The construction of personal identity and national identity are similar processes. Both are accumulations and amalgamations of morsels of information – historical, cultural, political – that are chewed down into a soupy blend and digested into one singular body. Individuals choose a diet that includes family background, religious and political beliefs, musical tastes, particular passions, and selective idolisations. Nations cultivate (and ration) traits that unify a people: a shared history and a common culture that constantly inform and affect who is fully fed and who goes hungry in the mass collective.
Naturally national identity influences personhood, but both can be empowering devices which help to locate our positionality in a dizzying and chaotic terrain. Aamina Ahmad’s The Dishonoured juxtaposes these two forms of identity construction, sometimes even in the same scene. After executing a successful raid, Colonel Tariq (Robert Mountford) is promoted to the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) and chooses, much to the dismay of his wife Farah (Goldy Notay), to remain in Pakistan instead of taking an overseas position in Washington, DC. Yet the precarious relationship between America and Pakistan is thrust into the foreground as Tariq’s first case involves Shaida (Maya Saroya), a 17-year-old aspiring poet, who is allegedly murdered by a CIA officer. CIA agent Lowe (David Michaels) and Tariq become the physical embodiment of national diplomacy (Lowe’s excellent entrance with a booming ‘fuck off’ immediately categories him as the typical taxonomical American). Their personal relationship and their respective national interests weave together until they become one and the same thing.
While these themes resonate somewhere on the stage, they are unfortunately drowned out by overpowering exposition in Ahmad’s script. The production does little to dampen the white noise, and while the offstage shouts of rioters make a forceful beginning to the second act, they echo the feeling that not enough has been done to distil and refine the poignancy in the piece.
Much of the language in Ahmad’s piece compounds individual responsibilities with patriotic (often militaristic) duty: ‘Protect the nation, protect the family’ and ‘A man who can’t control his wife can’t control his unit’. It’s appropriate then that relationship between Tariq and Farah is unstable; the state of the nation is reflected in the state of their marriage.
As Tariq is prepared to serve his country wholeheartedly, and as Farah hopes to escape the life that seems to imprison her, both characters find that their identities, so linked to their country, so linked to their familial responsibility, no longer contain much of themselves. Who we are and what we belong to can sometimes become rigidly oppressive prisons which subsume and impede our movement; they can restrict us from any opportunity for becoming. Farah wishes to improve on her painting, and Shaida wishes to write poetry. The creative process, like a construction of identity, is reliant upon small components which make up the whole, but paramount to creativity is the idea of growth, the idea of motion.
Patriotism can include a national literature, a body of writing that is etched into the foundations of the state, and Faiz’s poetry is repeatedly alluded to as the apex of the form: ‘There’s nothing quite like our poetry’. Creativity and the arts are therefore part of this world, and yet a world which enforces fixed structures of national and individual identity not only impinges creativity but also erases the individual. In the preface, Ahmad quotes Arundhati Roy: ‘What sort of love is this love that we have for countries? What sort of country is it that will ever live up to our dreams? What sort of dreams were these that have broken?’ These broken dreams, these fragments of ourselves, these are where the creative force that moves within The Dishonoured lies. It is this force which is sadly left unharnessed, and we as an audience are left to try and search for it.
The Dishonoured is on at the Arcola until 2nd April 2016. Click here for tickets.