This was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 2’s Vanessa Feltz show on 25 July.
As the Olympics begins in London this week, I’m finally feeling excited. What I’m most looking forward to is watching both visitors and athletes from around the world interacting with each other, whether that be just milling in the open air, or engaging in sporting challenge.
The Olympics is one of those exceptional occasions where the differences between nationalities and ethnicities manage a rare balance between being overlooked in favour of common human endeavour, while at the same time as being noted and even openly discussed. Usual ethnic and national stereotypes are generally put to one side, and there’s an attempt to judge people on their merits.
We are able to do this because the baseline for participation is shared humanity, and the aspiration to push the limits is also shared. The differences are a positive: highlighting the many ways that human beings can approach the same challenges to achieve results.
The ritual of the hajj has similar underlying themes. For Muslims the pilgrimage is the opportunity to gather in Mecca to complete one of the obligations of Islam. The pilgrims who number more than 2 million people come together from different cultures, ethnicities and geographies with the common goal of performing specific religious rites at the Kaba and surrounding areas. The shared purpose is even more emphasised as indicators of class, wealth and provenance are eradicated by all pilgrims wearing the same white clothes.
In both situations, people are put into close proximity with each other, forced to look past difference towards their common goals. This combination of closeness and shared purpose eliminates our fear of difference and the prejudice that all too often results from it.
The Qur’an talks very pointedly about differences between people and the purpose of this difference. “We created you from male and female and made you into nations and tribes” it explains, and then says why: “so that you may know each other”
Difference is a good thing, a helpful thing. There’s a purpose and a pleasure to difference.continue reading
I was broadcast on BBC Radio 2’s Pause for Thought Segment on the Vanessa Feltz show. Here’s the text of the broadcast
It’s the beginning of Ramadan this week, the Islamic month of fasting, where Muslims refrain from bodily intake from dawn to dusk. I’ve hung my timetable on the wall which indicates for each day of the month, the exact minute when morning breaks and when night falls, the minutes which mark the boundaries of the fast.
In these longer days of the British summer when the day starts as early as 230, and night does not set till well after 9pm, fasting is no mean feat.
The rigid discipline feels unmanageable – it’s just not normal to refuse all food and water for nearly twenty hours. It’s the morning coffee I miss most, that, and the pleasure of tasting flavours and food.
But you get used to it surprisingly quickly, usually within a few days, and the discipline yields some surprising results. Your body stops dominating how you structure your day because huge swathes of time are freed up from preparing and consuming breakfast and lunch. Instead of thinking about your body all the time, you can think about you.
The discipline extends to cutting out gossip and what you come to realise is pointless chatter – admittedly guilty pleasures. Again it’s surprising how much time this frees up for self-reflection and resolutions, and actually getting round to do the things you always meant to do. It’s like new year, but you have a whole month ahead of you with a vast community of nearly two billion people all pulling in the same direction during which to embed your resolutions.
Almost exactly as Muslims are participating in Ramadan, and all the physical, mental and spiritual focus that requires, the Olympics will be taking place in London. For these athletes, discipline is a way of life, a means towards achieving their dreams. The structure, rigour and absolute commitment towards their goals will reach a culmination during these three weeks.
Discipline, rules and structure are unfashionable these days, seen as being repressive. But our celebration of events like the Olympics should make us stop and think about the fact that discipline is quite the opposite of constraint: instead discipline releases our potential. Of course upholding discipline in our lives is tough, but if we want to see the potential it can liberate, all we need to do is to watch the incredible achievements of the Olympians over the coming weeks.continue reading
This article was published this week by Common Ground News Service.
London – As part of the 2012 Summer Olympics hosted in London, the Royal Shakespeare Company challenged theatre groups around the world to create contemporary re-imaginings of 16th century playwright William Shakespeare’s classics. Of the many unique and creative performances, Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad, performed by the Iraqi Theatre Company, caught my eye. Could one of Europe’s greatest romantic tragedies, written in the 16th century, tell us something about Iraq in the 21st century?
Adapted into colloquial Arabic, and performed by an Iraqi cast with English surtitles above the stage, the story, while written in an Iraqi context, is a familiar one. The story opens with two brothers, Montague and Capulet, who have feuded for nine years over who will steer their family’s pearl-diving ship. This serves as an apropos metaphor for Iraq at the beginning of the war. Romeo and Juliet, who like all the play’s characters retain their original Shakespearean names, have already met and fallen in love before the feud. They have been kept apart by the cycle of violence resulting from the feud between their fathers.
The play focuses less on their romance and more on how families, communities and nations can easily and quickly be torn apart. The story prompts the audience to reflect on how pride, regret, a lack of mutual understanding and interference from the outside are obstacles to resolving conflicts peacefully. Once blood has been spilt, we are never sure if peace can be restored.
The play’s director, Monadhil Daood, fled Iraq in his 20s after staging a play under Saddam Hussein about the Iran-Iraq war. In 2008, he founded the Iraqi Theatre Company to “bring a contemporary cultural voice of unity and inclusiveness into the civic discourse in Iraq”. Monadhil says that “I think my [play] ‘Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad’ will be a mirror. The audience will see themselves on the stage.”
In the buzzing auditorium, I saw his prediction come true. The emotional effect the play had on its audience was clear. During the performance, many had eyes filled with tears. At joyous moments, audience members tapped along to the wedding songs and laughed at the inclusion of an old Iraqi folk story about a beetle looking for love.
During the most emotional moment of all, I felt almost swept off my chair at the audience’s roar of approval as the imposter, who was betrothed to Juliet against her will, and who had stoked the tension between the two families, was cast out by Juliet’s father, Capulet. This character, a miserable hardliner, represents the presence of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Through Capulet’s action, the betrothal is reversed and his presence is no longer accepted.
The real story of Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad is of the audience, who see their lives played out before their eyes. The drama was an opportunity to create enough distance from their own stories so that they could look at the effect of the last nine years on their homeland, with its immense loss, death and suffering. It was an opportunity to move on, make sense, find catharsis and even laugh.
The play at its heart is a universal story of the birth and development of conflict, stoked by fear, misunderstanding and pride. It shows how outside forces can stoke conflict and divide groups of people, and reflects on the need for unity.
In this case, a love story is a portal into a world that audiences might otherwise never be able to begin to understand. By connecting with the story of young lovers – a theme that transcends time and culture – we can learn about the nuances of today’s Iraqi society. The play helps viewers understand tight knit family structures and the once strong historic relationships between Sunni and Shia Muslims that are now being broken down. In fact, people around the world might find a lot in common with the ordinary folk of Iraq and their aspirations to bring an end to violence and live better lives.
But more importantly, through such plays, we are confronted with universal truths: conflict persists across human societies and it must be addressed before it spirals out of control. But most of all, the aspiration to love and be loved is present in all times and places, whether in Baghdad or Verona, for lovers like Romeo and Juliet, or for brothers like Montague and Capulet.continue reading