October 2 2016
New play highlights the way some great faiths can be ‘hijacked’ by groups who project a powerful form of piety but often manipulate believers’ anxieties for covert political purposes…
IT IS A DARK, cool night in the valley of the Albruz mountains (in ancient Persia) and two star crossed lovers are making their way to Makkah on Hajj but are intercepted.
‘Hussain’ (Asif Khan) and ‘Zamurrud’ (Skye Hallam) are not married and invite suspicion and are quickly parted by a shady group of women and men.
When morning comes, Hussain learns Zamurrud is in ‘Paradise’ but the same group says there is a way to reach her…
This, more or less, forms the opening part of “Paradise of the Assassins”, a new play and the first to be staged at Tara Arts’ refurbished theatre in Earlsfield, London.
Closed for its revamp for more than a year, it emerges as an aesthetically stirring and unique venue that will add to the rich tapestry of theatres that already exist in and around London*.
While this play may be set in Medieval times and the period of The Crusades and one of great firmament, there is little question that its themes are relevant to us today and warn us that faith and belief can lead us to darkness and cruelty, just as much light and compassion.
Adapted from an original novel in Urdu by Lucknowi polymath and prolific 19th century writer Abdul Halim Sharar (incidentally, a Communist himself), “Paradise of the Assassins” is a deep and involving story.
It cuts through a lot, to reveal human beings are but a fragile collection of thoughts and positions and more easily ruled by the heart than the head.
“It is an interesting story about somebody who has to change what they believe in to maintain their love. That seemed like an extraordinary conundrum,” explained Tony Clark, the director of the play who has written “Paradise of Assassins” play, based on the original novel.
“The novel has a sense of the fantastic and a magical realism about it,” he told www.asianculturevulture.com in an interview last month.
Zamurrud and Hussain’s pilgrimage to Makkah is not an end in itself. She is keen to see the grave of her murdered merchant brother and grieve for him. She sees him in a dream where he urges her to visit his grave and gives some indication of the place where he met his grisly fate.
Of course, she cannot go on her own and so Hussain accompanies her. He is her childhood sweetheart and there is a prospect the two will marry on the way. But it is not an easy journey and Zamurrud knows this risks.
“It is very dangerous and she wants protection and she would rather die in his arms, than anyone else’s,” Clark expanded.
Her unfortunate predicament brings Hussain into contact with the Batiniyah – a sect which believes that the Qur’an has hidden codes and messages.
“This can only be revealed by a Imam,” Clark elucidated. “I don’t refer to the Assassins in the story but to them as the Batiniyah (Batiniyya).”
‘The Assassins’ did really exist and were avid consumers of the drug, Hashish. That practice helped them to establish mystical or in orthodox Islam’s view – heretical practices – and gain a certain credence and notoriety. The English word assassination is derived from the ‘hashish’ in Persian and the sects’ beliefs in eliminating political dissent as they saw it.
Hussain, as an orthodox Muslim, has to crossover to this group and its way of thinking to have any chance of being reunited with Zamurrud (in paradise) and he falls under the spell of the Assassins’ Imam.
Like many other men, he accepts the groups’ violent injunctions – to be with his beloved Zamurrud.
“He is forced to compromise his beliefs at a terrible human cost. I like to think it has something to say to say about the vulnerability of young people and the allure of charismatic leaders,” Clark added.
Hussain’s belief system is radically altered and just like many who follow extremist groups, the sense of doctrinal duty outweighs any other consideration. Theological purity is demanded, expected and must be delivered (violently, if only to prove a point) – all according to the wishes of the Imam or great leader.
“An individual must be true to themselves as well true to the group they say they belong to,” posed Clark.
Clark and Sharar pose a lot of interesting questions and the central love story does have power and force.
If you feel like you might get lost in the theology and ideology – there’s no need, focus instead on the two sweethearts being ‘reunited’ and battling the forces that want to keep them apart and in hock to the group led by the charasmatic Imam with ‘special powers’.
Top picture: Hussain (Asif Khan) and Zamurrud (Skye Hallam)
All pictures by: Tristram Kenton
Paradise of the Assassins continues until Saturday, October 8, Tara Theatre, 356 Garratt Lane, Earlsfield, London, SW18 4ES.
For tickets/info https://www.tara-arts.com/whats-on/paradise-of-the-assassins