January 2023 and I’m in India with my wife. 

She’s working on a dance project and I’m trying to finish the first draft of my adaptation of Onjali Q. Raúf’s The Boy at the Back of the Class.

One day, when I’d finally typed ‘snap to black’ (how I love those words), we took a morning off and I read the play out loud to my wife (she’s always my first, most patient, most honest and most critical audience). 

I say I read it out loud to her; that’s what I attempted to do, but much of my ‘reading’ and certainly the final four pages were a snot-dripping, eyes-streaming, blubbering mess. I don’t think either of us properly heard those last pages of dialogue.

Now that the adaptation is on stage, touring the country, and I’m watching it with audiences, I continue to be unable to get through the final pages (or as they are now, scenes on stage) dry-eyed. I’m not quite the blubbering mess I was that morning in India, but it’s always proper, heavy tears through which I watch the ending of the play.

Nick Ahad. Photo courtesy of the writer.

With a little bit of distance, I have tried to understand what’s going on there. I’m a pretty emotional audience member, quick to well up, but why does this story and the adaptation – which I wrote – move me so much?

It’s the optimism, the hope I see in the story, and the way audiences respond to it.

We’ve grown, in recent years, to hope being a diminishing commodity. 

While pessimism grows like wild flowers, hope becomes an ever rarer resource. It’s not hard to understand why when you look at the state of the world. Who is hopeful in the face of what we’ve allowed our world to become?

But watching The Boy at the Back of the Class, I realise the story is absolutely full of naive, innocent hope and because that is embodied in a group of nine-year-old children, I think it makes me realise that the generation coming up behind us give us reason to be hopeful.

The Boy at the Back of the Class – credit Manuel Harlan.

If you don’t know the story of Rauf’s much-awarded, hugely popular book, The Boy at the Back of the Class tells the tale of Ahmet, a young refugee from Syria who washes up in the UK and finds himself in a British classroom. There he meets a group of nine-year-old children, some who bully him, and some who befriend him. When his new friends overhear some adults discussing the thing that adults seem obsessed by – how the Government is going to ‘stop the boats’ – and believe that the country is going to stop any more refugees coming into the country, they determine to help Ahmet find his mother and father. To do so, they come up with a plan that is audacious in its naivety. And it’s at that moment in the performance that I always start crying.

I can’t explain more without spoilers, but suffice to say, it is the plan of a group of nine-year-old children whose logic extends to ‘why wouldn’t I help this refugee boy – he’s the same as me’. It’s that simplistic, innocent optimism on display that I find so moving.

I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of watching the show now with audiences in Kingston, where the play received its world premiere at the Rose Theatre, and in Sheffield at the Lyceum, as part of the national tour.

I’m heartened and a little relieved to say – it’s not just me. In Sheffield I even sat next to someone who cried even more than me at the story’s denouement. And the children in the audience, just as they have since we opened in Kingston, have cheered the ‘goodies’ and booed the ‘baddies’. They get the story and they understand the moral rights and wrongs with more immediacy and sophistication than I could have imagined.

It’s enough to make you hopeful – and move me to tears.

By Nick Ahad

Main image: The cast of The Boy at the Back of the Class – credit Manuel Harlan.


The Boy at the Back of the Class is at The Lowry, Salford from March 26-30, 2024. For more information, click here.