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Karim Khan: Broadcasters are still too afraid to commit to Muslim storytellers

The writer of the award-winning Brown Boys Swim discusses his hit play

© Geraint Lewis

I remember almost two years ago having a conversation with Ria and John, the brilliant co-directors at the North Wall, during the thick of lockdown – in which they told me they wanted to commission me to write a new play, and would love to take it to the Edinburgh Fringe. I wasn't asked to pitch. I was offered unwavering support to do my thing, and on hearing this, I was absolutely ecstatic and deeply touched. It's rare, as a writer, to be granted that level of artistic freedom and opportunity to produce something that felt significant to me, and regardless of what that play would later become, to be supported the whole way.

With that freedom, comes great responsibility– but that wasn't lost on me for one second. I spent considerable time thinking about what it was I wanted to do next, what story deep inside me I wanted to bring to the surface. I had regular invigorating conversations with John Hoggarth – our fantastic director – about ideas I wanted to explore and the style through which I wanted to explore them. Again, being emboldened to consider what it was I wanted to do with the piece felt rare.

At the heart of the play I went on to write – Brown Boys Swim – is a rites-of-passage story about two young Pakistani Muslim boys in Oxford. It's told through their lens, and the play doesn't shy away from the specificity and particularity of their lives. Kash has returned from Umrah with a shaven head, and the boys share holy water, ‘zamzam' together. Mohsen is desperate to get into Oxford University. Kash has a huge crush on one of his teachers and is adamant she likes him back. As these fragmentary glimpses might suggest, I wanted to write Muslim boys outside of any politicised sphere. We've existed there for far too long in other people's narratives. These boys are ordinary human beings. They're just as flawed, messy and beautiful as anyone else. I wanted to delve into the tenderness of their friendship bond.

I write for both TV and theatre, and my experience in TV thus far has shown me that some broadcasters struggle to identify with the stories I am telling – possibly because they dip into the lives of people they can't quite identify with. Despite apparent commitments to greater diversity, I think broadcasters are sadly still too afraid to commit to Muslim storytellers writing about Muslims on their terms – afraid of whether our stories will cut through to their wider audiences in the mainstream space. I always believe universal stories crucially derive from specificity.

The faith and unwavering conviction that the North Wall has shown artists like me – to tell our stories on our own terms – is something that the gatekeepers of our television and theatre industries can learn and adopt in bucket loads. Our stories are commercial. They're universal. You just have to give us a shot and let us prove it to you.