Yael Farber: “I find it very deadening not to be engaging with things that are difficult or emotional”

An interview with the director of <em>Nirbhaya</em>, a new play about the Delhi rape case that shocked the world.

I was in Barcelona when I heard Jyoti had died. I didn’t know her name then but I knew she was a young woman like myself and my friends, and that her death highlighted a need for change.

On 16 December Jyoti Singh Pandey boarded a bus in Delhi with a male friend, Awindra Pandey. What happened next is etched into public consciousness. The driver and his five companions beat Awindra unconscious then took turns to rape Jyoti on the floor of the bus as it circled the streets. When she fought back they raped her with an iron rod which destroyed 90 per cent of her intestine. They then threw the couple from the bus and attempted to drive over them, before disappearing into the Delhi night.

The news was broadcast and people prayed for Jyoti’s recovery. Not knowing her name they lit candles for a girl they called Nirbhaya, the Marathi word for Fearless. Nirbhaya has now become a familiar name for a young woman who fought to live, but who eventually died, a beautiful, intelligent girl who has in death become a potent symbol for change.

When I heard that writer and director Yael Farber, moved by the incident, was creating a play around it, I felt this was to be an important production and wanted to hear more about the ideas behind it, so I met with Farber in a small Edinburgh cafe to discuss her show.

After seeing Nirbhaya I am somewhat in awe of her. I left the auditorium feeling completely drained yet absolutely alive. Jyoti’s story is a framing device; in between Jyoti boarding the bus and getting attacked five other women tell their stories of rape, violence and abuse. The testimonies glisten, these women hold nothing back.

Although Farber felt strongly about the case the idea to create the play originated from one of the actors. “There’s an actress in Mumbai who was one of the performers, Poorna Jagannathan. She contacted me on Facebook because she had seen my work and said ‘Women are ready to speak here, will you come and make it work?’ and of course that was an amazing invitation and I said yes.

“It was very quick to do the work for this year but we just felt this time next year this story would have passed back into the tide of indifference. This young woman died and if her life were not to be in vain we have to carry forward what it evoked on the streets.“

Farber is keen to see attitudes towards women change, and she hopes Nirbhaya will be part of a larger process of breaking the silence. “We didn’t want to just tell the story about Jyoti because to do that is to suggest it’s an anomaly in some way. What we wanted to do was show that this sits inside a larger frame, a wider tapestry of an endemic violence against women. We felt that by bringing personal testimony it provokes this civic gesture which

is that these five women get up every day and break their silence in front of witnesses as a way of saying ‘this is the only way forward, if we begin to speak, we begin to take apart this idea that we should carry the shame’ because we live in silence when there is a currency of shame and when you start to speak you are.”

I ask Farber about the creation of Nirbhaya and she tells me how closely she worked with the actors . “It’s testimonial theatre which is different to verbatim [in that] it requires the engagement of a playwright, and that was my role. I gathered their testimonies and did a lot of research and interviews and group sessions with them but then I, I would go away and craft and find the words and trajectory to condense it, each piece could only be possibly ten minutes.”

Something I found poignant in Nirbhaya was a child’s yellow dress which was handed to Poorna by Japjit Kaur, playing Jyoti. “Theatre is about evoking memory, thoughts, sensuous responses to things and sensory responses to things,” says Farber. “If she just told us she was a child and [the abuse] happened then we will hear it but if we see a little yellow dress we will understand it and we will remember what it was like, to wear your favourite yellow dress and you know just to evoke that image inside us because we want to bring the audience on a journey with us. With each story Jyoti hands [the actor] their object, in other words saying ‘remember yourself, speak about this, tell your story, bring your testimony.’”

I mention the recent case of a thirteen-year-old abuse victim being labelled ‘predatory’. Farber frowns and shakes her head. “Extraordinary, but yet it’s appalling but not extraordinary, this kind of stuff happens all the time and I, think across the world in different ways, we, we create some kind of diversion from these, and we have to find ways to break the silence.”

It is apparent in Nirbhaya that as well as seeing the injustice in the world (she has previously written about apartheid) Farber also sees beauty – the performers speak about Delhi as ‘a city where god runs in the wires’ and the way Farber speaks has a flow and rhythm akin to poetry.

“There’s such brutality and difficulty, but there’s such beauty as well,” she says. “The sacred and the profane live alongside each other, so inside all that difficulty and pain, there is immense, very profound sense of spirituality and divinity.”

Was it not difficult for her, though, writing about such an intense and horrible subject matter?

“I find this kind of work very fulfilling, so for me difficulty is part of it. Of course it’s difficult, of course it’s emotional but I’m grateful for those things,” she says. “I find it very deadening not to be engaging with things that are difficult or emotional. It’s not easy, but it’s my work and it’s where I draw my purpose from. For me, difficulty is part of all the work I do. I trust if something is difficult because it’s usually worth it.”

A performance of Nirbhaya. Photo: William Burdett-Coutts
OLI SCARFF/GETTY IMAGES
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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era