Rachid Benzine: on women and the revolution
(© Ruud Gielenes)
With In the Eyes of Heaven, the French-Moroccan political scientist and expert on Islam Rachid Benzine has taken his first steps in fiction. His monologue, directed by Ruud Gielens, is presented by the Israeli-Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass.
Rachid Benzine is the author of Les nouveaux penseurs de l’islam (“Islam’s New Thinkers”, 2004) and Le Coran expliqué aux jeunes (“The Koran Explained to Young People”, 2013), on which he recently gave a series of talks at the KVS. Thanks to a collaboration between Kaaitheater and nomadic arts centre Moussem, he was brought together with man of the theatre Ruud Gielens, who has been living in Cairo part-time since 2009 and has also worked in other Arab countries. The result is In the Eyes of Heaven, a monologue spoken by a female sex worker who, in a time of revolution and restoration, speaks out in defence of her own outlook and position.
“We were introduced to each other by the Kaaitheater and it clicked straight away,” says Ruud Gielens, in between rehearsals. “We share a particular outlook on the world and I am fascinated by his insights into Islam and the Middle East. Up to now, he has only published academic texts, but now he wants to break out, with texts for the stage and screenplays, so that puts us on the same wavelength.”
So what should we expect?
Ruud Gielens: The piece we are working on is an adaptation of a short story that Rachid wrote, which makes one think about the failure, or otherwise, of the Arab revolutions. In the monologue, it’s not specified where we are, but it is clearly in a country where the old regime is still in power or has taken power again after a revolution. The time in which the piece is set isn’t really made clear either. It consists of a succession of short scenes that gradually reveal how a country like that is run by military or other regimes and how the character tries to cope with that situation.
I find the perspective of a well-informed outsider interesting. Rachid knows the situation in the Arab world well, but he grew up, of course, in Paris. I experienced the revolution in Egypt, but I’m still a Westerner, of course. As a sex worker, the female figure who speaks the monologue also has the perspective of someone who is involved and at the same time not involved. She can see the bigger picture, but is also very specifically focused on her own position.
What else does her background as a sex worker add? The fact that she has come across lots of men and opinions?
Gielens: That too, but also the fact that you hear someone speak who is never listened to otherwise. As often as possible, I try to give people like that a voice in my work.
Her opinions are very blunt and maybe more radical too than you might expect. She is someone who is trying to safeguard the little patch of ground she can control. She wants to make the world better and make her contribution, but based on her position as a small entrepreneur. I have talked to a lot of people like that, with strong opinions, in the Middle East, and what they say is similar. Our character experiences the rise of political Islam and the downfall of the old regime – a movement that has also happened in Tunisia and Egypt – but you don’t feel any particular sympathy from her for any party at all. Like my friends in Egypt who have been in jail or who have given up on the revolution, she opts for a different kind of resistance and for an inclusive democracy in which everyone can feel represented. And not just those who have the most money, the most power, or the loudest voice.
I think Rachid’s text gives a Western audience an insight into a world that it only knows from the media and for which it otherwise has to rely on its own imagination.
What do you yourself now make of developments in the countries that experienced an Arab spring?
Gielens: The situation is very different in different countries. In Egypt, from my position as an artist, I can only say that the freedom we still had a few years ago to do what we wanted has really shrunk, especially over the last few months. Every week, someone gets arrested or censored. Recently, a friend spent two weeks in prison for a cartoon he did two years ago. One quakes and hopes that one slips through the net with what one does. Whereas in Tunisia, and that was so in the past too, there is more freedom. We did two projects there that were politically sensitive, but they went ahead. Not that the struggle has been won there, but the idea of freedom, at least, has not been nipped in the bud like in Egypt.
IN THE EYES OF HEAVEN
24 & 25/3, 20.30, Kaaitheater, www.kaaitheater.be