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A play that opens up debate as the witch hunters shut it

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Hassan Mahamdallie spoke to Saba Shiraz about his play, The Crows Plucked Your Sinews, on Somali history and the war on terror
Issue 2488
The show is performed by Yusra Warsama
The show is performed by Yusra Warsama

What was your inspiration for the play?

My original inspiration was finding out about the historic Somali figure Sayyid Abdullah Hassan who fought the British colonialists between 1899 and 1920.

Sayyid is a relatively unheard of figure, but he really was a predecessor to the national liberation movements that grew after the Second World War.

He was an effective guerrilla fighter, whom the British never managed to capture.

The more I found out about him, the more interested I became in the whole period of Somali history.

This period is particular to Somalia, but I found so many

contemporary resonances around the nature of colonised people and the debate around Islam.

British propaganda called him the “Mad Mullah” and there were others leading resistance in Muslim countries in the Empire that were branded like that.


But will a contemporary audience connect with that story?

I’ve taken the history of the Somali guerrilla movement, but I’ve also made the main figure a young Somali woman living in Woolwich in south east London today.

Not to give too much away, but in the part of the play set in the present day one Somali family gets in trouble with the police for “terrorism”.

I’m not trying to draw direct parallels, but the play is saying that it’s important to look at history to understand what’s going on today.

And that it’s also important to understand that violence has causes.

There are also certain things we aren’t apparently allowed to say anymore.

We can’t say that what’s happening in Middle East is rebounding in the West or that the two are linked. And Muslims are afraid to raise these

questions because of all the witch hunting.

I wanted to use the stage to put some of these questions to an audience.

The aim is for people to learn a bit about Somali history and culture, but also to reflect on the situation that the “war on terror” has placed us in today.



Why a one woman show?

Originally it was going to be a one man show because Sayyid was such a central figure.

But then I read a biography of him that said he used women warriors in his army and one of his wives led part of his army.

I thought that it was interesting that a Muslim in those days would integrate women into his army.


Where does the title come from?

Apart from his military exploits, Sayyid produced epic poems.

These have a lot to do with Somalia’s oral culture.

The play’s name is taken from one of his most famous poems which is celebrating the death of a British military commander.

This again raises the question about violence.

What’s the difference between the violence of the oppressed and the violence of the oppressor?

Can it ever be justified? Do the ends justify the means?

After all we’re told it can with Britain bombing in the Middle East.


What sort of audience are you hoping to attract?

Obviously we’d like to get Somali people to come along.

But we want to get anyone who wants to see contemporary drama that’s not afraid to say what’s going on.

There are lots of people around who want to talk about these things.

The government is shutting down debate, but an audience can say, “We want that debate”.

The Crows Plucked Your Sinews
Written and directed by Hassan Mahamdallie.
Touring Manchester, London, Birmingham and Leicester from 27 January to 5 March. Tickets from £10

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