Open City stories: Rania Iraki

Open City stories: Rania Iraki

I know Rania Iraki because in 2014 she directed a short film in which one of my daughters played the title role – and had a great time doing it. For this interview, Rania and I met at a Café Lemon on West Green Road, N15.

I was born on 6 June 1992 in a little town called Lørenskog in Norway, about 20 minutes from Oslo. My parents are still there. They’ve lived there since 1989, though they are actually both Palestinian. They were asylum-seekers when they first moved to Norway.  They had lived in Germany and then Dubai before that, either studying or working. In Norway, they lived in council houses for a while until they got citizenship. My dad became a GP there.

Where I grew up was quite a diverse area. It was 50:50 between Norwegians and people from Pakistan and Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. When I was older I studied theatre and through that I realised I enjoyed the production side of it rather than being on stage. I think that paved the way for me to be trying to do what I’m doing now.

I lived in Norway until I was 20, then I moved to London five years ago, on the 13 September 2012. I knew from an early age that I wanted to come and study in London, but I didn’t visit until I was 18. It was a birthday present from my older sister. We came for five days and I absolutely loved it. We did all the tourist stuff. After I finished high school in Norway I applied to different universities in London, but I wasn’t sure I was looking at the right kind if course. I decided to take a year out and saved loads of money. Then I got an interview with Westminster.

I flew over by myself. I’d never been so nervous in my life. I stayed in a hotel somewhere in Euston, took the train up to Harrow and did the interview with someone who turned out to be one of my favourite teachers. We had a few disagreements, mostly about Tim Burton’s Sweeny Todd, which I really like and he doesn’t. Afterwards, I asked him if he wanted to keep my portfolio and he said “no”. I thought, that’s not a good sign. But a week later I got an email saying I’d got an unconditional offer.

In my first year I lived in halls on the Harrow campus, and in my second year I lived just on the other side of the tube station, which was a two-minute walk from uni. And then I moved five minutes away. So I just lived in Harrow and Kenton for those three years. It was quite an experience for me. My mum and my sister came over with me and all my stuff, and when they left it actually hit me that I was by myself in this foreign city.

It was quite tough for me in my first three weeks. There were 60 people on my course. We had a few eastern Europeans and two Chinese people, some from Italy, Spain; a Swedish girl and two Danes, I think. I was the only Muslim. I lived with six other people in halls and all of them were English, so I was the only foreigner there. I always seem to be the only foreigner or the only Muslim, whether in friendship groups or work and I feel I need to represent my culture in the best way I can. I’m still friends with nearly all the people I shared with, so I think it turned out for the best

In my first year there were so many things I wanted to do. All my favourite bands kept playing gigs and there was the odd lecture that I skipped. And it was mainly just getting familiar with the city and being a tourist for that first year as well, and making new friends. Also, the course is a bit slow for the first year. But in the second year I put my foot down and thought, this is what you want to do, you’ve just got to go all out. So I literally spent 9:00 am until 10:00 pm every day trying to think of ideas, working on my films, doing essays.

Harrow was alright. There were a few bars around the area and a pub on campus, but I don’t drink. My favourite thing about Harrow was that I lived really near an Arab shop that sold loads of Arabic food and drinks. Ever time I went in there I would always speak Arabic to them, and they would give me discounts and sometimes free stuff. They’d ask me where I’d been. That, in a way, brought me closer to home. I didn’t speak Arabic so anyone at home except my parents. So that was a nice thing to have nearby.

The Westminster course was so good. One of my dear friends said something very try about the essence of the course, which was that when we made our films it was run like a production company. Our tutors were like the executive producers, looking over us. We were able to do whatever we wanted, if we could get the budget together for it. That was such a valuable experience. I was lucky enough to shoot Lily on film. I think we were one of only something like three universities in Europe that can do that, because we had the facilities.

In terms of student culture it was quite hard to be social sometimes, and it still can be quite hard because, in the end, people go out and drink. I don’t mind going to the pub with people and having a lemonade, though sometimes you do feel a bit left out. But we still manage to do a lot of fun things together. And when I’m fasting, my housemates are always very respectful. Sometimes they’ll even wait to have their meal until the sun has gone down so I don’t have to eat by myself. You find your true friends when you grow older, I think.

After uni, we went house hunting again. In London, that is a nightmare. We looked for a long time. Finding a house for six people was difficult, especially because none of us had jobs. You need to have guarantors, and my parents couldn’t help because they don’t live in this country. My friend Ashley’s parents, very kindly, have been my guarantors.

We finally found this five-bedroom house – for the six of us – in Tottenham. It has shower installed in the kitchen. I just find that quite ridiculous, the idea that someone emerges from the shower in a towel while someone else is making a stir fry. No one ever used that shower. We looked at this other house, in Turnpike Lane, that had a shower in the dining room. What is this obsession with having showers in inappropriate places? Housing in Norway is very different. There are a lot of things here that I’m not quite used to yet!

There is something about London that makes you feel so connected with the world, especially with what I want to try and do in the film industry. It makes you feel that there are so many more possibilities. It’s just a city where you feel like you can do anything. Even if you’re not doing it, you just have a feeling that you’re a part of something bigger, in a sense. A lot of people, when they visit, say that they feel smaller, because there are so many people. But I feel the opposite. I feel I’m part of a bigger thing than when I’m in Norway.

You meet so many different people. I’ve met some very strange people and some great people I never thought that I would meet. And because it’s such a big city, everywhere you go you feel like you’re in a new town. I’ve been to Ealing, which feels completely different from Camden and Seven Sisters and Brick Lane. It feels as though you can go to a different part of the world within the same city, which is so nice. I work in Hampstead, where it’s like you’re with kings and queens because it’s such a posh area. I’d love to live there one day, not because it’s posh, but because it’s so well-connected and Hampstead Heath is one of my favourite places.

My goal here is to establish myself as a film maker. In the next five years I want to write a feature film about my dad and the diary he kept when he worked in a refugee camp in Lebanon. I’m surprised he came out alive from that experience. Two doctors and 60,000 refugees lived there. Because of my background, I have something that’s different from most people in the film industry. I think it’s such a relevant and important story. My goal is to change perceptions of the Arab community through this film and any others I make.

The other I thing I’m really interested in is sitcoms. When my elder brother and I were younger, we had this thing called happy hour where we would sit together and watch them. Every time we talk with each other we always refer to a sitcom. I wrote my dissertation on sitcoms, and I love them so much that that’s kind of what I want to do too. I’ve written a pilot for one. I would love to be a writer director.

I’d like to introduce sitcom characters that haven’t been seen on TV before, and normalise them – not make a great deal out of them. I want to represent people that aren’t represented and in different ways. They make such a big deal out of having one Muslim character or a black character that’s the lead, and that shouldn’t be the case. It should just be.

I absolutely love London. But you don’t really realise that until you go away for a bit. It’s a city you get really frustrated with at times, and there’s so many people, and there’s always something going on. You realise that when you’re on the Tube – everybody just wants to go somewhere and they want to get there really quickly. And then suddenly your day is finished. Time goes so quickly here.

When I go home I think it’s so nice to feel the countryside, it’s so quiet, you look at the time and it’s only a quarter past eleven in the morning and the days feel so much longer than here. But after five days of being there, I think: I love it here, this is my hometown, but I couldn’t live here, I would go insane. And I feel really bad, because every time I talk to my parents they’re like, s”o when are you going to come back home, are you going to stay there in London?” And I say, “Maybe one day I will come back home”. But I know I probably won’t.

Previous Open City stories can be read here and here. A trailer for the film Lily and the Revolution, which Rania directed and my daughter Orla Hill played the title role in, can be seen here. PS: Since doing this interview, Rania has moved to Bounds Green.

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