Hafsah Aneela Bashir. You don’t normally see many people like Hafsah on stage. A bold Muslim woman of colour with a head scarf. That’s exactly what you get though, Hafsah on stage, just her, being all Islamic and political and being utterly blooming brilliant in the latest offering from Push 2019 at Home Manchester.
Bashir’s feature, Cuts of the Cloth, was commissioned by HOME Manchester for their festival – PUSH 2019 – which aims to celebrate the region’s best talents. The premise for her piece centres on a dystopian future where for some reason Muslims have been assimilated and Hafsah plays the character of a Muslim woman, who is now nothing more than an artefact in a museum, speaking to visitors about her relationship with the cloth (the cloth being her headscarf).
Of course it’s not just her relationship with a simple piece of cloth that’s under discussion. The rise of Islamophobia, UK state violence, and the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy all form important strands to Bashir’s monologue.
The set is ingeniously made out to be the kind of thing you’d find in any art institution, the kind of installation art that seems to be the fad these days. Carefully placed objects including a rack where headscarves are placed, a kind of modern day tribute to spike corner but only with dummies heads adorned with Muslim paraphernalia. There is also a video screen behind them showing images that correlate to Hafsah’s story. To be frank, this is kind of thing that the Tate would lap up.
It’s important to remember the audience in all of this. I don’t fit in the usual audience for HOME. I mention this because firstly it’s important to acknowledge that audiences for festivals such as Push 2019 can focus on the usual theatergoers, and we should commend when artists and organisations like HOME are able to attract a new audience to savour the arts that may not necessarily venture to such institutions. Secondly, Cuts of the Cloth will resonate with particular members of the audience that can relate to Bashir’s stories, or to some audience members (on the whole) the subject of Islamophobia may come across as something of a revelation. This piece is about hopefully about provoking a reaction and it does exactly that.
Hafsah has a wonderfully engaging personality that we can affably connect with her character. She has a charming rhythm and vibe to her recitation and storytelling. The examples in which she chooses to highlight her different roles through the use of headscarves are engrossing. The acerbic wit and given her poetic background can often feel like we are switching from insightful observations to guerrilla poetic deliveries in the blink of an eye.
What Hafsah does well is to convey the fear surrounding the rise of Islamophobia showing the state and society issues at the heart of this important conversation. Where it fails is unfortunately that it takes too narrow a view of her subject. The dystopian future, something akin to the Handmaid’s Tale or some Orwellian 1984 future is never really explained, it is by choice of design in order to regale us of the present. Moreover, the show only works when the conflict is shown, no more typified than when Bashir is recounting the debate amongst her students when she was a teacher. By presenting both sides in such a way, you are left under no illusions the kind of conversations that are needed in today’s society.
Verdict: A thought provoking show that brings home the fear of Islamophobia through the eyes of a Muslim woman and her relationship with her headscarf. Hafsah Bashir is a star in the making, her poetic delivery at times is utterly captivating.