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Circles to be squared
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 11 - 05 - 2006

In the mid-1970s, the theatre troupe "La tempête" articulated the dilemmas faced by North African immigrants to France. The pity, writes Magdi Youssef, is that the lessons were not learned
The violent reactions to marginalisation that recently flared in France among young people of North African origin are far from being the best way to solve the problems they face. Some of the fathers of these young people suffered the same discrimination, but they found a more rational means to communicate their problems to French society, even though they were no less militant than their offspring. They performed street theatre -- in Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Marseilles -- to convey their predicament to their French and Arab fellow-citizens.
In the summer of 1975, while attending the Avignon Theatre Festival, I happened to walk into a fringe performance dealing with the exile of the Turkish poet, Nasim Hikmet, in what was then called the Soviet Union. After leaving the theatre I noticed, more or less by chance, that there was another performance going on in a courtyard close by. The actor with whom I had just exchanged a few polite words indicated his contempt for what was going on there. "They are just a bunch of North African workers," he said. "It's not worthwhile." That is how I discovered the ensemble "La tempête" (The Tempest).
The "play" they performed, and which I saw once again later that week, was entitled �a travaille, ça travaille et ça ferme sa gueule (It works -- and it keeps its gob shut). It was constructed around a series of sketches. At the outset we saw a man living in misery in his North African village. A so-called entrepreneur -- a recruiter of labour in contact with French businesses -- appears. He wears expensive sunglasses and a smart suit. He addresses the man in his misery, promising that France will mean money, women, a beautiful flat and so on. The poor chap sells his belongings and leaves for this promised life. At the border the recruiter, with his group of North African villagers, happens upon a member of the frontier police he seems to know very well. "These are sheep," he says, "let us pass." The officer answers demands a pot de vin, which he obtains. The so-called sheep then pass the frontier.
In France they are distributed to a number of French businesses. At the end of the month we see a worker who has done a great deal of overtime in the office of the boss asking for the agreed-upon wage. He is told he is entitled to only half that sum because he has not worked hard enough. We are shown how he has to share a decrepit domicile with his colleagues. They live in houses destined for demolition, 15 or 20 to a room, and are expected to pay an exorbitant rent for this slum accommodation.
We learn, as scene moves into scene, how immigrant workers are seen not as subjects, as human beings: they are discriminated against, both by the state and the trade unions, because they are sans papiers, lacking the documents that would legalise their residence and work in France. Meanwhile, many ordinary French citizens treat them as strange and anomalous because they look different.
Each time I saw �a travaille the stage was brightly lit, and there were few props. The audience sat facing the performers on long, wooden benches. Everything was spartan, reduced to the minimum.
From a linguistic point of view, the actors remained directly focused on the public sitting in front of them. If the audience was French they would speak in French. If it consisted of immigrant workers they used North African Arabic dialect, and when the audience was a mixed public they spoke a mixture of French and Arabic, even addressing members of the audience in an improvised way.
This Franco-Arabic aspect of some of their performance cannot be compared with Franco-Arabe performances in Egypt during the 1930s, which started out from an entirely abstract level, namely the Western values dominating theatre. The superiority of French, as a lingua franca of Egyptian elites and a language of the theatre, went unquestioned. Arabic began to play a role in the course of a gradual Arabisation, but also in order to portray the contradiction between privileged European foreigners and those subjected to discrimination in their own country. But the contradiction was instrumentalised in an abstract, aesthetic manner, to achieve certain theatrical effects. Thus, the use of Arabic could be intended to provoke laughter. This implies a completely different approach from that in Avignon, which was a militant intervention.
La tempête was formed as part of "Le Mouvement des Travailleurs Arabes" (MTA), an association of North African immigrant workers in France. It consisted mainly, but not exclusively, of North African militants. It grew out of a hunger strike. After the death of Pompidou, 37 members of the MTA confronted the interim government demanding that the sans papiers should be given work permits and their residence in France be legalised.
They not only began a hunger strike but threatened to burn themselves alive if their demands were rejected. The French authorities attempted to undermine this by promising the 37 protesters work permits and to legalise their status, an offer which was refused. During the hunger strike, which lasted several weeks, they improvised songs expressing their alienation and the oppression they faced. They began to produce their own newspaper which ridiculed racial French papers like Le Parisien -- referred to as Paris chien (the Paris dog) -- or Le Méridional (a racist paper in Aix-en-Provence), from which they quoted extensively, unmasking its biased reporting against North African workers. And they decided to found the theatrical troupe La tempête.
In their performances they drew on the support of Monsieur Clancy, the then professor of dramatic arts at the Université de Vincennes (today's Paris VIII). His wife, a professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne, often acted the role of the French bourgeoisie in their performances.
The group systematically boycotted major festivals and cultural events, including the Avignon Festival, preferring instead to perform in alternative contexts, though sometimes in theatres, and often sometimes on the fringe of festivals. In Aix-en-Provence they also worked to stage a large spectacle presenting North African popular traditions as an alternative to Aix's usual festival fare which was little more than an extension of the tourism business.
It was in Aix -- in the main street of the city in fact -- that they also presented the performance Vive la France! immigrés, silence!. As with the halaqa, or circle theatre, the audience formed a circle around them. The Aix performance was followed by another in Marseilles, before fishermen who were on strike in protest against the conditions they were forced to endure on the large trawlers that employed them. After the strikers had seen Vive la France they immediately put on their oil cloths, took their nets and improvised a play depicting their own situation.
Even though La tempête performed outside the framework of official theatre festivals they were praised by several theatre critics. Jean-Louis Barrault intervened in favour of the group's director when he was arrested and tortured in Morocco after returning to be with his dying father. The applause, though, was far from universal. I encountered much scepticism among colleagues teaching in Paris, many of whom viewed the productions of La tempête as little more than agitation.
That they were untrained actors forced the members of the group to actively search for creative forms of expression to which they could relate, drawing on traditional forms like the halaqa that were familiar from their countries of origin. But they were not unaware of Western street theatre, and the performances clearly owed something to the input of Monsieur and Madame Clancy, though no more than to the traditions of Morocco, or even the experiences that they had faced in France, experiences to which they wanted to react and in reacting transcend.
The social concerns in which their performances were rooted demanded they communicate as effectively as possible with the audience in order to involve them in their cause. Their extremely expressive gestures, drawn from North African traditions, a body language related to pantomime, acted as verfremdungseffekt for an educated, urban French audience.
In a tape recording of one of the group's radio plays which I acquired, a woman teacher tries to teach them French vowels and consonants. They react with an expressive cacophony of sounds proper to the Arab language. In other words, they assert their identity, their autonomy. From the point of view of the dominant culture, this is simply deviant behaviour -- rooted in the sort of anomie Durkheim first described and which gives the state and its agencies a justification to deal with what is deemed to threaten law and order either by repressing what is defined as deviancy or by resorting to the softer, subtler techniques of so-called social work.
Following some critical acclaim after their performances in Avignon and Aix, and after having received a number of subsequent invitations to perform, the group soon split. There were those who wanted to go on and become involved in theatre as art, and those who saw their performance as an expression of their militancy and political intervention. The group disintegrated.
But the importance of their example is that they allow us to comprehend the vitality of hybrid theatre forms, the possibility of borrowing what is felt to be useful from different theatrical cultures, and doing so according to the needs of the actors as well as the public. The beautiful thing about it was that this hybrid theatre form, arising out of an interaction between Maghrebian and French theatre experiences was so lively, so immediately engaging even for a French, non-working-class audience. How much greater the impact must have been when they performed before audiences of illegal Arab immigrant workers. Yet the lessons that might have been learned from this vital cultural movement were ignored, and the social dilemmas they articulated were simply brushed beneath the carpet. The result is what we are witnessing now.


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