Tak­ing a note of new in­sights

Bri­tish au­thor Sabrina Mah­fouz, who has edited a new col­lec­tion of sto­ries by Mus­lim women, tells Ben East about her in­spi­ra­tion and ca­reer

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Some­times a book ar­rives at ex­actly the right time. The day af­ter the sui­cide bomb­ing in Manch­ester, I’m talk­ing to Sabrina Mah­fouz, the ed­i­tor of The Things I Would Tell You, a new col­lec­tion of short sto­ries and poetry by Bri­tish Mus­lim women, in­clud­ing Kamila Sham­sie, Ahdaf Soueif, Leila Aboulela and Mah­fouz.

We start dis­cussing the pro­tag­o­nist in Chimeme Su­ley­man’s hard-hit­ting story Us, who is racially abused in a bus in Lon­don. “Why you even here?,” asks a ven­omous passer-by. “Ter­ror­ist [ex­ple­tive ] … [ go] back home and stop killing us.”

Madeeha talks to her hus­band in despair. “Are we all re­spon­si­ble … all bil­lion of us? Is it my fault there’s ter­ror in this world … did I or­ches­trate the killings? Or think they are good?” Her hus­band mum­bles: “They want us to apol­o­gise.”

These are words al­most iden­ti­cal to those spo­ken by the Univer­sity of Manch­ester’s Mus­lim chap­lain Mo­hammed Ul­lah last week.

So with the me­dia sat­u­rated with sto­ries about, as Mah­fouz puts it, “Mus­lim ex­trem­ists; Mus­lim mod­er­ates con­demn­ing the ac­tions of Mus­lim ex­trem­ists; non-Mus­lims be­moan­ing the fact that not enough mod­er­ate Mus­lims are con­demn­ing the ac­tions of ex­trem­ist Mus­lims; the pos­si­bil­i­ties of your Mus­lim­next- door be­com­ing rad­i­calised”, The Things I Would Tell You isn’t just timely. It is vi­tal.

It com­pletely dis­pels the nar­row image of how a Mus­lim woman looks and lives. It’s funny, sad, in­sight­ful and vi­brant.

“Chimene’s one of my favourite writ­ers in the world and it is such a pow­er­ful piece,” says Mah­fouz, who was raised in Lon­don and Cairo, and is carv­ing an im­pres­sive rep­u­ta­tion for her in­sight­ful writ­ing in a host of dis­ci­plines – be it poetry, the­atre, tele­vi­sion and even dance.

Gen­er­ously, she’d much rather talk about other Bri­tish Mus­lim writ­ers.

“Chimene’s an amaz­ing jour­nal­ist, too – and she cuts what ev­ery­one’s talk­ing about to a few lines: that once a politi­ci­sa­tion of an en­tire iden­tity has oc­curred, it is very dif­fi­cult to find a balance. un­der­stand­ing of the im­por­tance of di­ver­sity and iden­tity. But she ar­gues that the sheer va­ri­ety of the con­trib­u­tors and their sto­ries means it can have a wider ef­fect. “Seema Begum was 14 when she wrote her poem, and her fam­ily were quite ret­i­cent for her to be in­cluded. But now they all have the book, so does her school li­brary – and they prob­a­bly would never have picked it up oth­er­wise. It is lit­tle things like that which give me hope,” says Mah­fouz. “You can only do what you can do – and if art is the thing you do, then you have to try and use it to make some kind of change, even if it is very small.”

Not that Mah­fouz is con­tent with the power of words on the page alone. A Lit­tle Bit of Luck – her stage play billed as “the­atre to rave to” – melds a com­ing of age story with the mu­sic of UK garage and is back in Lon­don next week. The dance piece for which she contributed her poetry Ros­alind, will be at the Ed­in­burgh Fes­ti­val Fringe in June.

She is also work­ing on an opera adap­ta­tion of Nawal El Saadawi’s seminal fem­i­nist novel Woman At Point Zero – ex­tracts of the adap­ta­tion will pre­miere at Lon­don’s Shub­bak fes­ti­val of con­tem­po­rary Arab cul­ture in July, in a co-com­mis­sion with Abu Dhabi Fes­ti­val.

“Years ago, the Royal Opera House were en­cour­ag­ing dif­fer­ent groups of peo­ple to write li­bret­tos,” she ex­plains.

“Mine was per­formed in the stu­dio, and then Bushra El Turk, a Bri­tish-Le­banese com­poser, asked if I wanted to come on board with this project. I was thrilled – be­ing half Egyp­tian, Nawal is one of my big in­flu­ences.

“Right now, we are all in one room – the com­poser, chore­og­ra­pher, the singer, the mu­si­cians and me – and we’re just, well, cre­at­ing it. It’s been amaz­ing – I wrote a mas­sive text and when you get into the room you re­alise how much one note from a singer can emo­tion­ally re­lay a page of writ­ing.” Which sums up most of Mah­fouz’s projects re­ally – di­rect and pow­er­ful.

“I’ve al­ways wanted to write, al­ways had these sto­ries and char­ac­ters I wanted to get out there,” she says.

“So whichever form they come out in is good for me.”

For more de­tails, go to www.sabri­namah­fouz.com is out now.

Rob Stothard / Getty Images

‘I’ve al­ways wanted to write’, says the mul­ti­tal­ented Sabrina Mah­fouz – she is a writer, poet and play­wright.

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