Conor Ibrahiem is the founder and Artistic Director of Arakan Creative, a Bradford based theatre company and Social Enterprise. Established in 2009, Arakan focuses on stories within the Islamic world, the South Asian community and works in education.
Net Ummah caught up with him to talk about acting, film-making, Islamophobia and other things…
Net Ummah: You are the founder of Arakan Creative. Tell us something about it? Is the name an amalgamation of other words?
Conor Ibrahiem: Arakan was born in 2009 in response to the negative portrayal of Muslims in the media/arts and equally a chance to platform Islamic history on stage. The name is a mark of respect to the Arakanese Muslims who suffer in Burma – known also as the Rohingya.
Net Ummah: You began your career as a professional actor? What age was that? How did you get into acting?
Conor Ibrahiem: I started in amateur dramatics in a local group when I was 14 but the bug to become an actor stems from watching Superman as a kid. Went to college at 20 to do a BTEC in Performing Arts and tried to get into drama school but failed. So, I did it the hard way and worked to get an agent and equity card on the back of my first speaking part, which was on Emmerdale. Over the next 14 years, I gained parts in most of the soaps (Eastenders, Corrie, Brookside etc) but the ‘breakthrough’ never materialised. So I had to look at other work and started scriptwriting.
Net Ummah: How important is your faith in steering your career goals and ambitions?
Conor Ibrahiem: Very. Early on when I turned to my faith in 2001 I was still making my way in acting and I just didn’t know if acting was permissible. After much research, I concluded it was but there were some rules to consider; nothing illicit and don’t misrepresent history. Yes, it would restrict my roles but I wouldn’t compromise. Thankfully I had an understanding agent and not many roles were lost due to this, and it means I can look back with few regrets.
Net Ummah: Who have been awarded a multitude of honours – COEMO’s Most promising Newcomer, UNLtd Social Futures Winner etc. Tell us something about how you were awarded such honours. Which award are you most proud of?
Conor Ibrahiem: The awards are all blessings and came early on in Arakan’s journey. Their names are self-explanatory really and I am most proud of the Mosaic’s ‘Arts & Culture‘ award in 2010. Mosaic is a charity founded by Prince Charles, and I was given the award by HRH Princess Badiyah bint Hassan of Jordan. Was up against serious competition and was shocked that I won, masha’Allah.
Net Ummah: You recently produced your debut film ‘Freesia’, addressing Islamophobia. What were your reasons for making the film? Tell us something about the film and where we can watch it? How was it received by both the muslim and non-muslim communities?
Conor Ibrahiem: Freesia was actually filmed in 2014 and released in 2015, so not so recent (sorry for any confusion). The reasons were simply to grasp Islamophobia by the horns and talk about it on the big screen. I mean, why was no other film studio doing anything? Simply they didn’t want to cos the ‘Muslim bad guy’ is still a choice baddy in the movies. Well, I for one was getting sick of it. So, with funding to address Islamophobia from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, I set out to produce a play, 3 short films and a comic book. The 3 shorts later became a feature, as I figured with my £30k budget I could do this. £27,600 later we had a 90-minute feature and filmed over a tight 13-day schedule in Bradford, Leeds and Keighley. It looks at 3 perspectives; a perpetrator, a victim and witness of an Islamophobic attack on a Muslim scholar. Not based on a true story but all elements were based on truth. Indeed, the main attack was loosely based on the horrendous murder of Mohammed Saleem in Birmingham (2013) at the hands of a far-righter. I decided to contact Mr Saleem’s family and dedicate Freesia in honour of him. The reception was very positive overall from a mix of audiences; it was balanced, true and emotive. I managed to get into 10 UK cinemas, many community events and Princeton Uni in New Jersey, even winning some awards along the way and featuring on BBC Breakfast, Alhamdullilah. I have plans for 2 sequels but money talks…
Net Ummah: How do you think the Muslim community should address the rising tide of Islamophobia?
Conor Ibrahiem: Three things. 1) Don’t stand for it, we are human, we have rights, we have a future in the UK. Tell the police, tell your MP, talk to your neighbours and let them know what a real Muslim is. (Hats off to those that do of course). 2) Equally, let’s get our house in order. If some of our community are feeding the fuel by becoming terrorists, groomers, corrupters and whatever else is utterly sinful, we simply give the far-right more reasons to hate us. We need to educate our young properly and if there is ill behaviour, grab your precious children and give them a hard slap, not ‘hard’, or turn a blind eye. 3) Stand up for other people’s rights, because we love it when non-Muslims stand up for us against Islamophobia, but how often do we stand up for the travellers? The black community?
Net Ummah: Arakan Creative has released a comic book “The Abrahamix”, involving characters from the three major monotheistic faiths. What was the inspiration behind the comic and the individual characters?
Conor Ibrahiem: This was part of the 3rd year Islamophobia project and is aimed at the primary school market. It was inspired by a US comic creator of ‘The 99’, superheroes based on the 99 names of Allah. Dr Naif al Mutawa is the brains behind it, whom I met in 2010 whilst visiting New York, and that I suppose gave me the idea. Initially, I thought of a Muslim superhero family from West Yorkshire but then I expanded on this, why not make them representative of Christianity and Judaism as well? Why don’t we show how the 3 Abrahamic faiths can work together and fight the evil? If we can imagine Prophets Musa, Isa and Mohammed (peace be upon all of them) all being alive at the same time in history, wouldn’t that have been amazing?! So the ABX pays homage to that idea, but I wanted to show equality of the sexes and made the Jewish superhero a woman. It made sense as well because Judaic law states that a child of a Jewish mother is Jewish, no matter what the father’s lineage is. Mothers/women are very important. Mine is certainly a hero, but that’s another blog 🙂
Net Ummah: You wish to produce more films. Are you continuing with the subject of Islamophobia or diversifying into other subject matters?
Conor Ibrahiem: For my next project I am working on a comedy-drama but I do want to continue looking at social issues, from anti-Muslim sentiment to the Native American struggle. Alas, it is not easy to secure funding, distribution is a key area that needs cracking and Covid has almost wiped out traditional cinema audiences – but what journey to something great isn’t a difficult one to travel? Bring it on.
Net Ummah: What are your plans for the future?
Conor Ibrahiem: To continue to be relevant and do my best to change my corner of the world for the better. To always improve as a human, as a Muslim, as a family man and as an artist.
Web and graphic designer. Owner of Net Ummah and Kad Design.