditional ideas on their minds, Hanif Kureishi chose to focus on the “toxic fundamentalism bubbling away in Britain’s multicultural melting-pot.”

Inspired by the fatwa of 1989 against Salman Rushdie over the The Satanic Verses, The Black Album sets liberalism against fundamentalism through a Muslim central character. Fifteen years on, the book stands up as an eerie warning from history. Since those issues have become even more relevant, Kureishi’s now adapted his novel for the stage.

Revisiting this material in a post-9/11 and post-7/7 world is not only thought-provoking but necessary (especially when analyzing the start of the 21st century). It transports audiences back to the experiences of immigrants from the subcontinent, providing context for the birth of extremism as both a reaction to prejudice and an attempt by Anglo-Asians to root themselves culturally.

This is indeed the aim of Jatinder Verma, artistic director at the Asian theatre company Tara Arts, who teamed up with Kureishi for the stage adaptation: portraying the growth of identity politics around the notion of Islam and looking at the transition from anti-racism to fundamentalism.

Such fundamentalism comes to a head with the Nazi-like burning of Rushdie’s book. Somewhat surprisingly, though, the British-Indian novelist is never named. This is a minor criticism, regrettably, when compared with the major pitfall surrounding its (lack of international) politics.

The controversy over Rushdie’s novel was driven by politics, not religion. Kureishi is all too aware of this. The author even features a Marxist academic, distraught by the collapse of the Soviet Union, who seeks a revolutionary alliance with Islamic militants. (Nick Cohen’s What’s Left?: How Liberals Lost Their Way sheds more light on this phenomenon.) Yet, the play does not explore the genesis of the politico-religious doctrine which emerged to pose an even greater threat to the new world order that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall.

As Kenan Malik, author of From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy, reminds us in the theatre programme, Rushdie’s book first became an issue in India because of an election (two months after the novel was published) in November 1988. Denounced as blasphemous by the hardline Islamist group, Jamaat-e-Islami, mainstream poiliticians - fearful of alienating sections of a 150-million strong Muslim constituency - granted concessions and the book was duly banned.

At this time, however, the book caused few ripples when first shipped to Tehran. Iranian journalist Janashah Javid recollects the novel being reviewed politely in the literary magazine Kayhan Farangi before sinking into - albeit temporary - obscurity. As Ali Ansari, professor of History at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, said in a BBC documentary to mark the 20th anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa: “If there was a theological point to make you would have made it much earlier.”
Evidently, the fatwa cannot be seen outside the political maneuverings going on in Iran at the time. The hardliners in the government had been trying to block the recent rapprochement with the West. Diverting minds away from domestic difficulties and turning it into an international incident that the populace could focus on was their aim, according to Ansari, author of The History of Modern Iran Since 1921: the Pahlavis & After. You only have to read Con Coughlin’s Khomeini’s Ghost: The definitive account of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution and its enduring legacy to appreciate just how Machiavellian the Supreme Leader was, stealing the revolution and granting himself “authority and jurisdiction far beyond any of the shahs’ wildest ambitions.”

While street protests did take place before the fatwa was issued, Kureishi’s stage adaptation could have reminded theatregoers it was not a grassroots uprising, but rather a political construct of which Rushdie and, indeed, (non-)Muslims more generally were pawns in a game between Saudi Arabia and Iran to be the head of revolutionary Islam.

Malik powerfully concludes that “the fatwa has in effect become internalized.” Yet, it is a quote from Kureishi in the same book which lingers in the memory: “Nobody would have the balls today to write The Satanic Verses, let alone publish it. Writing is now timid because writers are terrified.”

Looking at Kureishi’s career, it would be erroneous to say that his writing is timid or the writer terrified by the mad edict of a dead theocrat. Given it was a year, however, in which the Mullahs celebrated the 30th anniversary of their Revolution and one when protestors took to the streets of Tehran - the numbers of which had not been seen for a generation, was it too much to expect somebody had the “balls” to write about Khomeini and Co. in The Satanic Verses affair? If so, maybe Malik is right after all.

• The Black Album by Hanif Kureishi continues at the Liverpool Playhouse until 31 October before continuing on its UK autumn tour.

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