‘Seeing Beyond’ the Pound Signs: Islamic Theatre Comes To Portsmouth University

Eleanor Martin of Khayaal Theatre. Image credit: Timothy Collinson.

Reclaim the News team member Rosy Bremer reflects on the commercialisation of higher education as she interviews Eleanor Martin of Khayaal Theatre following a recent symposium at the University of Portsmouth.

A woman with very pale skin stands on a Persian carpet in front of a folding wooden screen. To her left is a trunk decorated with geometric patterns and to her right, a table holding ancient books.  Eleanor Martin, a founder member of Khayaal Theatre begins to tell stories inspired by Muslim world culture and heritage. She is plainly dressed in a long white tunic and loose, chocolate coloured trousers; she has a scarf wrapped around her head like a turban.  She is a man from another time, another culture.

The stories she tells are simple and compelling; a young man sets out to acquire wisdom from a sage but the sage sends him to get a carpet.  The getting of a carpet turns out not to be so easy. It cannot be done before the man has found a carpenter to build a pen for the goats, who will provide the hair that makes the thread, which the spinner woman needs to spin for the carpet weaver.  However, the carpenter ‘wants the young man to find him a wife before he can build a pen for the goats. The finding of a wife is not an easy matter either but eventually a wife is found and the pen is made, the goats don’t wander off and the hair can be cut so the thread can be spun and the carpet woven.  Once this is done, the sage tells the young man he is now ready to receive wisdom.

Khayaal Theatre was established twenty years ago as the first theatre company dedicated to celebrating the rich aesthetic, artistic and literary traditions of the Muslim world and to bring these traditions to mainstream popular culture.  Khayaal draws on literature from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Britain, China, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sudan, Syria, Tanzania, Tunisia, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Yemen and more, in its drive to promote cross-cultural understanding and to foster a sense of belonging and pride within Muslim communities.

I spoke to Eleanor when she performed at Seeing Beyond’ the commercialisation of Higher Education, an event organised by the University of Portsmouth’s Chaplaincy Team. The event explored whether something valuable might be lost in the current marketised, commercialised education system.  Various speakers suggested that education should develop wider, communitarian values that enable us to become more fully human; and encourage us to make a more positive ethical impact in our world and society.

The current view – that universities should function as businesses rather than as a public service – was effectively demolished by David Carpenter, Senior Lecturer in Social and Political Philosophy at the University of Portsmouth, who stated that seeing education as a product to be sold on the open market is a category error.

Khayaal (which means imagination in Arabic) views story-telling as a means of establishing community and a sense of belonging. ‘Our ethos is to build bridges through story-telling and within the Muslim community to create a sense of dialogue, not rhetoric’, Eleanor said.

Accompanying the handout about the stories Eleanor told was a diagram showing the positive effects of story-telling on the brain.  According to this diagram, when storytelling sustains attention and facilitates empathy the feel-good chemical oxytocin is released.  Presumably it’s also true that short-attention span soundbites playing on people’s fears can do negative things not only to our thoughts but also to our brain chemistry.  It’s probably no coincidence that counsellors and psychotherapists speak of reframing, and of rewriting scripts.

Eleanor explained that she thinks of popular culture as having an agenda: to subjugate and to pacify.  She views the stories that she tells as coming from a culture rooted in a sense of purpose greater than the self.  Eleanor quoted the science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin whose novels popularised anarchist ideas, explaining that people need stories and that we ‘seek the irreproducible moment, the brief, fragile community of story told among people gathered together in one place’.

I am with anyone who recognises that stories are central to our lives; what would I be doing as a beginner journalist if I were not fiercely, intensely into stories?  In the moments that Eleanor and Khayaal Theatre told stories from far-off lands, I could think of nothing else. I even stopped imagining that we could have a different system of higher education where the response to a drop-off in student numbers is not to commission a new logo.

It is maybe when the stories end and we get on with our lives that things get interesting; the pause in my imagining a different system of education was but a momentary one.

I will listen to the stories told by those promoting the model of a university as a business, or that the loans system enables more students to access higher education; I will listen and think before I ask ‘Where are the mature students these days?’, ‘Has the number of black and global majority students being accepted to university really increased?’, or ‘Can 18 year olds from low income families really fund themselves for three years while they study?’.

I will think about the story that a pay rise for University staff above 2% is too expensive but £53 million for a sports centre is a bargain.  I will think about my place as a University worker in such a narrative and I will be very grateful to anyone keeping the old stories alive – tales of community, of something other than market forces and competition; the old ones are often the best.

Main image by Timothy Collinson.

This story is part of our ongoing series from our #ReclaimTheNews team, a group of local residents trained in investigative journalism in partnership with The Centre for Investigative Journalism. The group now forms S&C’s Community Reporting team. Expect more stories from them in the coming weeks and help spread the word by sharing their articles with your friends and networks – just click on the social media buttons below.