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Interview with Iman Qureshi

5 March 2019 | Rosa Johnston-Flint

Born in Pakistan and raised in Saudi Arabia, Iman Qureshi is a playwright with a broad palate of perspectives. Her full-length debut play, the award-winning 'The Funeral Director', explores a unique juncture in a community, where different identities collide. It's set to tour the UK after a successful run in London.

What happens in The Funeral Director?
The play is set in a Muslim funeral director’s in a small town in the Midlands, which is owned by a husband and wife. One day a white man walks in and says his boyfriend’s just died and can they bury him, and they refuse – and the rest of the play kicks off from there.
Where did the idea come from?
I think from several places; one was the gay cake row in Northern Ireland where a man walked into a berky and asked for a cake that said something about gay marriage, and the bakers refused. And that bounced through the courts, finding its way to the Supreme Court, which overturned the Court of Appeal and found in favour of the bakers. So it was just a really narrow point of law, and I was interested in exploring the balance of competing rights, how far the freedom of religion extends to curtailing someone’s freedom to love who they want to love and express their sexuality. I hope it presents all sides of that debate with equal weight and empathy, and no one is vilified unfairly. Although views are criticised, I don’t think people are vilified and that’s really important. It’s important, when fighting for change, that we listen to each other and understand each other, rather than polarising ourselves.
What change would you like to see?
I’d love to see religious communities become more accepting of LGBT people and our right to live and love and embody and express ourselves in the way that we want. But there’s some way to go. A lot of more conservative communities are playing catch-up and I think religious communities are perhaps the furthest behind – and I’m talking about all religions, not just Islam. I think it’s time.
Is there enough of a platform for gay and/or Muslim women’s voices?
It’s tough because it’s a minority within a minority – you’re already marginalised for being a woman, and female characters are often confined to domestic spaces in plays and on TV, they’re not politicians or action heroes… And then as a woman of colour you’re marginalised further, and then as a queer woman of colour – it’s three layers of being marginalised. So it’s not surprising that there’s not much space for those women, but it is obviously essential to create it, because that’s how we get multiplicity of voices and get majority cultures to understand and engage with minority cultures. That’s what needs to happen.
The Funeral Director (London Cast) featuring Aryana Ramkhalawon (c) The Other Richard

Where would you most like to see these voices amplified?
I’m not sure… I do want to say the Arts, but actually there’s been a lot of change in the Arts lately and I’ve seen characters in mainstream TV that I certainly never had as role models growing up, that I could identify with who I might be or who I might become. I’d like to see more representation in public life, in politics, in sports – in the role models that we hold up.
What do you hope that people take away from The Funeral Director?
I hope people who see the play enjoy being in an intimate space that belongs to a section of the community that they’ve never been in and never met, and that that allows them to get to know the family as equals in a way they otherwise wouldn’t, and connect and empathise with someone different to them, with a different background. Whether that’s a white audience going to spend time with a conservative Muslim family, or a brown audience going to spend time with queer people… I hope that whatever walk of life you come from, you meet someone you don’t already in your ordinary day-to-day life.
Many events I go to, I’m the only person of colour there. And it’s so common, I don’t even notice most of the time unless it’s pointed out to me. And I think that’s tragic! Although it’s not a dialogue with the audience, I hope on some level it’s a conversation…
What’s next for you; any more projects on the horizon?
Yes! The PAPAtango prize I won comes with a commission to write another play, so I’m working on that right now. I’m also part of the Soho Six, which is Soho Theatre’s resident attachment scheme for new writers that they want to see on their stages, and I’ve got a few other things bubbling away in the pipeline. Time and money are constraints, as ever.
Can you give us any teasers on themes or topics?
I’m writing a lesbian ghost story, which examines colonial past. The queer love story in that is actually incidental, it doesn’t have to be queer, it just is. The play is about colonialism. I joke that I only want to write plays about lesbians, and then I go through all my ideas and realise that genuinely there’s a lesbian in every single one! But I feel like I’m redressing an imbalance that’s been going on for the last… centuries, so I’m not too worried about that. And no one asks straight writers why they repeatedly write heterosexual characters. And I’m not just looking at queer themes; I’m looking at all sorts of themes, there just happen to be lesbian characters in them. It’s not necessarily about being a lesbian or coming out. I’m excited that stories are pushing into new territory with LGBT characters, and representation, and not just repeat “coming out” stories again and again.

'The Funeral Director' tour dates:

Traverse Theatre
7 – 9 March 2019
Box Office: 0131 228 1404
Nottingham Playhouse
14 – 16 March 2019
Box Office: 0115 941 9419 
The North Wall 
21 March 2019
Box Office: 01865 319450
HOME Manchester 
27 – 30 March 2019
Box Office: 0161 200 1500

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