I remember on my first day of secondary school I was handed a piece of paper, called a diversity monitoring form. As my eyes scanned each box in front of me, I was perplexed by the exhaustive abundance of options. I had always associated box ticking with a right or wrong answer and was astonished when I realised that none of them quite fit.
I know my family roots like a well-rehearsed script because I had constantly been told it was unique, or simply, wow! As an eleven-year-old boy, I took delight in those little exclamations. I have a Russian-Jewish mother and an Iraqi-Muslim father, and I was born and bred in England. There was, however, one box in particular that did catch my eye… mixed. But mixed or mixing was something I always associated with cooking.
I asked my teacher if there was a second supplementary page. After all, if this diversity monitoring form was so diverse, then where was my box? While the rest of my class sat shaking their completed forms above their heads like patriotic flags, I took mine home. My home was, in fact, another type of box. This box contained a single bed that I shared with my mother. This box was a rat-infested dilapidated room in a homeless shelter. This box was where I grew up!
There was a dotted line where I wrote the words Homo Sapien.
After locking up, which consisted of barricading our mattress against the flimsy wooden door to provide an extra layer of security during the night, and through the usual screams and violence existing outside, I ticked the box labelled other. Underneath this, there was a dotted line where I wrote the words Homo Sapien. I left it at that. Looking back now, I am rather proud of this precocious moment of my childhood.
I am currently rehearsing my debut play, Ali and Dahlia, at the Pleasance Theatre in London. It will be performed in their bunker space and could be referred to as… You guessed it, another type of box! But this box, I rather like. This box is where a community of creatives bring my story alive each night.
The seed for Ali and Dahlia was planted during a 12-hour overnight interrogation in Tel Aviv airport. In this small boxed-room, I could see the look on my interrogator’s face as he stared at me. It was the same puzzled look on his face as I had with my box-ticking conundrum. “You are either a Muslim or a Jew, you need to pick!” He was bewildered by this Muslim-Jewish hybrid sitting in his presence. I have always found humour to be a bridge between two divided entities, but he didn’t take too kindly towards my jokes. I was eventually released the next morning, the climactic moment being when he realized that a contact in my mobile phone titled Lebanese Ali, was not in fact a member of Hezbollah like he assumed but was my local Kebab house back in London.
Yet it seems we move ever more towards societal divisions,
During my morning commute to rehearsals each day, I am reminded once again of box ticking. I remember having two choices: remain and leave. And as the deadline Brexit looms on the 29 March I often think back to those boxes with uncertainty as to what will come.
As a society I feel we work towards promoting this thing we call diversity, this celebration of difference, yet it seems we move ever more towards societal divisions. Maybe the fault lies with these boxes, that when opened up become lines. When you place these lines on the sand, we call them borders and defend them. Build that border up vertically and we have a wall, a barrier, another act of segregation. It is these societal fractures that scare me during these unpredictable times.
And so I go back to my days at school and am reminded of an English lesson and the words of John Donne, ‘No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’
Ali and Dahlia opens at the Pleasance London on 26 March and runs until 14 April