Mariem Omari: Part One

Mariem Omari is a playwright, screenwriter and producer who worked in conflict zones in the Middle East and North Africa for five years before moving to Scotland, where she used the listening skills she had learned when taking testimony from vulnerable, often traumatised people, to create a series of acclaimed artistic projects drawing out other people’s mental health stories through conversation.

In 2016 her first play, If I Had a Girl… addressed honour violence in Asian communities in Scotland. Almost all of her work since has focused on mental health. Her best known play, One Mississippi, addressed male suicide and premiered as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival in 2017.

More recently, Mariem has worked on projects in which the process is led much more by the participants, telling their stories themselves through live or pre-recorded performances. Examples of this include Doing it Our Way, A Knot a Day and We Make the Path.

Over two days in December 2023, Mariem talked to Andrew Eaton-Lewis, arts programme officer for the Mental Health Foundation, about what she has learned through the course of all this work, including mistakes she made along the way.

Part One: If I Had a Girl… and One Mississippi

When did you first start making creative work based on people’s mental health stories?

2015. I was coming out of having worked in war zones, as a humanitarian, taking testimony from people in quite horrific situations. So I had been focusing on trauma a lot. And then, coming back to my roots as a performer and a playwright, in 2015 I really started to engage with the idea of creating verbatim theatre. I was working at Amina, the Muslim Women’s Resource Centre in Glasgow, and I realised there was a real gap of anything that was kind of exploring this subject in this way. 

And this led to the play If I Had a Girl

Yes. If I Had a Girl… was about honour-based violence in Scotland, in particular within South East Asian communities. The women we were working with at Amina were predominantly South East Asian women, predominantly from a Muslim background, but also Sikh and Hindu, and we had funding from Big Lottery to make a piece of work. And so I, working with them on their violence against women programme, I was able to kind of straddle both that role and my role as playwright. I went into it thinking I was going to do a series of women’s workshops where they would create stories that we might use in some form of publication. But working with Catrin Evans, a director who is formidable in terms of her participatory work, we very quickly realised there was something really big here.

In essence, the play was about these women, some of whom were new to Scotland and were brought over in arranged marriages, some who were born and bred here in abusive, at times violent relationships, where they felt utterly trapped, and it was their journey, them telling their stories of how they ended up in these abusive relationships. We also had a man in the story, whose stories were based on two Asian men who were both incarcerated for domestic violence who we’d me through Safe Families. And I was fortunate to be able to interview them, which made them three dimensional and gave us a better insight to why they perpetrated violence, and it absolutely didn’t excuse what they did but it did give us a better understanding of the culture and traditions and religion that impact so heavily on these individuals. 

So it was exploring abuse, it was exploring honour violence; at times it was mother in laws and uncles and brothers that were perpetrating it. Ultimately it was exploring the agency of these women. And, of course, mental health fed hugely into that. Some had long term depression, suicidal thoughts, high levels of panic attacks and anxiety. 

How did you persuade these women to talk about such painful experiences?

So, taking a step back, prior to Catrin and I thinking we wanted to make a verbatim play about all the things I just talked to you about, we were in a workshop with these women. We had gone to some of the women’s refuges, women’s centres, and we had spoken to outreach workers about who might be available to come to the workshop. And the women who came explored their stories. And in that moment, we recognised that this could actually be a significant piece of work. So we asked them if they were prepared to go forward, and to speak about it in more detail and be interviewed. And quite a number of those women said yes. 

We had seen them working together and exploring their stories all day through art and different creative activities that we had given them, and that gave us a kind of reasonable sense of where they were at. But also, speaking to their support workers, we thought we were in a good place with them. So we proceeded to do the interviews very carefully. They chose the location, they chose where they felt safe, felt comfortable. Some of these women were still in abusive relationships so they were terrified of being identified by their community. So we had to get out of the south side of Glasgow and it was a kind of covert mission with a couple of them, we were worried about their safety. But they reassured us they still wanted to be a part of it. We said that obviously everything was anonymised, we had a consent form, that they’d know exactly what was happening with all of the material and what they were consenting to. Some of them had English as a second language, so we were also making sure that they fully understood what that meant. That’s really important.

I did all the interviews without support workers, or anyone else, it was just me. And once they were able to kind of settle, it was a series of questions. I always open up with stuff that’s a lot lighter, like we start to talk about food and culture and tradition. But I’m also obviously watching how they’re behaving, if there’s very noticeable anxiety in the body, if you can see it’s becoming distressing. If there’s repetitive action, or something like that, then I’m very, very mindful of that. If I could see their distress levels go up, it would be ‘do you want to stop now?’, you know. This kind of very mindful way of working with people who are traumatised or have, you know, mental health challenges.

And this is something you had learned from working with people in war zones. Can you talk a bit about that?

I think a lot of artists assume that interviewing people is a fairly basic skill that can easily be applied. And I have tried with all my might to convey how it is an art; it absolutely is. When you see Pulitzer winning journalists, you know, the way that people interview, it has to be very considered in the way you approach it. So I had learned, while I was working as a humanitarian, how to work very empathically but also to be an excellent observer of human nature, and of human beings, when you are taking their testimony in such harrowing conditions. And that involved things as simple as, you know, you can see people who smoke twitching when they need a cigarette, let them have the cigarette, it comforts them, then they’ll start talking, and these kinds of small non-verbal things that are hugely telling when you are watching someone who is trying to tell you something that’s incredibly difficult for them, or has high levels of anxiety and needs that comfort, whether it’s food, or a cigarette. Those observation skills came from an amazing mentor. I got to shadow him but also I had to learn on the job and there is no buffer. So often, these people are wounded, they’re missing limbs, they’ve got dead children. They’ve got no home, they’re in a refugee camp. So you’re dealing with people who have been through an awful life experience. 

What I always speak to other artists about as well is the amount of presence you bring to that interview. And my approach is that there is no one else in the world but you right now, you are everything, which allows me to be fully present to that person, fully present to their pain and fully present to their story. So not only are there these non-verbal cues, but there is what I am looking into, which is their eyes, and even if they’re neurodivergent – because a lot of people with autism do avoid eye contact – even then that gives me something, they know that I’m fully present and I’m not distracted. 

In terms of my preparation, I know enough about what I’m going into, before I start the interview. Back then it was like, ‘Which camp? What’s happened to their family? What do you need me to find out?’ If it was women that had been raped during conflict, that’s a whole other set of skills, with them having this shame and everything around that. But you’ve got to look for what’s triggering them as well; you can see when someone’s being triggered, and if you are not fully present, if you are not mindful in the way that you are speaking. If I’m going to speak about their attempted suicide, you know, there are ways that I speak about this, and I will alter that in the moment, if I start to see something is going on there that is not good for that person and is potentially not good for me. 

And yet, even with all that experience and all that training, you’ve said to me that with If I Had A Girl… there were things you felt you didn’t get right, with one participant in particular.

As you know, with anyone who’s been through depression, or burnout, there’s a lot of masking that goes on. And sometimes you can read it (but) there’s a funny thing that happens in that stage where people are starting to feel that numbness and that sense that – for some people, as they describe it in going into their depression – they don’t feel anything anymore. And there’s a transition, I find, that is the most dangerous stage for you as an interviewer or as an artist making work. Because if there’s masking going on, and actually they’re not well, you could do damage. And that is a very difficult place to be able to read a person. 

It’s pretty clear when people are in a good place, and it’s pretty clear when they’re not. I know with my own recent experience with my dad, with grief, that desperate desire to isolate yourself. And so that is a more recent example for me to tap into, a very dark kind of place where you feel, yeah, very alone and very isolated. And I know with friends who have had long term mental health conditions, when they start to cut themselves off from their social circle I’m like, ‘Oh, I know what’s happening here’. But  there’s this tricky transition point where you can’t actually work out, ‘are they here, or are they there?’ And that’s where this woman was. With doing those interviews in the Middle East, with taking testimony, that was very much about ‘how do we get more, how do we protect these people, we need their stories to get more funding to do more good things’ With this, we needed to dramatise, so we needed to take these stories to a place where we could create a piece of work, but we wanted to do no harm in the process. 

And so this woman’s story was compelling, utterly compelling. I did a first interview with her, and what will often happen is I’ll do a first set of interviews, and then I’ll do a follow up, especially where I can see there are gaps that are going to be gold for the piece of work. And in the follow up, I sort of understood that she was holding on to this show like her life depended on it. And she was actually not well. And then she said, ‘everyone’s gonna know it’s me, I want my entire story taken out.’ 

And I didn’t know what to do, because we were opening in four days. We would have had to cancel the show, but what was I going to do? This woman was absolutely terrified. Her mental health was crumbling. And I was sitting there thinking, Oh, my god, what have we done? But she made this show her whole world. And she had long term depression. And she was terrified of the community. 

So she was clinging on to being part of the show but also terrified of it. 

I was obviously really wanting the show to go ahead. And we were sold out, totally sold out three weeks in advance. But I just trusted something bigger than myself. And I said to her, ‘Okay, we’ll take it out.’ And I then walked away from that meeting with her and started to think about what I was going to say to the cast who had learned all the lines. And then that evening she called me and said, ‘Please  don’t take it out.’ And she was crying. And I was just going, oh god, what have I done? But we left it in, and she came. I don’t know what else was going on with her mental health and I didn’t know enough, I didn’t know that it was dangerous for her right from the beginning. But she was on a huge high when she saw it, and saw the audience crying. She said, ‘it’s like they were crying with me.’ 

I ended up having to speak to her support worker, but I couldn’t betray her confidence so there couldn’t be an intervention because then they’d know. It was so complex but she came out of it feeling it was somewhat healing. And the rest of women were just, you know, astonished that these strangers (in the audience) could all see and feel their pain. And that’s the beauty of theatre. But the anonymity just added a whole other layer of complexity to being able to get this woman help.

What did you learn from that, and what did you then do differently?

With One Mississippi and Breaking Point we still had a level of anonymity (with participants), but I had to put a lot more safeguarding in place. Because all of them came into the show, and they brought friends or family, I had to speak to them about how much their friends and family knew, and if it was possible to have conversations with their friends or family before they came to see the show. 

Ok, we’ll talk more about those projects later but before we do… you described what happened with this woman as a mistake. Looking back, do you feel you should have anticipated it? It sounds like her behaviour was quite unpredictable.

What aggravated it was she had said that she would be going to court. And again, this is the Pakistani community, right, and there’s just so much shame around depression. It made for an incredibly powerful piece of theatre that sold out everywhere, did really well in terms of raising awareness, and in terms of the arts sector as well, this kind of work that hadn’t been made in Scotland before. And all of that really… I think it gave permission to other artists to kind of go to these taboo places, but obviously you can see that it still kind of weighs on me. 

I wonder sometimes if I could have protected her more. I think had I said to her, ‘if we do this, perhaps we need to make sure that what you and I discuss we discuss with her support worker so that it’s a three, not a two.’ With Doing It Our Way we knew that participants were vulnerable and had mental health challenges but we were reaching out to them, doing outreach, through organisations. And actually I wish I’d had that agreement in place, right from the get go – that there was either a therapist or a support worker or a counsellor of someone else that was allowed to be part of the process.

It does sound like you were taking a lot on yourself. Obviously you had this experience interviewing people in war zones, working with vulnerable people, and there aren’t many people in theatre who could draw on that when making a play, so you’re clearly well qualified for this. But it’s interesting that even then you felt you needed more support.

Yeah, because there’s only you, playing different roles. And I was producing. And then when we did the tour, we got a big chunk of funding, that was great. But at the time of the showcase, it was my first show that I was producing ever. And then you switch between writer and producer as well. I think I was juggling a lot. But obviously it makes for really good lessons. 

Before we move on to One Mississippi, are there any other lessons you learned from If I Had A Girl…?

Yes. That I can’t assume, just because I’ve done the outreach through charities or organisations that are working with these groups (of participants), that even the support worker knows where that person is at. Because day to day, their mental health is in a different place. That support worker thought that she was fine. Day to day, as the court case was coming up, her mental health deteriorated, but because I was predominantly checking in with the support worker, it wasn’t the right read on her. So that was good learning as well. Aside from that, the great thing was that it was a group process from the beginning, starting with a group and engaging with their stories in a way that felt really intimate and safe and nourishing, with opportunities to explore creatively, through different activities, how they felt. It was almost like devising in a way, in a room with our bodies, before we decided to delve into the work. And for the women that was a really powerful process because they felt like a cohesive group. And then when they went on to be part of observing the rehearsals and the show, after I’d written the pieces, which I also checked in with them about, they felt like they were part of everything. No one ever felt like they had been cut out of the process, which was really a brilliant thing.

So they were a closely knit group in a way before the show started?

We’d brought them from different refuges and different women’s organisations. But because they then went on this journey together, they were eyeballing each other at opening night. And it was amazing. 

Let’s talk about One Mississippi, another show that was performed by actors but based on interviews with real people, in this case men who had survived suicide attempts. What was the starting point for that project?

I was inspired by the stories of two men that I had spoken to through Safe Families. And I realised that actually these two men that were incarcerated had significant mental health challenges. As well as, obviously, expressing their pain in a really destructive way, both of them were suicidal. I had also been with a partner who had long-term depression and that is something that stays with you. So I was really quite fascinated by this in men and the lack of truthful storytelling. And I was speaking with John McCormack (of Scottish Recovery Network), at the time, about this thing called adverse childhood experiences, which, you know, hadn’t come to the surface yet. 

And so I figured it might be interesting to interview men across Scotland, who all had attempted suicide, and to see what it was that had driven them to the breaking point. And I was able to go back through Safer Families and contact the men there. And then, through recommendations of my male friends, I was able to contact other men. And then two men I knew personally. I didn’t use all the interviews, I did composite some of them. But of course, certain stories really pack a punch. And I was able to sit and have these lengthy conversations with these men. 

A couple of these guys had sponsors, but none of them had come through charities, I was going to be operating pretty much me and them. A couple of them had had counselling. But in those initial conversations, before I said I was going to go into anything with them, I was getting a read on whether or not I felt I could do this with them. I was also really putting my faith in the individuals who had spoken to me and said ‘this guy, he’s really good, he’s got a family, he’s moved on, I’ve asked him if he would speak to you and he said, yes.’

It’s interesting that having made a project which grew out of a closely knit group of women, who were all doing creative things together before they even started making a contribution to the show, you then go and interview individual men rather than bringing a group together. Can you talk about that?

I felt that the most impactful thing for me as a maker of this type of work was this intimate one on one exchange. Even though these women had done this group work together, I still had to go and individually interview each of them. But also the thing that came in, that I’ve kind of skipped over, is the choice of the questions. There’s a lot of work that goes into how you start to unpack the narrative of someone’s life, their psyche, their mental health, where they’re at. That takes a lot of prep. So I will do hours of prep before I go into an interview. 

And I will prep myself to be that vessel, so that I am not going in with my own stuff. I recently gave a seminar on bearing witness at Glasgow University. I work with these emerging playwrights and I’ll do these exercises with them and say, okay, let’s give it a go. You bring your interview technique, and let’s see how that works. And we’ll get into it, and then they start telling me their story. And I’m going, okay, I’m gonna just stop you there, so you have now put me as the interviewee in the place of bearing witness, I am now being fully present and having to hold your story. Fair enough, if you have had harrowing things going on, in your mental health you have had long term challenges, that is why you’re attracted to the work, but you cannot bring that into the process of interviewing someone else who’s vulnerable. Because then you are not making it safe for them. 

Bu there’s another thing too. If you try and find, back in 2015 or 2016, groups of men who have come together to…. yeah, you’re already laughing, you know where I’m going with that. It didn’t exist in Scotland. There was stuff going on in prisons, but I wanted a different, diverse group of men, who all came from very different backgrounds with their own harrowing set of circumstances, but in the end were more alike than they were different because they all went to this place. 

Suicide is obviously a hugely sensitive thing to interview someone about. Did you make it clear at the beginning that this was what you wanted to focus on?

I was very honest and upfront. Don’t pull any surprises. Transparency is so important. The other thing is, when you’re fully transparent it doesn’t mean that you dive straight in but you know where you’re both sensitively walking together. You will take those steps in a really measured way as you journey towards that and once again you will be able to tell. One of the men was fidgeting like his life depended on it. He was a smoker and he’d decided we’d go to Waterstones cafe to talk about his story – he had tried to hang himself and his sister had stopped him. And he was getting to that point (in the story) and I could see his hands were going and I said, ‘do you smoke?’ And he said, ‘yeah.’ And I said, do you need to go and have a cigarette? ‘Yeah.’ And he left Waterstones. He was able to go outside and take that moment for himself. And then I don’t know if he made that conscious decision or not, but he came back in and just told me everything.

Did the men know that their stories would be combined?

I had spoken to them about how I made If I Had a Girl…, that I would obviously be editing the words and sort of curating it all to weave the stories together. So they were able to check me out and see what I’d made. And I explained that I want to do a similar thing about men’s mental health and suicide, and I wanted to bring (different stories) together in this show that was going to be very physical and really quite challenging, but also funny, and they all felt that if what they had been through was going to make one difference in someone’s life, who’s sitting in that audience, whether it’s a mother whose son had completed suicide, or whether it was someone there that was on the edge, they wanted to be part of it. 

There’s a whole kind of set-up you do. You kind of create this imaginary bubble for the two of you. It’s like, in Arab culture, you have big energy, that’s hospitality. You’re like, get your coffee, let’s sit here, it’s nice and quiet. And then it’s like, ‘I’ve got my phone. I’m going to record this. We’ve talked about this. I’m just going to double check. Is that still okay? It makes it easier for me than having to write notes. ‘Yep.’ ‘All right.’ I’m going to turn that on. I’m just going to put it under you so that it captures your voice more than mine.’ ‘Yep, no problem.’ ‘Oh, my God. It’s bloody freezing. I got absolutely drenched coming here.’ ‘Yeah, me too. Me too.’ ‘Do you remember when you were a kid? Mum used to put me in these awful Wellington boots…’ And then all of a sudden we’re off. 

And sometimes, you know, you’re not in a private place because they’ve chosen a pub, or a cafe. And again, that’s a really interesting thing, all these men chose these really public places. So I was trying to hold the space, while knowing they might stiffen because someone’s coming into our space when they’re talking about something really intimate.

Why do you think they chose such public places to talk about something so personal?

I think, in a way, they almost felt safer with the chaos of the world around them, instead of somewhere where it would just be me and them in a room. Especially the ones that I didn’t know. One of them made me walk around Dublin, chasing him. It was hard, you know, that was his way, not making eye contact, because we would literally walk and talk and I was recording and walking and talking and walking, talking.

One Mississippi has quite an unusual and quite bold structure, with these men’s stories all building up to a moment, right at the end of the show, when they are about to attempt suicide and we then go to a blackout without finding out what happens immediately afterwards. Can you talk about why you chose to end the show in that way?

The main reason is they were all still alive. They were real men who had lived to tell their stories. I did take a big risk, making it that way. But I hoped that because the audience knew they were real men’s stories, and because of the timeline – the way we go into the journey of childhood and all the rest of it – somehow ending on such a challenging moment, the audience would be able to reconcile that they’re still here because they’ve been able to tell their stories. Had it been a fiction, I don’t think I would have done that. It was embedded in the work because it was verbatim.

Another decision you made was that it wasn’t initially presented to the public as a show about suicide, but one about adverse childhood experiences. Can you explain the thinking behind that? 

I think because suicide is a moment in a journey, a choice in a journey that someone makes. And all of these things had led to significant mental health breakdown for these men. This really was a life’s journey to that point, and I think that suicide can overshadow everything else very quickly and easily in a person’s life and overwhelm the work and overwhelm the impression that it gives to potential audience about what they’re about to see. I think you have to be really careful about it. But we made the right choice, because the show was a runaway success in terms of its feedback, its reviews, its impact, and what it was there to do, which was to raise awareness of all this, and to challenge the stereotypes around men and suicide and what we were too scared to say. The other thing is, we don’t show suicide and the completion of suicide.

What feedback did you get from the men you interviewed for the show? 

It was amazing, because obviously, all of them, pretty much, went on to create monologues for Breaking Point(a BBC adaptation of One Mississippi, made during lockdown). So that’s a testament to how they felt. All of the men saw the show. All of the men were deeply moved, blown away, wanted to do more, wanted to be more involved in some way. In particular, Tony went on to be on panels and go on Radio Scotland with me and things like that. And all of them are doing okay, some better than others, obviously, it’s a undulating journey. And unlike If I Had A Girl, it was a prerequisite than when those men sat in the audience with their families, their families knew everything, there were going to be no surprises. And when they saw the audience laugh and cry, and go through what they had been through in that 75 minutes, that for them was profoundly healing.

What did you learn from doing One Mississippi?

Obviously, I learned a lot more about men, and how precious and vulnerable you are, and how society has really placed some terrible expectations on you. But as an artist, I think it was after creating One Mississippi and recognising that I had found a way to really safely and powerfully engage with people who are very vulnerable, particularly men who didn’t have the outlets to speak about their mental health journeys. Through the grace of that work, I gave them an outlet. Some of them had never spoken out loud about some of the things they did. So we had to go back to their families and tell them before they came to the show. And it gave them an incredible outlet. 

So I’ve felt that my presence in terms of bearing witness to their story and being able to make this work sort of helped them to relate to their mental health in a whole different way, that they never looked at it in that way before. That was the thing that Tony said to me: ‘I have never experienced such a high in my life as when I watched Scott (the actor) tell my story on stage.’ That they were all able to see the mental health journey in a new way, was extraordinary. And I had never thought about that as an outcome of this work. So that was incredibly powerful for them. 

What about you? Did you feel like you had enough mental health support?

I think I underestimated the impact it would have on me. I think because I’ve been a carer and in positions where I’ve supported people through their mental health journeys, I’ve often never identified as having any challenges myself, I’ve always felt very robust. We all shift constantly, but at that time, because I always felt, you know, I’ve done this, I’ve worked in war zones, and I’m very robust, I don’t need anything to support me through this. I had an amazing dramaturg in Steve Barnes, who works consistently with young men who have been through very difficult journeys, and many have also attempted suicide. And so he was really invested. And he was an amazing support for me to be able to talk about how we work with the men’s stories. But of course, he wasn’t a counsellor or a therapist and at the time I wasn’t with a partner. And so I would come home, and I was living on my own, and I just kind of worked through material and yeah, I underestimated how much it would affect me listening to their stories again, because there were times, you know, where their voices would crack. And it was really getting hard for them to tell me what they did, especially when they’re at that really difficult point. And they’re so vulnerable, so, so vulnerable, and that can’t not affect you. But I didn’t put support in place and so there were times I’d go home and I’d be listening to these recordings and just be weeping, holding my face thinking, how did they make it through? And then, you know, you find this grace, and you’re just going, oh my god, I have to finish this show.

One Mississippi is probably your best known, most successful show to date, but looking back is there anything you wish you’d done differently?

That was a really good process. I was really fortunate. I had some check ins with the men afterwards. We built that in, so after they saw the show we could check in. I didn’t build those in as well with the women (on If I Had A Girl) because with the women there were organisations with support workers, I felt more hands off. But with the men I was much more hands on about doing the check in after they saw the show and the check ins after the interviews and that follow up. So I was taking more on myself, just to ensure that everything was okay. But also that meant that I felt what I was doing was robust, because I was putting all of this in place, knowing that it’s not as simple as just going off. ‘Thanks. I’ve got your story. That’s me done now.’ It’s, ‘you’re now coming to see this work for the first time – because they weren’t in the rehearsals – and are you okay, is your family okay?’ And that felt like… I really held it well as a process, if we think about it like that.

What would you say to venues that want to programme shows like One Mississippi or If I Had a Girl…?

I thought about some of this. So in terms of venues, obviously trigger warnings are really important. Even when we had trigger warnings on at the Tron (Theatre, in Glasgow) when we showcased One Mississippi as part of SMHAF, we’d have people walk out. One woman brought her 15 year old daughter, and she then wrote a really long email to me. We had said it’s going to be 14 plus and we did everything we could, but I’m not sure if perhaps the venues could have had more signage around this. I said to the Tron over and over again, I’ve ticked all your boxes – really strong language, themes of suicide, violence, you know, childhood trauma, it’s all in there. But in the end, people write to me. I got a few really strongly worded emails from audience members who felt they just really didn’t understand the extent of what we were going to be putting on stage. But certainly when we toured One Mississippi, some of the smaller venues didn’t have any kind of template. We know they’re under resourced, not very well equipped, but there’s only so much you can do as a producer.