Jamal Mehmood is a writer, poet and filmmaker based in London. His work has been featured at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Magma, BBC4, Popula and Media Diversified. Jamal has been shortlisted for the Outspoken Prize for Poetry in Film, won the national Poetry Rivals in 2016, and is an alumnus of the UniSlam post-emerging cohort of poets. His latest book ‘The Leaf of the Neem Tree’ (Hajar Press) was released in 2021.
We talk to Jamal about his experiences as a writer and filmmaker, Muslims in Media, Sufism, fatherhood and cultural diversity in Islam.
What drew you to filmmaking, writing and directing?
It’s difficult to pinpoint – it is a newer medium for me than writing poems or essays, but there’s a quality in film that’s difficult to express. It is such a broad, gargantuan thing compared to letters on a page, with so much room to play with. With it being so new to me its difficult to speak about it in the past tense, but what draws me to filmmaking is similar to what draws me to writing in general – it’s about how beautiful you can make something. With film, this attempt at making something beautiful is so (potentially) rich! Colour, dialogue, music, stillness – all of them must work together.
Has your faith as a Muslim inspired and/or influenced your creativity?
It inspires and influences me, in the way that it does outside of making art. I try and write through it, as opposed to ‘about’ faith. It’s not something for me that should sit in the religion-box as one of many identities to pull from, so I try and write as naturally as I can when it comes to faith (I’ll let readers decide how successfully!). Of course - it has a practical influence in to what I may or may not make and the way it is made, but again this is no different to outside of the writing process, as imperfect as the results of either endeavor will be.
What are the ideas and concepts you explore throughout your work?
This changes with time, but more recently I’ve been thinking about death, about spirituality and something which always comes up in my work – family, elders and the human connection.
Your critically acclaimed book The Leaf of the Neem Tree; a collection of poems and short stories, explores, identity, belonging and the impacts of the British empire. What was your thought process behind the collection and what do you hope the impact is on the reader?
The title poem was written after I attended a funeral of an elder close to my heart and realized how used to the process I had become, less so the meanings but just the logistics of our funerals. For me that was a wake-up call that I wasn’t young anymore. Through that poem came the idea at looking at familial / community history too. At the same time, I was very interested in Urdu poetry, about translations and the difficulty of bringing the quality of Urdu into English. So there was lots of disparate themes that came together throughout the process, and my editors were brilliant in helping structure the book in a way that allowed for all of them to exist without being distracting. I can’t stress enough how much their guidance on this helped!
The poems beautifully weave free verse and ghazal and English with Urdu. Was this challenging?
Yes! I was (and am) very weary of engaging with the Urdu tradition poorly. I didn’t want my poems to sound like flat English translations of Urdu but wanted something of the fragrance of that world to come across in a natural way.
You have also curated a playlist for Leaf of the Neem Tree, how do you feel this enhances the experience and connection with the poems and stories?
This was my publisher’s idea so I can’t take credit for it. The songs are a mixture of things I had been listening to while writing the book, and others that I think fit the theme well. I don’t know how people are engaging with that part, and how well they do go with the book. I haven’t tried reading the book cover-to-cover while listening to the playlist, in fact I haven’t read it from start to finish at all. I’m far too scared…
All My Heroes Were Peacocks is an exploration of coming of age, faith and the father son relationship. What was the intention behind the film?
It was much more a direct companion to the poem in it, than Muriid was to the poem in that film. I really wanted to show the relationship not between a father and a son, but between a boy and slightly older boy. That almost awe-like feeling as a child when seeing or interacting with olders. Its only when you grow up, comfortably past that age that you realise both of those kids are just kids. There was I guess, a slight nod to Asian rudeboy culture, and a very obvious nod to that famous scene in Kiarostami’s ‘Close Up’ – a remarkable story that’s partly about a man looking up to another in such an intense, almost obsessive way. I think that scene holds everything together in my film - the younger boy is finally with the person he reveres so much, almost literally carried by him.
What was the inspiration behind your short film Muriid as part of BBC New Creatives?
I wrote the poem that sits in Muriid well before the idea of the film came about – the poem is about letting go of unhealthy material attachments – a recurring theme in the tradition of Tasawwuf or Sufism. The film was written later and much more a backdrop for the poem than a visual telling of it. The film is in some way about that letting go but is centered around this age old relationship between student and teacher – the ‘muriid’ and his ‘murshid’. There was also a faint nod to probably one of the most famous and recognisable student – teacher relationships, of Jalal-Al Din Rumi and Shams Tabrizi. I’ve long been fascinated by the entire concept of this in the Tasawwuf tradition, that everyone should have a teacher, even in spirituality. In the film, the teacher in a dream sends his student off to receive his opening but can’t go with him.
You reference aspects of Sufism and Sufi tradition in the film. Is Sufi heritage and culture a part of your identity?
I’m not formally linked to a Tariqa, or Order, but have been fascinated by the tradition for a long time. In terms of heritage and culture, it has been part of Muslim life for hundreds of years, its something close to my heart, but I’m weary of becoming a poster boy for it with very little formal training. I think its important that people know about the tradition, but in its totality, and that’s not going to come from me with a 5-minute art film!
I hope it points in the right direction at least. From my little learning in the field, most of Sufism is about moral excellence, controlling the ego, purifying the soul and so on and so on. Without that, and without the normative jurisprudential tradition alongside it, any claim to Sufism or Tasawwuf is empty – or purely aesthetic. I make no claims of being perfectly faithful to either, and hope my work never makes it appear that way! I think its one of the issues Muslim artists will have, the fear of being put on some kind of pedestal for incorporating faith in their art. I’ve no idea if this has historically been the case. It would be an interesting area of study!
Which artists inspire you?
So many! It changes all the time, and this isn’t exhaustive, but in terms of contemporary artists - Gboyega Odubanjo, Murkage Dave, Sana Badri, Momtaza Mehri, Amir Sulaiman, Yasiin Bey, Sean Mahoney
And from the past – Faiz Ahmed Faiz, James Baldwin, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Saadat Hasan Manto
Which films and books have changed your outlook on life?
I’m unsure if my outlook has changed based on these books in an abrupt way – I always find these questions difficult – but I was very moved by Tahar Ben Jelloun’s ‘A Palace in the Old Village’, Ghassan Kanafani’s ‘Returning to Haifa’, Manto’s ‘Toba Tek Singh’, and Michael Sugich’s ‘Signs on the Horizon’.
How can you determine what makes a great film?
One that my mind always goes back to, one that whispers something instead of shouting, and it might not always be something easy to hear, but it stays.
What do you think of the representation and visibility of Muslims and Islam in mainstream media?
I tend not to engage too much in this conversation as it usually gets clouded by the culture wars rhetoric which to be frank, I just find quite uninteresting now. There is obviously an increase in the visibility of Muslims in mainstream media – and far too often its done quite poorly to be honest. Some of it looks unrecognisable to a large majority of Muslims (which brings into question the idea of ‘representation’ as a whole!), some of it just poorly researched – I think we’ve all seen videos shared about the prayer being shown incorrectly, the almost constant motif of ‘unveiling’ the Muslim woman, the list goes on. There does seem to be a comfort the mainstream has in problematising the religion, or in showing Muslims who are in conflict with their faith. I hope in the future we can see more well thought-out work in which the faith of Muslims is a natural part of their lives that they don’t have a burning desire to fight with. I think some of these problems are due to Muslims being homogenised as a particular ethnicity or culture, and no care being taken to understand the worldview and the history of the Religion, its principles and the diversity of cultures that practice it. I think we also need to turn away from the idea of the mainstream, its not the promised land. Our focus should be on the quality of our work, I don’t think its useful to ‘chase’ the mainstream as your north star – have you been there? What or who exactly are we looking for acceptance from? We all love recognition, and I’m not talking about complete disengagement from it, but its about the positioning of it in our hearts and minds.
Do you think there is a need for Muslims in Britain to reclaim narratives?
In a sense yes, but as I mentioned I don’t think this is about incessantly chasing the mainstream to ‘get us right’. Its more about understanding ourselves, confidence in that understanding and an attempt to engage with our tradition in earnest, beyond a cultural / historical connection. What that engagement produces I don’t know – but there’s potential for a new formula somewhere. It’s difficult for people to ‘reclaim the narrative’ if we don’t know exactly what we’re reclaiming, or what it should be replaced with. It’s also difficult to reclaim from a position of powerlessness, poverty and marginalization – so there’s many angles to this.
There’s now so much opportunity in communicating with people from all over the world, be it through the internet or relatively cheaper global travel for those who can, as well as the mergence of local institutions that support Muslims. We are seeing this come through in the last few years, the Aziz Foundation, Cambridge Muslim College are just two examples, but I do have hope that the community can grow in a positive way and be there for each other beyond ethnic or tribal affiliations.
Can you tell us about any current and upcoming projects you are working on?
Trying to be a good father is a big project I’m working on right now - my daughter is almost 9 months and its been a joy so far – I haven’t had much of a chance to make new work or think about it in this time. However, this year I’ve got back in the swing of studying, reading and brewing some ideas for film and writing. God knows if they’ll see the light of day but I’m going to try and enjoy this period of working through the ideas, and sharing the book in more places as the arts world comes back after a difficult couple of years.
What does the future of Islamic art and culture look like to you?
There’s so much exciting potential here, in terms of art made by Muslims (I struggle with the term ‘Islamic art’). I think we are slowly moving beyond just an aesthetic relationship with our past (something I’ve probably been guilty of too), but there’s a danger of leaning on that too much. We all love Mughal miniatures, whirling dervishes, stories about our past from Timbuktu to Adeni coffee houses or whatever, but I think until we seriously engage with what civilizational values produced those outputs, we run the risk of a superficial relationship with it.
I’m speaking of course of Muslims in the West here, and largely the UK and the USA – it’s important to avoid making this discourse exceptional to these two place. Most Muslims in the world do not live here, and probably have wildly different concerns to us too. A Senegalese painter, a Bangladeshi craftsman, a Sudanese singer – are these people in our minds when we think of the future of Islamic/ate culture? I think too often they probably aren’t.
The Muslim World is almost unimaginably diverse, it will be interesting to see what comes from this new world where Muslims from Sumatra can watch films made about Muslims in Nigeria, who can read poems written by Muslims in the USA, who can read a classical fiqh text written by a North African Muslim polymath, all on a 5 inch screen in the palm of their hands. The dunya is a strange place. I hope I’ve answered the question at least a little bit!
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