Making drama out of a crisis

We meets members of Muju, an amateur theatre group made up of Jews and Muslims


In a backroom at north London’s Tricycle Theatre, eight people are rehearsing a piece of theatre called The Committee. The writing playfully looks at what happens in an imaginary student union when representatives from different religious societies organise a multicultural day.

The scene moves from a discussion over what styles of music best suit each faith into an argument about the representatives’ personal beliefs — finally the Atheist Society rep accuses Deborah from the Jewish Society of being bigoted for wanting to marry only within her religion. Deborah counters that if all moderate Jews married out then the religion would be taken over by the extremist fanatics.

At this point the actors step out of character and start to argue for real. “The Jew is the only one who gets her point across in the play,” complains one. Deborah’s remarks about bigotry could apply to any religion, observes another.

This is Muju — an amateur theatre group mostly made up of Muslims and Jews (hence the name). It was set up by The Pears Foundation and the One to One Children’s Fund to ease tensions among young people across the religious divide.

They are rehearsing The Committee for this month’s upSTARTS Festival — which also sees David Baddiel and Omid Djalili talking about their upcoming film, The Infidel, about a Muslim who finds out he is actually a Jew.

If Muju members were initially attracted to the group by an interest in drama, they now acknowledge that taking part in the unique initiative has helped to break down their prejudices.

Twenty-two-year-old Samira Sissala joined Muju when it started in 2004. “I have learned a lot about my own religion, and the Jewish religion as well,” she says. “I didn’t really know any Jewish people before.”

Issues involving faith and politics are tackled by including them in the plays. “It isn’t always easy but through it, we learn about each other,” says Muju’s Jewish co-chair Georgina Bednar.

Occasionally though, arguments cannot be confined to the stage.“An example of when it did get heated and people did go home not talking was when we took the decision earlier this year to give money to the Disasters Emergency Committee, which famously raised aid money for Gaza,” she says.

“There were mixed responses right across the group and it kicked off a debate on Facebook. We wrote the argument into our play, Homecoming.”

The group’s Muslim co-chair is Salman Siddiqui, an equity analyst aged 29. “When we started out, what was quite refreshing was that we all got on,” he says. “There were common themes that we all wanted to focus on, like being young in London. But as the group evolved we couldn’t ignore the elephant in the room. We decided we wanted to make a space to talk about what was on our minds.”

Journalist Yasmeen Khan, 36, says that Muju is getting a reputation for its comedy. “A lot of feedback I’ve had back from friends is that it’s good that Muslims can laugh at themselves,” she says. “This is a good platform for Muslims to be creative.”

The members are not the only ones who benefit. Bednar notes that its performances break down barriers among the Muslims and Jews who make up much of its audience.

“They also go through an interfaith experience,” she says.

Music leads to Arab-Israeli harmony

Can music truly build bridges between communities and heal the wounds of war? The three Jewish and five Arab members of Israel’s Arab-Jewish Ensemble firmly believe so. Also called Sheshbesh (Hebrew for backgammon), the ensemble operates under the auspices of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. They are currently in the UK to play three concerts.

Mostly, though, Sheshbesh specialises in visiting Israel’s Jewish and Arab schools. There they introduce pupils to live classical music, Oriental and European.

“The wonderful thing is that it brought together schoolchildren in neighbouring schools who hardly knew of each other’s existence beforehand. And they keep in touch afterwards,” says Arab percussionist, Bishara Naddaf, from Nazareth.

Yossi Arnheim, IPO lead flautist, a Sheshbesh mainstay, explains that he had seldom met Arab fellow citizens before joining the ensemble. “Communication has been very good and there is genuine appreciation on both sides.”

As to politics: “They have their views, we have ours – and often they are the same!”

Inevitably, those politics do at times disrupt the harmony in the group. But Naddaf says that, paradoxically, troubles unite rather than divide. “If anything it strengthens our bonds and our desire to make relations as stable as possible.” During Operation Cast Lead in Gaza this year, he visited pupils’ homes, Arab and Jewish. “I brought them together and explained that what happens outside should not give them bad ideas about each other. They should stay friends and not give into stereotypes, not let things come between them.”

Lawrence Joffe

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