A few years ago, I was sitting in the National Media Museum’s beautiful Pictureville cinema post-screening, filling out an audience survey form.
The fact that I am a journalist and have very good eyesight are two things I offer in mitigation for what I did once I had filled out my form.
My professionally-honed sense of curiosity and naturally impressive vision meant I couldn’t help but read the form of the person sitting in front of me. They were writing something in the ‘any other comments’ section. I was intrigued. Their comment read ‘I love the cinema, just a shame it’s in Bradford’.
I remember reading it because when someone says something mean about something you feel belongs to you, it stays with you.
My home city is much-maligned. Riots, racial tension, a long-left hole in the ground; the tireless campaigners behind the bid of Bradford to be named City of Culture for 2025 know they have an uphill battle ahead of them.
There is another side to the story of Bradford, to the youthful energy and unique, independent spirit of the city. It’s a side of the story captured in a new piece of theatre from the constantly impressive Common Wealth.
Born in Bradford and still operating with a base in the city (as well as Cardiff) the theatre company was made internationally famous by No Guts, No Heart, No Glory, its production by and about Muslim female boxers in Bradford. Recorded for the BBC and invited to an Australian festival, it planted a flag in the ground for a company that challenged everything about the stories theatre is supposed to tell, who tells those stories and even what theatre is.
Led by co-artistic directors Evie Manning and Rhiannon White, it is treading familiar – and entirely new – ground with Peaceophobia, which receives its world premiere tonight and is a typically combative piece that has grown organically from a surprising place.
Ostensibly it tells the story of young Pakistani men from Bradford who are brought together by a passion for modified cars. It is about much more than that beneath the surface.
London playwright Zia Ahmed has brought the stories together as the playwright for Peaceophobia, but the idea began locally, as Ahmed discovered when he came to Bradford for the first time last year.
“I met with Common Wealth and the people from Speakers Corner,” he says. Speakers Corner is a Bradford collective of women and girls facilitated by Common Wealth.
“The room was at least 50 percent full of these British Pakistani Muslim young women from Bradford. They wanted to talk about the stereotypes that always define them. They were really interested in talking about the stereotypes that are everywhere post-September 11 about their Muslim brothers and fathers.”
It is a coincidence that the play premieres tonight, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of an atrocity that has gone on to define this millennium more than any other event – the play was due to open last year and has been postponed several times as a result of the pandemic – but the timing lends a significance to the piece.
Iram Rehman is the co-director of Peaceophobia and is responsible for the title of the piece.
“I came up with the campaign hashtag Peaceophobia around two years ago now,” she says. “The message behind the name and the campaign is simple. Islam means Peace so how could you possibly have a phobia of peace?
“Peacephobia holds a special place for me because I am proud to be a Muslim woman and I do feel that our religion is presented in a negative way through many outlets, when in reality Islam is a beautiful religion which promotes nothing but peace.”
The theatre piece explores the rising tide of Islamophobia over the past two decades from the perspective of young Pakistani men from a modified car club in Bradford. Presented in an open-sided car park, it is typical of Common Wealth to think well outside the box of how theatre can be presented.
Rehman says: “The play is based upon the real-life experiences of three young men from Bradford, Casper, Ali and Sohail whose experiences with Islamophobia and race will be projected, alongside their passion for cars.”
As a Bradfordian, the ‘issue’ of young men and loud cars is one I understand – you hear it arriving at the lights next to you before you see it.
We should look again, according to Peaceophobia.
Rehman says: “The young Asian male population in Bradford are continuously criticised because of their love/passion for cars, which is why it is important for Bradfordians to hear this story. I hope this will bring the community together in a positive way.”
Rehman is one of a number of impressive young women in the city working to effect a real, lasting and positive change. A student at the city’s university, she also co-runs Speakers Corner. Working on Peaceophobia has been an eye-opening experience.
“For the past year and a half we’ve been holding meetings, R&D sessions and rehearsals. Each time we’ve rehearsed, we have added a different dynamic to the play. I hope audiences enjoy watching as much as we have had making this great piece.”
While I’m sure it will be fun, it is also another important milestone on the path to changing the perception of Bradford.
Growing up in the shadow of the Bradford Riots, 9/11 and police harassment, cars and faith are a sanctuary, an escape, an expression for three Muslim Pakistani men. Ali, Sohail and Casper are taking control of the narratives around their religion, their city, and their cars. Peaceophobia is to be staged in a car park with a Supra, a Golf and a classic Nova. The makers say it ‘brings together cars and theatre with cinematic lighting and an original electronic sound score’. At Oastler Market Car Park, Bradford city centre, September 10-18. Tickets commonwealththeatre.co.uk