Writer: Shahid Iqbal Khan
Director: Kash Arshad
Yasser (Zaqi Ismail) hardly knows why he has decided to take part in itikaf, a challenging ten-day fast spent praying and sleeping in the mosque at the end of Ramadan. The thought of all that forbidden food dominates his mind until a worse horror takes over: he must give up his mobile. He reckons he’ll have a thousand or so Instagram posts to catch up on by the end.
At first his dilemma is played for laughs, as Ismail switches between characters. There is maddening Zaakir, who suggests Yasser should check out particular YouTube sermons. “Do you follow any scholars?” he asks with smug competitiveness. Yasser’s father, however, is encouraging: “Itikaf is like fresh air. It will be good for your health, son.”
Once at the mosque, Hakim Uncle shows Yasser the curtained off area of the prayer hall where he’ll stay throughout itikaf. What lies before him? Solitary days of praying, meditating and reading the Quran. Other men take Yasser through the proper ways of washing and praying. Gradually, through the chaos of his thoughts, emerge powerful feelings about his friend Aftab who died in a drunk-driving accident. Exactly whose fault was it?
The arc of the story is a simple one. We might see Yasser’s itikaf not just as a spiritual retreat, but ultimately as a pilgrimage. Ismail convincingly captures Yasser’s gradual acceptance of the ritual’s soothing rhythms. His backstory is only sketchily presented, however, and is a less convincing part of the story. 10 Nights is a co-production with Graeae and Tamasha, who champion respectively deaf and disabled actors and ethnically diverse ones. A brilliant device is to use a performance interpreter not just to to sign, but to do so as Aneela, Aftab’s girlfriend. Sumayya Si-Tayeb offers so much more than conventional BSL signing. A compelling performer, Si-Tayeb’s brilliant range of gestures and facial expressions offers an often very funny counterpoint to Yasser’s tendency to self-deception. Deaf actor Safyan Iqbal gives a tender representation of the dead Aftab.
For audience members unfamiliar with Islam, the play is an education, a look inside the private world of Muslim worship. Muslim audiences will be reassured that 10 Nights, far from making fun of Islam, is a celebration of its depth. If the play doesn’t offer much by way of dramatic tension, it provides an insightful and kindly view of the power of traditional religious observance.
Runs until 6 November 2021