Salim Rahemtulla never set out to be a playwright.
But after he retired, one of his daughters, Zahida, insisted that he could do it.
"I said 'What are you talking about?' " Rahemtulla, a trained computer scientist, recalls in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. "She says 'Dad, I know you can write. Start writing!' And she was relentless."
That was in December 2018. Then in May 2020, Western Gold Theatre was looking for scripts for Asian Heritage Month.
Rahemtulla's adult children noticed a post on Facebook by director Melissa Oei, so they encouraged him to apply. (Zahida is a playwright herself.)
This week, Rahemtulla's first play is about to premiere at PAL Studio Theatre in Vancouver.
It's called 90 Days and it tells the story of an Ismaili Muslim family's forced exodus from Uganda in 1972.
The play is loosely based on his family's experiences and is directed by Oei. The shopkeeper/father, Yusuf Rahim, is played by Dhirendra.
The rest of the cast is made up of Nimet Kanji (Parin Rahim), Akshaya Pattanayak (Nasser Rahim), Parm Soor (Munir Kassam), and Sabrina Vellani (Shamira Rahim).
The preview is on Thursday (September 8) with the opening night on Friday (September 9). It runs until September 25.
Rahemtulla was good in English when he attended school, so he initially wrote proper and grammatically correct sentences for his characters. But Zahida informed him that this is not how people normally speak.
She advised him to listen to how people talk and pay attention to how often they interrupt one another—and write like that.
"I had to go back to ground zero again and start again," he says. "It was a big learning experience for me."
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the country's bloodthirsty former dictator, Idi Amin, expelling the 80,000-member Asian community. He claimed that he had received instructions from God to do this.
At the time, Rahemtulla was studying in London and working as a security guard when the expulsion announcement came. His family was living in the Ugandan capital of Kampala.
"I didn’t take it seriously," Rahemtulla recalls. "I thought this is just a ploy by Idi Amin to get more aid money from Britain or something like that—and in a few weeks' time, everything will be back to normal."
As the 90-day deadline drew closer, Amin started ratcheting up the pressure.
The Ismailis' spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, had always encouraged members of the faith to take up citizenship in the countries where they lived. So the vast majority of Ismailis in Kampala were Ugandans.
However, Amin ordered all Asians to report to the Uganda passport office to verify their citizenship. According to Rahemtulla, they would often be denied citizenship for obscure reasons, such as a document lacking a page number.
"Therefore, you were no longer a citizen," he says. "You became a stateless person."
His father was determined to stay in Kampala where he operated a small shop. But then poorly educated people in the Ugandan armed forces began killing some Asians, elevating the danger.
Rahemtulla's father waited until two days left before the deadline before getting the remaining family members out of the country. He made this decision after Amin signalled his intention to disperse all Asians left in Kampala to other parts of the country.
It was a harrowing experience for his father and mother.
"They didn't even know where they were going," Rahemtulla says. "They were told on the plane...and they ended up in Malta—my parents and my two younger brothers. One brother ended up in Austria.”
Because Rahemtulla was in London, he was able to let everyone know where the nine siblings and parents were located. He would receive letters from Quebec City, the Nova Scotia town of Amherst, Austria, Malta, Vancouver, Toronto, and Wigan outside Manchester, becoming the conduit because they all knew his address.
His parents moved from Malta to Vancouver as refugees. Eventually, Rahemtulla was able to join them, but only after avoiding being deported back to England by sitting on the floor in protest in the Toronto airport.
It's a compelling story and has similarities with thousands of other Ismailis who fled Uganda to come to Canada in the 1970s.
In the years since then, many Ismailis have enjoyed tremendous success in Canada in business, the professions, media, academia, and the arts.
Rahemtulla attributes some of that to the education that they received in East Africa.
"Most Ismailis went to Aga Khan schools, which were very good," he says. "Most of the teachers were expatriate teachers from Europe, with maybe one or two from the States. [The curriculum] was based on the Cambridge syllabus."
From there, many attended universities abroad.
"I think that's why we adapted much quicker than the immigrants that do not speak English," Rahemtulla adds. "Also, I think business comes very easy to Ismailis. Don't ask me how. We just catch onto business very easily."
He's gone back to Uganda three times since his family escaped. The first visit was in 1984, then he returned with his wife in 1995. The final visit came in 2007 with his children so he could show them where he grew up.
As challenging as things were in 1972, Rahemtulla believes that refugees in the 21st century have a much more difficult time.
"It’s heartbreaking to watch children to be washed ashore in the Mediterranean Sea," he says. "What we went through is nothing compared to what is happening now."