By Carmel Shortall
Sarah Youssef’s powerful new play, Citizen Erased, which premiered at the Etcetera Theatre yesterday, seeks to shine a light on the issue of ‘honour killing’. Inspired by the circumstances surrounding the murder, in 2006, of Banaz Mahmod, an Iraqi Kurd living in London, the play also references the case of the honour killing of Saudi Arabian Princess Misha’al in 1977.
Simply but imaginatively staged by The Silver Lining Theatre Company and directed by Mara Lockowandt, the play conveys the claustrophobic tensions within Anooshe’s family and the sense of always being watched as the members of the cast not currently ‘onstage’ stand along the back wall, behind empty picture frames, and watch the remaining cast members. The cast is excellent and all convince.
As the audience file into the theatre, they are confronted by the sight of a body sprawled on the floor in an otherwise quiet domestic scene. As the play begins, two masked men emerge from the shadows to manhandle and strangle the still living Anooshe. Casting a rag over her face, they leave and Anooshe, appearing to wake, is joined by Princess Misha’al who will return at moments of crisis while Anooshe remembers the events leading to her own killing.
In the first flashback, Anooshe arrives at her family home after leaving her abusive husband of three years. The concept of honour is introduced, as her father is chiefly concerned with the promises he made to the husband’s family and the fact that this will cast a shadow on the following day’s celebration for his nephew’s circumcision which he is hosting. This is a great honour and his standing in the community is shown to be predicated on how he is perceived by those outside as well as inside his family. Women bring dishonour if they do not behave exactly as demanded – at best they can merely avoid being agents of shame. The women in such societies have no identities or rights of their own: they can be “erased” despite being citizens of the wider community which, currently, is failing them.
At the celebration, Anoushe encounters Rahim and it is her burgeoning relationship with him that will lead ultimately to her downfall and murder as her father’s business suffers and the community, personified by her uncle and grandmother, closes in and demands her death.
The play shows that there is always more than one perpetrator of an honour killing: there is an entire chorus of disapproving members of the closed community who, like the furies of ancient Greek tragedy, must be appeased and who give permission and absolution, so that crimes abhorrent in wider society can be committed with impunity, even approval.
Citizen Erased seeks to highlight some important issues and explores the background to a little understood and often ignored abuse of human rights happening in the heart of our own communities. It does so with compassion and an admirable lack of sensationalism.
The play runs until Thu 12th August at the Etcetera Theatre, starting at 4.30pm.