The British writer Hanif Kureishi decided to mark the 20th anniversary of the Rushdie affair by adapting for the stage his 1995 second novel “The Black Album”. The novel is set in 1988/89 and the Rushdie affair and radicalization of young Muslims are its central themes.
The Black Album charts the cultural and political development of impressionable Asian teenager Shahid, who moves from suburbia to college in London and is subsequently torn between two disparate lifestyles and loyalties – the Western liberalism of his lecturer Deedee, with whom he has a relationship, and the fundamentalism of his new Muslim friends led by the charismatic Riaz.
In the course of the story, the Islamist group burn a copy of Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses”, of which Shahid is appalled.
The play is being discussed in the context of whether or not Rushdie’s critics have succeeded. British lecturer and broadcaster Kenan Malik claims that the critics have lost the battle – as Rushdie is still being published –, but won the war, because it has become much more widespread not to offend another religion. The Black Album is on tour throughout the country, showing at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Oct 20 to 24 and Liverpool Playhouse from October 27 to 31, among other places.
Hanif Kureishi has turned his own vibrant 1995 novel into a play. The result is a busy, hectic affair that raises all kinds of issues about religious and political faith, fatwas and censorship and the purpose of art. But, as so often with adaptations, you get the bones without the thickness of texture that was part of the original’s charm.
The Black Album, for all its allusions to Prince, is actually a very literary book: there’s more than a hint of Balzac’s Lost Illusions in its story of Shahid, a young Sevenoaks Asian who, in 1989, is exposed to the temptations of London. The play follows the novel in showing Shahid torn between conflicting values.
As a student he is eagerly adopted by a fundamentalist Muslim brotherhood led by the charismatic Riaz. But he also embarks on a passionate affair with a lecturer, Deedee Osgood, who in her devotion to sex, drugs and rock’n’roll embodies the seductions of liberalism.
Matters come to a head with the campaign against The Satanic Verses where Shahid is forced into deciding where his allegiance lies. The play throws up a whole heap of ideas: Muslim orthodoxy confronts Marxist-Leninist ideology and there is even a debate about postmodernist teaching versus canonical criticism.
The Black Album, a co-production between the National Theatre and Tara Arts
Cottesloe, London SE1 9PX, until 7 October 2009