Azan Ahmed is an actor and poet based in North West London. He has been writing and performing poetry since 2019 and so far, his work explores the navigation of cultural identity through lenses of migration, faith and masculinity. He’s interested in reclamation and exploring the fractured to gain a better understanding of the whole. Currently, this means investigating the relationship between Britain and British Muslim men – basically, he wants people to know how wonderful it is to be brown/Muslim despite the baggage.
We talk to Azan about his journey as a poet, raising issues of diversity and identity in your work, reclaiming narratives and curating Deen & Dunya at Bush Theatre.
What were your experiences growing up? Did you always know you wanted to work in the creative industries?
Definitely not, I actually got into acting because of a dare. We were doing a school play in year 7, about a boy who wakes up as a girl and how his day pans out. The teacher asked for volunteers, all of us puberty-stricken boys were sheepish. Then, my friend bet me 50p I wouldn’t raise my hand. My arm shot up without thinking, 50p could buy you a lot back in the day. Anyway, I got selected for the part - equal parts silly, fun and freeing for a shy 12-year-old. I started to feel most at home in English or Drama class. But they always felt like fun ‘hobbies’, never real. Growing up between South Kilburn and Doha, the creative industries felt distant from the worlds I occupied. It wasn’t until university, reading Riz Ahmed’s essay in “The Good Immigrant” where I felt it was possible to be in this space. Examples make things real, and I had found a blueprint.
Saying that, my family has always been supportive, and creativity is in the genes. My Baba modelled in his twenties and my grandfather was a poet.
There is artistry in my ancestry but only now I’ve begun the journey of properly connecting to that. It’s taken a lot of unlearning to give myself permission to pursue performing arts, to feel like I belong in this field. In truth, Muslims and South Asians have always had a home in expression. Be it through Ghazals, whirling dervishes or the Asian Underground. Being raised mostly in the West, it was the trial of shifting away from a Eurocentric gaze that unlocked hope.
You are well known through your spoken word poetry and raising issues of diversity and identity in your work. What led you to this craft and using it as a tool to highlight issues?
Initially, poetry was a way for me to articulate frustrations. I was the only brown person in my year at university, surrounded by (often well meaning) middle class white people. That experience provided enough ammo for poems centred around the pronunciation of my name and interactions with “Faux Woke” people. It was less about highlighting issues around diversity and more about reclaiming the silences I swallowed.
For me, making work from a place of truth is always more interesting and fruitful than seeing it as a tool. Tools have finite uses, whereas truths can shift over time and it’s exciting to interrogate those spaces as they appear. If anything, the craft of poetry and heightened language are the tools that allow us to access our truths and the issues we wrestle with. We’re often too scared to say things straight, well I know I am, so I hide behind rhymes.
Nowadays, I view poetry and poetic performances as experiments or offerings to audiences. We’ve all seen our fair share of trauma-centered stories. So, what else can I offer? The multi-faceted beauty and vibrancy of Pakistani culture, and the proud resilience in the Asian Underground tell me there is so much to offer. There is so much brown joy. Therefore, I’m more interested in using poetry as an act of archiving for now. It’s lead me to write two plays. One that is set in a 90s daytime rave, and the other explores how Muslim men shrink into statues of their former selves over time.
Does Islam and being a Muslim influence your creativity? If so, how?
For sure, it’s my lived experience and how I see the world so it definitely informs the work I make and the stories I wish to tell. There are certain values I try to live by both as a person and a creative and it’s only after reading this question that I realised how much Islam in its peaceful essence has influenced them. I try to constantly remain studious, curious, specific and sincere.
As a Muslim, I am taught to seek knowledge and not grow complacent. To continuously discover, whether that be through recitation or hearing differing perspectives. We set intentions when we pray, we are specific where we pray and these acts of connection must be done wholeheartedly and with full presence. All of those wonderful things can be seamlessly translated into an acting/writing/performing context. I hope that doesn’t sound trivial, what I’m trying to say is my foundation in Islam and being Muslim allows me to be an open and relaxed performer that is rooted with purpose.
However, an interesting thought myself and other Muslim and Sikh actor friends often talk about, is that we didn’t come into this game to only play Muslims, or Sikhs etc. I love being Muslim, but just because I am, does that mean every role I play has to have a storyline centred around the Islamic faith? As a storyteller, I want to be able to dip into several perspectives
As an actor, what do you think of the representation of Muslims on television and film? How can we reclaim our narrative and tell our own stories?
We’re in a really interesting time when it comes to this. There are brilliant shows like ‘Ladyparts’ and ‘Ramy’ that subvert stereotypes with dazzling flare and sincerity. We’re about to get a Female, Muslim Pakistani American Superhero in Ms Marvel. Yet, there are still shows where Hijabi women are ‘unveiling’ themselves as a triumphant narrative device, where lazy portrayals of Salat look like a really bad Yoga video. The fact that we have examples of great and lazy representation is bittersweet.
For me, it highlights the need for more mindful representation of Muslims on screen. When done mindfully, the whole piece of work is elevated and feels cohesive. Nobody likes a shoehorned narrative, so when the Muslim character is shoehorned…we probably won’t like them. Of course, the very notion of representation is narrow because there are literally over 2 billion Muslims, who occupy many different intersections and practice differently. Muslims are more than one ethnicity and this should be reflected.
The direction we should be going is creating a critical mass of Muslim storytellers and platforming their creativity. A multitude that looks like a mosaic, every piece a little different to the next. It’s hard to reclaim from a place of marginalisation and in many cases poverty. It’s also hard to reclaim when we ourselves don’t know the counter narratives. If we can find a way to facilitate greater inter-generational conversations, we may see the abundance of stories waiting to be told. Looking back to springboard forward
Which artists have influenced your creativity?
Tell us about Deen and Dunya – what was the intention and concept behind it?
Deen & Dunya is a poetry event which celebrates and elevates Muslim voices. It’s a night full of poetry, music and performance all accompanied a live DJ. We welcome audiences from all backgrounds, but the performers are all Muslim. We currently perform regularly at the Bush Theatre. Our next event is 26 April and then again on 17 June.
The event started out as a response to a gorgeous play called ‘10 Nights’ by Shahid Iqbal Khan, which was on at the Bush Theatre last September. I felt strongly that this play, with its authentically Muslim cast & crew, could be a moment for Muslims in British Theatre. So, I pitched Deen & Dunya to the Bush team to mark this moment. Within theatre we often see one Muslim’s perspective in a show, so the concept here was to bring together an inclusive line up that saw Muslims take up space through storytelling. To give glimpses of the thoughts, dreams and frustrations of those who view the world with two or more cultural lenses. Those who are seeking balance between their Deen and this Dunya.
How did you select the artists involved in Deen and Dunya?
When curating a Deen & Dunya night, it’s vital that the line up is as intersectional as possible. To illustrate that there is no one way to be Muslim. This means getting a balance of genders, looking for Queer Muslim artists and Muslim artists from different ethnicities and heritages.
The artists’ styles have to complement and contradict each other to, in order to bring light and shade to the event and keep things engaging. On our first night we had Adam Hasyim Cranfield perform a sombre piece of visual art, and on our most recent night we had a rap performance amongst the poetry.
What has been the audience reaction to Deen and Dunya?
I think you’ll have to ask them, or come to the next one and see! Alhamdulillah, I’ve received some lovely feedback. It seems to be resonating deeply with the Muslim audience, which is the most important thing. Feels like people need a safe space like this to congregate in. I’ve had friends who are far removed from the creative sector attend and feel welcomed and inspired. We sold out both our nights very quickly, which only further cements the desire for spaces like these from the community.
It’ll be an exciting challenge to frame the next one, given it will be during Ramadan! I’ve got some ideas on how to centre the night around selflessness and giving.
How do you think we can work towards raising the profile of Islamic art in the future? What do you think the potential is?
The potential is limitless! We have to believe that. I’m not entirely certain what Islamic art means, but perhaps that suggests we need to do a better job at defining it? I do think the profile can be raised through greater inter-disciplinary collaboration and conversation. A lot
of marginalised artists spend so much time thinking there’s only space for one Muslim actor, painter or sculptor so we end up closing ourselves off. Instead, I wonder what a collaboration between a Muslim beatboxer and Muslim painter would look like if they were given the same stimulus? Experiments like these bring spectacle, which creates conversation and ultimately will allow us to stretch what we mean by Islamic art. Also, I think Muslim creatives need to constantly work (both by themselves and with organisations) on making their work accessible to those who don’t usually occupy these art spaces. We should strive to make work for our Mothers, Imams and art tutors.
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