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Dina Ibrahim - The Mother of Kamal Interview

Playwright Dina Ibrahim is bringing her new play The Mother of Kamal to Upstairs at the Gatehouse, in Highgate. The play will run at the venue from 19th – 28th January 2024

Based on real life events and inspired by Dina Ibrahim’s own father's family memoir novel Um-Kamal ('mother of Kamal' in Arabic), the play revolves around the tumultuous events in the saga of a Jewish family, beginning in the slums of Baghdad in 1948  where a dramatic new political tide was crashing in after WWII. 

It takes us to the heart of Dina’s family's history, from the under-reported world of a working-class Jewish-Arabic community in Baghdad in the turmoil of mid-century pre-revolutionary Iraq. Through the crucible of global historical events, up to the present-day diaspora, all is seen through the eyes of her own passionate, resilient grandmother (the eponymous ‘Um-Kamal’), who Dina herself will play in an all-too-rare lead role for a strong, but complex, middle aged female protagonist. It tells the story of Um-Kamal who carries a secret born of personal and political intrigue and who eventually reveals a truth so shattering that it threatens to tear her family irreparably apart. A true story that is both painful and funny, The Mother of Kamal shines a light on Middle Eastern politics, Jewish diaspora, family, truth and reconciliation and the need to reach out and prioritise peace.

Ahead of the run we chatted with playwright Dina to discuss the show in more detail.

The piece is inspired from your father’s memoir but at what point did you think it would make an interesting stage show? 
Since the early stages of his writing the book I was always playing around with the idea of how a stage show might capture such a huge story, spanning fifty years and what a challenge that might be. I asked myself “could I encapsulate such a huge family saga, embedded in intense political and social upheavals, and peppered with momentof laughter - could I do this in two hours on a stage and capture the scope, characters and vividness of the book?” Also, In researching the book, I accompanied my father and we interviewed family members when they told us of things that they never talked about before, not even to their partners or children, one was actually crying as he recalled events, I knew this story was something special and when I spoke of my possibly sharing their experiences through my writing of the play they seemed very positive about this – it was as if the book and now the play was the start of something quite healing. So I set myself a challenge and said to my dad “let’s see which one comes first the book or the play… and the book won!
How did you approach writing the story from historical facts and the memoir? 
I wrote a timeline of historical facts and a timeline of the book. I have notebooks full of chapter summaries and ideas that stem from that. I would then often ask my dad to clarify dates and some of the historical context. It was important for me to get these things right and then feed the characters realistically into that. There are so many details that I triple checkedbe it simply the food that was being cooked in my grandmother’s house or how those arrested as communists were sentenced and jailed and what those political prisons were like?
What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing the story? 
To keep as faithful to the true family story, the book and to those family members and their recollectionsIt is a playbased on my father’s memoir but it is not the book, however, every person in the play did/does exist and most of them shared their story with me, be it painful or funny and I amvery much touched and humbled by that. But of course, as a play, it tells a particular narrative and no doubt it was going to be a challenge in the sense that it might not necessarily please everyone… And, as a writer I did not want to restrict myself in terms of what I could or could not write about and letting go of this sense of responsibility to please everyone was something that at times proved difficult.

Nalân Burgess in The Mother of Kamal.

Why do you feel this tale is a relevant one to tell now? 
I began writing this play this time last year and it had debut (as a 1-hour play) at the Camden Fringe Festival in August and even then, it was relevant, with a diverse audience, some seeking to find out more about this little known piece of history and some Iraqi’s and Jewish Iraqi’s seeing the play to throw a light on a time and place they had lived through or heard about – bringing thoughts of home. Now with the recent horrors of the Israel-Palestine conflict the idea that there was a time and a place where many religious groups co-existed harmoniously seems unfathomable. My play shows a family caught in shifting political tide and the decisions we must make to survive – and this brings with it a pressure to take sides and the play takes on a more pronounced significance now in a time when we are all asked to take a side and have an opinion, when deep down what we all share is a humanity and the need to reach out, and call for peace and reconciliation even in the riskiest of times – if only to keep ourselves sane. 
How has it been seeing such a personal piece come to life as well as playing the role of your grandmother? 
It has been quite unbelievable. I still pinch myself to wake myself up- as if this is all a dream! Sharing something that is so personal and yet to find that it resonates with so many is a constant revelation to me. In its first run as a one hour play at the Camden Fringe Festival in August, had audience members approach me at the end saying how touched they were to see a slice of their life played out, to hear their voices reflected in the play and it reminded them of home, and other audience members saying how fascinating to shine a light on a time and place that they knew so little about. And to see how much this play has meant to those family members that shared their stories with me and my father has been really humblingI feel incredibly honoured to play my grandmothershe was resilientbrave, and selfless and it feels as if I am not only playing her but also, I am playing the role of many courageous and overlooked women of the middle east who held their family together through the most difficult of times
What keeps you inspired as a creative?
Other creatives! This show for instance, would not be the play it is without those brilliant people you find yourself drawn to and work withStephen Freeman, our wonderful director, shaped the story through his immersive vision and this has truly been inspiring. I have learnt that being a creative is not done in a vacuum and this connection we have with otherhelps shape ideas; forge creativity and allows the desire in you as a creative to take flightAnd it’s wonderful to behold.
What do you hope an audience member takes away from seeing The Mother of Kamal?
A sense that in life we are intrinsically linkedno matter what our truth, understanding and opinion of a situation is and that ultimately, we share the human need for connection and this is something we all can identify with. I hope they see it as a powerful play that throws a light on a time and place in history that there is little reference to and a chance to listen to voices that rarely get heard. I hope the audience can identify with the burdens we put on ourselves in our trying to make the right choice and do the right thing and within the great dilemmas and challenges we face, that a reaching out to each other is something that we might risk, simply to keep our sanity, if not to heal. 

The Mother of Kamal by Dina Ibrahim will run Upstairs at the Gatehouse Theatre in Highgate from 19th – 28th January 2024. Tickets are available from –

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