How family hardship and heartache inspired Joe's remarkably moving one-man show
The Belfast writer balances humour with poignant home truths in his look-back at growing up in a mixed race house during the Troubles
It’s an early Monday evening, and Joe Nawaz is sat sipping from a piping hot Americano, telling me a story about first ever fake I.D. Acquiring fake identification is nothing new to those on the brink of the legal drinking age, but there is one striking difference in Joe’s edition. He wasn’t getting one so he could sneak past a bouncer.
We’ve linked up to discuss his latest show – Fake I.D, a title inspired from the deafening realisation of identity crisis and an examination of a period of time with the benefit of hindsight. That description makes the whole concept feel incredibly heavy, and while the theme of it inevitably is, Nawaz tells it in such a remarkably witty manor that you can’t help but laugh along with him.
'Donnelly was the most, kind of, cool, accessible Catholic name I could think of', he says, remembering the first alias he chose. 'I wasn’t a very emotionally developed 16 year old, shall we say. That was the moment when I was really in direct conflict with my identity.'
Nawaz was born into a mixed race, mixed faith family during the most turbulent period of time in Northern Ireland. His mother, a white Catholic, and his father, a Muslim from Pakistan, raised him during the height of the Troubles and, in doing so, faced distinctly unique narrative from the usual Protestant and Catholic violence.
'Growing up here [Belfast], where everything is extremely binary, and you have to either belong to one or the other, there was no hiding place for us and our brown family. I was trying my best to separate myself from them at the time, but looking back they were extremely brave and bold to raise a family in that environment. My mum’s family rejected her after she got pregnant with me. My dad was stuck here, miles from home, facing very real abuse but also systemic racism in terms of job opportunities and all that stuff.'
Fake I.D is described by Nawaz himself as a 'glorified slideshow'. It’s a journey through the eyes of a young boy growing up in a mixed race family at the height of The Troubles – about the struggles, revelations and confusion that inevitably surface within a cold social climate.
It’s a uniquely balanced display. Joe’s one man show is delivered with both humour and poignancy while blending his story into past and contemporary cultural narratives.
'I think it’s important to highlight the silliness – it makes the more profound bits that bit more profound', he says. 'I think all life is a combination of tragedy and comedy. Tragedy plus time equals comedy. That’s the balance that I try to find in this. If it was just a preachy concept about identity it wouldn’t speak to anyone. You’ve got to speak to people in an open hearted way.
'I want to tell a story that isn’t typical of the people that are from here, but is remarkably similar at the same time. That’s the thing about stories, they’re universal. We all have a passage as young people. We’re all trying to forge an identity. It resonates beyond a mixed race boy during the Troubles.'
Nawaz’s life has been impacted by more tragedy than most. In 2004 his father was murdered during a visit to Pakistan. Though his show is more about his early life growing up than the discoveries he came across during a visit to the Pakistan, it was one of the reasons he decided to create the show.
'He’d bought a holiday home there. Not in the south of Spain, or in Donegal, no, in the eighth most dangerous country in the world.' He explains how his father was going over to do up the house, which is where he was killed. The murderers were caught, arrested, and pleaded for clemency, leaving it to Joe’s mother to decide whether they lived or died.
As it turns out, they actually got released, because, to this day, no one is still quite sure how or why his father was killed.
'Five months later we got visas to go out there and went as a family', Nawaz says. 'It was like landing on Mars. It was an alien landscape, I felt so isolated. We went to the house that my dad had bought and it was as it was the day he was killed. Frozen in amber. A jacket hanging on the door and dishes in the sink. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life.
'We went to the grave which was close by to a mountain range; a kind of martian landscape. There was a little picket fence. We knew it was his grave because it was the only one written in English. That was a surreal moment, looking at my father’s grave as a water buffalo was walking past. For me, my dad’s death was part tragedy, part farce. The way it all happened – we never got any real answers. The way - we still don’t know, but we’ve just kind of let it go because it’s very expensive to keep legal proceedings running on the other side of the world.'
Joe's creation of Fake I.D is the culmination of all of this. He went back to see his father, to re-claim him as a human being, not as someone who just dominated his early life.
'The dead become fixed. The bad stuff starts to get buffed away. All you are left with is an ideal, a memory of someone. My father has become a lot more idealised in my head, so this show is also about reclaiming him as a person. It was an attempt to reach out.'
As our coffees begin to cool, and our time together approaches its inevitable end, I’m keen to learn of Joe’s current views on contemporary Northern Ireland. He has a unique standing point within it, as he’s experienced the very worst that its had to offer and has grown into someone that is comfortable within his own skin, as the country itself has evolved.
'When I was younger I used to think people were always staring at me', he says. 'When we walked into a restaurant the piano player would stop, that sort of thing. I don’t get that now. Maybe I’ve finally become the white, Irish Catholic that I’d always wanted to be!
'I see the rise of intolerance', he adds. 'There’s a lot going on with the rise of immigration here and the rise of the right, post-Brexit. I think it’s a really important time to be telling a story like this, where there’s a narrative that’s not the usual binary, Protestant/Catholic story. The EU Referendum has brought out a lot of toxicity. We’ve been a predominately white society for so long, we’re not used to the ‘other’. There’s a natural intolerance there, but I think it’s on the rise again. I’m from here, but I’ve never been allowed to feel like I’m entirely from here. That’s what I think a lot of other immigrant families are feeling right now. At best we’ll be tolerated, at worst we’ll be hounded.'
'I was counter protesting the fascist marches at City Hall. I remember seeing the far right coming over the hill from Institute, coming into town, and you could see the flags and hear the kind of drum beat. It just felt like something from another time. It gave me an overwhelming sense of dread about this place. There are a lot of great individuals here, but, growing up, we were never made to feel very welcome. I just want to celebrate the mixing of races. It’s fantastic! We’re all just a mish mash of all kinds of crazy stuff. I bet in some way we’re all descended from Genghis Khan. Even Ian Paisley Jr. He’s got the mentality.'
As we begin to pack up our things I question Joe on his advice for those today who are struggling to come to terms with their identity. He tells me about the other day, when he seen two little Somalian children wearing the same school uniform he donned as a child, and feeling a sense of amazement that things have changed, even slightly.
'I think kids are very resilient. They’re very strong. They don’t need any life lessons from me, but they need to know that their story is not a unique one, they’re not alone. It’s a dance as old as time. There will always be people that move; there will always be people that stand out.'
In Fake I.D, Joe Nawaz has crafted a hugely important story to be told in today’s cultural and political climate. It’s a celebration of identity, family and belonging, told in a remarkably moving and humorous manor. Something that not everyone has gone through, but almost everyone can relate to.
Joe Nawaz will be performing his Fake I.D show at The MAC on October 3 and 4. Tickets are available to book from www.themaclive.com/event/fake-id.