Song of the suicide bomber: How 'Babur in London' negotiated a cultural minefield

The daring new opera featuring British terrorists planning an attack is being staged next month.

"My name is Mo, short for Mohammed,/ I'm a second-generation immigrant cliché: Twenty-eight, disenfranchised, well educated./ My mother is white, but I'm all Paki./ My father owns a corner shop where I work,/ And I owe my allegiance to global Umma./ My nation's the Republic of Islam."

So sings Mo, one of four aspiring suicide bombers in the cast of Babur in London, a daring new opera that tackles modern-day terrorism as well as the legacy of ancient Indian history in its libretto. The production is named after Babur, a warrior who founded the Mughal Empire in India in the 16th century, and who was a famously brutal warlord as well as a brilliant poet.

The chamber piece, which begins its UK tour on 12 June after opening in Zurich earlier this year, follows the lives of four radicalised British-Asian characters from a London suburb – Mo, Faiz, Nafisa and Saira – as they meet the ghostly spectre of Babur, debate with him such concepts as Jihad, war, the afterlife and the Islamic ban on alcohol, and finally carry out their deadly attack. Some characters wear Western dress while others are in traditional Islamic attire including the hijab, and the stage set is a symbolic, debris-strewn landscape of disused water bottles.

Jeet Thayil, the Indian poet and musician, had long wanted to bring the legendary figure of Babur back to life for modern audiences, but it was when he discussed the project with the composer Edward Rushton and director John Fulljames – soon after the Mumbai terror attacks – that they decided to incorporate the theme of suicide bombings into the libretto.

The production team was aware of political sensitivities and the danger of sensationalism so they entered into lengthy discussions with scholars of Islam as well as the counter-terrorism think tank Quilliam Foundation, before they drafted singers and embarked on rehearsals. There will also be a series of accompanying workshops in some cities including London and Bradford which will explore some of the questions that the opera raises, as well as pre- and post-show debates.

The opera signals a growing readiness for artists to handle the incendiary theme of contemporary terrorism in their work. It follows a recent, critically feted debut novel Ours Are the Streets, by the British Asian author Sunjeev Sahota, about a would-be suicide bomber who is writing a diary as a final love letter to his wife – a white British convert to Islam – and his child, as he prepares to die in the name of Islamic Jihad. Meanwhile, Chris Morris's film satire Four Lions, featuring a group of bungling suicide bombers, won praise from Moazzam Begg, a former detainee at Guantanamo Bay.

Fulljames, director of Babur in London, felt this was a legitimate subject for opera to handle, and dismissed the idea that the production might offend sensibilities in Britain, in spite of the London terror attacks which claimed 52 lives in 2005. "The headline on the tin inevitably has something sensational about it... and in dealing with a subject like this, we were anxious [about audience response] but in the end, we talked in detail about what the piece was, and what became clear when we premiered it in Switzerland was that it was seen as a beautiful, thoughtful, delicate piece of work, with nothing sensational about it."

The production is a collaboration between Opera North and The Opera Group (TOG); the latter has been responsible for previous controversial operas featuring dementia and climate change as their main themes – they staged The Lion's Face in 2010 which explored the emotional and physical impact of Alzheimer's disease, and a year later, Seven Angels, which drew inspiration from Milton's Paradise Lost to reflect on environmental dangers.

Fulljames, who is also the former artistic director of TOG, says he passionately believes that opera should be part of the contemporary world, and so should not avoid grappling with current-day themes. "I think opera needs to be part of the cultural landscape. The conversation around it should be the same conversation we are having in our cities. If we only make opera about martians who live on the moon, then it's deeply unsatisfactory.

"What opera offers is an emotional space to have these conversations. For example, dementia is very easy to understand as a science, but it's much harder to understand the emotions. The subject matter here is intellectually – and emotionally – challenging for the cast and audience."

Thayil has spent many years reading around the central historical figure in the opera, including Babur's poetic autobiography, Baburnama, and the Koran, initially read for its poetry – as a piece of literature – and later studied seriously when the idea for the libretto started to crystallise in 2005.

The libretto contains highly wrought moments during which the characters reflect on death and suicide, but also some combative exchanges when the British youths attempt to argue the case for staging a suicide bombing, while Babur – a warrior famed for the immense carnage he wreaked – argues against the practice, saying: "God doesn't countenance the slaughter of innocents."

Later on, he declares that these four modern Jihadists are ignorant of the Holy Book, reflecting on the battles he fought which did not include the death of innocents in the way a suicide attack inevitably would: "Suicide is a sin and murder is a sin,/ And in the eyes of God you are sinners."

While the themes are morbid and bloodthirsty, there is a rich and complex poetry to the libretto. Thayil says this reflects Babur's own contradictory spirit. "Poetry and violence are not mutually exclusive, and are in fact married, as a reading of Homer or The Ramayana will prove."

'Babur in London', Haymarket, Basingstoke (01256 844 244) 12 June; then touring to Leeds, Birmingham, Oxford, London, Hull and Cheltenham until 7 July (theoperagroup.co.uk)

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