My name is Mo, short for Mohammed,
I’m a second-generation immigrant cliché:
Twenty-eight, disenfranchised, well educated.
My mother is white, but I’m all Paki.
My father owns a corner shop where I work,
And I owe my allegiance to global Umma.
My nation’s the Republic of Islam.
So sings Mo, one of four would-be suicide bombers in a new opera Babur in London. Opera it may be, The Marriage of Figaro it ain’t. Babur in London explores issues of culture, identity, terrorism and history by interweaving the story of four contemporary Muslim would-be suicide bombers with that of Babur, a sixteenth century warrior from Central Asia and the founder of the Mughal Empire in India, a famously brutal commander as well as a stylish poet. Babur returns as an apparition to haunt one of the four, Saira, who alone can see him. Through her, Babur enters into a debate about terrorism and violence, Islam and belongingness. The myth of Babur becomes a means of casting light on contemporary terrorism, while contemporary terror becomes a means of rethinking the myth of Babur.
Produced by The Opera Group, Babur in London comes out of a collaboration between the Swiss-based British composer Edward Rushton and the Indian poet, novelist and musician Jeet Thayil, whose work has a greater affinity with a figure such as William S Burroughs than it does with most writers on the so-called ‘Indian scene’. Thayil’s first novel Narcopolis tells the story of Bombay (as he still calls the city) through the history of its opium addicts. He was one of the four authors at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival who read from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, a novel still banned in India, after Rushdie was forced to cancel his visit to the Festival.
‘Babur’s persona’, Thayil suggests, is ‘uniquely suited to opera’. If Babur ‘had been a figure from Western history there would already have been a libretto set around him, if not several books and a movie by, say, Ridley Scott. Babur is a tremendously complex, sexually and socially ambivalent figure.’ He adds that while the opera gives voice to a host of hot-button issues from identity politics to the meaning of jihad, from historical myth to Islamic values, the aim is not ‘to achieve world peace or dialogue between nations, or multicultural integration, or any of those lofty unattainable ideals.’ That, he insists, ‘is not the place of art’. The aim rather is ‘to create something compelling, something beautiful and flawed and alive’.
Babur in London, which premiered in Switzerland in March, opened in Britain this week, and plays over the next month in Basingstoke, Leeds, Birmingham, Oxford, London, Hull and the Cheltenham Festival, before moving to a tour of India. I am chairing three post-show discussions, in Leeds tonight, at the Oxford Playhouse on 24th June, and at Sadler’s Wells in London on 27th June. In Leeds and Oxford I will be joined by the writer, director and Arts Council administrator Hassan Mahamdallie, who is also on the editorial board of the new journal Critical Muslim, and the academic Rania Hafez, founder and director of the professional network Muslim Women in Education, to discuss ‘What does it mean to be Muslim in Britain today?’. At Saddler’s Wells, Jeet Thayil, among others, will discuss issues of free speech and artistic expression.
So, come along, see the show and join the discussion.