Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 -27 February 2008
Issue No. 885
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

Alexandria once more

Nehad Selaiha has more to say about the 5th Creative Forum of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina

On 8 February, two days before the Forum ended, Taous Khazem, an American-Algerian artist living in the United States, treated us to a 60-minute, one-woman show about the plight of Algerian immigrants, particularly those of Berber origins, who are doomed by history to feel doubly exiled, both in their own motherland, before they even leave it, and, again, in their new, adopted home countries abroad. That Khazem was born in the US to an American mother and an Algerian father, half-French (on his mother's side), half- Amazighi (on his father's), makes her only a quarter Algerian. Yet, her Tizi Ouzou, the name of the capital of the Kabylia region, though originally written in English and delivered in a broad American accent (which some found quite garish), came across as a poignant search for cultural roots, an attempt to reconcile opposites, come to terms with the fact of exile and piece together one's variegated personal fragments and painfully splintered loyalties.

It is said that children estranged from their mothers at an early age never quite get over the trauma of this separation and often tend to bequeath it to their children, leaving them with a heritage of restlessness and anxiety, a haunting sense of uprootedness, a feeling of being an unwelcome, or, at best, a politely tolerated guest in the world, never truly belonging anywhere. Such feelings seemed to inform the content and the very structure of Khazem's piece, or, rather, hall of sounds and echoes. Though she performs the whole play, taking on its 12 characters and their 21 conversational extracts, Khazem's persona -- as the young Algerian/American woman, or "American granddaughter", as her grumpy grandfather mockingly dismisses her, who is back home to marry a Kabyle cousin and former immigrant, kicked out of France, and take him back to the States -- is only present as an invisible, silent addressee and her own voice is prominent by its absence. She is always talked at, first by Maurice, the waiter in a French café, a Kabyle man who was given a French name when he applied for a French visa, and who, though he declares that he would never go back, still cherishes the memory of the sun in his homeland and carries with him, in his exile, the history of his land's usurpation by many invaders, including the Arabs.

"So, you're going to Tizi Ouzou? The capital of Kabylia," he muses aloud in the presence of the silent heroine. "I'll never set foot back there again. I used to care. I wanted to fight the great fight. When I thought it was worth it. When I thought Tizi Ouzou was going to stand up and fight back." He continues "Give us our language! we cried. Our identity! Our sense of pride!... Algeria was to be independent after the French left in 1962 but they turned it into an Arab state. They outlawed Kabyle from being spoken in public schools. And what about the rest of us? My mother doesn't speak Arabic, my grandmother doesn't speak Arabic. We are all Berber, for god's sake...Algeria has been colonized over and over again. First came the Phoenicians, Romans, and then Arabs with their religion and language and then the Turks and then the French. Thing is, the Arabs stayed so long they now call Algeria their own. And they are afraid of us, the Kabyles who refused to give up our language because we are stubborn, aggressive, and fearless."

The painful historical narrative goes on: "In the spring of 1980 thousands of us students went on strike and closed the universities down. We were so sick of not being able to speak our own language, of being ignored and shunned by our own government. People came raging down the mountains from the villages into Tizi Ouzou and destroyed it. I saw with my own eyes a man rip a tree up from its roots with his bare hands. The government sent in tanks. It was us against the state.... All this for a language. A language that has been around since the dawn of time and is now headed for a museum -- something for anthropologists to study. Don't bother learning it. It's already dead. You can speak French with your cousins."

"I'll never set foot back in Tizi Ouzou again," Maurice declares to the silent heroine. "My parents are dead, my children and my wife are here in Paris. Dayen Djzaïr. Forget Algeria . The government is corrupt. Everything runs with système baksheesh. I had my own business. It all fell apart. I tried and failed. It's dirty, over-crowded, there's water once in a blue moon. And impossible to make enough to survive." Still, he warns: "don't get me wrong. If a foreigner dares to insult my homeland, tamurt-inou, I will defend it to the death."

The encounter with Maurice is the first leg in Taous's heroine's journey back to her (elusive) roots, and his chatter focuses the tragedy of the Amazighi people, oppressed at home, discriminated against abroad, and robbed of their cultural identity and language, and even their names, in both places. I remember once chatting to a middle-aged Algerian receptionist in a small hotel in Paris. When I told him how my generation had found inspiration in their war of independence which claimed one million martyrs -- a war much glorified in the Arab media and literature in my time -- he retorted cynically: "and look what it has brought us!"

I was baffled by his reaction at the time, and it was only years later, after I had read more about Algeria's recent history and became interested in the Kurdish issue, thanks to Harold Pinter's Mountain Language and two visits to Iraq under Saddam's reign, that I understood his, and my Kurdish acquaintances' perceptible resentment at being called 'Arabs', and of my naïve, glib talk of Arab nationalism, a hangover from Nasser's 1960s and a supreme instance of crass historical blindness.

It is a credit to the Forum that for the first time in Egypt the Amazighi issue has been aired out of the academic closets and voiced, albeit in English, in a popular medium like the stage. Khazem's piece was a poignant, heartfelt call for a thorough critique of the official version of Arab/ Islamic political history and an honest documentation of the fate of the indigenous populations in all the countries the conquering Arab armies swept through in their invasion march from the Arabian peninsula to Andalusia in European Spain. An indoctrinated Nasserite for almost twenty of my formative years, and bred on the idea of Arab nationalism and Arab unity, I must confess that any thoughts of sub-cultures or separatist movements leave me deeply agitated, like a person on the edge of a huge precipice.

It would have been wonderful if we, the so- called Arabs, could forget our different, indigenous cultures and histories, our geographically-rooted dialects and ways of life -- as peasants, nomads, seafarers, pearl-fishers or mountain people -- and confess allegiance to one religion and one culture. This, however, is not the case, as any 'Arab' would tell you, and it is about time we started to look at 'Arab' identity as a culturally multi-layered construct, historically and geographically determined, and subject to revision and redefinition.

Torn between several worlds -- Amazighi, Arab, and European -- and trying to forge a coherent cultural identity is the theme which underlies and determines the sad course of Khazem's love story and passage from the new to the old world. Nostalgia, occasionally shaded with something approaching an exotic view, for the land one was forced to leave, on the part of the expatriates, or longing for a land of freedom and opportunity in the West one was bit allowed to conquer, on the part of the stay-at-home Berbers, make up the substance of the conversational snatches across the Mediterranean and well into Kabylia land. A sense of loss and thwarted dreams, of an irretrievably lost paradise on both sides of the Mediterranean, reverberates throughout the whole work and the failed love story of the silent, physically absent heroine gains in tragic/ironic impact as her father, an expatriate artist, advises her to swallow her sorrow in silence and go back 'home'. 'Home', in her case, is a teasingly quizzical, fluid location where the past and present, memory and desire, are at loggerheads. I left Taous's Tizi Ouzou deeply moved and ideologically chastened.

The absence of Taous's persona in her satirical, performative quest for self- definition gained in urgency and poignancy as I compared it to the shows that most impressed and moved me in this Forum. Both Eric de Sarria's profoundly personal A Taste of Millefeuilles, a highly imaginative and enchantingly metaphoric mime and movement existential narrative, working on two waves and addressing both adults and children, was a stunning illustration of the concept of 'a theatre of objects' and a crowning demonstration of the limitless, expressive and highly poetical potential of this kind of theatre which was the subject of a 10-hour workshop he conducted in the course of the Forum. Using a piece of dough, a newspaper, a bunch of spaghetti sticks, an elastic cloth sack, a diminutive French window frame, a thin, transparent plastic sheet that could be shaped into an airy dancing partner, then into clouds and waves, a length of thick, yellow, packaging paper, pinched in the middle to form two fans at both ends, and fitted with a painted clay head to simulate a human figure, a framed photo of his own mother, a beautiful soundtrack of memorable French songs and his own light and craftily sculpted movements, his thin, bald head and two innocently bulging, large eyes, de Sarria communicated deeply existential issues, talked about life and death, innocence and experience, dreams and the constrictions of material reality.

In the discussion which followed the performance given to kids, deprived and otherwise, from Alexandria, Cairo and Menya -- a new initiative launched by the forum this year, in collaboration with some NGOs, to bring theatre to children of all classes and train school-theatre activators -- the children's questions seemed to probe the surface to the heart of the show and spoke of death, loss, mothers, the power of the imagination and the theatrical techniques that could transform its transient images into physical stage realities. De Sarria's anguished, yet humorous quest for reconciliation with the past, for integration with the present, left me deeply moved. Still, I could not help wondering, in retrospect, if he would have had this luxury of dwelling on his own private history, fishing out its significant spots, and embodying them in riveting theatrical visions, if he had been a displaced immigrant.

The same question haunted me as I thought over the Croatian ballet/Hamlet which opened the forum, its Italian, experimental, and hugely concentrated dramatic counterpart, performed by five actors, in modern dress, helped by three coat hangers, as a reliving of the story in Horacio's mind, and set in a deserted seaside café, and the Lithuanian double bill: Drowned Valley and Songs of a Medieval Fellow. In all three, despite the naively, tedious, cliché-ridden approach of the first to Shakespeare's classic, the refreshing, postmodern Italian take on the same subject, and the Lithuanian breathtaking reworking of the Biblical myth of the Flood and exploration of medieval religious sensibility, images, music and legends, one could feel a certain confidence, a solid sense of belonging in a definite heritage.

The four Arab shows in the Forum, the Tunisian Bissat Ahmadi (which I described in last week's article), the Egyptian Kalam fi Sirri (Thoughts in my Mind), which won the best ensemble performance in last year's Experimental Festival for its outspokenness on female oppression in Egypt, the Egyptian Al-Batriq (The Penguin), a naïvely impassioned political tract against autocratic governments and the peace with Israel by a nondescript independent theatre group from Cairo, and the Algerian Tizi Ouzou seemed either too simplistic and vocally belligerent, or pathetically hesitant, prevaricating.

I came away from the Forum thinking that theatre was truly a crucible of world tensions and a forum for airing and discovering the world's chronic ailments and basic questions. Bravo to the whole Forum's team.

5th Creative Forum for Independent Theatre Groups, Arts Centre, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 1-10 February, 2008.

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