The Mother of Kamal

Reviewer's rating

It is hard to imagine nowadays, but, for hundreds of years, Arabs and Jews lived harmoniously together in the Middle East, North Africa and Southern Spain.

Iraqi Jews settled mainly in Baghdad, although living throughout Iraq, having done so since the 6th Century. Muslims only arrived hundreds of years later in 7th Century. Representing one third of the Baghdad population in WW1, Jews were completely integrated into all levels of Iraqi society, without social distinction between Arabs and Jews.  All spoke Arabic. It was only in 1941 when a pro-German Nazi-sympathising fascist regime took power, the Jews were persecuted and eventually exiled, as in other countries. Many Arab families hid their Jewish friends, saving their lives. In 1947 the Iraqi government allowed Jews to leave Iraq for Israel provided they renounced their Iraqi identity.

True stories often make the best theatre. Dina Abrahim wrote this play about her own grandmother, Um-Kamal (Arabic for mother of Kamal), an illiterate woman who tries to save her family at all costs.  Abrahim plays her grandmother. The action takes place in 1948 in the slums of Baghdad when religious persecution was rife.

The first half is set in Iraq, the second half in USA and Israel, following the brothers’ lives in exile.

It starts light-heartedly when the children are small, and play. As they grow, the antisemitism becomes dangerous – ‘It takes time to build something good and an instant to destroy it’. Suddenly, Jews cannot get any employment and are banned from university. Um-Kamal’s two boys, Kamal and Sasson are arrested by the Secret Police.  Sasson confesses to being a Communist, sacrificing himself for Kamal who could not stand a life behind bars. Without explanation, Kamal is released. Desperate to save them, she is given Sophie’s choice. She can save only one. We discover she chose Kamal. We understand the choice; almost a qualified doctor, Kamal will save lives.  Sasson does not want to study and wants to be an actor. Sasson is five years younger so hopefully the sentence would be more lenient. Rumours abound as to whether Kamal informed on his brother, making his life in Baghdad impossible, so he flees to the mountains to work as a doctor.  Neither brother knows the truth until many years later; both suffer guilt impacting their lives until the discovery at the end of the play. Although the audience knew immediately that only one could be saved.

Even small talk complaining about the increased price of tomatoes is enough to get arrested. People inform on each other. It is a dangerous situation and we feel it.

Kamal eventually leaves the mountains and forges a life in USA.

When Sasson is finally let out of prison, he travels via Istanbul to Israel. He points out the irony that in Iraq he was an outsider because he was Jewish; in Israel he is an outsider in Israel because he is Iraqui.

The final scene, Um-Kamal travels with Kamal to Israel to see Sasson.  The brothers reunite after many years; each having lived with the guilt from the day of Kamal’s release. Um-Kamal reveals the truth, which we knew from the first act. Kamal says Sasson is a hero. ‘Being in prison isn’t being a hero; only being outside is doing something’, he retorts.  Navalny should have considered that. This should have been a gripping climax to the play, but is a bit of a let-down.

The play spans 50 years. We speculate where we are in this time-frame; for this reason, the play being a little disjointed. There is some unnecessary dancing, and too much shouting.

Abrahim convinces as the mother, desperate to keep her family together.  Four talented actors all give strong performances playing multiple parts, all with a heavy accent, which some had problems understanding.

The set and scene changes are simple and effective.

It is a good play, a story which needs to be told, but not as gripping as it could be. Simple innocent people forced into impossible situations, shows that nothing much has changed and is as relevant today as it was in 1940’s.

Written by Dina Ibrahim based on her father’s memoir ‘Um-Kamal’ by Fawzi Ibraham

Music John Kudlick

Director Stephen Freeman

Photo Credit

Cast Dina Ibrahim, Jojo Rosales, Manav Chaudhuri, Mirdit Zhinipotoku, Nalân Burgess.

Running time 2 hours 15 minutes with interval

Upstairs at the Gatehouse