by Olu Alake FEBRUARY 5, 2016
She stood strong, defiant, proud – and it all made sense. The past of her ancestral warrior great-grandmother, the present of disenfranchised confusion and cultural discombobulation, which were all leading inexorably to an uncomfortable, uncertain future – it all made sense. Hassan Mahamdallie’s brave, contemplative and educational new play is in some ways an exercise in the impossible: weaving a golden narrative through a barely known and increasingly forgotten history of a marginalised people, the enduring legacy of colonialism in both the colonisers and colonised’s lands, social disconnection of a Diaspora community, the disturbing congelations of identity, religion and culture, and the institutionalisation of violence as presented on a media platform of uneven power relations into a one hour one-woman play? And he pulls it off.
The history of the Somali nationalist leader Sayid Maxamed Cabdule Xasan is not one well known to many – probably not even to many Somalis. Derisively better known as The Mad Mullah thanks wholly to imperialist British propaganda, Xasan was subsequently acknowledged by British military scholars as a military genius who had just cause, and his strategies were studied and in fact copied in subsequent military skirmishes in places such as Myanmar. Even lesser known about Sayid is his widely used and probably unique (certainly uncommon) use of armed female warriors on horseback in his dervish army, including two of his wives being generals of Divisions.
One of these dervish female warriors is discovered to be the great-grandmother of the key protagonist in the play, a young second/third-generation Somali named Suuban, living in a council flat in South London, who discovers a faded photograph while caring for an alzheimer-ridden grandma who spends all her time communing with ghosts. These and other characters are channeled with controlled ferocity, sensitivity and immense skill by actress and performance poet Yusra Warsama, never more powerfully than while questioning the value placed on the culture, history and indeed lives of minority Diaspora communities such as Somalis in Britain, she incredulously contemplates Barack Obama’s (in?)famously announcing the killing of Osama Bin Laden with the chilling reassuring caveat that “no Americans were harmed during the ensuing firefight”.
Mahamdallie skilfully uses the interwoven stories of characters set 100 years apart to ask some of the very big unresolved questions of our time around culture, identity, belonging and violence. Some of the questions will be disturbing, and it remains to be seen as the play tours how the immanent complexities will be interpreted by a wider public more familiar with the monochromatic presentation of these issues by our modern mass media, as is evident by the popular touch-points Donald Trump readily harnesses.
At the very least, this play should make us think deeply about how we are all complicit in the ‘single story’ told of people simply rendered to stereotypes of religion, culture and politically convenient selected narratives. The irony that I watched this in the company of an American who had flown in from New York just to see the play on the day Obama visited a mosque for the first time as President was not lost on me.
We need more stories like this, especially when so well told.
‘The harmonious interweaving of different languages – an everyday reality for us third culture kids’
THE CROWS PLUCKED YOUR SINEWS is a one woman play “about Somalis in Britain and Britain in Somalia”. The piece – written and directed by Hassan Mahamdallie with the assistance of Jamil Dhillon – explores colonialism and empire, politics, and ‘culture and tradition’ through the eyes of young British-Somali – Suuban – played by Manchester-based actress Yusra Warsama.
The hypnotic performance begins at the burial of Suuban’s alzheimer-stricken grandmother. From the opening scene we are immersed in a time-warped journey through a desolate war-engaged Somalia, and a grimy modern-day South London. A plethora of themes are explored in the hour-long performance; we meet Suuban’s great-grandmother a great fearless woman warrior. We discover the letters from the mother of the dead English Tommy warning her young son of the “men in the bushes”.
We are inundated with the names and titles of Somali scholars living in exile who have become self-proclaimed ‘experts’ on ‘the war’ – leaving no room for womens’ or non-middle class voices.
Using a man and a guitar, a talented British -Somali actress, and a simple set design directors Mahamdallie and Dhillon gracefully present us with multiple complex narratives through the oldest form of story-telling – the spoken word.
Suuban tells us of the times during the war when men used to pass on secret messages through poetry. The play itself can be described as an ‘epic poem’. Were I not so engrossed in the rhythmic dance of Suuban’s loose plaits I would have taken out my notepad to jot down the many gems that were dished out throughout the play.
The piece explores many important, and often, overlooked themes such as racial-profiling, and racism and violence from working class English folk. For me, however, the greatest delight came from the capturing of the mundane. The many conversations of Suuban’s mother to relatives in Amsterdam and Kenya in an attempt to find a passport for her brother to flee the country, ‘Our sons are similar in age, we all look the same to them anyway”.
The description of the cramped house filled with exquisite furniture that clearly belongs in a compound in a lavish part of Mogadishu rather than a council estate in Woolwhich. The twirling of the fag; the description of grandma in a box room in the attic. The development of the relationship between Suuban and her grandmother, which goes from precarious to almost over-protective solidarity between the two women – these for me are the nuances that can only be captured when a work is written by someone with lived experience and/or great consideration for capturing the ‘realness’ and complexities of other cultures. The bigger themes are what we see on the news and history books – albeit at times skewed – but these everyday vignettes are really what makes the play a work of ‘art.’
The harmonious interweaving of Somali and English dialogue – an everyday reality for us third culture kids who are so often made to choose a ‘side’ (personally I claim them all) – was another highlight.
I commend the directors’ decision to not translate all of the Somali dialogue. This decision allowed the young Somali men and women in the audience to connect with the piece in a way the rest of us non-Somalis could not.
This connection is something that I’d like to see more of in British theatre. But it can only be achieved by having diverse audiences, which is a direct result of having a diverse cast. Had there been only a single Somali person in the audience I doubt they would’ve felt as comfortable giggling at the parts we did not understand.
The icing on the cake, as it were, was the visuals that were dropped in during the performance. The images of Barack Obama’s speech after the death of Bin Laden, and the echoes of the words “no Americans were harmed” created chills and unsuspected tension thanks to the brilliance of film-maker Adam Radolinski. Visual artist Rachel Gadsden’s stunning portraits further added to the themes of war and displacement underpinning the play.
History told, and retold through digital art and the spoken word – is this the future of British Theatre? I hope so.
This is a brave, visceral and honest proclamation of modern integration in the face of bloody history, hostility and clashes of faith. It is an important piece of theatre that needs to be seen by a wider audience; that will leave you moved and searching for difficult answers. It’s a unique piece of art that does not come around very often.
The play is an ambitious monologue of a second or third-generation Somali who is looking after her Alzheimer-stricken grandmother. Her grandmother is stuck in the era of the First World War, when a violent war raged in Somalia between the natives and the UK and Italy. The dissonance between a streetwise south-London girl and her parents’ and grandparents’ justified hatred of foreign invaders is expanded as we hear details of her family’s modern-day problems and the ghosts that haunt them. It is difficult viewing at times, but it is something that all can benefit from.
The true strength of the writing is its honesty, as we feel that we are getting a true glimpse into the thinking of people from a radically different background and culture to our own. At times it is uncomfortable: the girl describing her sadness at Osama bin Laden’s death and his body being, “in the custody” of the Americans. A video display of Barack Obama saying, “no Americans were harmed,” on repeat. The murder of a British mercenary in Somalia during the war that leads her grandmother to discover personal letters from the victim’s mother, which are delivered in a mocking RP accent. But this writing is brave, there is no direct judgement here or summing-up of arguments, there is only the portrayal of how a people feel and how a people are dealing with unwanted exile in a foreign land.
The play explores integration and the dark side of it: a brother dealing crack cocaine, subjected to abuse by a police force trying to stitch him up for terrorist offences, is probably a greater example of integration than we’d care to consider. Our sympathy for the narrator is tested over as grim truths are explained, and yet we stay with the narrator, we believe in her, and we know that she is good. This is transformational theatre, and important writing. A novel needs to written from this, or a film.
The performance by Yusra Warsama is arresting in its skill and intensity. She greets us with, “Do they see me in black or white, or in colour?” before taking us through a heartfelt characterisation of a whole family, through generations, switching between Somali and English, from south London bravado to the pain of previous generations. The play is never boring as she tells a story spanning generations with dexterity and heart, and an unflinching treatment of attitudes we either didn’t understand or fear didn’t exist. “I felt sorry for him,” she explains regarding the death of Osama bin Laden. The mother, father, grandmother and brother all have starring roles, and all are expertly expressed through her.
This is powerful piece of theatre supported by beautiful music, played on the Oud by Abdelkader Saadoun, supported by some slick visuals, and orchestrated by a skilled team of directors. No set is needed here, and the plain black set enhances the phenomenal performance by Warsama. The writer, Hassan Mahamdallie, is a pioneer in his honesty and the intent to portray the beliefs and attitudes of Somalis truthfully and cleverly, and in a way that shows that, as much as she states, “we are not human… we are djinn travelling… nowhere and everywhere,” they are human as much as we all are. This play will stay with me for a long time, and the synergy between the writing and performance is understood in the programme which explains the writer wrote the play for the actress.
The production tours Birmingham and London through February and March; please go and see it. For more information go to www.crowsdrama.com #crowsdrama
Reviewer: Ben Spencer Reviewed: 27th January 2016
Contact Theatre, Manchester
27 January 2016 to 29 January 2016
The Crows Plucked Your Sinews, written and directed by Hassan Mahamdallie, is a strikingly original examination of cultural identity and a quest for purpose.
In present day Woolwich a young Somali woman (sole performer Yusra Warsama) drifts through life – father lost to cancer, mother dreaming of past pleasures, and brother a shiftless drug dealer. The discovery that her great-grandmother was a dervish warrior fighting with the ‘Mad Mullah’ against British rule in Somaliland stimulates awareness that her circumstances and family need not limit her life choices.
Hassan Mahamdallie crams a great deal into the play, and determining an overall point of view is not easy – the woman’s options may have widened, but her future direction remains unclear. It may be that the way heroes or villains are perceived is a matter of circumstances and the passage of time. Both Osama Bin Laden and the ‘Mad Mullah’ behaved as terrorists, yet the former died in ignominy whereas the latter escaped his enemies and passed into legend. This raises the disturbing possibility that Bin Laden’s humiliating death might be forgotten and he could again become an inspirational figure for some.
It is a play of strong contrasts. Lyrical passages – the Somali are described as mystical Genie, exiled to the four corners of the earth – are delivered by Yusra Warsama in a brash London accent. The erosion of local cultures by British and American colonialism is unflinchingly depicted.
Despite the violence described in the play, Hassan Mahamdallie sets a mood of restraint suitable for reflections on identity. The audience enters to the atmospheric music of Abdelkader Saadoun, played live and so seductive that the entrance of Yusra Warsama almost goes unnoticed. Stark black and white visuals by Rachael Gadsden are used sparingly but to great effect.
Yusra Warsama creates a range of characters physically as much as verbally. The twisted posture of the mother suggests a predatory insect, while the dervish warrior, hair hanging loose and back ramrod straight, has a proud aspect. It is a completely absorbing performance.
The Crows Plucked Your Sinews is not going to appeal to everyone. The dervish warriors gloating over the bodies of the British soldiers may be historically accurate, but it is still hard to take. Yet this is a thought provoking and superbly performed play that deserves to be seen by a wide audience.
Yusra Warsama excels in a show that is “dragging up chains of trauma, soaked in violent pasts and present.”
Maanta iyo London | Soomaalidii xukunka Ingriis hoos joogtay
oi mate, you British? ‘s that even mean though? plenty of things that ‘British’ means that I’d be plenty averse to identifying with. not even sure ‘British’ is something you can identify with. it’s more something that’s forced on you and you have to accept it to survive in some way. or you can ignore if surviving isn’t something you need to think about. seems to me, national identity’s confusing enough even without factoring in colonialism.
I know very little about Somali history but was totally unsurprised to find out that the British Empire put Somalia through a whole lot of shit. The British Empire, after all, has a lot to answer for. The Crows Plucked Your Sinews contrasts modern day London with Somalia under British rule and the immediately obvious associations are drawn in violence. Not just British, mind, statehood in general seems to abhor an absence of violence. Throughout the monologue, written and directed by Hassan Mahamdallie, Somalia and Britain emerge through conflict, struggle and assassination.
These are our history; shadows of them echo through the ways we live. Suuban, a young Somali woman speaks to her dementia-suffering grandmother, who channels the ghost of a woman Dervish warrior, resisting the colonisers in British Somaliland. Yusra Warsama delivers both roles, in a mix of English and Somali, monologue and poetry, dragging up chains of trauma, soaked in violent pasts and present. Dissent, and empathy, is delivered without hesitation; at the announcement of the death of Osama Bin Laden, in 2011, Suuban tells us ‘I feel sorry for him’.
Though violence breeds death and nation, it also breeds pity. We are in a country built on centuries of violence and displacement. Today, you can’t walk past a newsagent’s without seeing a headline about the refugee crisis in North Africa – our Prime Minister talks of ‘migrants’ who come in ‘bunches’ and it’s the same old disdain and rejection of empathy that the British Empire exhibited in Somaliland in 1914. Suuban’s drug dealer brother is attacked by a knife-wielding addict and while in custody, the police pressure him into fabricating a terrorism accusation against a rival dealer. British Somalis are displaced, becoming political pawns, living in a country that seems reluctant to have them. The Crows Plucked gives that displacement a voice, airs a few old ghosts.
Suuban cannot control her Grandmother’s storytelling, or her brother’s fractured masculinity as much as anyone cannot control the past. Britishness, the slippery nature of identity, histories carved of violence conspire to steer us where they will. By the end of the play, Suuban tells us she has accepted her Somali name, which she used to dislike. She can’t alter the past, but she can affect it. The Crows Plucked is as dangerous a play as any to rip a moral out of, but it has a sense of fluidity; behind the hardness of its themes lies a spectral core. Formally, this is let down a little by projections and music which feel closer to add-ons than organic parts of a whole, but everything solid melts into air. They can’t take your ghosts.
The Crows Plucked doesn’t ask us to sit back and reflect and have a good think about how awful things can be for other people. It forces the mirror onto us. And makes us see the gap between us and it.
JAMES VARNEY Blog Post
The Crows Plucked Your Sinews/
by Hassan Mahamdallie/
dir Hassan Mahamdallie/
performed by Yusra Warsama/
.reviewers could be likened to Crows, couldn’t they? poring over a corpse, swallowing the parts they like, working in a loose anarchic team to make sure all the morsels are snatched up. and often viewed as harbingers of one form of misery or another. grief is the thing with a blog.
.maybe it’s a laboured analogy to a food chain, the circle of life, reviewers are the front line in cultural digestion of a piece of art. then come the public, who reallyclean the bones and come in greater numbers.
.of course that all enforces the idea there’s some sort of old hierarchy in place. and takes a sort of nineties-mind assumption that everyone and their dog won’t start a theatre blog. ‘cultural digestion’ – what sort of a phrase is that? they’ll let anyone have a website these days.
The Crows Plucked Your Sinews is acutely aware of hierarchies. Providing a condensed spectral record of contemporary British-Somali identity, it demonstrates a sort of ‘state of the spirit/diaspora’ through tales of lives lived in violence, from 1914 to the present. There’s an inescapability to all the violence – it’s an unavoidable aspect of everyone’s lives, whether modern British Somali or 1910s Dervish warrior. All of which signposted for me that our Britain is forged on divisions, which run deep, affect whose voices we hear and whose faces we see and in which context.
Something I realised post- seeing (and reviewing) The Crows Plucked is that acknowledging there were BAME people in the audience legitimised the performance for me. I’m pretty sure I’d have had a different impression, would have felt less at ease (more of a voyeur?) if the audience were entirely white. It’s alarming that the idea I am outside of a white echo chamber is so worthy of note but I think it’s important to acknowledge that Contact seem to be really good at diversity. Their 2014-15 Annual Report states over 70% of audiences being under 35, and over 30% coming from BAME backgrounds.
If I’m thinking of theatre as a conversation (which I’m wont to) then the conversation ought to have fair representation of the peoples it’s about, which extends to the audiences, not just artists. In a similar context it’s worth noting that there was also a BSL interpreted performance of this piece that I wish I’d booked to see. I’ve been working with BSL theatre and interpretation recently and besides being useful for research purposes, I’ll bet the BSL for this piece would have been gorgeous. And I’d be intrigued to know how the Somali in the text was handled. Bilingual theatre’s ace enough; I’m sure trilingual theatre would have proper blown my mind.
There’s a strong throughline of disenfranchisement in The Crows Plucked; Yusra Warsama’s Suuban is nothing but alienated by the USA’s televised glorying in the execution of Osama bin Laden – all just an echo of an empire which did Somalia no favours. Disenfranchisement is a real, massive problem in contemporary Britain and Cameron’s Tories seem intent on tackling it in the most prescriptivist, alienating way possible. So it’s very gratifying to see a piece with English and Somali, performed in an atmosphere, a theatre, which is accessible, and not just superficially.
A good crop of the reviews I’ve written for Exeunt about shows at Contact (particularly their Young Company shows) have been gushing about the level of engagement with new voices, marginalised voice, young voices etc. Surely theatre’s a far better mechanism for social inclusion through accessibility than doling out English tests and threatening exportation. Hopefully the stuff Contact and companies like Common Wealth are doing can set some kind of precedent and five, ten years from now it’ll be unthinkable that theatre used to be about sitting in rooms with lots of white people. We’ll all be doing installations on council estates and working with young people and everyone will be thoroughly enfranchised with each other.
.so that’s me eking out the last scraps. i’ll flap off now, until next time theres a carcass needs starting on. drop me a line if theres any battles or owt im not fussy.
It’s a neat piece too, carried by a tremendous performance by Yursa Warsama – for whom it was written – who portrays both the young British-Somali woman, caring for her dying grandmother in Woolwich, and her fearsome great-grandmother, a proud Dervish warrior who fought the British. The sense of place – whether the deserts of Somalia, or a London living room filled with khat-chewing ex-pats – is always nicely evoked, thanks to Mahamdallie’s subtly lyrical script, in which English and Somali freely slip and slide over each other.
There’s a real and understandable anger at the heart of the piece – particularly when you take in the parlous state of modern Somalia – but one, you feel, that needs channelling a little. The juxtaposition, for instance, of how the Americans (boo, hiss) treated the body of Osama bin Laden with how the girl’s ancestors allowed the British army to reclaim an English soldier they had killed, feels a little crude. It still remains a thought-provoking examination of identity, heritage and blood.
Yusra Warsama gave a versatile and captivating performance in Hassan Mahamdalie’s poetic exploration of Somali culture today and in 1913.
The Crows Plucked Your Sinews follows the life of Suban, a young Somali living in contemporary Britain looking after her grandma with dementia. Her grandma acts as a vessel to tell the story of a female fighter on horseback whose photograph she owns. This fighter is Suban’s great grandmother who was in Mohammed Abdulle Hassan’s army, who led a guerrilla war to oust British colonisers in 1913.
The highlight of the piece was Warsama’s performance. Switching fluidly between the bent, haggard Ayeeyo (grandmother); her swaggering, drug dealing brother and her strong, guerrilla great grandmother, Warsama trod the stage with control and intent. When the piece began, she stood before the audience in black abaya and white head scarf and asked, ‘Do they see me in Black and white or in colour?’ before revealing combat trousers and trainers and producing a cigarette. Here Mahamdallie tackled head-on attitudes towards British Muslims, and later on described an incident where police interrogate her brother, as they believe he has terrorist connections. The script was powerful and relevant, representing the bilingual, multicultural households that many people living in Britain today experience. The integration of the Somali alongside the English also gave the script a wonderful poeticism as Mahamdallie vividly painted a dynamic Somali home.
Despite the success of the script to conjure imagery, there was a lack of deep emotional connection. Suban mainly channeled frustration and anger, at times directed at America, or the police, or her brother; and this felt like it was never fully explained. The familial connections were also fragile. Characters swam briefly in and out of focus – characterised by a posture or a gesture and then were gone again. Ayeeyo was the only reoccurring character, and whilst Suban obviously cared deeply for her, the bond between the two characters felt superficial. The grandma’s dementia meant the majority of their communication was transported into other another world where Suban was not present. This felt like a dramatic device to tell the historical story rather than a true relationship between the two.
The general stone washed aesthetic of the piece was beautiful. Whilst the majority was Warsama spotlighted on a dark stage with an oud player stage right, video clips and artwork were intermittently projected on to the back wall. Some of these images were incredibly effective, others beautiful, whilst some slightly distracting from the performance onstage – particularly when words were projected alongside speech. At times the atmospheric lighting on stage was too dim – not fully highlighting Warsama’s performance. The music of the oud was atmospheric. However, the piece closed with a rendition of ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ which felt slightly jarring. As the script had been about the discovery of authentic Somali culture for a woman disconnected from her heritage, the choice of a song with strong connections to the black civil rights movement in America felt like an unusual, if not slightly inappropriate artistic choice.
It is ultimately a coming of age story following Suban from a place where she is disconnected from both her family and her history, to an understanding and appreciation of her Somali heritage. An important story to tell, The Crows Plucked Your Sinews is a refreshing insight into a culture absent from the teachings of British history. I hope this piece empowers young East African Muslims in Britain to discover their heritage and embrace it if, like Suban, they have felt previously disconnected from it.
Author’s review: 3
For just three nights last month, The Curve hosted to a one-woman play that sought to critically interrogate the history of Somalis in Britain and Britain in Somalia. The beautifully performed monologue, The Crows Plucked Your Sinews, juxtaposed two time frames: the first urban London in 2011, and the second British Somaliland in 1913.
The play’s title was taken from a line in a poem written in August 1913 by the “legendary Somali leader, national poet and military genius Mohammed ‘Abdille Hassan, who fought a religiously inspired guerrilla war against the British colonial army for two decades at the start of the twentieth century.”
Grappling with questions of war, injustice and human frailty, the play, as the Director, Hassan Mahamdallie observed, is also a reflection on “what happens when a whole nation is expelled from within the borders of its own country and is then distributed across the world.”
Countries are “pieces on a chessboard upon which is being played out a great game for the domination of the world”, wrote Lord Curzon, the viceroy of India, in 1898. And as popular historian John Pilger has sadly pointed out: “Nothing has changed”; which leads him to argue that if “any country is an imperial metaphor, it is Somalia.” Pilger goes on to note how:
“Sharing a language and religion, Somalis have been divided between the British, French, Italians and Ethiopians. Tens of thousands of people have been handed from one power to another. ‘When they are made to hate each other,’ wrote a British colonial official, ‘good governance is assured.’”
Watching the forceful play at The Curve, I was struck by the related nature of the violence unleashed upon the indigenous population of British Somaliland and the vile attacks of the British ruling-class upon the people of Ireland that were occurring during exactly the same time period. In both instances, British ruling elites sought to suppress the collective and democratic aspirations of normal working-class people.
We should remember that the infamous 1913 Dublin Lockout, the repression of workers which was so brutally organised by arrogant bosses and imperial elites…
“…represented a key moment in the history of the Irish workers movement and marked its coming of age. The fact that thousands of impoverished working men and women withstood months of hunger and repression in order to defend the principle of the right to join a trade union is truly inspiring.”
One of the key leaders of the Irish movement of socialist resistance was Jim Larkin, whose rallying cry, “LET US RISE,” struck fear into the heart of British capitalists. This is because both the Lockout and other colonial wars took place against the backdrop of intense class struggle in Britain (between 1911 and 1914) that were dubbed the “Great Unrest.”
But such unrest is nowhere near dissipated and never will be, as demonstrated by the inspiring election results of the People Before Profit/Anti-Austerity Alliance in Ireland just the other week.
As noted in the excellent book Let Us Rise! The Dublin Lockout – its impact and legacy(2013), the time of the “Great Unrest”…
“…was a period when bosses tried to drive down wages and conditions to preserve their profits and when British workers fought resolutely for a better future for themselves and their families.
“At the same time, with the opening up of Africa and Asia to imperialist exploitation, the old capitalist powers of Europe, France and Britain were increasingly in competition and conflict with the new emerging powers of Germany, Japan and the U.S. in their drive for profit and new markets.” (pp.65-6)
The foreword to this book was written Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins, and includes a contribution from fellow Socialist Party member Ruth Coppinger, who was one of the six members of the People Before Profit/Anti-Austerity Alliance who were elected to the Dáil at the 2016 general election.
Other useful resources
- Amina Mire, “The Struggle for Somali: Warlords, Islamists, US Global Militarism and Women,” Counterpunch, July 31, 2006.
- John Newsinger’s Rebel City: Larkin, Connolly and the Dublin Labour Movement(2003); and Jim Larkin and the Great Dublin Lockout (2013).
- James Plunkett’s historical novel Strumpet City (1969), which is based upon the 1913 Dublin Lockout, and was made into a TV series with the same title.