Reading about the Aryans who came to Pakistan in 1500 BCE, about how they were expert horsemen and aggressive fighters, armed with iron weapons, the image I see is Brad Pitt. Leather breastplate, astride a horse and speaking with that vaguely historical sentence structure that Blackadder so effectively parodied – ‘yes it is, not that it be’ he says to an old hag ‘I’m not a tourist’.
Equally when you watch a low rent period drama it is so easy to identify the modern attitudes, behaviours and landscapes – even the way the light falls I somehow too contemporary. We can tell very easily when it is manufactured, snapping us out of the intended world instantly.
Thanks to a BBC Performing Arts Fellowship Fund and the support and encouragement of ice&fire Theatre Company I am writing a play about Pakistan. Holed up for the next three months at the British Library I have recently encountered Caroline Nordstrom, an American anthropologist, in my research. One of her many illuminating and highly readable studies concerns Angola where civil war ravaged the country for decades, beginning as soon as independence from Portugal was achieved in 1975. As a result there are now many displaced and orphaned children living in Luanda – the capital – as well as other cities around the country, fending for themselves.
At a street stall one night Caroline was invited into a storm drain, inhabited by a group of orphaned children of not more than 11 years old. She accepted the offer and writes that her first impression of their home was the lack of smell. In fact, these children, contrary to expectations, had transformed a makeshift street shelter into a clean and ordered home. She remarks on how peaceful, honest and caring they were to one another, quite the contrary to the adults they encountered on a daily basis.
When hosting journalists from the west Caroline encouraged them into the storm drains with her but they would not go. Instead they chose to write articles about the dirty and feral orphans that live in the sewers. Articles based on their assumptions and perpetuated by fear and ignorance. Caroline knew differently because she was willing to go inside.
I think that this is the challenge facing me in writing my play. The major problem is that Pakistan contains some of the most dangerous places in the world. The British government advises against travel to many areas in the country and informs me “there is a high threat from terrorism, kidnap and sectarian violence throughout”. So how will I achieve an authenticity, which does not contribute to the false reportage and assumed notions perpetuated elsewhere without even going there?
My ambition for the play is to create something genuine. It needn’t replicate Pakistan on stage but it must have a ring of truth that is borne out of real investigation and an understanding of a subject that can only come from lengthy kinship with its culture, its way of life. And that way of life, that truth might be so contrary, so opposed to what I think it is that I would surely miss it by not going there. I love a costume drama and an ancient epic as much as the next person but I am wary of reducing something potentially illuminating to what we already know.
Geographical and political impediments aside I still hope to look without bias, to understand without preconception and with a broader vision than I currently see Pakistan. It helps that it is all new territory – I know nothing about the place. It is a different planet, a new language, an entirely alternate culture for me. Like Alexander the Great I will traverse the pass at Khyber for the first time and witness a new land with my eyes open. Only, most probably I’ll be sat here. In the British Library.
By Freddie Machin, ice&fire’s BBC Performing Arts Fund Fellow, http://www.freddiemachin.com/#!journalist/c112v