Lauren Booth: Accidentally Muslim
Gilded Balloon Teviot, v14
12:00 (ends 26 August, not 15)
🌟🌟🌟 (3 Stars)
As we enter the venue, a man is singing, presumably in Arabic: I hear the word bismillah, familiar from Bohemian Rhapsody, but don’t understand the rest. A woman dressed in black stands up and turns to face us: she is dressed in a flowing hijab with just a slit through which we see a strip of skin as pale as the hands she holds out in front of her. She flips up the small curtain covering her face so we can see it and explains that she’s in a robe which is way too short for her, surrounded by “a sea of penguins”, in an Iranian shrine, in the middle of Ramadan in an attempt to get a journalistic scoop by going where western journalist has never gone before.
To explain how she got there, she launches into a convoluted narrative [with photos and grainy film footage] which rubs shoulders with many of the rich and famous, is full of social and political commentary and draws laughter from many audience members. Her father, the film and TV actor Tony Booth, was “a pub catholic” while her mother was “a superstitious christian” who filled the house with crosses from places she visited. School and drama school – a mayhem of egos – were followed by a brief spell at journalism school from which she was kicked out for being able to do it perfectly already.
Being Tony Blair’s sister-in-law opened doors and got her jobs; she married her long-term boyfriend; she fell pregnant – and that’s when things started to shake her out of her comfortable, unthinking, rather shallow existence. The death of a fifteen-year-old Palestinian boy who tried to resist Israeli tanks by throwing stones at them began to wake her up to the injustices in the world. The imminent threat of waging war on Iran got her marching, with her two young children and two million other people – and she realised that this march had made not the slightest difference: in effect, Tony Blair radicalises her.
Lauren’s first experience of Palestine came when she was sent to cover their first-ever elections. She found out afterwards that the ‘correct’ behaviour for foreign journalists was to stay in their hotel in Ramallah and get the people they wanted to interview to visit them there. Not knowing this, she went out among the local people and talked to them. She experienced their welcome, their hospitality, and their culture – give the best to the traveller means you give them the most precious thing your family has, regardless of how much it means to you. She brought back with her a copy of the Koran in English – but had no intention of reading it.
And so her life continued: a mixture of ordinary privilege – buying her dream house in rural France and bringing her children up there – and extraordinary – being in the small boatload of human rights activists who broke through the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Unlike the others, she did not leave shortly afterwards, but stayed on to interview people and report on the horrors there – and experience warm hospitality and the extraordinarily resilient and humble nature of the people living in Gaza.
A jumbled mixture of soundbites from Lauren’s narrative filled the blackout, and then we were back with her in that Iranian mosque – where something extraordinary happened to her: she found herself in a place of deep peace. She fell asleep in the mosque and left the next day, still resisting Islam – but one week later found herself going to a mosque in London and taking the first steps on her new path as a Muslim.
It’s a fascinating story which is told more fully in the autobiography she has written – Finding Peace in the Holy Land: a British Muslim Memoir. I should have liked the show to concentrate more on her conversion – things were hinted at rather than spelt out, as in the difficult questions posed by her two small daughters when she took them to an Anglican church service in France – and find out what differences her conversion has made in her life: but other people will no doubt have reacted differently.
Muslims in the audience were enthusing about it afterwards, and we were invited to join Lauren in conversation after the show. I didn’t, but had I been in Quaker mode rather than reviewer mode, I would have enjoyed the opportunity to talk with Lauren and enlarge my understanding of one of the world’s major religions.