Sorry for keeping you waiting

Khayaal Theatre: Renewing an Islamic Tradition of Storytelling

Cleo Jay speaks to Eleanor Martin, co-founder of the award-winning theatre company Khayaal, based in Luton, UK.

Cleo Jay: First of all, could you introduce the work of Khayaal Theatre, its mission?

Eleanor Martin: The main mission of Khayaal Theatre is to celebrate the rich heritage of Muslim literature, the stories of Rumi, Attar and Saadi and other great sages, and the great wealth of folkloric stories of Muslim cultures. It is the universal wisdom in these tales we want to share, to create a cultural dialogue and to re-awaken the ’dream of virtue’, which is the dream of Islam. Storytelling has always been an important part of Muslim cultures and in the West, the theatre is a place where cultural dialogue takes place, where ideas are made and thinking happens. The Prophet (SAW) who was himself a storyteller, teaching people through the stories of the prophets, said we should speak to the people in their language, and we believe that theatre is part of the language of the day.



CJ: One of the particularities of Khayaal’s work is to perform mostly in public spaces rather than traditional theatre spaces, reviving a Muslim tradition of street performers and storytellers. Your latest project involving successful performer Alia Alzougbi used tales taken from different parts of the Muslim world, and related them to the Arab Spring.

EM: There are two reasons for that. First of all, we want to take theatre to the people and so we have performed in many different community arenas and yes, our production called Souk Stories was a good example of street theatre. For many people in the Muslim community, a theatre is an alien space, and so we need to go to the People. Having said that, we have performed in theatres and been successful in bringing in a new audience. The second reason is that as a theatre company without funding or support, it is difficult to be accepted by the main establishment, which remains very secular in nature and prejudiced against anything that represents Islam as something beautiful. It poses too much of a challenge for many people.



On a positive note, we have always worked with and performed to people from all different backgrounds and many have been inspired and appreciated our work. It’s been a wonderful vehicle for interfaith work.



CJ: How do you combine your work with religious obligations such as hijab? How does it feel to be a Muslim actress?

EM: I worked as an actress for six years before I came to Islam, and then of course I didn’t really work in the mainstream anymore. Alhamdulillah, working with Khayaal Theatre Company, I have been able to continue to continue to work as a performer, director, designer and everything else. We are very aware of the issue of hijab, that it is important. I haven’t really come across any issues, except that people often contact us to ask if we have any male storytellers, but male storytellers in the Muslim community are few and far between. So the only issue sometimes is that I am not a man, but there is nothing I can do about that!



CJ: There used to be a tradition in the Muslim world to have storytellers playing the role of educator, of social commentator as well as entertainers, which unfortunately has been lost…

EM: I think it is being discovered again, slowly but surely insha Allah. But yes, the beautiful story of Islam has been forgotten by an interpretation of the faith, which is led by dogma. Many in the Muslim world have the erroneous understanding that the power behind Western nations is science and engineering; this is not so. The real power is in the understanding of the power of story. Despite our rich heritage, story has been devalued in favour of dogma and its power forgotten, which is very dangerous. We are entertained by stories but that does not make them frivolous; they can affect us at a very deep level and if they are stories of wisdom, they guide us towards virtue. Stories are all around us in films, adverts, even architecture; we have to be careful which stories we listen to and tell ourselves.



CJ: Should we speak about your work with children? Is the young generation opening up to theatre and other artistic practices?

EM: Insha Allah, I am hoping to set up a drama group. Many parents have expressed their interest in a drama club for their children, which would offer a safe environment.



I have enjoyed working with children immensely over the years. It is always beautiful to see our youngsters engaging with stories. I remember telling stories at a school in London and seeing a Muslim child beam with happiness as he witnessed his non-Muslim classmates enjoying stories from the Muslim world. These happy experiences are a real antidote for children living in a society that feeds us negative stories about Islam. I enjoy sharing stories that come from different parts of the Muslim world. I think it is important to be able to disassociate our Islam from our nationality, as Islam is for all humanity and so all nations. Children are a symbol for the heart in Islam, and I try to convey my stories from the heart.



CJ: Would you have any advice for Muslim mothers and educators on reviving the tradition of storytelling for our children and promoting a creative spirit?

EM: Share the stories of wisdom that you heard from parents and grandparents; it’s important to share them with your children and give them value. Anybody can be a storyteller. If you find a story which your heart connects with, it is something you must share with your child.



We need more storytellers and Muslims working in the arts. There are many careers that can be followed in theatre which do not all involve going on stage. We need to encourage our children who express an interest in studying the arts and humanities. We need artists, writers, historians, as much as we need doctors, lawyers and economists.



There is a language of sacred symbols in storytelling that has been forgotten. It is a language that will speak to all of humanity. We can begin to reacquaint ourselves with this language by appreciating the metaphors and symbols in the Qur’an and share them with our children.  These metaphors work on a subtle but very powerful level, as somebody once termed “soft power.” I was one reflecting on the fact that our subconscious brain is far larger than our conscious brain, and I remembered this hadith where the Prophet (SAW) refers to the respect we should have for the mother, referring to her three times before referring to the father.



Of course this hadith tells us we should show great respect to our mothers, but when we engage with metaphor and symbol I think it tells us a great deal more, and especially in our role as women and mothers.



You can help support Khayaal Theater’s groundbreaking work by joining their Circle of Friends and donating to the organization via http://www.khayaal.co.uk/donate.html



Cleo is an artist and writer based in London. She is currently studying towards a PhD and in her free time she likes cooking and reading with her little girl, as well as reading SISTERS!