The show, featuring four main elements — dance, music, drama, and film — was based on the Canadian Ismaili community's journey from Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah’s Diamond Jubilee in 1946 to Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Diamond Jubilee in 2017.
Rihla: from Roots to Dreams made stops in Ottawa, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, and Edmonton from September to December, before the finale in Calgary.
“Given the depth of struggle, faith, and triumph that characterizes the stories of the Canadian Jamat, ‘journey’ became a fitting title. We consulted with brothers and sisters from other parts of the world and agreed on Rihla as the title for our show, which means journey in Arabic,” said artistic/musical director, performer, and national tour production manager Azim Keshavjee, explaining how he and the team came up with its title. "The journey was not only one for the Jamat to take but for the team as well, we had to find ourselves first before we were able to move forward; this was a journey of self-discovery," added Keshavjee.
In order to explore the Canadian Jamat’s movement from where it was in 1946 to where they have settled today, Keshavjee said they chose to begin with the Diamond Jubilee of Sultan Mahomed Shah. A major challenge faced by the show’s directors was how best to capture the inherent and wide diversity that exists within the community.
Featuring multiple languages and performances — including Tajik, East African, and South Asian dances and Persian, Arabic, Swahili, Indian, Celtic, and Andalusian-inspired music — Rihla overcame the challenge, tying it all together with historical reflections and an entertaining storyline in which the audience follows along on Laila’s countdown to 11 July 2017, the inauguration of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Diamond Jubilee.
Laila, a young Canadian Ismaili, has been asked to sing for the Jamat on 11 July, and struggles with the choice of pursuing her passion. Her husband Karim, a converted Ismaili, and her hilarious nanimaa (grandmother) both urge her to pursue her dreams. Meanwhile, her Afghani-Ismaili friend Farahnaz and her family reminisce about their own harrowing journey to the country they now call home.
Zaheed Damani, Rihla’s playwright and director of multimedia, spoke about the creative process behind the show.
“It really was a journey of discovery,” Damani explained. “We grew, we got ideas from the artists themselves, and it naturally evolved until we had this, which really has become a beautiful, layered representation of One Jamat.”
Shereen Ladha, co-director and dance choreographer, reflected on her personal journey.
“Our personal journey as a team began 15 months ago, with meticulous research, consultation, and inner reflection. The dance pieces were meant to establish the cultural and historical context of the stories we told, and also highlight the devotional elements of Rihla. My challenge was: how do I craft pieces that convey these stories through movement?”
Alongside Keshavjee, Damani, and Ladha, Rihla’s creative team also included Al-Waez Karim Dewji, Munir Boodhwani, and Sophia Virani.
“We started with three objectives,” Damani said. “We were hoping the production would inspire gratitude for being Canadian, pride for being Ismaili, and an unflinching belief that the Imam’s hand has always been on our shoulder.”
The team has been amazed by the feedback they have received on the show so far. The show has inspired pride, reflection, and continued sharing of personal and family stories. Cast members hailed from across Canada and featured some of the best singers, musicians, and actors in the Jamat.
“Many commented that it was one particular video clip, word, picture, single note or dance move that really took them back,” he said.
“One point of pride has been the way in which so many artforms have been seamlessly woven together. This show is historical for the Jamat in so many ways — one that we hope will continue is the use of the arts as a platform for expression and exploration,” added Ladha and Keshavjee.
“The message we keep getting is ‘you brought us back and we experienced things we never knew the Jamat went through’,” they said.
Damani also explained that Rihla: from Roots to Dreams is by no means the conclusion of the journey for the Jamat.
“At the end of the show we say this is a journey we are continuing to write together,” Damani explained, looking to the future. “Sixty years from now, what we are doing today is Inshallah what our families and friends are going to reflect back on, so we have a responsibility to continue bearing that torch and that light that has been given to us.”