Ahead of Waswasa – Whispers in Prayer arriving in our Patrick Studio this month, artist Mohammed Ali shares the inspirations behind his new immersive theatrical experience.
What first connected you to creativity?
Since a child, I’ve always been into art. Many Asian families would encourage their children to become Doctors, Lawyers, Engineers, I knew early on that I was destined for the creative sector. I’ve tried my best to shake it out of my system but it never worked. Here I am now, and for two decades now I’ve been working professionally in the creative sector.
Which of your live projects has been closest to your heart?
Whilst I refer to being in the arts as ‘working professionally’ – it really is a personal passion. It’s how I express my feelings on various things, be it my fears, loves, hopes and dreams. Whilst I have delivered a multitude of shows and exhibitions, when it comes to ‘live’ shows this ‘Waswasa’ show really is the most ambitious to-date. It really is the big one for me, as it’s such a heavy theme. It’s one I feel most passionate about.
What inspired your show Waswasa – Whispers in Prayer?
About 25 years ago when I was working in my dad’s restaurant, we used to have regular customers that would come into the kitchens to say hello to the chef. They were entering into our world, beyond those kitchen doors. We used to have a lot of banter with them, so it was all very light-hearted fun. One time I remember vividly – and it stuck with me until this day – is when a regular called Andy, sees our Tandoori Chef who makes the nan breads praying on his prayer mat next to the Tandoori oven. He was bewildered upon sight of him prostrating on the floor. It led to a conversation about the action and motivations of prayer and he was mesmerised by it. Our worlds collided at that point and it struck me that we never have such opportunities to have honest and thoughtful conversations about such things. Our differences as human beings are never dissected and explored. My father’s generation of early immigrants tried very hard to blend in – not stand out and be themselves. This led to such exchanges being quite rare.
I knew from that point that prayer was an area that was so central to the immigrant narrative but so little explored beyond our own communities. I knew I had to expand beyond those boundaries and make it something that was demystified in a form that the likes of Andy, our regular customer, could comprehend.
Tell us about the show?
The show is a multi-disciplinary art show, that uses real-life community narratives, theatre and a visual-art display in an immersive setting. For a few years now, I’ve been building this show that captures the experience of Muslim Prayer and what that means in a modern society. Whilst the show takes places in a theatre, the audience will be walking through the space and seeing the art surround them. They will then gather together onto an artificial lawn to experience the story told by a single actor. Film projections and especially made musical soundscapes will surround them as well as recitations and performances of Islamic prayer. We wanted to explore Islamic prayer in a form that’s never been seen before, including sharing the struggles and challenges of prayer in a secular society.
What inspired the title?
Waswasa is an Arabic word for devilish whispers that taunt you. Whilst the show is generally uplifting, we wanted to explore some of the darker aspects too; how many may struggle with faith and focus. In fact, Waswasa relates to people of no faith as we all struggle with achieving that higher state of focus with things like social media and technology dominating our lives.
What is the key message you want people to take away from this?
Regardless of whether someone follows a particular religion, or for those who don’t follow one at all – we all at some point seek to find that place of focus, what some know as the ‘flow-state’ or what is more commonly referred to as simply ‘being in the zone’. That is something common to us all. We try to take time out whether it be through yoga, meditation, being creative or through ritualistic prayer in religion. We are all on similar pathways and Waswasa is to explore some of those parallels, including the struggles. When we explore the lesser obvious parallels in our lives, we can come together in more meaningful ways. This is a quest for dialogue and understanding is more crucial than ever in an increasingly polarised society.
Is there an element in the show that is your favourite?
Whilst the narratives in this show are drawn from various real-life characters, there are some deeply personal moments in this show that relate to my own experiences. In particular I explore the concept of Death as being the biggest taboo in life. Having lost my mother to Covid a year and a half ago, there is a scene that delves into how we perceive death in society and how we often bury our head in the soil in reference to it.
How important are shows like to promote understanding?
Often, we see approaches to dialogue and understanding in the realms of interfaith, being not the most radical. They can often be presented in very cliché forms, and basically end up ‘preaching to the converted’! It is crucial that work around understanding different communities is cutting edge, challenging and perhaps even uncomfortable for some. That type of approach just doesn’t happen often enough and I always encourage those in this area of work, to push the boundaries, present ‘differently’ to what we are used to seeing.
What does prayer mean to you?
Prayer is personal, it’s a personal experience between me and God, but It is also is about community, as communal prayer is a foundation of Islamic prayer. So, we can’t separate prayer as a personal experience from the ‘politics’ around it, especially as the Muslim community as a minority in this society is so often misrepresented. Prayer is a very visual display of faith and something so familiar to the public.
It can be seen even on football pitches after a goal is scored or in public parks when large prayer moments happen such as the time of the Muslim Eid festival. It’s become too easy to attach negativity to the physical act of prayer, mainly because often people just don’t understand it. Prayer for me is personal as well as something very public.
Why should audiences come to Waswasa – Whispers in Prayer?
Islamic prayer would never have been captured in this form ever before. I have described Waswasa as ‘Muslim Prayer meets Bladerunner’. Aesthetically this show is going to be stunning as well as meaningful. It’s for people from the Muslim community as well as those from outside. It straddles all communities because prayer and focus are perhaps something we are all striving for and there should be a thing or two for us all to learn from!
Waswasa – Whispers in Prayer runs in our Patrick Studio from Thursday 25 August – Saturday 1 September. You can purchase your tickets here.