Because my blood will never be water
until my body is returned to the earth
the earth which is not owned but shared
I demand a share of power, of control, of freedom.
First performed at the Royal Court in 2019, acclaimed playwright Sabrina Mahfouz’s form bending play ‘A History of Water in the Middle East’ is a powerful example of the links between the personal and the political. The inspiration for the play stems from her failed attempt to get Top Secret Security clearance while working at the Ministry of Defence. As well as interrogating her own identities, Mahfouz delivers an impassioned assault on imperialism, exploring the role of the British government in damaging actions over the last hundred and fifty years.
Mahfouz opens the play by highlighting that our identities are merely “capitalistic measurements on human existence, and at very best, a guess.” It is clear throughout how problematic this is and therefore the damages of institutionalised racism. Interspersed with scenes of being vetted by a spy chief, Mahfouz seamlessly connects the past of the Middle East to the continuing intrusion into her heritage, commenting that it is “all the same old war and no amount of water can wash it away.”
This issue of control is central to the play: historical narratives, the legacy of imperialism and the difficulty for writers from MENA backgrounds to express such problems.
The play also connects to the re-emerging discussion around narratives of history with the too often “dusting away of school history propaganda.” Mahfouz suggests that the theatre is an effective forum to discuss these under-represented topics but with a need for an equal “share of power.” Although many venues have links to Britain’s colonial past and continuing influence on “landscape, lives, legacies” (like Sloane Square where the Royal Court is located), there is no need “to keep its old rules.”
Despite being characterised by its critique of imperialism, ‘A History of Water in the Middle East’ also celebrates difference. Mahfouz opens the play by saying that she believed the “flowing of the Nile between history and within me...could only ever be a good thing.” This could be a hopeful indication to the future of education, fostering a societal shift.
Mahfouz captures the anger and sadness arising from the weaponisation of a natural element to oppress and control. Reaching out from the sins of Britain’s imperial past and embracing the horrors of the violent present, ‘A History of Water in the Middle East’ pushes for a more accepting and self-critical Britain, willing to examine its impact on the lives under its colonial rule.
Interview with Sabrina Mahfouz (conducted by Noah Robinson, a junior Orwell Youth Prize 2020 Runner Up)
NR: Recently, the conversation around conflicting narratives of history has re-emerged. Within ‘A History of Water in the Middle East’, you explore the romanticisation and justification of imperialism. What drives you to explore this subject and how do you go about it?
SM: The romanticism and justification of British imperialism was intrinsic to the Brexit campaign and it is obvious why they would want to reinvigorate British exceptionalism, which has never been far from the surface. If there was ever any doubt, we can clearly see now that it serves no progressive or positive purpose. As someone with heritage from multiple ex-British territories and who has grown up between the HQ of them (London) and one of them (Cairo), British imperialism and its legacy has always been consciously present in every aspect of my life and I am driven to keep exploring the subject because I still can't believe that a number of British people feel able to consider it 'history' that doesn't concern them. It is impossible for a society to move forward if it cannot accept and examine its past. A Britain made by the places it took for itself is the only Britain I know, so it's the one I will keep showing.
NR: Throughout the play, you seamlessly link personal and political themes, moving from vignettes of being vetted by a spy chief to an ongoing lecture on the Middle East. Driven by a talk of nations, it brilliantly reaches from the past to criticise the present. How did you achieve this blend of personal and political, past and present? How can these pieces of work promote change politically?
SM: By blending the personal and explicitly political, because all things personal can be considered political in some ways of course, it becomes inevitable that the past criticises or illuminates the present in some way, because the character in a show is in the present, no matter what time period they are written within. At the moment the audience meets them, it is the present. The political scenarios that they examine or pull from have likely already happened and so everything becomes connected, just as it is in life. Dramaturgically, it took many rewrites to thematically link the personal and political in the most accurate way - trial and error was the main process! I think this style of blending personal and political is often frowned upon in a critical sense and I would suggest that is because it challenges the myth of meritocracy and of the ability to transcend the self's environment, no matter what the obstacle - which has pretty much been the spine of Western storytelling for centuries. Questioning that and positing that an individual's circumstances as ascribed to them by the socio-politics of the time cannot be transcended by their inimitable will or unique character flaws and strengths is to challenge monotheistic religion and capitalism all at once. And I now realise most people are far more resistant to both of these things than I ever imagined.
NR: Your background and influences seem to play a vital role in the play and across your work; whilst assaulting imperialism, you also interrogate your own identities. Do you believe the identity of the author is as important as the content of a political piece of work? How has it influenced your work?
SM: I don't believe the identity of the author is as important as the content of a political piece of work, but I do think that their identity matters. There is a nuance from lived experience, however tangential, that can never be found through research, but that does not mean that direct lived experience is the only kind that can provide what a show or piece of art needs to achieve its aims - and the aims are important when considering the identity of the makers, especially in the context of examining imperialism.
NR: For the Royal Court, you describe how the best plays often “say what they damn well mean and the drama comes from having to deal with that level of truth.” You have a unique literary voice and powerfully execute characters and bend genre and form in innovative ways, how did you find your style? Do you have any advice for young writers trying to shape their own creative voice?
SM: I didn't really find a style, it was just what came out and what felt easy to me. Whenever something felt forced or difficult I would go back to where I felt comfortable, because I wanted the discomfort to come with the tackling of subjects rather than with experimenting stylistically. But I think for some people those things go hand in hand and I would certainly like to experiment more in the future. For writers trying things out, I always say to write the thing that absolutely burns in them, even if they don't think it's 'important enough'. If you do make a career out of writing, then it is surprisingly difficult to get to that place of freedom to write exactly how you want and about what you want again, as considerations of the brief, the commission, the organisation, the team, the practicalities then come into the process.
NR: Towards the end of the play, you highlight the importance of “a share of power, of control, of freedom. Even if I can only have it in here, at first.” How do you think institutions, like theatres, can break down barriers of identity, like class, and help the arts become more accessible?
SM: Anywhere and anything that allows imagination to grow and play has the potential to foster hope and therefore change. As part of that, they should be leading the way in terms of which imaginations they are supporting and showcasing, to make sure that everybody is able to benefit from those imaginations, to make their own dreams, hope and change, even if only in their own, everyday lives and far outside of the arts.
Sabrina Mahfouz is currently writing 'These Bodies of Water' which is a mediation on the influence of the British Empire and will be published in 2022. You can find more about Sabrina's work by visiting her website and following her on Twitter.
Noah Robinson is a junior Orwell Youth Prize 2020 Runner Up and is a current Orwell Youth Prize Fellow.
(Image Credit: Greg Morrison)