“It’s one of the biggest topics in the world today – the fallout from it has been massive since 2001,” Naylor says of the cascading conflicts in the region, which have inspired no less than four of his plays including 2017’s Angel, and Borders in 2018. After last year’s Games shifted his focus to Nazi Germany, The Nights marks the fifth installment in Naylor’s loose series of ‘Arabian Nightmares’.
“There keeps being a new angle that needs to be tackled, and I think in this particular case it was this massive story in the UK of one of the ‘jihadi brides’ who wanted to come back home,” he says of the case of Shamima Begum. One of three Bethnal Green teenagers who travelled to Syria in 2015, Begum was later found in 2019 in a refugee camp, with a young son and a desire to return to the UK. The ensuing media storm underlined a troubling double standard for Naylor, as then-UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid sought to strip Begum’s British citizenship and prevent her repatriation.
“The Home Secretary didn’t think it was appropriate, he thought she was a danger to British values,” Naylor says. “I thought to myself, ‘hang on, isn’t the Home Secretary himself compromising British values by not trying her in a British court according to British justice?’ I wondered if there was a contradiction there, which is what I wanted to explore in the play.
“The west has been trying to impose western values on countries in the Middle East… if we believe that those values are worth fighting for, then why aren’t we applying them to ourselves? Why aren’t we trusting our own justice system?”
The role of the media in shaping the public response to the story is also explored in The Nights, which follows a UK journalist attempting to cover the unfolding story. “The journalist is basically looking for a quote, looking to get someone to attack the return of the jihadi brides, and finds an ex-serviceman who she thinks will want to speak out,” he explains.
“People talk about fearing that the schoolgirls may have been radicalised out in Iraq – actually I think the British public has become radicalised at home.”
“The tabloid press in the UK is notoriously outspoken, and it’s been very outspoken on this issue. There were no shades of grey, the debate was black and white, just damning of the jihadi bride. On an emotional level I think most people can understand that, but I’m not sure it’s the right response. And I think we need to have a proper debate about it.
“In the UK what [originally] happened was there were three schoolgirls from Bethnall Green who went out to Syria, and the public and press was very sympathetic, saying ‘they’ve been groomed by extremists, let them come home’. Three years later, the reaction has gone completely the other way – it’s amazing. People talk about fearing that the schoolgirls may have been radicalised out in Iraq – actually I think the British public has become radicalised at home.”
These themes certainly speak to an Australian context, from the memory of the Howard government’s handling of David Hicks to more recent moves by Peter Dutton to strip locally-born foreign fighters and ‘ISIS brides’ of Australian citizenship. The casual but pervasive Islamophobia in parts of Australia’s media can also be readily observed – on the morning I speak to Naylor, The Australian had just begun another fresh cycle of confected outrage over its favourite “Muslim activist” target, author Yassmin Abdel-Magied, for winning an arts grant.
“There’s a real danger with a lot of the way the press covers what’s been going out in the Middle east, treating all Muslims as fundamentalists or supporters of ISIS, and one of the things I’ve tried to do in my plays is show that the majority of the people who were fighting ISIS were Muslims themselves. The Kurdish Muslims pretty much defeated ISIS in Northern Syria – yes, there was support from western bombers etc, but the people on the ground were Muslims. That’s something we need to be on guard about when Islamophobic stories get printed.”
Such nuances, so often glossed over in the snatches of news reports we see from the region, are more important than ever as the ‘war on terror’ evolves into a perpetual, endless conflict. “It’s extraordinary now that there are kids in university who weren’t alive when 9/11 took place, and there will be a whole generation of people who can’t understand quite how we got the point where we’re at,” Naylor says.
In The Nights, these complexities, moral ambiguities and the culpability of the press are pulled into focus as the journalist encounters the ex-soldier, who now works in his family’s military memorabilia shop after returning from Iraq. “This particular serviceman feels incredible guilt for the inhumanity he caused out in the Middle East,” he explains.
“What I’m very keen to do in this work, is to say look, there are two sides in this war. The two sides are humanity and inhumanity, which side are we on? Are we on the side of brutality, and torture, and repression, or are we on the side of those values which we claim to espouse: tolerance, freedom of speech, justice and understanding? I think that’s where the fault lines should be, and instead we’ve seen two sides in danger of out-brutalising each other.”
Previous works in Naylor’s series have been a hit with diasporic communities in Adelaide and back in the United Kingdom, which forms another reason for the writer’s continuing interest in the region. “I think it’s important that there are certain news stories that haven’t been covered well, and the Middle East hasn’t been covered well. And so a lot of the stories haven’t been reported, and a lot of people haven’t felt listened to.
“That’s one of the things drama can do, drama can bring to life the stories that have been neglected.”
11 February – 15 March
The Nights by Henry Naylor
Walter is a writer and editor living on Kaurna Country.
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