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The Black Album

Kureishi’s novel about young British Asian men makes
a problematic play

There is a Chekhovian convention that no prop shall be brought on stage that is not later used. Even though these days the convention is noted more often in the breach than the observance, there are certain objects which, once they have arrived on set, begin to loom ominously in the audience's mind. Guns obviously are one, and, in comedies, urns containing ashes are another. Nine times out of ten they will be mistaken for tea leaves, rolled up in joints or scattered in a gigantic sneeze. I felt the same about the arrival of an aubergine pakora in The Black Album once it had been identified as containing a letter in the Quran. This miracle is going to get eaten by mistake, isn't it? And it duly is.

In Hanif Kureishi's play, based on his 1993 novel of the same name, the holy aubergine stands in not so much for the Quran as Islam itself. Its western secular counterpoint is Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, which has just been published when the action is set. It, too, is destroyed, in
its case deliberately immolated by Muslims who regard it as a blasphemy. It is, you might think, an inapt and even inept comparison: an absurd symbol of superstitious credulity on one side, a sustained work of literature that exists beyond the play on the other. But the play firmly nails its colours to western culture even as exemplified by the mixed-race singer Prince, who is praised for his cultural "fluidity"(The Black Album is one of his records). Kureishi's attitude is summed up by his student hero Shahid's exasperated plea: "What we do and the things we make are more interesting than anything that God is supposed to have done."

It sounds good, but only if you do not regard the Quran as a manufactured work of art in itself, and dismiss all Quranic scholarship as uncreative.
The story concerns Shahid's arrival, shortly after the death of his Pakistani travel-agent father, at a nameless London university, where he is befriended by a group of apparently well-meaning young Islamists. Will he fall for their increasingly austere aubergine-worshipping ways, or for his tutor, a sexy literature prof on the point of leaving her Marxist husband, who is painted as the gull of another failed creed (as the eastern bloc states fall one by one, his stutter worsens)? Well, it's no competition, is it? And we may be certain that Deedee will also prove more enticing than his avaricious, coked-up brother Chili, who has bought in to only the worst aspects of the decadent west. What liberates Shahid is a postmodern appreciation that words are only words, symbols to be played around with rather than to be afraid of, worshipped or banned.

The problem, as Kureishi appreciated at the time from the interviews he conducted with young Muslims before he wrote the novel, is that this sophisticated view is itself an offence to those who believe in the received Word of God. And they shall, quite literally, not be mocked. The play ends with Deedee and Shahid making love as fundamentalists let off a bomb that destroys the set, An Inspector Calls-style. The true symbol of Islam is not, after all, the aubergine, but the rucksack that also makes an early, ominous appearance in the action.

The play has its faults, particularly the interventions of a racist skinhead called Strapper, who has somehow fallen in among the Asians, and who, at one point, calls himself a "Paki" because he, too, has "fallen behind" in the great march of Thatcherism. He is such an archetype that it makes you wonder how much caricaturing Kureishi has been doing in his other portrayals.

Is every radical Muslim student as dim as this lot? But the real problem is not the play but the production, sluggishly directed by Jatinder Verma, so confusingly designed as to make it hard to distinguish between the locations by Tim Hatley, and often very badly acted - although I exempt Jonathan Bonnici as Shahid and Tanya Franks as Deedee from my criticism.

This Tara Arts production with the National Theatre operates more to the former's standards than the latter's. For long periods you really do not care about the experiences of these crazy, mixed-up Anglo-Asian kids. But, as Kureishi knows, and as the play, when it is not being facetious, tries to explain, we need to.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Red Reads