Allah's Own Country
Allah's Own Country
Theatre Review by Anisha Pucadyil
Allah’s Own Country is an exploration of aspiration, extremism, racism, and choices in food. Set in Bradford, United Kingdom, it also puts a spotlight on the different experiences persons of color have in the countryside. The play portrays the characters, Nabeel Ahmed and Aaron Samuels, who are managing restaurants in Bradford and London respectively. We also meet Saira Ahmed and Janice Cartwright, two teenagers who navigate food choices with the new information they find on social media.
The RAFTA (Rise against Fanaticism through the Arts) winner of 2022, Allah’s Own Country, written by Kaamil Shaah was showcased on Friday, 1st of April 2022 at the Rich Mix Theatre in London. The script had been selected for development from among 111 scripts submitted for the competition from the UK, US, India, and Bangladesh.
The first scene has us watching Nabeel convincingly played by Rez Kabir sharing phenomenal patience and kindness required to survive in the foodservice industry. Aaron Samuels played by Jordan Kemp in the role of a Jewish friend set out to write a cookbook and then open a new restaurant, the ‘Tandoor on the Moor’, trying earnestly to bring his friend on board. The two men share a camaraderie ranging from jokes to pertinent discussions on ‘what constitutes British food?’ to ruminations on sustainability and ethically sourced food.
In the next scene, we meet Saira, Nabeel’s daughter. I was surprised by her and chef Aaron’s disgust toward brain lamb curry. ‘Maghaz’ (lamb brain curry) is to me, the epitome of sustainability as it signifies that no one should go hungry and that no part of the animal killed to feed our stomachs shall be wasted. This idea of no wastage is integrated into pastoral communities in different ways but paired with social inequalities, it often creates space for revulsion for something that is quite matter-of-fact.
For someone who has recently moved from India, I was surprised to hear the phrase ‘God's own country’ being used to refer to the Yorkshire Moors. My association with the phrase is the backwaters of Kerala and delicious non-vegetarian food. Yorkshire seems like a doppelganger in another part of the world, with almost nothing in common.
The play held my rapt attention and warmed my heart with the understanding portrayal of the complex layers of a father-daughter relationship, otherwise often portrayed in theater or cinema with conflict and subjugation. We also get a tiny window open to the struggle of the father and the convincing discussions they have exploring the different points of view they lean towards.
Raminder Kaur as Dramaturg and Co-Producer chaired the post-show discussion that ranged from how do we scale this conversation up to whether the relations of caste and class could be explored closely in a play centrally discussing our food choices.
It is a proud moment for Kaamil and the team on his first play coming to life from page to stage. Kaamil honestly shared how meat has been a huge part of his culture and hence was curious to explore halal and vegan ideologies. Coming from a Jain and Muslim lived experience, he was keen to explore differing points of view, from meat as a food choice to being a righteous choice to avoid it, to better animal treatment and scientific explorations of biosynthetic meat. The play, he hopes will challenge orthodoxy and start a conversation while subverting difficult and polarizing questions on the ethics of meat consumption.
Director and Co-Producer Mukul Ahmed pointed out how stressful the intense two-week rehearsal time was amid COVID-19 anxieties. He shared his belief that we need to go back to ‘nature and Gandhian values’ and explore what theater can do for this important initiative.
In his essay, ‘Untouchability, The Dead Cow and The Brahmin’, the lawyer who headed the committee drafting the Constitution of India Babasaheb Ambedkar, argues that Brahmin vegetarianism was not a historical fact, but a response to the success Buddhism was having in India. Becoming a vegetarian was part of a game of one-upmanship over Buddhists, which the Brahmins managed to ensure came to be seen as morally superior and hence the ideal. Janice’s claims of ‘vegaphobia’ and protests for ‘meat-free schools’ sounds similar to upper middle-class vegans who have access to nuts, fruits, and a variety of vegetables, scorning the food choices of those who can only afford meat for protein and nutrition. She is successful in communicating her passion to raise awareness against cruelty to animals. However, the compassion that most vegans observe seems to evaporate.
The play also spotlights how social media is fraught with so many forces affecting what we engage with and how it affects us. This is particularly relevant for teenagers as they navigate varying worldviews while building their own identities. With stellar performances by its cast, Eve-Yasmine and Rosie Bloom hold the tenacious relationship of teenagers Saira and Janice. We see their relationship grow as their values merge, deeply affected by the barrage of information available at their fingertips. We can see that young Saira is quite affected by Janice’s friendship and we are left at a nail-biting moment, where Saira is at a crossroads to choose between her cultural upbringing and her newly acquired value system.
The first thing to draw the audience is the smell of incense wafting under the red light. Next came a brilliantly quirky set. The play is mostly set in a curry house, an important facet of British culture. The curry house signified the recreation of an India the British left behind but missed in the UK. Stage center there were diagonal red beams with various red utensils hanging. A green grass-covered sofa that charmingly transformed into a rocky moor, came with a purple umbrella with a yellow handle. A ‘Give Way’ directional inverted red triangle hung stage left. And at the center of the stage in the spotlight, the most interesting chair was adorned with what seemed like sausages painted orange. Kudos to the set and costume design, Hester Xue, along with lighting design by Paul Micah and stage management by Abi Cook.
What I missed from the play was the ensemble of forces that affect the characters. The community sharing of food, the convivial joy of preparing one’s favorite food, the planning, the budgeting, the celebration, and most of all the many hands of women who grow, clean, portion, salvage, and make tables presentable with food. There was talk about having the audience taste food created by the chefs, Nabeel and Aaron, that reminded me of a project, Come Eat with me, by the theatre-maker Vamsi in Bangalore, who challenges the gaze on Dalit lives by sharing stories of his lived experience and food with the audience that invites them into their homes. Historically, people of lower castes in India were not allowed to sit and dine together and their touch was considered polluting. While we would like to believe that these practices no longer exist, we need to be attentive on how ‘othering’ repurposes itself to be integrated and popular in society. Theater could play a path-breaking role in community self-reflection and social change. We would need to create more sensitive art as a form of resistance in Muslim, anti caste spaces that assert their cultural realities and push back against the oppressive traits of supremacist rhetoric.
The ensemble of actors in Allah’s Own Country bring terrific energy and presence to the stage. Jaince is determined and earnest while Saira is broad-minded and receptive. Nabeel was concerned and forthright and Waaron was unwittingly keen. I certainly look forward to trying out ‘Tandoor on the Moor’ if it ever opens! I am intrigued to see the finished play and the continuing discussions that Sohaya Visions and Mukul & Ghetto Tigers are facilitating for the public.
Photos by Soll Carroll