THE story of Molly Campbell hit the headlines in 2006. A 12-year-old girl from the Isle of Lewis, Molly appeared to have been kidnapped by her Pakistani father and taken to Pakistan. Newspapers hollered outrage: “Girl ‘snatched’ from school gates and taken to Pakistan for ‘forced’ marriage”, one red-top shouted.
What happened in the weeks that followed was a drama of clashing cultures. Just over a year after the 7/7 bombings, the British public were on edge and Muslims were on the defensive. The story played into the hands of stereotypes: a bearded man in Muslim dress appearing to kidnap a young Scottish girl. But events took a further twist when Molly gave a press conference with her father in Lahore. There was no question of a forced marriage. She was happy, she was staying, and she would prefer to be known as Misbah.
Molly’s story is now the subject of a new verbatim play, My Name Is…, which will have its Scottish premiere next week as part of Mayfesto at the Tron. Playwright Sudha Bhuchar, one of the founders of London-based theatre company, Tamasha, which has a particular interest in multicultural stories, created the script from in-depth interviews with Molly, her mother Louise and father Sajad.
Bhuchar says she was inspired by the fact that behind the headlines was a very different, very human story: two teenagers falling in love across cultural boundaries in Glasgow in the 1980s; a family break-up which got swept up in wider events. “In the public arena, this tale came to serve wider agendas around Islam versus the West,” she says. “For me it was about identity, about the tightrope that mixed race couples and their children still walk trying to find acceptance, and about the role of religion, faith and forgiveness in the protagonists’ lives.”
Louise and Sajad (their names have been changed in the play) met in the southside of Glasgow in the early 1980s. Sajad had lived in the UK since he was three and considered himself Scottish. Neither was religious. It was a tolerant time when mixed race relationships were common. Although Sajad’s family did not approve, the couple believed they could make their relationship work. Bhuchar says: “They fell in love, and crossed the boundaries to try and get married and form a life for themselves. People never know when they’re caught up in bigger things, they’re just living their lives.”
But world events were having an impact on the relationships of multicultural communities in the UK. The Soviet war in Afghanistan, the first attempted bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 by a young Pakistani man, the embassy bombings in Kenya, were turning a sense of tolerance into one of mutual suspicion. Within the Pakistani community, there was an element of entrenchment. Sajad became drawn to the traditions of his culture and faith. Louise became a Muslim and adopted traditional Muslim dress. Bhuchar says: “Initially, I think it was naivety, then it became a genuine interest, and a genuine desire to bring up her kids in one way so that they didn’t feel like they were nothing or half-caste. It was quite a journey that she went on, and I wanted to show that on stage.
“The play does give a picture of the times they lived through, but what I love is that they say: ‘Our communities changed, but we were just living our lives. We weren’t bothered about what was happening in Russia or Afghanistan or whatever.’ So that political perspective just comes through from a personal point of view.”
When Sajad and Louise divorced in 2000, initially the children stayed with their father, who moved to Pakistan, then Molly returned to live with her mother in Scotland.
Bhuchar travelled to Pakistan to interview Sajad and Molly, and to Stornoway to interview Louise, in 2008 (which is when the play is set). “I think they were very keen to redress how they had been portrayed in the media,” she says. “I wanted to give all the viewpoints proper space. I’m not judging, I’m not being partisan. There’s a complexity, a nuance, to the story as they tell it. I’m relieved to see that people watching it seem to see all sides of the story.”
Louise and Molly, now 19 and back living with her mother in Scotland, came to see the play when it opened in London last month. “They absolutely loved it, it was a very emotional experience for them. They literally fell into the actors’ arms after the show. I think Molly really felt for her mum as a young person, they said they felt it was a tribute to what they’d been through. It was a special thing to be able to give back to them their words.”
Bhuchar says the play took six years to write, partly because of the sense of responsibility she felt in doing justice to a true story. “There’s a trend in my work that I always research and I write something based on the research. But this was extraordinary for me because there were real people who had opened up their hearts to me, and I felt the weight of responsibility of representing them properly.”
It was only when she decided to create a verbatim script that the pieces started to fall into place. “Telling it in their own voices was key. Every time I listened to the recordings of the interviews, I was struck by the fact that their voices were quite poetic, and I loved the mixture of Urdu and Glaswegian. There was a music to the way they spoke that I couldn’t recreate.”
Director Philip Osment says that My Name Is…, unlike many pieces of verbatim theatre, still “feels like a play”. “That’s because of the way Sudha has edited it. Both Molly’s parents tell their versions of how they met, for example, and she’s got them doing that simultaneously, so it feels like a scene. Knowing that the words on stage have been spoken by real people changes the audiences’ experience. It makes the audience invest in it in a very different way.”
He, too, remembers the newspaper headlines from 2006. “I remember that kneejerk sense of: ‘Oh gosh, it’s another of those stories about girls who are being sent to Pakistan to get married’. You slot the story into something that you think it fits without knowing really whether it fits or not.”
He says the family’s story feels very relevant to audiences in multicultural Britain today. Molly/Misbah was not, as she was sometimes portrayed, a tragic young girl who didn’t know her own name, she simply had two names, as many children in multicultural families do.
“This story feels incredibly current, to be showing the complexities around mixed marriage and both the joys and the pain of that experience. My godchildren have been to see it, their dad is Sikh but they’re being brought up predominantly in a white family, and I think it might help them to understand some of the stuff that might be going on for their dad. There are a lot of people growing up now who are the product of mixed relationships. The play doesn’t set out to provide answers, but it does open all that up in an experiential way.” n
• My Name Is..., Tron Theatre, Glasgow, Thursday to Saturday, www.tron.co.uk