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It's 'Another World' in the Islamic State

The play explores why young westerners, mostly of Muslim heritage, have gone to join the militant group in Syria
Nabil Elouahabi playing Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in the play 'Another World' at London's National Threatre in April 2016

It begins and ends with three mothers from Brussel’s Molenbeek suburb whose children – two young men and a teenage girl – went to Syria to join the Islamic State. These testimonies are the emotional core of director Nicholas Kent and writer Gillian Slovo’s verbatim work Another World at the National Theatre.

The play explores why young westerners, mostly of Muslim heritage, confused about their identity and angry about occupation and war, have gone to join the militant group. We also hear from four engaging British Muslim schoolchildren, and a range of experts, including the voices of former Guantanamo inmate Moazzam Begg and an Afghan education advisor working with refugees.

The speeches are performed with compelling truthfulness by the large cast, moving us deftly to each new story and thought. The simple staging starts with Islamic prayers and a large broken map of Syria projected behind the stage.

Between scenes, Islamic State’s self-styled caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Nabil Elouahabi) takes to a pulpit, appearing in the IS leader’s trademark black garb, at one point explaining how the khilafah or caliphate will bring its enemies into direct conflict with it.

The experts impart useful context to the history and politics of Syria, the crimes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Cold War origins of Western-backed “jihad” that began in Afghanistan in the 1980s before moving to Bosnia, Chechnya and then Iraq.

Gary Pillai is excellent as Shiraz Mahir, revealing and funny as he tells the story of his own “radicalisation” after the 11 September attacks, joining hardline Islamist group Hizbut Tahrir. Despite the horror of 9/11, he felt then that the US “had it coming” for all its bloody interventions in the wider Middle East. (He has of course since become a leading figure in the government-backed anti-extremism drive, a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation).

Lara Sawalha in Another World at the National Theatre, London (NT)

Lara Sawalha brings lightness and humour to her role as Afghan-born educationalist Zarlasht Halamzai, describing her own self-identification as “Sushi” – born with a Shia mother and Sunni father. Whatever differences there were in the family, “nobody got killed,” she quips. Neither would compel her to be one or the other, except when her mum says, almost off-hand, “you’re Shia, right.”

The experts we hear from are not just establishment figures – we get Moazzam Begg and the campaigning lawyer Mohammed Akunjee (played convincingly by Elouahabi) who works for terror suspects, as well as a drone-happy US general and Syria wonk Charlie Winter. However these sections do sometimes feel rather like dipping into Newsnight or the BBC Today programme – brainy people talking about Muslims, rather than voices of the people the play is about. Where are the young men and women who go to Syria with the idea to help their fellow Muslims, find belonging and leave behind a sense of alienation in the West? These are the missing dramatic persona of the piece.

Understandably perhaps, this being a verbatim production based on interviews, such voices are harder to find – and in the current political climate, possibly a step too far for a publicly funded theatre. Homegrown, a London theatre production that gave voice to young Muslims, already fell foul of fears of giving oxygen to extremism, and was axed before it was staged in 2015.

Drama requires emotional engagement and empathy, which brings us back to the mothers, with standout performances from Sirine Saba, Nathalie Armin and Penny Layden. We share their loss and grief, the feelings of guilt and failure. Could they have done something different to prevent their loved ones’ flight to a war zone or into acts of terrorism? The devastating outcomes of the search for their missing children in Syria brings the piece to a moving, painful close. At the end we see that even a suicide bomber in Paris, Karim, no matter how abominable his crime, was a mother’s son.

Another World continues at London’s National Theatre until 7 May, 2016.