SHARBAT The Doreshawar Khan Interview

The Blue Room Theatre prides itself on developing young and emerging local talent and their latest production presents the debut work of local writer Doreshawar ‘Iskra’ Khan. NATALIE GILES spoke to Khan about her unique perspective as a young, feminist, Muslim Australian woman with a voice that deserves to be heard. Sharbat is a semi-autobiographical play opening tonight, Thursday, October 24 and going through to Saturday, November 2.

This is your first show as playwright AND you’re starring in it! How are you dealing with it? How are rehearsals going?

It’s been a real journey. Relinquishing control of a script so heavily steeped in my own experiences to a creative team is hard as a writer. However, I have been lucky to work with people whose dedication to the heart and soul of the story has made this transition easier and now I cannot imagine mounting this play without them. I have seen the script go from a skeleton idea to its own miniverse, fleshed out by actors and translated from page to stage by our set designer and technical designers. It’s not quite how I imagined. I daresay it’s turned out better than I could have hoped for as an emerging artist.

My favourite part of the rehearsal process was the first table readings where the actors were introduced to the script for the first time in the presence of my writing mentor Liz Newell, who wrote TOAST. During the process, the actors were provided cultural, religious and personal context to the scenes and were encouraged to workshop their characters to make them more personal. Watching them grow into their roles has been a pleasure.

Sharbat is inspired by your lived experience as a Muslim Australian woman. Tell me about that…

I moved to Perth from Pakistan in May, 2003. Anyone will tell you that being a 16 year old girl in any society is hard without the added layer of culture shock I was facing moving from an Islamic republic to a place like Australia. My family went from being surrounded by community and relatives to being isolated in a city where they barely knew anyone and were struggling to find work. It was an incredibly confusing and tumultuous time for me personally and my mental health really suffered during those initial years.

At the time there was an undercurrent of racism and mistrust for the Muslim community partially fuelled by the events of 9/11 and Australia’s subsequent involvement in Iraq. I vividly remember the coverage for The Cronulla Riots in December 2005, not long after I had graduated from high school. It was nearly 48 hours of wall to wall coverage. My friends and I were headed to Cottesloe beach that day and I remember that my parents wouldn’t let me go because they were so scared that something similar would happen. As silly and irrational as that sounds in hindsight, I see how terrifying the whole ordeal would have been for them. They just wanted us to live somewhere free from violence and yet, even supposed safe havens like Australia had the propensity to foster violence. I think this really shattered their world view.

For me there have been some turning points in the way I express my faith. Just as there have been times where I have been made to feel un-Australian, there have also been plenty of times where I have been made to feel “un-Muslim”. It used to bother me a lot more as a teenager, but I think I am finally at a point where I am happy to do my own thing. I have always and will always occupy a third space in these conversations.

Doesn’t it feel like you’re very exposed, laying out your life on the stage?

Sharbat is a cocktail of experiences! One part fiction to two parts fact, garnished with a plot twist. While the show is semi-autobiographical, there are experiences of close friends in there too. It isn’t a blow by blow account of my life by any means. But it does play on themes that have been a large part of my growing up Muslim in Perth post 9/11. I have found the process to be strangely liberating. To finally lay those experiences at the feet of an audience, to ask them to bear witness to some of the pain I have carried in me over the years. To share the burden with my cast and crew. It has been a baptism of fire as a newbie to theatre but it has simultaneously been a rebirth. To cast aside experiences and proudly say: I survived, I got stronger, I built a staircase out of all the experiences that were meant to break me and now, I can climb out of the shame and face the prospect of building a better Australia, a kinder Australia. I truly believe theatre has the ability to change mindsets.

So what does the word ‘sharbat’ mean?

There is a tendency for people to assume that there is only one Muslim narrative and being an outlier means that someone’s not “doing Islam right.” Sharbat is the Urdu and Pashto word for cordial, and I deliberately chose this name because of its symbolism. Any cordial lover will tell you that their ratio of syrup to water is the “correct way to make cordial” but in reality, it really comes down to personal preference. I feel similarly about Islam as a construct of faith or being Australian as an identity. There will always be people who will insist that there’s only one right way to be Muslim or there’s only one cultural narrative for Australia. The reality is that only we can decide how we identify and what works for us.

If there is one takeaway from Sharbat, I hope it is this: We don’t get to police other people’s identities because we don’t live their lives. No matter what ratio of water to cordial, sharbat is sharbat. The rest is a matter of personal preference.

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