An Imam and a Rabbi: The well of personal history


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Ideas can come from anywhere. A song. A conversation. A dream. Something overheard. David Gray once remarked, when discussing the song 'Please Forgive Me', that inspiration came and he was lucky enough to intercept it. I'd only partly agree with that.

In the Arabic language the word 'khaliq' means 'Creator' when it is used in reference to God. However, when it is used in reference to human beings the word means 'liar'. Within the language there is an acceptance that the capacity for creation (that is, to bring something into being from a state of nothingness) lies solely with God. Human beings can only fashion, form and configure using what we already have. This is an important point to keep in mind when considering where a writer can get his or her ideas from. Every single one of us has a wealth of life experience behind us - broken promises, dashed hopes, happiness attained, sadness earned, loneliness, joy, rage, love, regret etcetera. By reflecting deeply on our own personal achievements and shortcomings (especially the shortcomings!) we can increase our chances of accessing the material necessary to write engaging, meaningful stories. To write about life we must first live.

Though An Imam and a Rabbi could be described as a supernatural comedy, in my mind the story was always about the quest for sincerity, and the point was always to get the protagonists from a position where they are doing what they are doing because it is what they've always done, to a point where they are doing it solely because they know it is the right thing to do. Once the overriding theme was in place, it was simply a matter of drawing from the well of personal history (hey, that's the title of this blog piece!) to fill in the blanks.

On a Less Useful Note...

It would be ridiculous to assume that a budding scriptwriter who has only had a couple of script commissions has much of value to pass on in the guise of advice. Irrespective, I'm going to assume, in the spirit of unity, that you ('the Reader') are exactly like me ('the Fluke') and will offer advice accordingly. If you have any hope of surviving as a scriptwriter you will need the following:

a) A pen
b) Something to write on using the aforementioned pen (paper works best)
c) A laptop
d) A lap (preferably own)
e) Delusions of grandeur married to lashings of passionate self-loathing
f) A network of understanding family members who know to expect nothing productive from you
for an extended period of time
g) A call centre job

Once all these variables are in place quit the call centre job and follow the timetable below as stringently as possible if you wish to obtain a BBC Radio commission:

Dawn - Get up to pray. Go back to sleep as soon as possible once devotional worship is complete.
10.00am - Start the day (i.e. wake up and lie in bed contemplating the finite nature of existence until the fear of death lights a fire beneath you).
10.30am - Get up.
11.00am - Following general bathroom (un)pleasantries prepare yourself mentally in anticipation of the hard day's work ahead.
11.05am - Contemplate having a nap. Decide against it. Treat yourself if you reach your intended
target for the day.
11.10am - Surf the net. Convince yourself that this is vital research.
12.00pm - Start typing. Empty your head of every incoherent though.
12.20pm - Attempt to make sense of the interminable chaos that now soils your laptop screen. This is called 'scriptwriting'.
13.00pm-14.00pm - Eat and pray. Not at the same time.
16.00pm - Wake up from nap. Try to remember when you actually fell asleep. Realise that you never did actually give yourself a target for the day. Lament the fact that you embody the very worst possible stereotypes associated with 'the writer'. Pray and ask for forgiveness.
16.10pm - Start to rectify the fact that you've done less than nothing.
17.00pm - Having found yourself in a groove, only take breaks for prayer (and maybe food). It is also recommended to stretch legs occasionally to minimise risks of developing a blood clot.
Midnight - You are now hungry (and lonely). Re-read that day's efforts and thoroughly despise
everything you have written.
01.00am - Realise that any success you have within this industry is either a complete fluke or Divine providence. Continue anyway. Be grateful to anyone who has ever given you even the slightest modicum of encouragement and continue your efforts in the knowledge that nobody ever achieved anything of worth without exerting themselves.

Shakeel Ahmed is the writer of An Imam and a Rabbi, which was broadcast on Radio 4 as part of 'Market' - an umbrella series of six plays about people who work in and around its stalls.

Listen back to An Imam and a Rabbi on iPlayer.

Read the script for An Imam and a Rabbi in the BBC writersroom script archive.

Shakeel responded to a writersroom open call for Muslim writers to work on a forthcoming BBC comedy show, he also took part in BBC writersroom's 2008 EastEnders Voices scheme to bring diverse writers to the attention of the show, and has been the recipient of a bursary to work with BBC Comedy in Manchester.

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