By Zekria Ibrahimi
Key Themes: schizophrenia, play, drama, psychosis
This is a play about the entry into Hell, about the agony that has no relief, about the distress that cannot be soothed, about the pain that will never be cured…
It is set in the aloofness of a Cambridge college, during the turbulence of the 1960’s…
A new undergraduate, Ayub Peters, finds that he is going all too rapidly mad in the environment of cold Cambridge snobbery. Demons are everywhere, damnation emerges in each encounter, and his strange and shadowy college tutor, Mister Mephistopheles, orchestrates the student’s descent into psychosis and suicide…
But perhaps Cambridge actually is a nest of devils, and, through his so- called ‘schizophrenia’, Ayub Peters is discovering the real cruel dark core of this seemingly glittering university…
Let us participate in insanity, and seem to find there…truth…
About the Author
Zekria Ibrahimi (born in 1959) is defined by his schizophrenia. It first hit him long ago, in his late teens. He is fifty years old now, grey and frail, almost a pensioner, with all the aches and injuries of age, and he does not always want to remember how, as an adolescent in the late 1970’s, he suddenly became afraid of everything surrounding him, and, worst of all, of himself. He would run around the countryside and knock at the doors of strangers because he feared the apocalypse was pursuing him … He would pick up rubbish outside in alleys and streets and hoard it in his not very palatial lodgings … He was always wandering away from home, searching for … what would never be found again … the straight route, the level way … He was a tramp, freezing during the nights in public toilets where he had various unsavoury insects as company on the cold concrete …
There were years of pain when his schizophrenia became almost his only companion- albeit a sadistic one, punishing him even as he hugged it. Perhaps, to echo both R. D. Laing and Emily Dickinson, it is the entire globe, it is general society, that is truly insane. Schizophrenics simply burrow all too deeply under the surface. They reach the very core of the savage reality in us all. Most varnish over the anarchic truth within through the superficial sham paraded as ‘civilization’. Schizophrenics prefer to be uncomfortably honest barbarians. For the accident- prone Zekria, the System is all callousness, and no cure.
Eventually, after much psychotic shouting on Hammersmith Broadway, the hapless Zekria was confined at the Charing Cross unit in the West London Mental Health Trust. Following the unsafe unstable freedom of his schizophrenia, came the restrictions of Section 3. He would not have survived without the multi- racial compassion of the individual doctors and nurses in Charing Cross. Yet the overall SYSTEM remains an ogre of rules and restraints, and the INSTITUTION of psychiatry can be as cold and vicious as in the days of lobotomy and insulin shock.
Now he is elderly, but still he muses about being locked up, drugged up, about how, with schizophrenia, the treatment can be worse than the disease…
This play is a black comedy about the perils and the hypocrisies of Christianity and tradition. Its basis stems from the Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis, and from Jumpers, by Tom Stoppard. In the twisted spirit of Screwtape, it catapults demons and their slime into everyday existence. Their actual devilish character is able to be all- destructive, yet may never be properly recognized by us mere humans. We always are so blind to what should be so obvious. Similarly to Jumpers, it deals with the essential malice and manipulation that can be at the core of the academic world.
It is set in 1964, a time when the Tories had ruled for thirteen unhappy years, culminating in scandal and political in-fighting. The 1960’s seemed the time of Labour, of liberation, but freedom is not what Cambridge tradition would favour.
This painfully difficult piece starts with a callow undergraduate, Ayub Peters, heading towards Cambridge. He meets on the train Mister Mephistopheles, an inquisitive/interfering chap who happens to keep on emitting both slime and snobbery. Ayub’s objections to this miasma of slime, which is common in Cambridge circles, alienates Mister Mephistopheles- who turns out to be his tutor at Ancient Vice.
Ayub is now scared of Cambridge as a haunted fossil, as something too crammed with the past, to the point of being unsafe. Ghouls and ectoplasm are everywhere. He meets a demon on a bicycle- an undergraduate-who is riding off to a lecture on how to put down the plebeians(!)
In his rooms, he is then confronted by his very own college demon, Worm. Worm represents the deference to hierarchy that is expected among the ignorant lower orders, and Worm is not impressed by Ayub’s foreign roots. Worm is abusive and acidic, if not as articulate as Mister Mephistopheles.
Ayub was born in the Indian sub- continent, during the turbulence of partition in 1947, and two Baptist missionaries- John and Jill Peters- tend often to tell him how they saved him from a communal bloodbath responsible for the deaths of his actual parents. John Peters preaches in Shepherd’s Bush, which Ayub would say was his home. John Peters is rather superficial, a man who sermonizes so much that one would not be totally convinced by his sincerity. His wife is passive and seeks always to be uncontroversial- she, the same as her husband, can use Christian condescension as a means to look down on others. Even Worm feels somewhat unsettled on meeting them and their patronizing piety.
They advise Ayub not to be a rebel against Cambridge and to accept England. It would not be right to stray from the Christian light. The unsettling point is that Cambridge, for all its apparent ‘Christian’ past’, is actually the most demonic sort of place to which they could have sent their adopted son. Ayub is asked by them to give some chocolates to Worm, as a present and (it turns out, futile) peace- offering.
Worm’s reaction is distrust. He puts Ayub’s proffered chocolates down the toilet. Ayub then has a debilitating talk with his tutor, Ronald Mephistopheles, who, it alas transpires, had as a British officer campaigned against the ‘tribal types’ on the North West Frontier of the Indian Raj in the 1930’s. Mephistopheles continues to emit slime- one of the grim surreal aspects of the play. This play is not about real, but surreal, people.
Ayub now wants to be a communist, even a Muslim, in response to the bigotry- the slime- of Cambridge. He has a show down with his own parents, whom he has asked to come to his Cambridge digs from London. He tells them about his decision to renounce Christianity. John Peters is appalled, to the point that he starts to hit Ayub. Ayub then discovers that his foster mother, Jill Peters, is unable to have children of her own. But Ayub, who has become a ranting monster himself, is unable to feel any sympathy for her. He is howling. His parents leave him, with Jill Peters in collapse at the thought of losing him.
Worm arrives, to snipe at Ayub in a devastating manner. Ayub then resorts to suicide- very messily, as his totally sad solution for the dilemma of Cambridge.
The play finishes with a chat between the tutor, Mister Mephistopheles, and the college servant, Worm. Mephistopheles is awash with his own slime as he congratulates himself cruelly on destroying Ayub- and also his mere Low Church foster parents. John and Jill Peters can never feel confident in their Christianity again after the death of their adopted son, Ayub. The blatant gold of Cambridge has destroyed the lower class Asian cockney type, Ayub Peters.
All hierarchy and wealth are emanations from Hell, after all …