Hannah Khalil answers questions about her new play A Museum in Baghdad.
Can you tell us why you wanted to give voice to Iraqi men and women from 1926 and 2006?
Both these periods of time are extremely significant in the history of the Middle East. We rarely touch on Middle Eastern stories in the consideration of history in Europe and when we do it’s always from a Western point of view, the soldier or diplomat discovering fair Arabia. Iraq in both these periods is overlooked and absolutely shouldn’t be.
How aware were you of wanting to counter the stereotypes that we see in our dramatic fiction of Arab culture and of characters of Middle Eastern heritage?
Very, very, very - trying to redress the balance of the way Arabs are portrayed on stage and screen is one of the reasons I started writing in the first place. I have always considered representations of Arabs and Muslims to be completely stereotypical and narrow (especially in film and TV) and I’m so sad that it’s not getting better, it’s getting worse, so I want to try and do my own little thing about that in my writing.
Several of your protagonists are women. How conscious were you of wanting to foreground both Arab women, and women who have demonstrated pioneering leadership?
Arab woman are all too often overlooked in life and in history, but they’ve played a key role of course. If Arab men are stereotyped, Arab women are doubly so, and that stereotype of the meek, subservient veiled lady is not one I recognise or have ever met in life.
One of the characters in A Museum in Baghdad is inspired by a real-life Iraqi female archaeologist who worked to rebuild the museum after the looting; a powerhouse of a woman, determined and strong. This is much more representative of the Arab women in my life.
Gertrude Bell is such an important historical figure but when I came across a portrait of her in the National Portrait Gallery in 2010, I was amazed I’d never heard of her. It seems she was overlooked by the feminist movement in the seventies when they were reclaiming female historical figures because of her anti-suffrage stance. I set about learning about her and was shocked that she wasn’t a household name - certainly if she’d been a man everyone would know who she was, as they do her contemporary TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). So, I absolutely wanted to bring her story to the fore in this play too.
The play looks hard at Britain’s colonial relationship with Iraq and raises complex questions about how to acknowledge our colonial past. Has writing the play made you think differently about aspects of British history?
It’s easy to see colonialism in very black and white terms but the truth is the European colonial influence on the world is a myriad of greys. Without it my Irish mother and Palestinian father would probably never have come to London and I wouldn’t exist! But we also probably wouldn’t have the deep divisions in the Middle East – and wider world - that exist today. Ultimately it feels to me like even if some of the individuals involved in colonial projects had good intentions, the overall aim was for Europe to benefit from those colonized countries’ assets.
The legacy of colonialism is deeply complicated and nuanced so that’s my big takeaway. It’s not remotely straightforward, as the characters in the play attest.
What are the challenges of deciding to write about a part of the world that is still suffering relentless violence and still navigating sectarianism?
I’m very aware and cautious about depicting violence in theatre - which is essentially an entertainment setting - when it’s really happening to real people right now. The responsibility of writing about live issues is something I cannot forget and that I don’t take lightly at all. I arm myself with knowledge and sensitivity, try and interrogate choices I make in my work very carefully and take advice from the many knowledgeable and supportive collaborators I’m privileged to work with.
What can theatre do to make positive change in the world?
Theatre at its best can awaken our humanity, our empathy, it can make us see things from other people’s point of view and unlock academic arguments allowing them to become more than facts and figures. There’s something magical about real people speaking real words in front of us that can allow us to understand stories and the world afresh.