Joe Nawaz on bringing Fake ID back at The MAC
David Roy catches up with Belfast writer and journalist Joe Nawaz to discuss the success of his one man show Fake ID, which details his mixed-race mixed-faith family's trials and tribulations during the Troubles
BELFAST man Joe Nawaz first performed his hit autobiographical one man show on October 4 2017, the 13th anniversary of his father's murder.
"That was bizarre and totally unintentional," explains Nawaz (44) of Fake ID's debut at last year's Belfast Comedy Festival, where it enjoyed a sold-out run of dates.
"I wanted to do something for the comedy festival but I had nothing new in the coffers."
Nothing, that is, except for his own compelling life story: Fake ID, which returns at The MAC in Belfast next week following its hugely well received initial run and dates at Strand Arts Centre, The Sunflower and Accidental Theatre, finds writer and journalist Nawaz sharing the heart-rending and occasionally hilarious tale of growing up in a mixed-race mixed-faith family during the Troubles.
Nawaz's late father, Rab, was a Pakistani Muslim: his mother, Eileen, is a Catholic from south Belfast. The couple started their family here in 1974, the year the north's Troubles-related death toll hit the 1,000 mark.
Joe and his younger siblings Yasmin, Farah and Omar grew up at a time where their 'otherness' regularly exposed them to the most racist elements of a society already murderously divided along religious and political lines.
As a teen mortified by being perceived as 'different' by his peers thanks to his father's Pakistani heritage – something which manifested in him enduring taunts of 'Paki' and other highly imaginative ethnic slurs – Joe found himself clinging to his mother's Irish Catholic roots for a sense of normalcy.
Indeed, while many teens try their damnedest to get out of going to church, Nawaz used to look forward to accompanying his mother to Mass.
"I used to love it, simply because it made me feel like I belonged," he tells me.
In an incident which inspired the Emily Foran-directed show's title, the teenage Joe even changed his name to 'Donnelly' for the purposes of under-age drinking: Nawaz recounts the moment when his parents discovered his fake ID card and were horrified to realise their son was ashamed of his true heritage.
"My brainwave was that I would change the surname to Donnelly and be able to walk around being white, Catholic and dashing," he cringes.
"Really, the show is not just about my particular identity or dual heritage or whatever. I think there's a universality to it: every young person goes through a period where they're trying to forge an identity and trying to work out who they are.
"Doing it here in a very unforgiving social climate is particularly difficult, especially if you're not even allowed to cleave to one 'tribe' or the other."
The writer's often "difficult" relationship with his Muslim father provides much of the pathos in Fake ID: in 2004, Rab was murdered while visiting the family's holiday home in Pakistan. His killer has never been found.
"At the time, it was horrific," says Nawaz, who was working for the Andersonstown News during this traumatic period. "My difficult relationship with my dad went on even after his death. It took a bit of time for it to settle with me in a comfortable way that I could look at it objectively.
"I'd been toying with the idea of doing this story for a while and I've finally got to a stage in my life where I have enough distance from it to see it in its entirety – the silliness and the profundity of it.
"Also, I thought it was an important story to tell, especially at this juncture in our history.
"It isn't the usual tired old 'binary' tale [about growing up during the Troubles] – there are other stories in the cracks and in the shadows here that aren't told and I am as much from here as anyone else."
He adds: "And it also has jokes in it, believe it or not!"
Despite now describing himself as a confirmed "Belfastard" who's "very proudly non-Irish and non-Pakistani", Nawaz is still well placed to comment on just how 'progressive' our modern 'post-Troubles' Northern Ireland really is.
"We've never been multicultural over here and it's definitely getting worse, I think," he tells me. "The north of Ireland has always been 30 years behind the rest of the UK in terms of immigration and attitudes, for many reasons. It's a very parochial, homogeneous society. No matter how much they like to say there's a binary, it's actually quite homogenised.
"The old joke 'are you a Catholic Muslim or a Protestant Muslim?' isn't just a joke, it was actually a thing. People had to f***ing compartmentalise you into one or the other."
He adds: "The current rise of the far right is in tune with a some of our leaders' political attitudes – the hitching of a certain party's star to Brexit and the kind of permission that gives certain groups of people to be more freely racist."
While critics and audiences have thus far embraced Fake ID, which features a slideshow documenting the Nawaz family's history and the writer's own evolution from cute kid to moody teen and beyond, Joe admits that perhaps his most important review to date came from closer to home.
"My mum came to see it, which was horrific," he reveals of this particularly nerve-wracking performance. "Afterwards she came up to me and it was like the moment of truth. 'Well, that was mostly true,' she said, 'but I don't understand why you felt the need to do it'.
"My mum is quite a private person. I think that's how we survived as a family – we kept our heads down and we didn't 'make a fuss'. I tried to explain that I want to celebrate us, and her: more than anything Fake ID is a homage to my mum and dad."
:: Fake ID, October 3 & 4, The MAC, Belfast. Tickets and times via Themaclive.com