Belfast playwright Joe Nawaz on how his family’s devastating quest for truth inspired new show Five Days
“Five Days starts with me waking up, in the middle of the week, on a sofa after a house party, in a very delicate state, at six in the morning, woken by a phone call from my sister to break the news to me that our father had been murdered in Pakistan,” says the Belfast writer and publicist.
“I’ll never forget it — the phrase she used was ‘Think of the worst thing you can think of, Joseph’. And I just flippantly, half awake, half hungover still, said: ‘Oh, Daddy’s dead.’ And in the show — I dramatised this a little — there’s a brief pause where, you know, in that silence, that’s exactly what’s happened.
“It was just like the air was sucked out of my lungs. It was just such a weird and odd situation to find myself in — 6am, on the Oldpark Road, getting a phone call about this surreal thing that had happened.”
Joe’s father, Rab, was a Pakistani born in the British Indian Punjab who had came to Northern Ireland in the 1970s to study geology at Queen’s University Belfast. He met and fell in love with Eileen Keelan, a Catholic from south Belfast, and the couple went on to have four children together, Joe, Yasmin, Omar and Farah.
It was during a trip home to Pakistan to visit relatives and recharge that Rab’s life was tragically cut short.
With mixed messages coming from different sources in Pakistan and poor-quality phone signal hindering communication further, Joe and his family decided to travel there in search of the truth about Rab’s death.
“It was an attempted robbery perhaps and my father surprised them doing it,” Joe said.
“But then, as we started to learn more, there were more and more contradictory pieces of information that were coming up, and it ended up that we just weren’t sure exactly who was behind it, why it happened or what the motivations were.
“Because we were so far away from it, it was hard to get any conclusive answers. So, we made the determination to travel to Pakistan to, first of all, track down his grave, because he had to be buried there. There was talk of us bringing him back, but it’s incredibly hard. It’s easier to transport a pet than it is to bring back a body through international lines.
“So he was buried in his home village, and family members there assured us that they would take care of things.”
Poignant new theatre production Five Days follows the Nawaz family as they try to come to terms with their dad’s death.
“We were on the trail of a murder mystery and in search of him, looking for him, because we hadn’t seen him in six months and we didn’t have a body,” Joe says.
“When you don’t have a body, you’re in this weird state of limbo where you’re told that the person is gone but you’ve no hard evidence. You haven’t said your farewells.”
Although hard-hitting at times, the production is not all doom and gloom, Joe assures: “I have this involuntary reflex to try to make things humorous; it is quite light-hearted and it’s a travelogue.
“It’s a double helix, if you will. It’s a story about us, these five people ostensibly from Belfast, who don’t speak the language, not many of the cultural smarts, not really aware of where we’re going.
“It’s like going to Mars — although, on paper, we have the right surname and we should have some connection. We have had very little contact with this country. It’s about us going there as fish out of water and trying to navigate the terrain — the physical terrain and the legal terrain and the social terrain, which is a little bit of adventure.”
Although the Nawazes have to deal with visa issues and various situations that arise on arrival in Pakistan, Five Days also features quieter moments of reflection where Joe converses with his late father.
The one-man show also explores Joe’s experience of growing up and living in Northern Ireland as a part of a mixed-race family and explores identity in a place where identity is still contentious.
“In the process, I think Five Days talks about identity and what it means to belong, what it means to say you are from a place and what it takes, which I think is kind of pertinent especially coming from here,” Joe says.
“Both my mum and dad came from countries that were divided by British rule and left with a degree of turmoil behind, so I think there’s some interesting parallels between where my father is from and where my mother is from and what my generation’s place is amidst all of that.”
For now, Joe is busy rehearsing his lines for the upcoming Open House Festival performance in Bangor and he hopes to bring the subject matter to a wider audience.
“I’m also working on a film version of it,” he says.
“I’m taking to filmmakers about maybe making it into a visual document, so that’s quite exciting.
“I’m also working on the next one-man show, which is something I trialled before lockdown. I was just about to try it out and Covid happened, which put paid to that particular thrilling adventure. It’s called Tall Tales From Talktown.
“It’s a show based on me being an extremely nosey and voyeuristic people watcher in Belfast, and it’s about the conversations I’ve overheard from local people and all sorts of interesting situations.
“I’m working on that as well. But first of all is Five Days. I have to get that out of the way and then I’ll stop talking about myself forever, I swear.
“I did a prequel show a few years back called Fake ID, which was about growing up here in the Troubles being mixed race. Like an Asian in Derry Girls, if you will. That was very well received, about five years ago.”
Despite plans to produce Five Days immediately after Fake ID, Joe decided to put the project on hold until the time felt right.
“I was meant to do this show straight after, but it was kind of too soon for me to talk.
“The other thing about Five Days is it’s obviously very personal and I think you need a bit of distance before you can start examining that stuff without it emotionally affecting you.
“Even now when I talk about it on stage, I have to remember not to get caught up in what I’m saying and just perform it. There have been a couple of times when I’ve done it and I’ve been in danger of choking, which is why I think it took me five years to do it.”
Five Days by Joseph Nawaz shows at The Court House, Bangor, on August 30 as part of the Open House Festival, before showing at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, on September 14-16. lyrictheatre.co.uk/whats-on/five-days