Hamed Amiri talks to Merlin Gable about his new play, based on his family’s experiences fleeing Afghanistan and settling in Wales.
You can read the review of The Boy with Two Hearts here.
On the greasy pole of Welsh theatrical hierarchy, the Wales Millennium Centre stands at the top.
Its place there was preordained, part of a period of conscious nation-building as the era of devolution and the new millennium began. And sure, it represents only one type of success that some producers, writers and performers may eschew – but it stands there nevertheless, on the southern edge of the nation, looking out to sea as a symbol both of Cardiff and of performing arts in Wales.
It’s therefore no mean feat for a writer to score a production there, regardless of the stage of their career. It becomes even more impressive when it is their very first production, or their very first piece of writing at all. But that is where Hamed Amiri finds himself.
‘I never saw myself as a writer, or even someone creative,’ he says. ‘Two years ago, I’d never even been to the theatre before.’
Last year, his memoir The Boy with Two Hearts was published to widespread acclaim. It quickly became a Radio 4 Book of the Week and was serialised for radio. Then came the news that it would be the first production that the Centre would produce and stage upon its long-awaited autumn 2021 reopening.
Amiri, he is quick to tell me when we sit down together in a side room high up in the curved frontage of the building which will shortly house his play, did not ever consider himself a writer. He is softly spoken but talks with energy – in his eyes and in his voice – and with a mild but discernible Cardiff accent.
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‘I never saw myself as a writer, or even someone creative,’ he says. ‘Two years ago, I’d never even been to the theatre before.’ This elicits a wry laugh at himself as he now discusses his involvement in the production of his own play. ‘For me, the reason I wrote the book and the play was to get my emotions on paper. I admitted things that I thought I’d take to the grave with me to protect my loved ones. It’s something I’ve never done, but something I needed to do.’
‘We knew nothing about Cardiff. But it was the first time, coming out of the minibus and seeing volunteers waiting, that I saw a genuine smile from someone who wanted to make us feel welcome. That was the first time in a long time we felt at home.’
Indeed, sometimes it takes extraordinary circumstances to compel someone to write. Life-writing, Amiri’s chosen form, is so often the product of necessity – and of deeply significant personal experience – rather than just the desire to tell a good story. Amiri’s story is of his family fleeing Afghanistan in 2000 and travelling, over eighteen months, to the UK as refugees. He ‘always wanted to write a book about us leaving home and coming to the UK’, but it took the death of his older brother Hussain in 2018 – whose childhood heart condition prompted their leaving of Afghanistan in search of medical treatment – to compel him to put pen to paper. ‘Then I knew what the story should be. It should be the story of us leaving home and why we did, the journey across the world to the UK and to Cardiff, and eventually it should land on how my older brother lived his life and how he helped others.’
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The story of seeking asylum is one that is as familiar as it is alien to the vast majority: familiar as one of the most significant phenomena of modernity but something that in practice many of us can distance ourselves from – through headlines, figures, TV or phone screens – without having to confront the specificities of individual people’s journeys. Yet Amiri speaks with surprising levity about it.
‘We always knew we’d have to leave. By 2000 my brother had had two operations already and a specialist said there were two places that could properly treat him: the US and the UK. So we had a plan to leave but not a proper plan – we just knew we had to find a way. At the same time my mum was getting frustrated everyday by what she was witnessing under Taliban rule with women’s rights and equality. Eventually she decided to give a speech to local people to raise some hope and to raise some awareness. It was a successful speech but it was also an execution order. So the plan of leaving home instead of taking months or years had to be done in a few days. We had to sell everything, borrow money from family, and pay human traffickers to get us out.’
He glosses over their eighteen-month journey – perhaps out of a desire to avoid painful detail, or maybe just not to ruin the story. He picks up upon his family’s arrival in the UK.
‘Initially we were in Kent, in Margate, for a few weeks. Then they told us that our chosen location was Cardiff – this city elsewhere. We knew nothing about Cardiff. But it was the first time, coming out of the minibus and seeing volunteers waiting, that I saw a genuine smile from someone who wanted to make us feel welcome. That was the first time in a long time we felt at home.’
Memoirs like Amiri’s are at once highly personal and, in the act of sharing through writing, deeply communal. They often suggest ways that we can understand wider truths about our world through the lens of individual experience. The writer Helen Buss describes them as ‘the personalising of history; the historicising of the personal’. Amiri is aware too that as specific as his family’s story is, it also shares a common thread with the experiences of many seeking asylum from instability within their own country.
‘My story is a representation of many stories. It’s my journey, and the focus on my mother and my brother is unique, but along the way we met so many other refugees with so many stories. So this story is also a representation of a refugee story. We hear about resettlement programmes, we hear about people leaving their home countries, but this story gives you an insight about what that could look like, or may look like for some people.’
‘It’s a surreal experience seeing someone play my older brother but also when someone passes away you rarely if ever get to see or feel that essence of them again.’
‘And the other side of it is: what happens when they do get here? There’s integration with the language, the culture, the weather, the new world you live in – that’s all detailed in the play. In my character you can see how I struggled at school due to the impact of what had happened to me. How do we cope in this weird environment? You’ve been taken from your city, from everything you’ve known. So the play is a representation of my story, but also of what so many others have experienced.’
But, Amiri is keen to tell me, this is as much a story of hope and a story of Wales – his family’s acceptance here and their relationship with the NHS. When they first arrived, he describes how ‘my brother Hussain had a lot of tests, initially in Heath Hospital in Cardiff, and in a way the NHS became my extended family. We spent so much time on wards B1 and C1, the staff knew us.’
Hussain later became a board member for local NHS bodies in Cardiff and in Bristol and he helped many others financially and emotionally. ‘Some things,’ Amiri muses, ‘we only found out after he passed away.’ Amiri’s younger brother, Hessam, is also an NHS board member, and Amiri himself is a governor of Coleg Gwent in Newport. All this, he says, is intimately linked to their experiences and the welcome they found in Wales.
‘Somewhere along the way I realised that this is the place that gave me hope, safety, a roof over my head, a change: having an education, and the least I can do is give something back. I am constantly going to schools and universities trying to raise the aspirations of the younger generation. It’s my home – and I’m proud.’
It is clear from the way that he speaks about it how personally Amiri has invested in the book and in this production. He speaks of his brother with huge pride but there is clearly also great emotion behind that about his loss. How then does it feel to adapt a story so personal to the stage? To see himself – and his brother – speaking through other bodies?
‘Weird is definitely one word for it – because you get to see how you’re being perceived. It’s weird to see people acting the way I did when I was younger. I’ve got used to it now because I’ve got to know the actors. It’s a surreal experience seeing someone play my older brother but also when someone passes away you rarely if ever get to see or feel that essence of them again. The guys there when they’re playing me and my brothers I genuinely feel that. It’s hard to watch, but I also enjoy it. I’m going to go and watch all twenty-three shows. I get to relive those moments that I’ll never get again. Somehow, I’ve got a bug for it – I can have an opinion and it turns out that it’s a good opinion! It’s been interesting because I never thought I had this aspect in me.’
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When the play was first commissioned, and certainly when the book was written, there was no indication that we would find ourselves watching in horror as the Taliban swept across Afghanistan once more in the face of US and UK retreat.
On the day Amiri and I spoke, they announced their new government, absent of women or non-Taliban figures, and the drip-drip of stories suggesting the worst of the repression of their five years of rule twenty years ago may return has continued since.
‘I still have hope and belief that in my lifetime I will see peace and prosperity in Afghanistan. I have to be hopeful that it will become a place of safety again.’
‘I was hoping that when the play came out I’d be telling a story from twenty years ago. But in reality I’m telling a story that could be happening right now. When the play comes out in October, with everything that’s going on in Afghanistan, it makes it even more relevant for people to know what that journey looks like, what a Taliban government could look like.’
‘But I don’t want it to be a sad story, I don’t want it to be a pity story – I want it to be a story of hope. I still have hope and belief that in my lifetime I will see peace and prosperity in Afghanistan. I have to be hopeful that it will become a place of safety again.’
Once again, Amiri points out that this is where the personal and the political are intertwined – in the reaction of the audience.
‘It makes it more important to say it now because people will be wondering about what happens, what happens to refugees here, what does integration look like. This performance gives you very vivid details of a family navigating that. If you don’t understand the reasoning behind how people experiencing this feel, you can make misjudgements. It could be work, it could be school, it could be in a bus stop. This gives you the insight.’
Amiri is clearly passionate about his story and the impact it seems to be having – as well as mildly astounded. ‘It still hasn’t fully hit me… this is one of the biggest houses in the UK.’ But that doesn’t mean he’s stopping here. After the already grand achievement of a book and a play in the Wales Millennium Centre, he enthuses to me about future plans: film rights and prequel and sequel stories that tell further stories about his family and their extraordinary experiences. Certainly these are important stories to hear – not least for Wales, which purports to be a nation of sanctuary – and ones that we will see only more of on the stage of the Wales Millennium Centre again in the future.
The Boy with Two Hearts by Hamed and Hessam Amiri is at the Weston Theatre, Wales Millennium Centre between 2 and 23 October 2021.
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